Friday, April 11, 2008

Perfect love or passing amnesia?

A couple meets and falls in love. Or at least in serious infatuation. They soon find each other absolutely wonderful, and can’t imagine how they existed without each other all these years. They become inseparable as each blossoms under the care and attention of the other. They positively glow.

Infatuation is the lovely but temporary phase at the beginning of a relationship. And the pronouncements of the infatuated lover can be so certain! I remember the actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, upon being quizzed about her then brand spanking new relationship with actor, Brad Pitt, declaring: “I’m properly in love for the first time in my life and I don’t care if any of my former boyfriends hear this!” I wonder how she feels about this statement now?

A common symptom of infatuation is the development of temporary amnesia about one’s pre-coupled life. Everything in the present is as it should be and everything feels as it has never felt before.

But, after a while, the scales begin to fall off the lovers' eyes, as each partner reconnects slowly with reality and starts to perceive the other in its harsh light. Glimmers of disillusion begin to appear.

He discovers that she makes a bizarre kind of whinnying noise as she sleeps. At first he found it cute but now it’s downright irritating. As are many of her other habits and mannerisms. She, in turn, becomes increasingly aware that he is not all he advertised himself to be. She detects hints of the insecure lad behind his macho posturing. And he can be so stingy with money!

Either way, a certain level of disappointment begins to creep in on both sides. But along with this often comes a certain realism. A gradual acceptance of each other’s foibles. And later, a more realistic commitment, and the beginnings of the struggle for real intimacy.

The transition from infatuation to a more lasting commitment between lovers, is not only the stuff of novels. Psychologists too are intrigued by this process. I remember some time ago running across a study which examined whether couples who move beyond infatuation and come to see each other in more realistic terms, end up being more satisfied with each other than couples who do not make this adjustment in their perceptions of each other.

The researchers found the opposite to be true – perceiving another too starkly and accurately may eventually become the kiss of death for a relationship. It helps to hold on to some of the idealization that occurred naturally during the phase of infatuation.

Cognitive researchers have long confirmed this human propensity for positive illusions. Optimistic persons remain depression-free by conveniently distorting the reality of their lives. Where others see the glass as half-empty, they see it as half-full. They filter out the bad stuff and view the world through rose-colored lenses – and their dispositions remain all the rosier for it.

Similarly, it seems, lovers need to find ways of retaining some of their positive illusions about each other if a relationship is to last. But this is not to say that they must remain in denial about each other’s destructive flaws. On the contrary, denial can be extremely harmful to a relationship and may set one up for greater disappointment in the end. 

But it is also not a good idea to rush into marriage during the infatuation phase of a relationship. There is a risk that the assessment of each other may be based more on projection than on reality. This too can set the stage for later disillusionment and recrimination.

A healthier approach seems to be to find ways of honestly acknowledging the more irritating aspects of the other’s behavior, while also maintaining the ability to see these imperfections in the best possible light, through eyes of compassion and understanding. It helps also to retain a bit of the idealization that typified the period of infatuation, and to think of each other not as perfect, but as truly awesome. 

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