Many characteristics of a potential partner, as well as situational factors, can romantically attach us to another person even though the relationship may be unhealthy. Some qualities that are initially thought to represent the kind of emotional bond we call “love,” eventually lead to the deterioration of the relationship. First of all, what is love, anyway? For the sake of this post, let’s just consider the healthy version of love as involving two individuals who maintain their separate identities, yet intimately join together based on mutual interests, excitement, enjoyment, and the sharing of novel or stimulating experiences, in addition to a shared capacity to learn from the negative emotions they experience.
So naturally, some of the relationship qualities that are found in a healthy partnership may also be present in an unhealthy one. Stimulating and exciting features of a relationship can motivate you to ignore the warning signs that it won’t meet your needs. Yet humans have an inclination to amplify what feels good and disregard disappointment, which may lead someone to believe it is love when it’s only confusion.
Finding a loving relationship that is based on reciprocity, mutual giving, and intimate understanding can actually be confused with a relationship in which drama in the life of one or both partners is shared. Drama makes a relationship exciting and intriguing, and therefore subject to confusion. If you happen to meet someone who has a very conflicted relationship with an ex-partner, for example, you may get pulled into being an advisor, confidant, or a better partner than the one who was left behind. Drama can attach us to another person, and thereby confuse captivation or even competition, with love.
Similarly, there are times when empathy, compassion, or pity is conflated with love. In this case you may misattribute the calling to help another person as a romantic attachment. In confusing the situation with love, your inclination might be to remedy your partner’s terrible circumstance with money, unconditional love, or encouragement that you imagine will help lead them to become who you wish they could be or who you believe that are capable of becoming. The stimulation of drama can, for example, fulfill a childhood need to rescue aparent or sibling, which now guides your choice of a partner. Any turmoil in a new partner’s life that makes them appear vulnerable or victimized may become a shared and stimulating experience that binds you together. Yet what remains in the end will not be a fulfilling relationship but, instead, an empty void.
Love can also be confused with excitement when a relationship begins with the use of mood enhancing drugs, heavy alcohol consumption, or intense sexual attraction. The relationship may lack the essential components of a healthy attachment, but in your confusion, while avoiding what you feel you are lacking within yourself, you may also ignore what is absent in the relationship.
In the lyrics of “Love or Confusion,” Jimi Hendrix summarizes the dilemma humans face in such circumstances:
Is that the stars in the sky or is it raining far from now?
Will it burn me if I touch the sun,
So big, so round?
Will I be truthful, yeah,
In choosing you as the one for me?
Is this love baby,
Or is it just confusion?
Oh, my mind is so mixed up, goin’ round ‘n’ round
Most there be all these colors without names,
My heart burns with feelin’ but
Oh! But my mind is cold and reeling.
Is this love, baby
Or is it confusion?
(For information about my books, please see my website: www.marylamia.com(link is external)
Dr. Mary Lamia is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who works with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens in her Marin County private practice. She is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Extending psychological knowledge to the public has been her endeavor for thirty years. Dr. Lamia’s opinion has been sought in hundreds of television, radio, and print media interviews and discussions, and for nearly a decade she hosted a weekly call-in talk show, KidTalk with Dr. Mary, on Radio Disney stations. Her books include: Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings: and, The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others.