When you fall in love with someone, you aren’t just falling in love with the living, breathing human being that’s right there in front of you. You are really falling for an idealized image of that person that you’ve already started creating in your mind. That’s probably the reason that people often surmise that “love is blind.” Actually, being love-struck does make you blind to a lot of things, especially when it comes to the flaws in your partner.
When we fall in love, we are actually falling into “limerance.” Limerance is that early stage in a relationship that has been described as a period of intense longing for and obsession with a potential partner (Tennov, 1979). It’s that luscious period when you can’t think of anyone else but the object of your desire. It can feel delicious if your feelings are reciprocated and you and your “bae” or “boo” are spending every waking moment together that you can. If it’s not reciprocated, it is immensely painful and can be just as intense. This is the stage where your partner can do no wrong and potentially offensive idiosyncrasies are seen as endearing quirks rather than irritating peculiarities.
Unfortunately, limerance doesn’t last forever and the quirks and behaviors that you were easily able to ignore or forgive begin to cause a tiny bit of annoyance that can morph into frustration if your hints at behavior change are ignored. If the relationship cannot grow beyond the intense obsessive state, it’s doomed to end as either a dud firecracker or in spectacular fireworks. The state of limerance leads us react and feel more intensely than we normally would.
Early Patterns of Relationship Engagement
Before your girlfriend or boyfriend uttered their first word, relationship patterns were already being learned. Small children’s brains soak up a great deal of information those first few years! Psychologists suggest that there are four basic patterns of early attachment behaviors: secure, anxious-resistant, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). If you observe even young children, you can see how these patterns shape their social behavior. The ways that children handle themselves in social settings with peers or with authority figures in schools illustrates the strength and the flavor of the relationship between the child and her caregiver.
Secure attachment, logically, is the most robust and healthy form. This reflects the development of secure attachments to caregivers over time as a child learns that their basic needs will be met by the adults in their world. These children grow up believing that the world is a good place and that people who care about you will support and care for you. They tend to give as much as they expect to get in a relationship and have few issues with trust or fidelity.
The anxious-resistant attachment bond is often called ambivalent attachment and may spring from the presence of a caregiver who is overly unavailable. Young children need the love and support of their caregivers, but these caregivers are not adequately present in the relationship.
Anxious-avoidant attachment describes the relationship between a child and a caregiver who may have introduced abuse or neglect into the relationship. The need for attachment is present, but the futility of seeking engagement keeps the child from initiating it.
Lastly, disorganized attachment manifests as seeming confusion in terms of response to the presence, departure, or absence of the child’s caregiver. This may arise from a child’s inconsistent experiences with her caregiver, which leads to a confused, disorganized response to the parent whether the parent is absent or present.
Childish Behaviors in Full Grown Adulthood
Ambivalent kids may grow into an ambivalent adults who desperately long for warmth and interpersonal connections, but lack the skills needed for the mutual give-and-take necessary for healthy relationships. Not knowing how to engage in a healthy and mature relationship, this partner may err on the side of “too much, too soon.” Co-dependency with a partner and tendencies towards enmeshment can put the brakes on these relationships once the limerance wears off. This type of partner encourages you to engage behaviors that are less than healthy in an effort to create situations in which she can be your hero or he can come to your rescue. Anytime a partner encourages you to do things that you know are not in your best interest, it’s time to have a serious conversation about the future of the relationship.
Avoidant kids may grow into romantic partners who are always just out of reach, but not necessarily out of touch. Having been wounded deeply through personal relationships early in life, this person may be hesitant to place his trust in another person, not even someone with whom he is romantically involved. The expression, “once burned, twice shy” is an apt description of the relationship-avoidant adult. Although she may long deeply to be open, honest, trusting, and emotionally intimate with her partner, she may have no idea how to achieve these goals. She can be that “on and off again” partner whose lack of dependability and inadequate accessibility keep her just out of reach.
Developing a disorganized-attachment style in childhood can produce adults who are always on their guard, afraid to fully trust, and ready to spring into action or retreat if threatened. Partners who have internalized this attachment style may spend their energy creating chaos and dysfunction in her adult relationships as this is what is most familiar to her (Siegel D. And Solomon, 2003).
“Can’t You Just Act Like a Grownup?”
There’s an old saying that children learn what they live, so if your partner is stuck in his 2-year-old relational patterns, you may need to patiently model and encourage behavior change. Change doesn’t happen unless there’s a good reason for it to take place. Here are five suggestions for helping begin the change process:
- Offering empathy to your partner is a good start. If you were fortunate to grow up in an environment where your needs were cheerfully and reliably met, remember that not everyone enjoyed that same luxury.
- Help your partner understand where you are coming from when you are asking for things to be different. Some people feel that knowing the “why” makes doing the “how” a lot easier to handle.
- Let your partner know how you’d like to see them behave differently. If you just tell someone “Don’t do that anymore,” but don’t offer alternatives, it might feel like a guessing game and no one ever really wins those in relationships!
- Remember that our behaviors are shaped over decades – and learning how to relate in new ways might be a trial and error experience. Be patient and bring realistic expectations to any romantic relationship situation.
- Lastly, keep in mind that you’re as much a product of your early raising as your partner – and be as willing to take an honest look at your own behavior as you’re asking your partner to take of his own.