What is this thing called love?

What is this thing called love,
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

~ Cole Porter, What is this thing called love?

In all its various forms, love is a frequent subject in the therapy room. As in Cole Porter’s song, some people’s experience is that loving relationships inevitably end, leaving them feeling foolish. Others experience love as a restricting prison, or as something powerfully desired but unattainable. Why is this? And how can counselling and psychotherapy help?

The internal working model 

Poets and songwriters down the ages have tried to express the experience of love: the wide-eyed bliss of new romance, and the teary-eyed heartbreak of lost or unrequited love. From a psychotherapeutic or counselling perspective, love has its roots in early experience. At birth and throughout infancy, being connected to another person is not just a matter of care and affection, it is literally a matter of life and death. As infants, we cannot fend for ourselves: we are completely dependent on others for our well-being. The infant’s world is often very small, usually two or three primary adults, sometimes only one. This helpless dependency provides our first understanding of love, or the lack of it: the experience is practical, physical, visceral and emotional.

Children look to carers for the key questions of existence: Who am I? Am I loveable? What sort of person can love me?

Various theorists have called these early experiences by different names. One of the most helpful terms is the internal working model: the child forms a cognitive and emotional map of the world, how it works, the child’s place in it, and this builds the child’s identity. At this early stage, an infant cannot make a distinction between what the family is like and what the world is like. It is through the care we receive in these early years that we learn whether the world feels safe and friendly, or hostile and dangerous. At the same time, we learn who we are. At this early stage, an infant cannot make a distinction between how I am treated and what I am worth. Fundamentally, for the infant, being looked after equates to having worth, and not being cared for equates to being worthless.  

We usually take this internal working model into adult love relationships. The great paradox is that people often form a relationship with a version of the person who hurt them the most: a little girl ignored by her father grows up to marry a distant man from whom she craves attention; a little boy with a scarily unpredictable mother grows up to cohabit with a woman with whom he is constantly on edge; a boy with a violent father grows up attracted to another violent man; and so on. This, for some people, is what love means, and it cannot make us truly happy.

So why do we do it? If not modified by very significant subsequent experiences, the child’s early experience of what it is to crave love, care and attention is their adult model of what it is to be in an intimate relationship. A grown person will often seek out a version of their mother, father or carer, recreating their childhood patterns and problems. This is not always obvious at first: the key is in the feelings conjured up by being with the partner, and whether those feelings replicate the childhood experience. In some cases, people with unhappy bonds with their parents recreate them in their adult relationship in a bid to resolve the experience; but without a clear understanding that this is happening and a knowledge of the unworkable choice being made, this will almost inevitably repeat the frustrations and misery of childhood. The story replicates, and those early emotions of anger, sadness or abandonment are reinforced.

In Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon, the adults are always off the page, but their presence is very real in the thoughts and emotions of the children. Above we see Charlie Brown’s internal working model in his search for love. From parental care he has absorbed the idea that no one is ever going to like him, that there is something wrong with him, that he will always be lonely, that his search for love is futile.

Due to having scary or emotionally distant parents, some people grow up afraid of intimacy, so they devise elaborate ways of avoiding it. One way is to be promiscuous, to use sex paradoxically as a way of avoiding intimacy. Having repeated one night stands is an effective way of avoiding emotional closeness. Each encounter brings craved-for physical proximity, but its fleeting nature and the absence of a meaningful relationship ensures emotional distance. Another way is to be in an outwardly committed relationship, but to undermine it secretly or openly with a series of affairs, creating a ‘safe’ emotional distance in the ‘committed’ relationship. A third way is to find a partner who is also scared of intimacy: a relationship that is cold or hostile will ensure that closeness will never be required of either person.

Reparative experiences   

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Some people deliberately seek out reparative experiences, healing relationships, sometimes unaware at the time that this is what they are doing. Someone with a fractious paternal relationship, for example, may unconsciously seek out a man to be a caring father figure, to receive from him what their own father did not provide. Others have their internal working model positively influenced and modified, perhaps even remoulded, by a subsequent experience of nurture from another carer, family member or teacher.

Others are not so lucky, or do not know how to achieve the missing experience. This is where therapy can help. One of the most important tasks in therapy is to uncover the patterns in a person’s relationships: ‘Why do I always choose controlling men?’, ‘Why do I always end up with unfaithful women?’, ‘Why do I crave relationships then feel trapped when I’m in one?’ Once the pattern is understood, then we can begin to develop a deeper understanding of the internal working model, the motivation for choosing a particular type of love partner, and the missing experience a person is seeking or avoiding in relationship. 

So what is this thing called love? It is something we all crave, but is sometimes so hard to find. We are more likely to find what we need, and receive the love we desire, when we have a good understanding of ourselves, knowing what drives us to seek our own particular version of love. We can then use that knowledge to create new experiences and new possibilities, to make more self-aware choices in our need to feel loved. 


About Ian Pittaway

Ian is a psychotherapist and writer with a private practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Ian’s therapy is integrative, chiefly comprising key elements of transactional analysis, object relations, attachment research and person centred therapy. Ian has a special interest in trauma recovery and bereavement.

To contact Ian, call 07504 269 855 or click here.


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