Frequently, the Porcupine Effect can destroy love relationships. Although a person desires love, their fears and doubts can cause them to inadvertently push the other person away. Often, this is due to trying to create a romanticized version of love. By trying to confine the relationship to this idealization of love the person harms the relationship when s/he desires to nurture or create a relationship.
Considered one of the most romantic movies of all time, "An Affair to Remember" shows us what could happen when romantic beliefs go awry. Although life imitates fiction when it comes to the development of these expectations for relationships, it often does not imitate the happy endings found in romantic movies.
In this movie, Nickie, a well-known playboy, meets Terry on a ship. Both were engaged at the time they met, she faithfully and him not. She was witty, he was charming. Initially, she resisted his overtures. After encouraging her repeatedly without satisfaction, he opined, “We have several days to go on this voyage and I can't stand monotony" finally obtaining her consent to have dinner and keep him company during the trip.
At one point during the voyage while they were trying to be discreet and requested single dining they were seated unknowingly back to back. When the rest of the passengers started looking and laughing because their attempt to be discreet was obvious, Terry looked down and checked herself to see if something was wrong with her attire and pulled her stole up over her shoulder in embarrassment.
Initially concerned about others on the ship noticing their attraction to one another they gave up when they found out that the ship's photographer was selling pictures of the two of them together. Having fallen in love the few days they were together, they agreed to meet in six months at the top of Empire State Building if they worked out their lives to be together.
Although Nickie was an artist, he didn't have confidence in his ability and quit painting because he never felt it was good enough. When he gave his grandmother a painting of his grandfather, he sought her reassurance that she liked it indicating he had not given it to her sooner because he didn't know if it was acceptable. He felt he needed to prove he was worthy of asking Terry to marry him by being able to support himself with his paintings.
On her return, Terry broke up with her fiance and started singing again. Nickie started painting again to make himself worthy of marriage. But he didn't want anyone to know they were his paintings because he wanted to sell them based on the quality of the painting, not on his reputation as a well-known playboy. Unable to sell paintings, he took a job painting billboards. Finally, he sold his first painting and began to achieve success.
On the night they were to meet, Terry was hit by a car as she was rushing across the street to the Empire State Building. Nickie waited and waited for her finally leaving believing that she decided not to meet him. Embarrassed about being paralyzed Terri didn't tell Nickie what happened even though her ex-fiance encouraged her to do so. During this time they saw one another at the ballet but he wasn't aware of her paralysis because she was seated. “Unless I can walk to him, and when I say 'walk” I mean run, he'll never know.”
Having seen her at the ballet, he discovered where she lived and came to visit her on Christmas. She was seated when he arrived hiding her disability.
He said “Then I said to myself 'Well, now, I haven't been very nice to Miss McKay. After all, I had an appointment with her one day and I didn't keep it'.” She went along with this charade indicating that at first she was furious to be treated that way. After a great deal of indirect conversation, he gave her the shawl his grandmother who had recently died had wanted her to have. "Goodby, Terry."
She thanked him and wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. Seeing her in the shawl, he said, "I painted you like that" and described how the painting had been given to a woman in a wheelchair who couldn't afford to buy it. Realizing then that she was the woman and what had happened, he took her in his arms. Breathlessly, she claimed, "If you can paint, I can walk. Anything can happen, don't you think?”
"An Affair to Remember" is typical of many of the romantic comedies we have grown up with in our culture. Not very different from fairy tales, these movies teach romantic beliefs that can be detrimental to relationships. Of course, in the movies it always works out. However, when real life tries to imitate the movies, the outcome isn't always desirable.
The movie shows the romantic themes of love at first sight, love conquers all, and living happily ever after. In real life, it is common for those who have spinal cord injuries to lose their relationships, but in this movie love wins out. Obviously, the love at first sight theme is demonstrated by falling in love during the first few days of a short voyage across the ocean. The love conquers all theme is shown through the agreement to meet in six months once they have achieved the necessary changes in their lives. The happily ever after theme is evoked at the end of the movie by the belief that she will be able to walk again now they could be with one another.
In this movie, both Terry and Nickie had expectations related to fears of rejection.
