Psychology

Why It's Unhealthy To Obsess Over Your First Love



As a couples’ therapist, I often give talks about love. And I often start by asking audience members to describe the sensations and feelings they felt the first time they fell in love. I get similar answers every time, and most people respond instantly, without even having to think or remember. “Racing heart,” says one. “Insanity and obsession,” says another. “Sweaty palms,” says a third.

Linda on Obsessions
Typically, I will respond to these answers by describing how certain chemicals flood our bodies when we fall in love. Dopamine triggers the reward center of the brain and causes us to feel that we don’t need to eat or sleep (which may be why someone once said that to fall in love is the best diet there is). I describe the adrenaline flow, which puts us on high alert the rush of endorphins, and the oxytocin, which causes a deep longing to connect through all five of our senses to this other person, who attracts us so intensely.

It's because of these chemical reactions that we remember our first love so vividly…even if it turned out poorly, even if we’re currently in a great relationship, even if we know it never would’ve worked.


Because we first felt that chemical rush when falling in love for the first time, it’s natural to associate that experience generally with your first love. But unfortunately, just because you fell in love with that person doesn't mean that he or she still would be the object of your desire in the present. With that, here are five hard truths about those times when you find yourself thinking of your first lover.


1. Looking for your first love can create havoc in your life.

Especially if you are married or in a committed relationship. It's OK to engage with the memories and the fantasy of your first love. It might even teach you about what you're looking for in love in the present. But thought and action are different. Try to sit with the discomfort.

2. The imprinting on our hearts and head may have little to do with the person we first fell in love with.

And it may have everything to do with the feeling we felt — the romance, the nostalgia.

3. Those pure-hearted, deep, and tender feelings of first love may never leave you.

The longing is most often the amazing awakening to love, rather than the actual human being you are thinking about.

4. An ongoing relationship with an imperfect person can't hold a candle to the fantasy of your first love.

Your current partner may be annoying and sometimes even impossible. But no matter who they are or what they're like, know that your first love will always be your first love, plain and simple. You will always have intense associations with that person, but those don't mean your current partner isn't worth it.

5. The Internet is filled with stories about people reuniting after 50 years apart.

That doesn't mean you should try this out for yourself. In fact, these stories most often do NOT turn out well.

I remember my first love. I was a thirteen-year old girl over at a friend’s house after school one day when a boy appeared from next door and offered to carry in the groceries for my friend’s mother. He glanced at the group of us, but his look lingered on me, and he smiled with his eyes, which seemed to drill into my very soul (this expression alone makes me feel thirteen again).

I was struck by a pining, a craving, and a craziness that are still with me almost sixty years later. The boy asked me my name, but I wasn’t able to answer, or even to say hello. I can conjure this experience on demand, along with the dry mouth, the racing heart, and the shock that left me mute and blank.


This first romance contained much more misery than joy. The boy was funny, smart, and incredibly charming, but he also was deceptive. Ten years ago, I went to his funeral, grieving, but also grateful that we’d parted ways. I’ve been deeply committed and happily married to another man for almost three decades, and yet still my ardent first feelings remain. I still harbor a desire for the boy I met that day, which defies logic, time, and reality.


These feelings for a long-ago lover aren't necessarily
a matter of brain chemicals only. We protect the moment when we first felt the magic, because we awakened to the mystery of love, which, for all the pain and confusion it may bring, is also a gateway to life’s true wonders.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

How To Drastically Improve Your Relationship In 30 Days



Good relationships thrive when our ratio of positive to negative interactions is something like 5:1. And it’s not just your relationship that will flourish; you will feel the benefits on a personal level.

klimtkiss2
In the very initial stage of a relationship (aka the "honeymoon phase,” or what I call the “merge” cycle), our hormones are flowing madly, and we see our partner as a source of wonder. We appreciate everything and can’t find enough ways to let them know it. We gaze, gift, surprise, touch and praise lavishly.

But when we cycle out of euphoria into ordinary daily life together that our elation is no longer there to fuel an active practice of mutual appreciation. More often than not, we start to find our partner irritating, annoying, even disappointing.


Is the solution to suck up grievances, shove any frustrations we feel under the rug, and slap on a happy face? Of course not. That kind of self-suppression and phoniness just creates another set of problems in a relationship. The approach to take is twofold:


1. Make sure that the lion’s share of your communication is positive.

If you’re a numbers person, you might think in terms of a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative exchanges. This might include sharing your day-to-day experiences, engaging in conversations about common hobbies or things you both enjoy, and taking an interest in what’s going on in your partner’s life. We can show appreciation not just in words, but also in a show of body language, touch and making love.

2. And when it's not, learn how to deliver a complaint skillfully and sensitively.
Because let me tell you: much of the time, the blame game underlies most common relationship challenges. The key is to communicate your needs in terms of you, not by finger pointing.

