Getting the Love You Want

After thirty five years in family law practice, I still keep finding that I haven’t yet heard everything. The latest was a book I picked up on sale at Classic Bookstore (thank you, James), by psychologist Harville Hendrix, called Getting the Love You Want.

Why do young couples fall madly in love with people who resemble their parents? Even when their parents are the last people they want anything to do with? Why do honeymoons end in acrimony? Whence comes that inner voice, by which people identify ‘Mr. (or Mrs.) Right’? Why do people fall in love at all? What can we do about it—if anything?

The answer, says Hendrix, lies in our brains. Not the upper, ‘cognitive’ level of the brain, which we use for passing our Mensa test. People don’t fall in love that way. It’s the primitive, ‘reptilian’ area of the brain—the brain stem, inherited in common with most of the animal world from before the age of the dinosaurs, separated from the thinking part of the brain by the limbic system, seat of the emotions. The brain stem is the most primitive and automatic part of our mental equipment. In an instant, being confronted with a new situation, it runs through a lifetime’s memories, and decides whether what it perceives is friend or foe. If it’s hostile, an instinctive decision is made on fight, flight, or submission. If unthreatening, the decision is whether to nurture, to be nurtured, or to make love.

This primitive brain simply records experiences, bad or good. It has no sense of time. Anything a child has grown up with in its nurture, whether bad or good, creative or destructive, feels right because it is familiar. Therefore, should a person of the opposite sex come into one’s life, and if that person resembles a composite of the primary caregivers of one’s youth, there will be a strange sense of familiarity and rightness coming from the reptilian brain. Actually, the more unsuccessful the home environment has been in the past, the more intense the desire for this other person—just because there is so much ‘unfinished business’ with the earlier caregiver, that the primitive brain hopes it can resolve with this new companion. By the evaluation of this primitive section of our brain, Fairy Princess has met Prince Charming, and both plan to live happily ever after. What each of them is in love with, however, is not a real human being at all, but a mental image. After the honeymoon has ended, Fairy Princess and Prince Charming are found to be only human.

Hendrix gives us an account of the painful times he had as a counsellor, realizing that his patients had all made the terrible mistake of marrying people who reflected back to them all the failures and miseries in personal relationships that they had endured in childhood. Most of them, he found, were exhibiting exactly the same childish behaviour to each other that would have been appropriate for infants to use to their parents.

The outcome of his experience, however, was to conclude that instinct was perhaps right after all. Revisiting the hurts of the child’s environment through marriage gives each partner a chance to ‘do it right’ the second time around—to apply the resources of a mature brain to situations that had hurt the infant, who had not had at that time tools with which to cope with the situation. The early days of marriage are not a time to plan divorce, but to use unconditional, helpful, adult love to heal the hurts that the partner has inherited from childhood. It is in carrying out such healing that the childhood victim finds a way also to be healed of his or her own ancient emotional wounds.

So ‘love conquers everything’. It just has to be the love we give—not the love we expect to receive, and are disappointed when it doesn’t come.

– Gemini, July/August 1992