He was driving back from a business trip interstate, just 24 hours from Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking forward to getting back home to his wife and children, when a chance meeting in a roadway diner changed their lives forever.  Within hours, he had found the person he had been searching for all his life – or so he thought.  His conviction was so compelling that he knew he had to break all the connections of family, friends and community. He could never go home again.

 

But what of her?  Something in the way Gene Pitney sings it tells us that she had had this experience before.  She knew the territory.  So was he just ‘another roadside attraction’ or might he be more?  He certainly thought so.   

 

Somehow you just know it’s never going to work out, but it will probably change his life forever – and not for the best.

 

Falling in love is perhaps the most exciting but the most dangerous thing anybody ever does – so risky that many people don’t ever dare to do it.   At a bat of an eyelid, it can change the sense of who a person is.  Suddenly, family, home, occupation, friends, beliefs and attitudes count for nothing.  The only thing that matters is the object on one’s desire.   When the widowed Mrs Thrale fell in love for the first time in her life with the younger Signor Pozzi, who so closely resembled her own father, she gave up her salon, her friends, her numerous eminent acquaintances, even the great Dr Johnson.  She just disappeared.  They all thought she had gone mad.  Perhaps in a way, she had.  

 

Falling in love is analogous to rage, panic and melancholy in the way it takes over the  personality, arresting the capacity for rational thought, subsuming all meaning.  But it is also make believe, a wonderful delusion, the triumph of desire and hope over logic and reality. The enamorata seems to embody everything the love-stricken have ever wished for.   

 

The psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, has said that some people need a delusion as powerful as ‘falling’ in love in order to escape the gravitational force of their mother and enter the all-embracing attraction of another heavenly body.  It takes an overwhelming complusion to disconnect them from the tenets of their identity.  But such power is dangerous. We know that other forms of personal disconnection; displacement, disillusion, retirement, unemployment, bereavement, can all too readily instigate mental illness.          

 

So is ‘falling in love’ a culturally acknowledged form of madness?  It certainly possesses all the features of obsessive-compulsive disorder and delusional psychosis and has the capacity to create severe anxiety and depression.  And the flashbacks, sleeplessness, anxiety, intrusive thoughts and preoccupations, characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), occur as much in love as they do after abuse or disaster.      

 

Falling in love is so much more potent and dangerous if it is consummated with physical intimacy.  Just as the pain of natural childbirth and the act of breast feeding intensify the bond between mother and infant, so physical intimacy magnifies feelings of love.  My one-time colleague and friend, Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg,  Professor of Physiology at the Karolinka Institute has suggested how release of oxytocin from the posterior part of the pituitary gland through stimulation of the nipples and genitalia and during female orgasm consolidates the pair bond, eroding the defences and inducing deep feelings of trust. Recent research indicates that an analogous phenomenon occurs in the male.  So sexual intimacy can cause the participants to become more open, more vulnerable, more susceptible to the devastation of the personality brought about by betrayal or abandonment.  

 

Given the risks of relinquishing our identity for love, is it any surprise ‘falling in love’  often ends in pain and tragedy?  As Alan Yentob demonstrated in last weeks ‘Imagine’,  the greatest love stories rarely end well.  There are complications – obligation, loyalty, commitment or duty that can never be relinquished, not even for one’s ‘true love’.  In Brief Encounter, Laura could never leave her kind steady husband and her two boys for Alec.  In Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa are caught up in the exigencies of war.  Juliet’s family are deadly enemies of Romeo’s. Abelard and Heloise have taken a holy vow of celibacy. Lolita is under-age. The timing’s not right and the drama is played out against a backdrop of impending disaster. The lovers exercise restraint, they make sacrifices, they try to preserve their relationship but the reality is too much and it doesn’t work out.   

 

Some are determined to not let anything stand in their way. They tempt fate, but fate has the last word. Elvira Madigan’s soldier lover is caught and shot as a deserter. Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train. Romeo takes poison. Juliet stabs herself.  Abelard is castrated. Love has subsumed their identity that life as they knew it is no longer possible.  And the destruction can spread to involve others, sometimes whole nations.  It was love that brought down Camelot, started the Trojan wars, disenfranchised  England from the catholic faith and threatened to bring down the British monarchy twice in the last hundred years.   

 

But it doesn’t have to be so tragic.  Not everybody falls in love.  For many the fusion is much less explosive.  There is no instant attraction, no compulsion.  Trust develops over weeks or months as they find out about each other and generates the confidence to permit increasing levels of intimacy. They are in love but never out of control.  They adjust to their new relationship in a manner that is informed, caring, relaxed and more likely to lead to the kind of life-long commitment and attachment that provides a secure base for raising a family.       

 

Romantics also crave commitment, but at the same time, they dread it. The risk seems enormous. It’s that combination of desire and fear that gives falling in love such compelling frisson. With no basis in trust, they can only act on impulse and give themselves to someone they do not know. They are so insecure, they have possess – now!  There is no compromise, no negotiation. They cannot tolerate that the object of their desire might love or have loved another.  The fear can create difficulties – busy diaries, other relationships, dramatic dysjunctures. It has to be all or nothing.  Teetering on the existential edge between bliss and disaster, they sway first one way and then the other.  Is it on or is it off?  It’s such a close call. 

 

If they take the risk and invest their identity, the realisation that the object of their love is a mere projection can cause enormous disappointment.  Infuriated by the destruction of their dreams, those whom they loved to distraction, they come to hate to destruction. 

 

But if they fear the risk and back away, the futility of it all may cause a deep narcissistic wound and lead to serious depression.   

 

Trapped in purgatory between risk and obligation, desire and boredom, fear and meaninglessness, romantics all too readily succumb to mental and physical illness.  They have to escape.  If they need the thrilling ‘tumble into love’ to start a relationship, then they must generate sufficient hatred and anger to achieve escape velocity so they can resume the quest for their true love. But as Lionel Shriver so cleverly illustrated in ‘The Post Birthday World’, the love object is not that crucial for the romantic narcissist, they are just the mirror.  It’s the process that’s important. They are in love with being in love. They need the desire of another person to affirm their fragile identity. 

 

This repetitive, parabolic flight of romantic love is so regressive – a throwback to the delusional split existence of the infant, where things are either black or white, good or bad, and steady is just so boring. The wild excursions are so exhausting and demoralising and commitment so frightening, that lovers often come to yearn for the peace that comes with severance.        

 

Whether it’s the effect of early emotional deprivation, or the materialistic, thrill-seeking, narcissistic culture, an ever increasing number of people are romantics and risk takers.  They want it all and they want it now. There is no compromise.  They’re worth it!  This is bad news for the current generation, worse for the next. Love, for the insecure, the vain and the needy, is such a lottery.  It may work out, but the chances of scooping the jackpot are very low, while all the losers take home is depression, unworthiness, shame and guilt. 

 

Cinderella may have pulled her prince on the way to Tulsa but will she be able to hang on to him. Will she want to?     

 

 

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