Countless romcoms and magazine articles are wrong. Love — or more often lust — at first sight means a relationship is unlikely to last
We have all felt it — that intense charge of attraction when we first lay eyes on someone. Every hormone-drenched cell in your body is telling you to go after that gorgeous guy or girl. And, if you are simply looking for a torrid few weeks of passion, there’s no harm in following your lustful instincts.
But if you think that million-watt zap of attraction means you have found the love of your life, I’m afraid you will probably be disappointed.
Schema therapists like myself call this intense experience ‘schema chemistry’ — meaning there is some unconscious, magnetic attraction at play drawing you both together. I see this a lot with my clients, who have had countless experiences of unhappy relationships, which start with this zap and end up in a familiar pattern of anger, recrimination, lovelessness or infidelity.
If you think that million-watt zap of attraction means you have found the love of your life, I’m afraid you will probably be disappointed
Schema chemistry means your ‘schemas’ have been triggered. And schemas are neural networks that fire up when you encounter something stressful that reminds you of similar stressful experiences from childhood. For example, you may have an Abandonment schema, because your mother left the family for a new love when you were young. You will then, understandably, be highly sensitive to feeling abandoned or rejected as an adult.
Re-enacting old dramas
If you then meet an attractive woman who seems enticing but untrustworthy, you will feel strangely drawn to her, because you are playing out old dramas — sadly, you are feeding that painful schema by choosing someone who will probably cheat on you and break your heart.
Sigmund Freud called this the ‘repetition compulsion’, which he defined as ‘the desire to return to an earlier state of things.’ Freud said we unconsciously play out the dramas of our past over and over, because that’s what is familiar to us. If you are used to shouting and conflict, you may be drawn to loud, aggressive people, because that’s normal for you.
If your father was cold and emotionally unavailable, you may find yourself with a string of shut-down, unemotional men as partners, who make you feel the same way. It feels awful, and you may well know it’s not good for you, but its an unconscious pull that’s hard to resist.
I would call this repetitive behaviour ‘schema maintenance’, which basically means that we do things, unconsciously, that maintain our schemas and keep the wounds of childhood from healing. Nobody does this on purpose, of course. It just happens.
By the way, the opposite of this process is called ‘schema healing’, which is what my form of therapy — and all other forms of therapy, whether they call it that or not — are trying to achieve. It’s also what a healthy, loving relationship gives you, or a lifelong supportive friendship, or the unconditional love of a child or even pet can provide.
Attachment is key
Of course, your schemas don’t tell the whole story. Another important factor in how you choose romantic partners is your attachment style. Depending on your relationship with your earliest caregivers, you will develop either a secure or insecure attachment style. If the latter, you will either be anxiously or avoidantly attached.
As Dr Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller explain in their excellent book, Attached: Are You Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the Science of Adult Attachment Can Help You Find — and Keep Love, your attachment style is a key predictor of the kinds of people you are attracted to. Those with an anxious attachment can, unfortunately, make a habit of picking the wrong person for them, because their intense need for connection and validation makes them pick hastily.
If you have an avoidant attachment, you will have the opposite problem, fearing commitment (which you see as being trapped or suffocated) and so engaging in multiple short-term relationships. Those lucky enough to be securely attached tend to meet people, fall in love and then find the whole business fairly simple, especially if their partner is also secure.
A kind person will be there for you, no matter what. They will love you on good days and bad, whether you are happy or sad, thriving or struggling
So, if you shouldn’t trust that spark, how should you choose a partner to ensure long-term happiness? Here are three pieces of advice, based on helping hundreds of clients (and eventually figuring this out for myself, after multiple heartbreaks):
- Friendship is more important than lust. Of course, you need to feel some level of sexual attraction for each other, or it will never last. But research clearly shows that those initial lustful hormones last for a few months, if that long (here’s a great article in Psychology Today on hormones and love, by anthropology professor Helen Fisher). After they wear off you need to be compatible somewhere other than the bedroom — and that means being friends. So pick someone you like, not just lust after.
- What’s the most important quality in a potential partner? Kindness. Pick someone who seems kind, decent and trustworthy and you have a good chance of making that love last. A kind person will be there for you, no matter what. They will love you on good days and bad, whether you are happy or sad, thriving or struggling. Kindness is like gold dust in a partner — take that from someone now happily married for a decade to a kind, supportive, loving wife.
- Their past will predict your future. Is this person good at being faithful, or do they often cheat on partners? If they tend to wander, I’m afraid they will probably do so with you. That’s not to say people can’t change — of course I passionately believe they can, or I wouldn’t be a therapist. But change takes commitment, hard work and responsibility-taking. If your potential new love displays none of these qualities, they will probably revert to type, so move on to someone that knows how to commit. After all, you deserve love, kindness and respect, not heartbreak and disappointment.
Something I frequently say to my clients is that people often wander blindly into a relationship and then, when it goes wrong, start working hard to try and fix it. They try to change their partner or themselves, striving to turn something painful or unsatisfying into a happy union.
But it’s far more important to think carefully about who you choose than what to do once it starts to go wrong. Pick wisely — based on experience, common sense and trusting your gut about who is good for you — and you have a much greater chance at romantic happiness.
As the Dalai Lama teaches us: ‘The purpose of life is to be happy. From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering.’
And your romantic relationships are, above all else, the things that either create happiness or suffering in your life. So choose wisely and I hope you find love that is calm, nurturing and which feeds your soul. You deserve it.