Nickie, although dashing and handsome and loved by all, was insecure about his artistic abilities to the degree that he hesitated showing his artwork to even very close family members such as his grandmother for fear that it wasn't good enough. He also expected Terry would reject him unless he was able to support them financially in the way she was accustomed. In addition, he wanted his artwork to be accepted and successful without his famous name attached--this indicates that he required external validation of his worth (which was probably how he was used to being treated by others). Terry showed signs of rejection sensitivity in her expectation that he would reject her if she wasn't "whole" and able to walk. This idealization of the relationship indicates her belief that if the relationship can't be perfect, it is not worth pursuing.
For both, the rejection they feared was an illusion. Terry imagined that Nickie would reject her for her disability and Nickie believed Terry would reject him if he wasn't a successful artist and able to support them. Both made assumptions about the other without evidence to support the assumption. The result of these assumptions nearly prevented their relationship, and in real life, probably would have.
Certainly, the desire for romantic love, as with other desires, is normal. In fact, romantic ideals have a purpose. Primarily, feeling the initial flush of passion and believing the romantic notions creates a greater likelihood of developing a relationship. And the biological imperative is to develop relationships, both to procreate as well as to support and aid one another as individual partners and as communities. Without the romantic beliefs, sometimes it may be difficult to pursue relationships. If you thought at the beginning, "We're going to have struggles to overcome, we will disagree and argue, sometimes we won't be able to stand one another, and I'm signing up for a lifetime of hard work" how likely are you to pursue that relationship?
So, of course, the desire for romantic love is normal. It is built into us biologically and sustained through our cultural stories. The problem is not the existence of the desire for romantic love, the problem occurs when the desire becomes a demand.
When a desire becomes a demand, it creates an unhealthy expectation in your life which can lead to disastrous results in relationships. Let's look at this concept of "demand" for romantic love and how it can impact you. Perhaps initially when you meet someone both of you are in the romantic stage of love. In which case, you both may be on the same page concerning your expectations of love. However, even that may be unlikely because romantic love has very specific expectations so it is possible (probable) that your specific expectations will be different from your partner's specific expectations. As I said previously, demands are likely to lead to disappointment, hurt, and anger because ususally two people are not that in tune with one another. The romantic idealization means that your partner may try to meet your specific expectations, but after awhile that becomes more difficult because it is not your partner's natural behavior.
But let's say you are in tune with one another. What happens then? If you hold on to your romantic expectations beyond the first year, your partner has likely moved on to the stage of mature love. I have seen many people who have felt deceived because of this very natural change: "He used to be so romantic! Now he wants to spend time with friends" or "She used to enjoy listening to me talk about my hobby--now she gets bored." If you don't accept the changes in the relationship and let go of the romantic ideals, you won't be able to understand or experience mature love.
The desire for romantic love places unreasonable demands on relationships. The individual imagines the "perfect" idea of love and measures every relationship against that ideal. Eventually each relationship will fall short because none can match the romantic ideal for very long.
In addition, those who have romantic ideals are also likely to romanticize friendships. For instance, many a bride has believed that her friends should be just as excited about her upcoming wedding as she is only to be disappointed when their behavior doesn't match her expectations. "My best friend wasn't willing to travel to my destination wedding! I would have done anything for her!"
The following describes how the desire for romantic love can be experienced as rejection as the relationship matures. The initial romantic love stage of relationships lasts less than a year. When someone continues to idealize the relationship and expect the relationship to continue according to their romantic beliefs, they feel the loss of the “perfect” relationship and feel rejected. However, development of mature love is the alternative to the feelings of rejection created by demanding love conform to these common idealized beliefs.
During the early years of my relationship with my husband, I once asked him playfully, “Will you love me forever?”
“I don't know.”
“What?!!” I exploded. “How can you say that?”
My ever practical husband explained, “I want to love you forever. I intend to love you forever. But forever is a long time and I don't know what it will bring.”
Even after that explanation, I didn't understand fully. Later, I realized what my husband meant and it became more meaningful to me than some meaningless romantic response I sought. I realized his intention was more important than any profession of love “forever.” (However, I did teach him that is not the correct way to respond to a woman's question about love.)
