If Love Could Think Book Excerpt


When Love Goes Wrong

Everything in life is metamorphosis, in plants and in animals, up to and including mankind as well. – GOETHE

“When love goes wrong, nothing goes right.” So goes the song and so say soy psychotherapy patients, if not in words, then in symptoms and disorders. When love goes wrong, our soul goes wrong—and our minds play tricks on us. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sexual problems, stress, alcoholism, and drug addiction are all disturbances in our dialogue with love. As simplistic as it may sound, our failings in love are at the theoretical core of the most sophisticated schools of developmental psychology. Which is why I set out to learn and teach—and now write—about the sixty-four-million-dollar question of why love goes wrong and what, if anything, can make it right.

The patterns of failed love are by now a cliche familiar to us all. Yet the underlying problem and what to do about it still baffle us. This book is for anyone struggling with these patterns. Whether you’re contemplating breaking up a relationship or whether you already broke it off and don’t want to repeat the same pattern in the next relationship, whether you are dating endlessly without being able to find the right person or whether you find yourself once again in a long-term relationship with the wrong person, whether you’re wondering if you should go ahead with the wedding plans or whether you’re questioning if you’re stuck in a loveless marriage, or if you’re simply fascinated by the mysteries of love and want to witness and decipher the dramatic and moving journeys of some of its most adventurous explorers—my patients—this book is for you.

Over the years, while helping my patients to wrestle with the problem of love, I’ve come to see that relationship patterns are not simply a repetition of a single, distinct behavior. For example, if your pattern is about getting involved with unavailable men, it is unlikely that all of them have been unavailable in the same way. One of your relationships may have been a long-distance one, another, with a man who couldn’t commit, and a third with a man who was married or secretly bisexual. Furthermore, if this is your pattern, it is also likely that in order to overcome it, you have tried, probably more than once, to date someone you were not really attracted to but who was very much interested in you. In other words, your pattern included being on the other side of the equation.

This overlapping, interrelated nature of relationship patterns, we shall soon see, is not merely an incidental characteristic of our messy interpersonal landscape. It’s to a large extent a consequence of the fact that these romantic patterns have a common psychological ancestor, one that we must understand if we are to attain love. Though it feels like it should be pure, love can never be so, because neither its giver nor its receiver are. Where there is love, there is always hate, or to put it in more palatable language, there’s always anger and disappointment—precisely because we care so much. To love requires that we be vulnerable, but being vulnerable makes us hate—hate the person who “makes” us feel that way. That’s why we say we “fall in love,” not “stand in love,” and that’s why so much music, poetry, literature, and movies are a variation on the theme of “Falling in love again, never wanted to, what am I to do, can’t help it.”

In his book Can Love Last? psychologist Stephen Mitchell captured the essence of this ambivalence. Drawing on a metaphor used by Nietzsche to demonstrate man’s struggle with his mortality, Mitchell describes romantic love as akin to building a sand castle on the beach. We must invest all our passion into it while at the same time keep in mind that at any moment it can all be washed away by the tide. This, of course, is a difficult state of mind to maintain, and as Mitchell put it, in order to manage it we “split” our exciting but uncertain sand castle into “stone castles” and “castles in the sky.” The former are our stable yet boring long-term relationships or marriages, and the latter are our fantasies or brief encounters of romantic ecstasy and sexual novelty. While neither makes us happy, in both cases we are safe from the uncertainty, risk, and vulnerability inherent in love. In the “stone castles” we might have too much reality and not enough fantasy, but at least we feel safe in their predictability and strength. In the “castles in the sky” we may have too much fantasy and not enough reality, but then again we don’t have much to lose—other than our illusions. As I will demonstrate throughout this book, the patterns of failed love am all based on this split. In trying to avoid the reality of love—its inherently ambivalent nature—we escape into ultimately untenable fantasies of perfect love.