• Part of an essay in progress

Why do we fall in love with the person we do?

Posted December 3, 2013 4:10 pm  

I’ve always assumed that I fell in love with my German boyfriend because he was so unacceptable to my parents, whom I wanted to punish for having been so demanding and critical. It was a plausible theory. All their adult lives, my parents refused to buy any German products and disparaged any Jews who did. The thought that I might end up living in Germany must have really frightened and horrified them.

After I reconnected with my friend, however, I realized that my attraction to him was much more than to his nationality. Greeting my husband and me at his front door, he was immediately, effusively affectionate. He couldn’t wait to show me the gold necklace I had given him that he never removed — although his wife reminded him that it had once come off in the pool and caused a frantic search. Because their oldest daughter was getting married the next day, his wife did not accompany us to dinner at a nearby restaurant, where he asked my husband’s permission to hold my hand. During the course of the meal, he told me I was beautiful more times than my husband has said those words in 45 years of marriage.

I was struck with how emotionally unguarded and romantic a man he is, despite his elegant, European reserve. Certainly this was a good match for something I’d been searching for when I met him. Having lived with my warring parents for 18 years, I was never comfortable for long with boyfriends who wore their hearts on their sleeves; their always vulnerability frightened and unnerved me. My German friend’s passionate nature was comfortable, however, because the whole affair was carried on in a time-out bubble: I knew he would be returning to Germany and never thought for a moment of going there myself. As a result, I could bask in his affection and return it without risk. When he graduated and left for Europe, it was as though a TV drama had come to an end. I don’t, in fact, remember our saying goodbye, tho we must have.

According to Fisher, “our unique personality, built by our childhood experiences and …largely unconscious psychic structure guides us to fall in love with one person rather than another. Not only are the influences that came to influence us enormously varied, but so are the influences on our prospective mates. She lists some of the “hundreds” of theories about what drives the dynamic between romantic couples, and she believes there may be some truth in many of them. Various researchers have proposed what we search: a match in attachment styles, a mate similar to the parent whom we have unresolved childhood issues,” a partner who survived similar childhood traumas, who tolerates anxiety similarly, whom we think love us. Fisher proposes that childhood, adolescent and adult experiences together create an unconscious “love map” that predisposes us to fall for a certain person. She points out that we may be blind to the underlying drives towards a certain kind of relationship. As an example, she describes a friend who was committed to never marrying someone like her alcoholic, unpredictable father. In the end, she fell in love with “an unpredictable, chaotic artist instead — a match that suited her largely unconscious love map.”

My own parents fought like cats and dogs, always at odds. It was not until both were long dead that I came to recognize the fighting as a mask for their ongoing love affair. The childhood homes of each set them up for love masquerading as contention. My mother’s parents, at least as she described them, had been truly unhappy together and fought bitterly. My father’s father, on the other hand, had adored his harridan of a wife but had been so hen-pecked as to have appeared completely emasculated. My father needed a wife who would allow him to fight back, as he’d always wished his father had done, not someone meek or even demonstrably affectionate, but someone who could dish it out and enjoy a good fight. Both complained of how tough the other was, but their armed battle was just what they each wanted and needed to feel fully alive.

Despite the fantasy that there is but one person for each of us, I think that falling in love has a lot to do with timing. When we are ripe to fall in love, we find someone who most fits our unconscious template, wherever we happen to be. Anyone we meet who conforms enough to the template at that time in our life–and whose map we fit–can be the object of our passion. The most important aspect of where we go to college may be the likelihood of our meeting our mate there.

Fisher proposes that it is the love map that makes arranged marriage able to succeed. If the parents know their child well and choose carefully, the odds for the couple’s happiness is good. Psychologist Robert Epstein, the Editor in chief of Psychology Today, advertised for a woman to date him with the plan of “falling madly in love.” He included a series of stipulations designed to encourage the process–reading love novels, keeping a diary, going to couples therapy. Fisher does not report on Epstein’s ultimate success or failure, however, she believes in the possibly of a planned love. “If you pick someone who is ready to fall in love and fits within your love map, and if you keep your heart open and do novel things together, you may just activate the brain network for romantic love.”

Do you know what drew you to a person with whom you fell passionately in love? If it was someone from the past, have you reconnected since? What was that experience like for you? I’d love to know.

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  • eliz   March 4, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    I think you are understanding “love map” somewhat differently. For me, it means the conscious (i.e., a professional woman who understands loss) and unconscious characteristics (statuesque and athletic like one’s mother, for instance?) of your ideal partner. I’m not sure how much that changes over time. But we change: we experience physiological and psychological changes that make us primed for love. If we meet that person too early, we may not be driven to open ourselves to him/her in a way that can draw the right response. But I am not sure that our map changes as we age. Do you think it does?

  • RF   March 4, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    I agree that timing is everything. At different times in our lives we need different things from people. When these needs coincide, it is likely that a lasting relation will develop. If one’s love map is the driving force in a relation, it may not last. If it does it may continue in state of discord and not of love. When I feel in love I had been looking for a woman with a profession and someone who understood loss.

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