The Real Reasons We Do,
and Why It Doesn’t Last
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There are few conditions to which more books and movies have been devoted—and
few subjects that fascinate us more—than falling in love. We think
about it, talk about it, hope for it, fantasize about it, go to great
lengths to achieve it, and feel that our lives are incomplete without
it. But we really don’t understand it. Research has revealed which
parts of the brain are stimulated when we’re “in love.” Most
of us know how it feels to fall in love. But we don’t understand
why we fall in love or—perhaps more importantly—why we seem
to fall out of love with distressing regularity.
In order to understand falling in love, we must first understand the
most important human need. The most important requirement for our emotional
health and happiness is to feel loved. Our souls require feeling loved
in just as real a way as our bodies require air and food.
DEFINITION OF LOVE: REAL LOVE
But not just any kind of love will do. The only kind of love that can
fill us up and make us whole emotionally is Real Love.
Real Love is caring about the happiness of another person without any
thought for what we might get for ourselves.
It’s also Real Love when other people care about our happiness
unconditionally. With Real Love, people are not disappointed or angry
when we make our foolish mistakes, when we don’t do what they want,
or even when we inconvenience them personally.
When I use the word happiness, I do not mean the brief and superficial
pleasure that comes from money, sex, power, and the conditional approval
we earn from others when we behave as they want. Nor do I mean the temporary
feeling of satisfaction we experience in the absence of immediate conflict
or disaster. Real happiness is not the feeling we get from being entertained
or making people do what we want. It’s a profound and lasting sense
of peace and fulfillment that deeply satisfies and enlarges the soul.
It doesn’t go away when circumstances are difficult. It survives
and even grows during hardship and struggle. True happiness is our entire
reason to live, and it can only be obtained as we find Real Love and
share it with others. With Real Love, nothing else matters; without it,
nothing else is enough.
Sadly, few of us have sufficiently received or given Real Love. From
the time we were small children, we observed that when we didn’t
fight with our sisters, didn’t make too much noise in the car,
got good grades, and were otherwise obedient and cooperative, our parents
and others smiled at us, patted our heads, and spoke kindly. With their
words and behavior, they told us what good boys and girls we were, and
we felt loved.
But what happened when we did fight with our sisters, made too much
noise, got bad grades, and dragged mud across the clean living room carpet?
Did people smile at us then or speak gentle, loving words? No—they
frowned, sighed with disappointment, and often spoke in harsh tones.
Just as the positive behaviors of other people communicated to us that
we were loved, we could interpret the withdrawal of those behaviors only
as an indication that we were not being loved. Although it was unintentional,
our parents and others taught us this terrible message: “When you’re
good, I love you, but when you’re not, I don’t—or certainly
I love you a great deal less.”
This conditional love can give us brief moments of satisfaction, but
we’re still left with a huge hole in our souls, because only Real
Love can make us genuinely happy. When someone is genuinely concerned
about our happiness, we feel connected to that person. We feel included
in his or her life, and in that instant we are no longer alone. Each
moment of unconditional acceptance creates a living thread to the person
who accepts us, and these threads weave a powerful bond that fills us
with a genuine and lasting happiness. Nothing but Real Love can do that.
In addition, when we know that even one person loves us unconditionally,
we feel a connection to everyone else. We feel included in the family
of all mankind, of which that one person is a part.
WE DO WITHOUT REAL LOVE: IMITATION LOVE
If we don’t have enough Real Love in
our lives, the resulting emptiness is unbearable. We then compulsively
try to fill our emptiness with whatever feels good in the moment—money,
anger, sex, alcohol, drugs, violence, and the conditional approval of
others. Anything we use as a substitute for Real Love becomes a form
of Imitation Love, and they all fall into one or more of four categories:
Let’s discuss how we use these forms of
Imitation Love, how they affect our individual happiness, how they affect
our ability to participate in relationships, and what they have to do
with falling in love.
In the absence of sufficient Real Love, praise feels pretty good. From
the time we were small children, we all experienced the exhilaration
of hearing, “Good boy,” or “Good girl,” or “Nice
job” when we behaved in the ways other people liked, and most of
us have devoted the remainder of our lives to duplicating that feeling.
The pursuit of praise is so widespread that it’s accepted as
normal, even desirable. We’ve all heard, for example, the expressions “Put
your best foot forward” and “Always make a good first impression.” Without
realizing it, our parents, teachers, and others taught us that earning
praise was a good thing, and we accepted their counsel.
