images-846What is authentic love in a couple relationship, and how is it different from romanticized love?

For one, by nature’s design, authentic love is not supposed to be “easy” to realize. It is a challenging life experience in which nature stretches us out of our comfort zones, in this case, inviting two individuals to stay engaged, and be transformed, by a process that grows the individual capacity of each to love and be loved, to give and contribute to own and others growth and wellbeing,  bring the love and energy they aspire to realize. In contrast, if anything, romanticized love is easy.

Before looking more closely at the characteristics of authentic versus romanticized love, this post outlines what authentic love is not:

Love is not based on dominance or obedience.

Love based on dominance fosters a dependency relationship that stunts the growth of both partners. This type of love is addictive as each partner seeks to feel “needed” in unhealthy ways that foster dependency and treat the other as “not capable” (albeit in different ways). It is a form of love given to pets and babies, one that requires relatively little effort, mainly, because babies and pets — like objects — rarely if ever challenge parents or owners’ sense of agency, thus provide an easy source of feel-good emotions, fulfilling core needs to matter in relation to self and other, i.e., to feel effective, needed, deserving of respect, etc. Whereas it’s natural and healthy to yearn to feel important, for example, in this case, the “neediness” of one to  feel “more” important, better than, superior, needed to protect, etc., blocks them from their partner’s person’s personal growth and sense of agency. In the meantime, this also fosters “neediness” in the “dependent” person, prompting them to give out of fear, rather than love, and to be anxious around the clock about making sure the other is not upset, disappointed or displeased, etc.

In the meantime, the inability of the “dominant” partner to handle any evidence that their partner is “failing” to make them happy keeps the dominant partner equally stuck and dependent, a learned helplessness, dependency on the other to make them feel worthwhile, adequate, etc. Note that the dependency of the dominant person is not regarded as a “dependency,” rather a failure of the dependent person to make them feel loved, important, recognized, entitled.

Interestingly, whereas the “dependency” (neediness) of the subservient partner is outwardly displayed, both partners collude to keep hidden the “dominant” partner’s total reliance on the subservient partner to help them handle the pain of feeling disappointed, not being the focus of attention, displeased, and so on. Like the Emperor with no clothes, the “dependent” partner is expected to anxiously promote the illusion that the “dominant” person is never to be described as weak or needy, rather entitled to be rewarded for their “proven” superior status and contributions (i.e., money). In other words, it’s not called what it is: a training for narcissistic relating to the other, such as inability to feel empathy for partner, addicted to looking down them to feel worthwhile, and reliance on hurting them (i.e., emotional abuse) to keep them in line. 

In effect, this becomes a one-sided relationship between a responsible person who “needs” a dependent person to fix, and to think of them, like an infant or object, of surviving or developing properly without their protective care. Such circumstances foster an environment that trains the dependent person to think/believe they cannot exist, survive, develop properly, etc., without the other’s protection. As a result, both get stuck in a state of mind and body that requires one to be overall helpless to fulfill the “dominant” person’s neediness to feel “responsible” and “important” etc.

This dynamic blocks the formation of authentic love because it is based on a romanticized notion that it’s the “dependent” person’s job to earn the “dominant” person’s favor by pleasing them in order to “prove” they deserve favor. This type of love makes each feel “needed” in superficial ways that leave each starving and craving for more. Yes, it’s addictive. As human beings, we yearn to feel valued and to give in meaningful ways to life and others. An unhealthy or addictive pattern forms when, subconsciously, we seek to matter out of fear — that we may otherwise be judged as unworthy as a person, or undeserving of love, all of which is based on a requirement for men and women to meet certain external standards of performance, in relation to one another in their love relationship.

Love is not an effortless feeling. 

An “easy” automatic love, such as the one we have for those we think of as weak or dependent on us, for example, babies and pets, is not authentic in an adult love relationship. It’s relatively easy to love someone who easily makes us feel loved, important, needed, loved. It’s easy to love babies and pets because they only require what we’re basically already willing to give, without much effort on our part. A love that is effortless is a self-centered love that demands the other partner is easy to love, and easily fulfills and knows their needs, wants and dreams — perhaps without even having to speak the words. It’s also the type of love an infant feels for their mother, the expectation that a mother can guess their every need, circumvent any frustration.