My question, intended to extract a romantic response from my husband, instead brought anger because he did not have the romantic view of relationships I had at the time. The romantic notion of love that I sought could tolerate only one response: a declaration of love forever. When I didn't receive the "correct" response, I felt disappointed, hurt, and angry. I saw my husband's response as a rejection of me. Fortunately, I subsequently learned the value of "mature" love.
A number of common romantic beliefs have been identified. If you examine fairy tales and romantic movies, you can identify many of these romantic themes. The classic love story by Shakespeare captured many times in film depicts Romeo falling in love with Juliette at first sight: "Did my heart love till now?" The common romantic beliefs include the one and only, love conquers all, and idealization of the partner. How many of these beliefs can you find in the movie "Love Actually"?
The concept of the one and only is the romantic belief that a particular person exists to be your love. In this case, you should know that person at first sight and immediately fall in love. If either of you have had previous partners, you don't consider those "true" loves but placeholders until you discovered your soul mate. Once you do find your one and only, the romantic belief is that you will always be that person's priority. The idea of a one and only soul mate means that your partner never loved another and never will love anyone else.
1) Love at “first sight.” Even though my husband fell in love with me almost immediately, I had to consider my feelings a bit longer. When he first said “I love you,” I responded with “That's very sweet, but I don't know how I feel yet.” The fact that he didn't pressure me to feel the same as him was probably one of the reasons I did fall in love with him. In fact, even after I was with him awhile I remember telling a friend, “I don't even know if I like him.” I know now that is because he has such a strong personality. I now tease him and tell him, “I love you but I'm still not sure I like you.”
Still, my husband's experience was unusual, love does not usually occur at first sight. It occurs after developing a friendship. It occurs after working together for awhile. It occurs after numerous chance meetings. But the idea of seeing someone across the room and knowing he or she is "the one" is fairly rare. Yet, it is part of our romantic beliefs--the "Cinderella" story.
2) Never any feelings for anyone else. A young woman lived with her boyfriend who still had his ex's belongings in his garage. Although the belongings were not in the way and he was waiting until his ex could make arrangements to obtain her belongings, the current girlfriend felt that he was disrespecting their relationship by not just giving the belongings away. The problem was not the belongings but that she didn't want to be reminded that he ever had feelings for anyone else.
Similarly, a husband didn't like anything that reminded him of his wife's past marriage. Unfortunately, this included her kids. He believed they wouldn't be able to experience “firsts” together because she already experienced those firsts with someone else. Her focus on her children and dealing with her ex-husband for her children's sake is viewed as rejection by him. As a result, he sabatoges her relationship with her ex-husband and ignores her children.
Such a belief is part of the "one and only" romantic belief. People want to get rid of any reminders of past relationships. They don't want to think that their partner ever had feelings for any one else. Or, if feelings did exist, they couldn't be the same as the current relationship.
A belief such as this can lead to feelings of rejection when others don't respond by eliminating the past relationship from their lives. For instance, an ex-husband who helped raise his step-daughter and wanted to be part of the grandchildren's lives which the step-daughter readily welcomed. However, the ex-wife (daughter's mother) felt snubbed when the grandchildren call him and his new wife “grandma” and “grandpa.” She believed it usurped her "rightful" place as the one and only grandmother from her daughter's side of the family.
All three of these people experienced the illusion of rejection which caused them considerable, but unnecessary distress. In none of these examples were they actually rejected. However, they felt rejection because reality didn't match their romantic notion of being the one and only in their loved one's life.
3) Always “in love.” So often I've heard clients state when speaking of their feelings for their spouse, "I love him (her), I'm no longer 'in love.'" The fact that they are no longer "in love" (and, by the way, it is always said with quotes--no longer "in love" seems to mean something different than no longer in love) tells them that the relationship is no longer viable. Instead of recognizing that love changes, they expect to always feel the passion of being in love. Frequently, these same people seek that feeling from someone else and use the fact they are no longer "in love" to justify cheating on their spouse.