Putting your best foot forward, however, has significant drawbacks.
After two people successfully establish a relationship based on their
best foot, they eventually discover that their partner is a lot more
than his or her best foot—that, metaphorically, there is also the
other foot, bad breath, and numerous other imperfections—and the
resultant disappointment can be overwhelming. Both partners feel deceived,
cheated, and betrayed, and it’s understandable that they vent their
frustration on their partner.
Relationships fail because we create them on a foundation lacking the
one ingredient—Real Love—most essential to happiness and
fulfilling relationships. Without sufficient Real Love, neither partner
has the tools to create a healthy and mutually rewarding relationship.
Without enough Real Love, the foundation of any relationship will be
fatally flawed, and no amount of time, effort, and worry spent on the
windows, doors, and carpets will ever create a healthy relationship.
With Real Love, nothing else matters; without it, nothing else is enough.
Tragically, although Real Love is essential to happiness, most of us
have never had consistent experiences with it, as we discussed earlier.
In our emptiness and pain, we’re only too eager to reach out for
anything that makes us feel better, however superficial and fleeting
that relief might be. We use Imitation Love—praise being just one
form—because it does feel good for a moment, even though it never
really fills our emptiness.
As we vigorously engage in the pursuit of praise, however, we come
to the terrible realization that the satisfaction it provides never lasts
for any significant period. After you’ve worked for an hour, or
a day, or a week, for example, to complete a project at work or elsewhere,
it’s quite satisfying to hear the approving words, “Nice
job,” but that feeling soon wears off, and then you have to work
all over again to get another dose of it. The effects of praise are always
short-lived, leaving us empty and desperate for more.
People who consistently use addictive drugs soon discover that the
effect becomes increasingly brief, and more of the drug is required in
order to achieve the same outcome. All the forms of Imitation Love are
like addictive drugs. Despite all the effort required to earn Imitation
Love, the beneficial effects of praise, power, money, and sex become
increasingly brief. We also have to work harder to get the desired effect,
and eventually we become exhausted and frustrated. Moreover, no matter
how successful we are in obtaining Imitation Love, we never get the feeling
of connection to other people that comes with Real Love, so we’re
still painfully alone.
When we don’t have enough Real Love, we feel empty, alone, helpless,
weak, and afraid. We get some measure of relief from these intolerable
feelings, however, when we can control the behavior of other people.
That sense of power feels much better than the helplessness we often
endure. As we control people—as we convince them to agree with
us, or to do what we want—we also get a sensation of connection
to them, which relieves our loneliness.
In the absence of sufficient Real Love, power can be quite satisfying,
and we get it in so many ways: with money, authority, physical and verbal
intimidation, anger, violence, and sex.
When we don’t feel loved unconditionally, we use physical and
emotional pleasures—sex, food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling,
driving fast, and so on—as welcome distractions, and we often pursue
them with great devotion. The enjoyable effects of pleasure, however,
are fleeting, and they can never make us genuinely happy in the absence
of Real Love. If pleasure could produce the kind of happiness we all
want, sex addicts, for example, would be the happiest people on the planet—but
they’re not. As with all the forms of Imitation Love, pleasure
wears off, and eventually no amount of it will give us even a brief relief
from our emptiness and pain.
Without Real Love, we’re already in the worst kind of pain, and
we’ll go to great lengths to keep ourselves safe from experiencing
more pain. If we can’t have genuine acceptance, we can at least
do everything in our power to avoid more disapproval. Toward that end,
we avoid doing anything unfamiliar. We stay in the same boring, dead-end
jobs, attempt to learn nothing new, and continue in stagnant, unrewarding—but
predictable—relationships. If we’ve been hurt consistently
by all our past relationships, but finally we’re with someone who
simply hurts us less, we can confuse that relative safety with love.
Or we might avoid dating and relationships altogether.
IN LOVE: THE NATURE AND EFFECT OF IMITATION LOVE
Even though Imitation Love cannot give us genuine, lasting happiness,
it does feel good, and if Real Love is either unknown to us or unavailable,
we’ll go to great lengths to get enough Imitation Love to feel
good temporarily. In the absence of sufficient Real Love, we’re
strongly attracted to anyone who gives us Imitation Love, and it is therefore
the pursuit of Imitation Love that governs how most relationships begin
We’ve all observed that if we give enough praise, power, pleasure,
and safety to another person, he or she will be more likely to return
some of the same to us. In order to get the Imitation Love that can feel
so good, therefore, we buy it from others with whatever forms of Imitation
Love we have to offer. We trade Imitation Love with those around us.