When our partner is quick to criticize (and does so frequently), we may experience a sense of destructive fallout. You may find yourself reacting in some of the following ways:

  • You detach and pull away: If you assume you’re going to hear a litany of all the things wrong with you when you spend time with your partner, you’re likely to find ways to withdraw and shut down. This can have detrimental effects on your sex life: if you’re feeling constantly castigated by your partner, the last thing you want is to be more exposed to them, or to give them pleasure.
  • You counterpunch: When you feel like you’re always wrong in your partner’s eyes, you build up a wall of resentment. You’re also likely to feel the need to defend yourself, so you start to take note of all the things they’re doing wrong. You develop your own list, and you have it at the ready to call out your partner’s own flaws and shortcomings.
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Over the years that I’ve worked with couples, I’d say the most common "problem" I've diagnosed is that one or both members of the couple doesn't feel valued by their partner. And that's why I invite you to take what I'll call the 30-Day Relationship challenge, a simple practice to cultivate gratitude and appreciation for your partner.

The Rules Of The Game:

Given that it takes practice to form a new habit, consider the following "rules" ...
  1. Once a day, ask yourself this: What is it about my partner’s actions, words, or behavior that makes me feel grateful?
  2. Then once a day, ask yourself this second question: What can I do to show my appreciation?
Now do this every day, for 30 days. Try asking these questions as if through your partner's eyes. For example, if my partner were going to please me, he’d take me to dinner. If I wanted to do something for him, I’d cook something wonderful. What you give, in other words, should be something your partner would actually appreciate, because the gift is for them, not you.

The Benefits:

Although we focus on our partner during this practice, we benefit too. In 2009, researchers at the National Institutes of Health looked at blood flow in different regions of the brain while the subjects of their study were expressing gratitude. The researchers noticed higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, which controls body functions but also has a significant influence on metabolism and stress level. They also found that the neurotransmitter dopamine (the feel-good chemical) increased when the study participants expressed gratitude.

For some of us, criticism seems to come more naturally. We see what doesn’t work more readily than what does. But you can train yourself away from this seemingly automatic way of being. I did it: For years, my husband would spend an afternoon at work in our garden. At the end of the day, I didn’t see the planted veggies, the new flowerbeds, or the pruned trees. I saw the hose he hadn’t put away. Finally, I realized how skewed my vision was and was able to celebrate all the work he’d done, not the one thing he’d overlooked.


The good news is this: we can teach ourselves to notice what’s good and working well in our connection with other people. When we express our appreciation for those good qualities, we can even bring back some of those delicious feelings of amazement and luckiness that
we felt when we first fell in love.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

Is Your Ex REALLY A Narcissist?

“My boyfriend is a narcissist. That’s why we broke up,” says Amy, case closed.

“My ex-wife has a borderline personality. That’s why we aren’t together,” says Jake, and no one asks if he had any part in the demise of the marriage.

“My brother is a sociopath,” says Todd. “That’s why our joint business venture was doomed.” End of discussion.

Linda on Narcissism

More and more, I hear people sum up failed relationships by using clinical terms like the ones above. I’ve noticed, too, a myriad articles in blogs and magazines that advise us to get out of relationships if our partner fits one of these tags.


It’s true that some people are deeply affected by what are called “personality disorders.” That being said, it remains highly unlikely that your ex can legitimately be labeled as a narcissist, a borderline personality, or a sociopath, even at his or her worst.


That’s because the way we act when we’re in the middle of a difficult time in a relationship is never the basis of such a diagnosis. Our emotional and psychological makeup consists of a continuum: at one end lies aspects of our personality which surface under stress. At the other end is our underlying
condition, that is, the organizing principle of our personality both in good times and bad, during periods of calm and under stress, whether we’re in a state of well-being or trauma.

It takes a long time to observe the complex series of symptoms that constitute a psychological condition and arrive at a legitimate diagnosis. So why has it become the vogue for so many unhappy partners to toss around these very serious and complicated labels?


When we’re hurt in a relationship, it’s tempting to make the other person the problem and to select evidence and events that diminish their credibility and value. This tactic may even have the temporary effect of making us feel better.
If we slap a label on our ex, what went wrong is a “slam dunk.” The certainty with which we come to this conclusion short-circuits any pain we might suffer, and shields us from our sense of loss. Most of all, we can duck out on seeing our part in the unraveling.

So let’s examine a few of these labels, and re-consider how we are using them:


1.
Narcissist
"Narcissist" is probably a label we hear most frequently, and is one that is also frequently misused. Let's start with an example ...

Meg, who always thought of herself as somewhat sickly, mildly attractive and “reasonably intelligent” (but not startlingly so), blossomed at 32. Her career as an editor in a yoga magazine suddenly was flourishing, and her fitness achievements and radical health improvements made her a sought-after blogger and speaker. As someone whose self-estimation had always been “just OK,” she was deeply excited by her new achievements.