This belief can also be expressed in the demand that the couple should always feel the same degree of excitement and passion. For instance, a man had been dating a girl for a couple months when she canceled a date. Although he knew she was busy with a project at work, he believed this type of disregard indicated lack of caring or integrity. Feeling that she should feel the same way he did and shouldn't let anything get in the way of their time together, he took her cancellation as a rejection and broke up with her. Yet, she had a more mature approach to love, and even though she was interested in him, she also had other obligations she took seriously. Although she had integrity, it was not of the sort that he demanded. He expected to be first at all times.
Some people spend their lives seeking that "in love" feeling. When they no longer experience it, instead of developing a more mature love, they end the relationship. Their romantic notion is that the right relationship will maintain that feeling over time without any effort.
4) What if? Some people feel so strongly about the concept of the "one and only" that they doubt their feelings in a relationship. Even though they may love the other person, they continually wonder "what if I commit to this person and the one I am supposed to be with comes along later--I will miss my opportunity." As a result, they have difficulty committing to relationships.
The idea that love conquers all indicates the belief that if you are truly in love no problems will exist that can't be easily overcome. It is the belief that love is the only thing of importance and that as long as you have love your relationship will be easy. It is the expectation that finding the right person is the key to a successful relationship and once you find the right person a relationship shouldn't take effort.
1) Happily ever after. When you meet the right person, love will be easy. This is the belief that if you have to work at the relationship, it must not be the right relationship. The problem with this belief is that every couple will be confronted with challenges in their life and their relationship. If they don't work at resolving the problems, then they are likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of the destruction of their relationship.
2) Never any problems. Many people believe that problems should never occur in the relationship, they should never be angry with one another, and they should never mistreat one another. Such ideal expectations are unrealistic since human beings are not perfect and will make mistakes. Therefore, in even the best of relationships, feelings get hurt. For instance, a wife felt hurt and rejected by her husband because he called her a name during an argument. Although they had been together a long time, it had never happened before, and he immediately apologized, she felt that he had violated their marriage and rejected the importance of their relationship. She believed that such an act was a dismissal of their relationship. The focus was on the feelings of rejection she felt rather than what led to his unusual behavior. As a result, instead of resolving the problem, she continued to harbor resentment which influenced the quality of their relationship for a long time.
3) Should be attuned to one another. This is frequently a demand that you are so in tune with one another you always know what your partner needs and your partner knows what you need without having to say anything. As a result of this belief, a person may feel rejected when the partner isn't aware of their needs.
A woman feels overworked and wants to cut her overtime hours but her husband wants her to keep working overtime. She feels he doesn't care about her needs. However, they haven't discussed the situation and determined what their different needs are. Instead, they are operating on the assumption that they know how the other feels. As a result, they are at cross purposes when making an important decision.
A common belief that I see with many of my female clients is "I shouldn't have to tell him. If he really cared, he would know what I want." The biggest problem with this belief is that many men truly don't understand women and can't read their minds. However, when told what their partner desires, they are often willing to meet their needs.
For instance, when Sharon tells her husband she feels ignored, he comes out of his “man cave” and spends time with her. But she feels it is only because he “should” and not what he wants. Instead of viewing his willingness to respond to her need as a positive, she believes that needing to “beg” for his attention is rejection because he "should" want to spend time with her. Yet, this is a good example of how men often communicate directly and understand direct communication so that when she communicates directly, he responds. Therefore, he is meeting her need because he desires to do so. But, first, he required understanding of her need. As such, this depicts how people have different needs and if these are not expressed, the other person tend to interpret their partner's needs based upon their own. Sharon's husband may not require as much "together" time, and therefore, he may not think of her needing to spend time with him. Not that he is unwilling to make her happy, he just doesn't know what she wants.