If I praise you enough, for example, you will be more likely to say something
kind to me in return, or to do something else I want.
Without thinking about it, almost all of us tend to establish relationships
based on the trading of Imitation Love. Let’s arbitrarily measure
Imitation Love in dollars, and we’ll suppose that when you give
a dollar of Imitation Love to someone, that person gives you twenty cents
in return. To a second person you also give a dollar, but this time you
receive fifty cents in return. Without being aware of the reason, you
naturally prefer the company of the person who gives you a fifty percent
return on your investment—it’s that better rate of return
that determines why we “like” some people more than others.
Eventually, you give a dollar’s worth of Imitation Love to someone
who gives you a full dollar in return. Excited about this dramatic improvement
in the return on your investment, you give him or her two dollars, then
three, then more, and to your delight, you are rewarded equally each
time. This is so exciting that you are now “in love.”
Falling in love is rarely anything more than the relatively equal and
abundant exchange of Imitation Love. That may not be romantic, but it’s
nonetheless true. When a guy sees a girl across a crowded room and says
to his friends, “I think I’m in love,” is there anyone
on the planet who believe that his true meaning is, “I’ve
fallen into a sudden unconditional concern for her happiness”?
No, he’s expressing a belief that he’ll get more Imitation
Love from her than he would from anyone else he can think of. We tend
to start our relationships on the basis of how much Imitation Love we
anticipate we’ll receive from that partner, and that’s a
disastrous foundation for a relationship. We can see the effects of Imitation
Love in the following account of the relationship between Michael and
Falling in love is rarely anything more than the relatively equal and
abundant exchange of Imitation Love—a formula for disaster.
Michael had said complimentary things to other people all his life,
but when he gave them a dollar’s worth of praise, he rarely got
a dollar of praise, power, pleasure, or safety in return. Then he met
Susan. When he gave her a dollar of praise—verbal and non-verbal—she
immediately responded by accepting him (praise), expressing a willingness
to do what he wanted (power), and physically touching him (pleasure)—at
least a dollar’s worth all together. So he gave her even more Imitation
Love—the best he had to offer—and when she responded generously,
he was so thrilled with the exchange that he called the feeling “falling
Susan was attracted to Michael because he was good-looking, funny,
smart, and kind to her, and because he had a good job—all of which
gave her a sense of praise, pleasure, and safety. They fell in love because
the exchange of Imitation Love was abundant and relatively equal.
Susan and Michael began their relationship because they found in their
partner the qualities that would entertain them, make them feel worthwhile,
and give them safety, not because they unconditionally loved one another.
Most of us pick our partners for the same reasons—we look for someone
who has qualities that will temporarily make us feel good, and in return
we’re quite willing to do the same for that person.
As I’ve said before, however, the effect of Imitation Love always
fades, as Michael and Susan discovered. They really enjoyed the initial
exchange of Imitation Love, but it wasn’t long before that level
of praise, power, and pleasure wasn’t as rewarding as it once had
been. When people say the “excitement has worn off” in a
relationship, they’re just describing the fleeting effects of Imitation
Love. As we experience less “happiness” with Imitation Love,
we naturally turn to the people closest to us to supply what we’re
missing, and understandably our partners feel resentful of our increased
demands. Most of our relationships begin based on an unspoken understanding
of how much Imitation Love our partners will give us, and how much we’ll
give them in return, and when we change the rules—when we give
less or demand more—our partners don’t like that one bit.
