From the perspective of Control-Mastery Theory, we fall in love with a person if their appearance, manner, character, behavior, attitude or other features, seems able to disconfirm the pathogenic beliefs that obstruct our desire for sexual pleasure, recognition, appreciation, love, intimacy etc. (Sampson, 1994; Bader, 2002). The specific features that s/he should have are, of course, shaped by the the particular features of the emotionally relevant experiences and people of our life. In this post, I would like to start from these ideas and reflect on some kinds of falling in love that I have often observed in my clinical practice (De Luca, Gazzillo, 2018).
Antony, a gay man in his thirties, for the first five years of our treatment was unable to have a satisfactory relationship primarily because of the men he tended to fall in love with. In fact, a necessary feature that a man had to have in order to make him fall in love with him was that he had to be basically rejecting. I clearly remember one time when the man Antony was in love with declared his interest to Antony: in that same evening, my patient understood that he actually did not like that man anymore -- he was too feminine, i.e. weak.
The basic fantasy which drove him when he fell in love was, as he named it, “the Superhero fantasy”: Antony fell in love with “objectively beautiful” and basically rejecting men who gave him some positive feedback, even if minimal and equivocal, because his feelings were aroused by the perspective that, at the end, these beautiful and emotionally unavailable men would have fallen in love with him, and would have been able to appreciate and “save” him, just like a Superhero, when he was in pain.
We understood that an experience such as this one would have disproved his strong belief of not deserving appreciation and care, and would have “given a different ending”, quoting his word, to the childhood experiences of deprecation and indifference he experienced with his father.
The kind of falling in love Antony was a victim of derived from a deep need to master this relational trauma, but (for several different reasons), actually re-traumatized him: the men Antony fell in love with never reciprocated his feelings and ended up confirming again his pathogenic beliefs. Thus, Antony’s self-hate and disloyalty guilt toward his parents were reconfirmed and strengthened. However, at the basis of Antony’s falling in love there was the idea that the man he chose would have given him what he always needed and never received from the father.
Oscar, a patient in his forties, tended to fall in love with women who all shared the same features: low self-esteem, good intellectual capacities and a whole series of painfully unfulfilled aspirations. When he fell in love with them, Oscar became completely dedicated to these women; he adored them and tried to make them happy and fulfilled by his love. Over the course of therapy, we were able to understand that he saw his traumatized childhood self in those women and tried to give them the kind of treatment that he would have liked to receive. They reminded him his suffering self in need of love, and his falling in love with these women was an expression of his desire to give them what they (and he) always needed. Falling in love was an attempt to master an old trauma: he never felt that his parents -- particularly his mother -- really understood him and loved him for who he was. Falling in love with these women represented Oscar’s effort to disprove one of his basic pathogenic beliefs. The problem was that these women were not his suffering self, and in many cases did not need what he gave to them, and so Oscar ended up being frustrated and saw his pathogenic beliefs confirmed again. He was not able to make these women happy and felt that they did not love him. Many times, during his treatment, I thought about Lacan’s famous aphorism: “Loving means to give something that you don’t have to someone who does not want it”.
Chiara, a patient in her twenties, repeatedly fell in love with men that she thought had skills that she wanted to acquire but feared she could not develop. She fantasized, for example, that being the girlfriend of her piano teacher would help her to acquire (in an osmotic process) his playing ability, and this ability would in turn help her obtain the appreciation she never had by “other people”.
This kind of fantasy reflected a painful mix of self-hate and survivor guilt. Chiara felt undeserving and worthless but the fantasy also expressed her powerful desire to overcome her feelings of worthlessness – feelings that stemmed from a deeply abusive relationship with a violent and disturbed mother. Needless to say, she tended to choose men who shared with her parent a cynical and arrogant attitude -- men who were basically unable to love her or to help her. Even though her falling in love with these men was fueled by an attempt to master her trauma, Chiara saw her pathogenic beliefs repeatedly confirmed in the relationships with these men. This kind of falling in love was based on the idea that together with these men she would acquire what she always wanted.
Another variant of this situation is exemplified by Francesca, who tended to fall in love with men that she thought were clever, bright, open minded and bohemian, all features that her mother had taught her to love in men. By having such relationships, she hoped to fulfill her mother aspirations, making her happy and proud of her. The problem was that these men ended up being a bitter disappointment: what had initially seemed to be a shining armor was ultimately revealed as papier mache. At that point Francesca felt hurt and depressed, thinking that those men were as weak and inconsistent as her father had always been for her mother. Her survivor guilt had its triumph, and her doubts about her value remained the same.
These kinds of observations make me think that it is not rare for people to fall in love with someone when they feel that that specific person will enable them to master their deepest trauma and disconfirm their core pathogenic belief. This is the reason why we often tend to fall in love with people who remind us of our old traumatic others or our old traumatized self. The similarities between our (potential) partners and our traumatizing others or traumatized self help explain why it is often so easy to fall in love with the “wrong” people. Relationships that are based on the premise that together with the other person we will acquire what we always needed, often have unhappy endings because the other person is in general much more complex and less perfect than they initially seem. S/he has much more than the qualities and features we choose him/her for, and some of these other qualities and features can give rise to troubling incompatibilities. By contrast, we can also see why it is so incredibly mutative when we fall in love with the “right” person.
In summary, my hypothesis is that when we fall in love, what we are looking for is an experience of redemption from our old traumas and core pathogenic beliefs. A similar point was implicitly noted by Wilfred Bion (1961, 1970) when he connected the basic assumption of pairing with the feelings of hope and messianic expectation.
Bader, M. (2002). Arousal. The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies. Thomas Dunne Books, New York.
De Luca, E., Gazzillo, F. (2018). Note sull’innamoramento per persone narcisiste ed emotivamente poco disponibili. http://www.cmt-ig.org/note-sullinnamoramento-persone-narcisiste-ed-emotivamente-poco-disponibili-emma-de-luca-francesco-gazzillo/
Sampson, H. (1994). Repeating pathological relationships to disconfirm pathogenic beliefs. Commentary on Steven Stem's “needed relationhsips”. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 4:3, 357-361, DOI: 10.1080/10481889409539024.
Bion, W.R. (1961). Experiences in groups. Routledge, New York.
Bion, W.R. (1970). Attention and interpretation. Taylor and Francis, New York.