Of course, the rejection sensitive person may still insist "But if he doesn't have the need to spend time with me, then he doesn't care about me." Again, this isn't necessarily true. We each have different requirements and tend to assume others are the same as us. For instance, I once treated a quiet man at the insistence of his wife to help improve communication in their relationship. When I asked what he did when she came home upset from work, he said, "I leave her alone." When I asked why he did that he told me that when something is bothering him he likes to be alone so he can think about it. Then I asked what his wife does when she knows he's upset about something. He said, "She follows me around insisting that I talk about it. I hate that!" Once I explained to him that her behavior towards was an indicator regarding how she wanted to be treated, he was able to be more responsive in the relationship. He reported back that by sitting next to her, putting his arm around her, and asking her what was wrong seemed to miraculously resolve the problems in their relationship. In this situation, he wanted to meet his wife's needs but he didn't know what they were. Once I told him he was able to do so. However, the problem could have been solved much more readily if the wife had been able to communicate her needs instead of feeling rejected by him.
Idealization is seeing the partner as perfect--the tendency to see only the desired aspects of the partner and not the complete package. You view the relationship as perfect. "We always get along, finish one another's sentences, and never argue. We like all the same things.
When you idealize the relationship, you also try to hide your own imperfections. You want to believe that everything about the relationship is perfect. Idealization of the relationship can sometimes be viewed as deception or betrayal later on when specific flaws become more apparent.
1) Always a priority. The idealization of the relationship often demands that no one else or any other obligation should ever take precedence over the needs of the partner. For instance, a man's fiancee became angry with him because he didn't take the day off work to spend with her family. She believed that since she prioritized her family's visit over work that he should do the same. She believed that he was rejecting her family, and thereby, rejecting her and her needs.
In another circumstance, a wife became very upset because her husband seemed to be choosing his daughter over her. The stepmother wanted to use the daughter's room for other things now that the daughter was 18 and in college but her husband didn't feel it was time. She felt that she had placed his daughter's needs first for years and now it was time to meet her own needs and saw her husband's reluctance as rejection.
In another case, a father was angry with his son because he didn't show appreciation or acknowledgement of his mother's birthday or Mother's Day even though she had devoted her life to him. When confronted with the issue, his son didn't understand the importance of it and why his parents should feel rejected. However, he agreed to make an effort to contact them on special occasions. Again, this was a situation in which different people interpret needs according to their own. The son didn't place an importance on celebrating birthdays and, corresponding, didn't understand his parent's need until it was communicated to him.
2) Always together. Another idealization of relationships is the belief that all interests should be shared and both should always desire to be with one another. This aspect of idealizing the relationship means that if the partner has outside interests, wants to spend time alone with friends, or just wants to be alone, these behaviors are viewed as rejection. Once again, this belief does not acknowledge individual differences regarding needs and desires.
One woman, for instance, complained that her husband will refer to activities they did together as if he did them alone. “I went to visit friends” instead of “we visited friends.” She feels slighted by his wording and feels that he is ignoring her as part of the relationship. In addition, she over-interprets his behavior: “He fears losing himself to become part of a couple.” Often the simplest explanation is the most accurate: perhaps it was inadvertent word choice and didn't mean anything more. Because she is attuned to words doesn't mean he is, as well.
3) If s/he really knew me. Idealization of the relationship sometimes leads to hiding aspects of yourself to prevent the other from rejecting you. A woman doesn't want to tell her boyfriend she's diabetic. She's fearful that if he truly knew her situation, he will see her as flawed and will reject her.
When you demand the continuation of romantic love, you may not discover the full meaning of loving another person as if they are part of you. That may seem to be what you are attempting to do when you have romantic notions, but such beliefs actually interfere with the development of mature love. Such love is being able to distinguish between yourself and the other, not needing the other to be any different, but able to accept him or her as they are. Of course, to fully love someone in this manner you need to be able to fully love yourself. Fully loving yourself is accepting yourself non-judgmentally--not as perfect but as fully human and in need of improvement. If you cannot love yourself in this manner, if you tend to be critical and negative and demanding towards yourself, you are likely to “love” someone else in the same way.
When a person is sensitive to rejection and has a demand for romantic love, they will often experience the illusion of rejection because a loving relationship may not match these romantic ideals. These different beliefs about how love is expressed can lead to feelings of rejection, and ultimately, feelings of loss in the relationship. Although sensitivity to rejection does not cause feelings of rejection related to the romantic failings of their partner, the combination of the two provides a theme for the rejection illusion.