As couples discover the transient effect of Imitation Love, they also
invariably find that the exchange of Imitation Love becomes unfair. We
can roughly quantify the trading—and fading—of Imitation
Love over the course of Michael and Susan’s relationship. In the
beginning, they exchanged Imitation Love as summarized below:
Imitation Love (in dollars) Received in the Relationship by
Michael and Susan
|Type of Imitation Love
|Total Imitation Love
In the beginning of their relationship, they
both received five dollars of praise as each of them complimented the
other for a variety of qualities, including sexual desirability. They
were equally successful in getting the other to do the things they wanted
(five dollars of power each). Michael got more physical pleasure from
the relationship (mostly from sex) than Susan (six dollars versus two),
but Susan got a greater sense of security (safety) from the relationship
than Michael did (five dollars versus one). Because they experienced
more Imitation Love from one another than with anyone else they had known,
they were in love. After several months, however, the trading had changed:
Imitation Love (in dollars) Received in the Relationship by
Michael and Susan
|Type of Imitation Love
|Total Imitation Love
They both discovered that the effects of flattery
had quickly worn off, and that constantly earning it was exhausting,
so neither of them was willing to continue their initial efforts to praise
one another (down from five dollars to a dollar apiece). Susan discovered
she could hardly get Michael to do anything she wanted (one dollar of
power vs. the five dollars she got in the beginning of their relationship),
so she tended to reward him with nagging instead of praise. Without sufficient
praise and appreciation, Michael had even less motivation to keep doing
what Susan wanted. Susan, however, still did errands and other acts of
kindness for Michael, so he got three dollars of power from getting her
to do what he wanted (compared to the five dollars he once got). He still
got four dollars of pleasure from the relationship (mostly from sex),
while she got only one dollar (virtually nothing from sex but some from
other forms of entertainment they enjoyed together). Susan’s sense
of safety had been reduced to a single dollar, because he often criticized
her (attacking) and because she wasn’t sure of his fidelity when
he looked at other women. Michael felt no safety at all as Susan nagged
him about everything.
What a miserable state of affairs. When they first met, what Michael
and Susan both needed was Real Love, but neither of them had ever felt
much unconditional love, so there was no way they could have loved one
another as they needed. We simply can’t give what we don’t
have. In the absence of Real Love, they offered one another what they
did have—Imitation Love in its various forms—and they gave
all they had. Imitation Love does feel good, and because they were both
giving it with all their hearts, they were satisfied with their relationship
in the beginning. When the effects wore off, however, and they each gave
one another less of the various forms of Imitation Love, they felt like
the rules of exchange had been violated. They were both faced with the
horror that they were not going to get the happiness they’d hoped
for all their lives.
Later in their relationship, Susan experienced more disappointment
than Michael did. Not only was she disillusioned with the decline in
her overall happiness (four dollars of Imitation Love versus seventeen
in the beginning), but she sensed that their relationship was unfair
(four dollars for her versus eight for Michael). It’s common for
one partner to believe the relationship is worse than the other partner
does, because although both partners are far from genuinely happy, one
of them—in this case, Michael—is getting more Imitation Love
than the other. In addition, although Michael wasn’t ecstatic about
their relationship, he was relatively satisfied, because even though
his total was down from seventeen dollars to eight, it was still better
than what he enjoyed before finding Susan.
Sex as a form of Imitation Love deserves special attention, and that
is addressed in detail in Chapter Seven of the book Real
Love in Dating.
REAL REASON RELATIONSHIPS FAIL
I have counseled with thousands of couples, most of them married. Remember
that people usually get married only after they have sifted through many
potential partners, finally choosing the one they believe will provide
them with the fulfillment of their dreams. Ideally, marriages should
be the cream of all relationships, the best of the best.
And yet 60% of these dream relationships end in divorce, and the vast
majority of those who remain married are settling for far less than they
had once hoped for. When troubled couples come to me for counseling,
invariably they ask some variation on the question, “What happened?” Both
partners are absolutely befuddled, wondering how they could possibly
have moved from being soulmates to being combatants.
In their attempts to understand what happened, it’s unavoidable
that each partner would blame the other. After all, they reason, their
partner once “made them happy,” and now that happiness is
gone. The inescapable conclusion is that their partner has somehow failed
them, somehow withdrawn the joy they once magically dispensed at the
beginning of the relationship.
But you understand the real reason relationships fail. When two people
enter into a relationship without sufficient Real Love, their relationship
is virtually doomed from the beginning. Most relationships are guaranteed
to fail from the word “Hello”—no matter how wonderfully
they get along in the beginning—because both parties lack the one
ingredient most essential to genuine happiness and fulfilling relationships.
In the beginning of their association they achieve the illusion of happiness
only because they give one another enough Imitation Love. It’s
better than anything they’ve had before, so it seems real. Then,
when the effects of Imitation Love begin to wear off—as they always
do—they’re left with the horrifying realization that their
dreams have turned into so much dust.
Relationships fail not because of what each partner does or does not
do. Relationships fail because they are not built on a foundation of
Real Love, but instead are based on a counterfeit currency—Imitation
Love—that can never buy happiness.
In order to learn much more about Imitation Love and falling in love,
read the book Real Love in Dating.
In order to learn much more about how to find Real Love—unconditional
love or true love—and with it genuine happiness and richly fulfilling
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