What Is This Thing Called Love?

| By Helen Andrews, Ed.D. |

February! This is the month of promise. It brings with it little signs of winter’s approaching completion. Each new day gifts us with a little more light and warmth from the sun, reminders that Spring is sure to follow.

The marketing world fills the airwaves with previews of a special day for lovers to give and receive tokens that show their value to one another. Thus, life’s cycling sets a tone that, no matter one’s circumstances, most people at least once and perhaps many times during a lifetime fall in love, regardless of our planet’s seasons.

Poets, musicians, writers, painters, sculptors and others often language the passionate call. Perhaps you remember Richard Rogers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s beautiful song, Some Enchanted Evening, from the play, South Pacific, which conveys a clear image of love at first sight.

The potent experience of falling in love has been likened by some neuroscientists to an addiction so compelling that even in the midst of an already over-full or complicated life, lovers will find time and ways to be with their person of interest. William Shakespeare reminds us, “Love laughs at locksmiths.”

As an Imago Relationship Therapist for over 30 years, I often hear couples’ or singles’ recollections of their first few contacts with a potential mate. Whether they stayed together or separated, even years later, they still recall knowing that this meeting was different.

Today when clients tell me about a relatively new romantic relationship, they’ll often say: “This one is really different from my other lovers!… He/She might be The One!… He/She has everything I’ve been seeking!… We both love Nature (or sports, or whatever)!… We’re so comfortable with each other we don’t even need to ask questions. We even finish each other’s sentences!”

They report feeling excited and energized in the presence of new love. The therapist in me says, “Bingo!”

Unconsciously, the client has tapped into the primitive old brain, which has a compelling, nonnegotiable drive to restore the feeling of aliveness with which the child came into this world.

In his best seller, Getting The Love You Want, Dr. Harville Hendrix writes, “It is taught by Imago therapists that each person’s brain constructs an image of characteristics from their primary caretakers that displays the caretakers’ best and worst traits. It is a composite picture of the people who influenced you most strongly at an early age. This may have been your mom, dad, siblings, baby sitters or relatives. Your brain recorded the sound of their voices, the time they took to answer your cries, the color of their skin, when they were happy, the set of their shoulders, the way they moved their bodies, moods, everything. Your brain didn’t interpret these data. It simply etched them onto a template.

The brain’s unconscious desire is to repair damage done in childhood as a result of needs not met, and to find a partner who can give us what our caretakers failed to provide. The conscious part of the brain may not be able to see it, but The Unconscious believes that this person can heal your wounds and bring love into your life again. Who wouldn’t want that? It is The Piper whose haunting music beckons us to follow. And we do. The name of the song is Familiar Love. The words we sing to our lover are these: “I feel as if I’ve always known you!” When our lover answers, “I feel that way too,” The Dance has begun. Familiar Love has set the stage.”

When I am the therapist I tell the couple that it is not by accident they have found each other. The wounds a person received from a parent or other caretaker during their first few years will unintentionally be repeated by their partner. This, unconsciously for each person, triggers old emotions. Imago Relationship Therapy focuses on collaboratively healing childhood wounds that the couple shares.

Both partners in the relationship can learn how to heal and appreciate one another for who they are; however, it will take time for each couple to learn to engage in a new type of dialogue with each other. Because Familiar Love usually shows itself first as a felt sense of comfortable familiarity, the old brain somewhat blurs our notice of the new partner’s traits that are similar to the worst of our early caretakers. Maybe ignoring the dangers inherent in mating with a complementarily wounded partner is a natural occurrence in The Game of Life.

As Uncle Remus taught in The Brer Rabbit Tales, “It’s not what you got that counts. It’s what you DO with what you got that counts the most.”

Although Imago Relationship Therapy’s basic assumptions are based on a premise of mate selection and the child’s tie with its mother, there is an interdependence in every couple’s conflict patterns that must deal with the loss of romantic love and the power struggle. If a person becomes involved with someone who does not resemble their experiences with their caretakers, after a short time they may no longer feel strongly attracted, lose interest in the relationship, and quickly move on.

Other couples, lacking the Familiar Love connection, may not part right away, perhaps because of pregnancy, financial dependence, family or religious expectations or other complications. Imago Relationship Therapy can serve them well when they intentionally seek and avail themselves of its guidance and support to understand and find purpose in their decisions to remain in relationship. If they choose, I will be their guide as they learn to walk a new path of safety, intimacy, and the conscious evolution of passionate friendship.

Happy endings can be achieved when both partners are willing to look into their own mirrors.


Helen Andrews, Ed.D., a Marriage and Family Therapist,has been listening to life stories and learning from people for 35+ years. She started long ago in El Paso, Texas and can still be found in her office in Asheville.

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