As discussed previously, romantic love does not sustain a relationship and usually only lasts six months to a year. However, some people try to hold on to these romantic ideals in their relationship because they belief these romantic notions are what defines love. Yet, the attempts to maintain these romantic beliefs interfere with developing a more mature love. Often, when the relationship doesn't match the romantic expectation, the individual will feel rejected by the partner.
Thus, this individual has a romantic expectation which the partner is never likely to meet. When the partner fails to meet the expectation, the individual experiences rejection. However, the partner did not reject the person but only failed to behave in the expected manner. This illusion of rejection, however, causes the individual considerable distress, feelings of rejection, hurt, and loss.
Feelings of rejection can particularly occur when the partner is capable of a more mature love and doesn't try to maintain these romantic ideals. When a person continues to hold these romantic beliefs and the partner doesn't fulfil the demands, the person with the romantic ideals will often feel rejected. They may even believe the partner is betraying them if they act in any other way.
People who have strong illusions also tend to harbor the notion that they are correct. This leads to a false reasoning: "If I believe A is the only correct behavior, and my partner chooses to not do A, it is deliberate rejection."
Even though the rejection is an illusion, the individual feels rejected by the partner and mourns the loss of the relationship or some aspect of the relationship. They often believe they must have been wrong and the partner wasn't their "soul mate" after all. The fact that the relationship took work or there was conflict proves that it wasn't "true" love. Those with this belief often leave relationships before putting the necessary work into them. Or, if they remain in the relationship, they may become bitter and critical because the partner never measures up to their expectation. As a result, they often experience a great deal of dissatisfaction in relationships.
By recognizing that romantic love is supposed to be time-limited, a person can focus on developing more realistic expectations for the love relationship. In other words, you can allow yourself to feel the excitement and passion of the initial romantic experience, but then be able to accept the changes that occur as love matures. By doing so, the changes are not feared but are desired and eagerly anticipated.
Understanding the concept of mature love as an unconditional, non-judgmental love that is stable and in the present allows a person to come to value mature love. The problem is that so much of our culture for centuries has focused on the romantic notions of love and so that is what has become valued.Imagine being completely at peace with yourself, not critical, not demanding, but feeling a total acceptance of who you are. From this acceptance comes a desire to take care of yourself, to foster your abilities to their highest levels, to discover everything that is possible within you. That feels good, doesn't it? Now imagine doing the same for another person and loving that person without criticism or demand, only desiring to cherish that person and cultivate their abilities and personal growth. Such a love participates in all aspects of the other person, not as an outside critic or interested observer, but as a companion willing to fully partake in the joys and the sorrows of the other.
Notice how this definition is different from the romantic beliefs which require the other person to conform to your expectations of love. This definition experiences the other person fully, understanding them completely, just as you would yourself. Of course, such a love requires that you are able to fully love yourself without blame and criticism.
Instead of believing the only correct way to view the world is your way, accept different possibilities. For example, my husband shows concern for me by reminding me of things I need to do. At first (and still at times) I found this annoying, but I also understand that is how he shows he cares. He is not being critical as I originally interpreted his behavior. If we accept other possibilities for explanation of behavior, we are less likely to feel criticized and rejected.
Learning what to expect with mature love allows you to recognize it when it occurs. Once the realistic expectations have been recognized, they can replace the romantic beliefs. Of course, realistic expectations of love are not as easily definable which is probably what makes the romantic notions more attractive. Romantic beliefs are black-and-white--there is no in-between. He or she either is your only love forever and ever or not. Romantic beliefs allows no messiness in relationships. However, to do so, denial is required. You may have to ignore that your partner fell in love previously, married, and had children. You may have to ignore other obligations. You may have to ignore personal differences. Because denial is the only way to maintain the illusion.
The willingness to be open to the changes in the love relationship and to discover the possibilities may be uncomfortable at times but comes with many rewards. In particular, you are not predefining the relationship and being disappointed when it doesn't meet those expectations. Mature love is the willingness to fully experience the other person as they are, not the way you want them to be.
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Dr. Monica Frank