If we’re not exerting effort to give, we not only do not grow, we don’t feel invested, thus, increasingly disconnected. The same is true of our work and careers, or any endeavors for that matter. We extract meaning and satisfaction to the extent we feel connected, give, contribute value. 

Too many partners, too often, go into their love relationship to get, rather than give, thinking “love should come easy.” Male partners, in particular, are conditioned to go into their relationships expecting “this shouldn’t feel like work”; and female partners are conditioned to take most or all responsibility for the success of a relationship. This sets the stage for the former to develop narcissistic tendencies, and the latter codependency tendencies. 

For love to be authentic, it cannot be effortless. We go to our relationships to give. If there’s no investment, we lose our connection. Love is an experience designed to ever expand your capacity to love from the cradle to grave, to keep stretching out of old comfort zones, and to embrace self and the other in challenging moments where we or they can seem most “unlovable.” If your love relationship is effortless, it’s not growing you to become an ever better loving and loved version of yourself.

Love cannot be forced or manipulated.

In moments of stress or disappointment, we tend to resort to using tactics of instilling the other with fear, shame or guilt to get our partner to cooperate or “teach” them to treat us better next time. Guess what? These are the same tactics we experienced our parents use with us or one another. We are reenacting patterns that didn’t work then, and won’t work now. Some think if they just get angrier and louder then their disappointment will be heard, and taken care of. Other partners believe if they just avoid conflict or upsetting the other, please and conform, they will be appreciated someday.

It’s a set up for the “dominant” partner to take the “dependent” partner’s love and generous attention for granted, eventually depleting the “dependent” partners love-bank-account, to where they have nothing to give — no deposits were made! It’s a set up for domestic violence because the “dominant” partner tends to think of a spouse (and children) as possessions, thus, feels entitled with a “right” to treat them as he pleases, or as necessary to keep them in line. Since the “dependent” is believed to “deserve” or need to be “taught a lesson,” etc., they have “no right to complain.” At minimum, the couple and family relationships are at risk of draining the relationship of the feedback it needs to survive, stay healthy. Human beings are the most magnificent of all communication systems, designed to give and receive feedback to stay healthy, resilient, in growth and learning modes.

Even in the best of circumstances, i.e., where the dominant person is benevolent, thus lowering the risks for domestic violence, this dynamic is fails both by blocking their growth, and capacity to love the other authentically, out of love, not fear of proving dominance and denial of self.

Love is not an adversarial win-lose competition.

In a real competition, such as a sporting event, there is a winner and a loser at the end. In love relationships, however, if one “loses,” both lose. It is akin to playing on team sport and competing with another team member. The whole team stands to lose. The feeling of “losing” fosters resentment, feeling shortchanged, and so on. Some partners express their disappointments openly, and others stew on them silently inside. Both reinforce an addictive thinking pattern that causes suffering.

Love is not a courtroom with a jury.

In a courtroom, we plead our case to prove how right we are and how wrong the other is. Once a power struggle forms in some area of a love relationship, each partner increasingly builds a case against the other, whether outwardly stated or held inside as a growing resentment, each certain of how wrong their partner is and how right they are. No one budges; and when they do, the cost is great, increasing the sense of mistrust of the other. When we feel judged, we lose our sense of safety and connection to the other. We do not feel loved when we do not feel understood, heard, appreciated for the value we bring. Criticisms are deadly to a relationship. They drain its energy, they drain the fun and feeling of friendship.

This is a set up for defensive reactivity and increased sensitivity to criticism or requests for change. An intense focus on judgments, fault-finding, looking for what is wrong, categorizing or labeling one another as good or bad, superior or inferior, deserving or non-deserving increases anxiety, and erodes the empathic connection in the relationship.

In Part 2, the characteristics of authentic versus romanticized love.