Her old friends, meanwhile, began to notice how she tended now to focus on her accomplishments and her long list of admirers. They saw her less in person and more on social media, where she constantly posted selfies of herself in amazing yoga posse. Was Meg a narcissist? Or was she just going through a transition period, which caused her to be especially self-centered?


True narcissists are the loneliest people on the planet. Unable to connect with and claim their actual strengths and positive qualities, they rely almost entirely on how others see them or her to achieve a sense of self. Their moods tend to swing between the ecstasy of grandiosity and the agony of deficiency.


Most of us can relate to
some of the characteristics that define a narcissist. We may even exhibit narcissistic traits or qualities for extended periods of time. A true narcissist, however, maintains this defining attitude always, because he or she knows no other way.

2. Sociopath

Here’s another example of how another label can get misused. Christine found out that her partner, Manny, had been dating her best friend for months behind her back. Enraged, she threw his clothes on the lawn, reported his cheating to his sister, and on impulse posted a photo on Facebook of the two traitors kissing on a running trail.

So is Megan a sociopath? Or was she temporarily blinded by anger and pain and did things she would later regret? A true sociopath lacks empathy
all the time, and often is often actively contemptuous of other people’s suffering.

To receive such a diagnosis, a person has to have:

  1. Exhibited a lifelong history of deceitfulness for personal profit and pleasure;
  2. Behaved aggressively toward others without regret; and
  3. Shown a lack of remorse for the harm they have caused.

3. Borderline Personality

Likewise, borderline personality disorder is not simply a synonym for your ex-wife, who you think is punishing you by changing her mind about when you can have the kids, or by sending you mixed messages about her residual feelings for you.

The main feature of BPD is an ongoing pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and emotions. A person with this disorder is impulsive, often self-injurious, and often has a history of self-cutting and suicide attempts. Such a person lives with a frantic need to avoid real or imagined abandonment and expresses chronic feelings of emptiness and emotional instability, even during periods of calm and well-being.

Recall those times when you’ve been at your angriest while interacting with your partner: would you like to have had a video camera record your responses in that state? Probably not. Would your behavior indicate that you’re a person with BPD? Again, probably not.

Typically, personality disorders are diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Even family doctors are not trained to make a diagnosis, let alone upset friends and family.

So please: let’s stop flinging around labels that most of us are fortunate enough not to fit.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

Why Falling In Love Makes People Crazy

Human beings possess two distinct and opposing instincts: the desire to merge with another and the need to remain an individual. Both are vital. Just as an infant and mother bond, newly joined lovers tend to become immersed in their intense feelings for one another, and feel a magnetic draw to attach themselves to each other.

Falling in Love
And, just as the infant must one day push against her mother to become herself, we, too, need to eventually create boundaries in our relationships, and make sure to preserve the edges of our individuality. Particularly at the beginning of a relationship, during the so-called "honeymoon phase," pushing our lovers away is the last thing we want to do. We want to stay in what I call the “merge cycle” — and why wouldn't we? It feels so magical.

Some lovers try to stay inside the love bubble as long as they can by creating their own private culture. They invent a language of their own that nobody else can understand. They share jokes with punch lines that are funny only to them. Within the perceived safety of the bubble, their merge feels at once total and eternal. It was in just such a bubble that film star Ingrid Bergman and her husband, Peter Lindstrom, named their daughter Pia, with the three letters standing for Peter, Ingrid, Always. Alas, the marriage fell apart, but Pia's name remained a reminder of love's possibilities and its fragility — always.

Of course, not everyone experiences the “urge to merge.” Some people never feel it at all. Or they enjoy an initial hit of ecstasy that quickly dissipates. Some people enter love slowly, with a friendship that gradually leads to an intimate partnership — one that may or may not be spiced with romance. Others choose a partner because they feel that “it's just time,” which may coincide with the accelerating ticking of the biological clock.

Still others focus on similarities based on ethnicity, race, religion, education, class and life goals. Indeed, in many cultures, selecting a mate has little or nothing to do with falling in love. Nonetheless, so much of our culture — songs, movies, fairy tales, novels — leads us to believe that idealized love is the norm. We await the hero or heroine who will kiss us awake.

A Kind of Madness
This first stage of love has been chronicled for as long as human beings have been on the planet. We hear most often of "lovesickness," a series of anxiety-related symptoms brought on by the intense changes associated with falling in love. Ibn Sina, tenth-century physician and father of modern medicine, viewed obsession as the principal cause of lovesickness.

We now know that he was right. The biochemical changes that take place in new lovers produce symptoms similar to in
those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, including loss of appetite and sleeplessness. Ah, and how well we know the signs of obsession ... Fantasies of the beloved fill our days and crowd our nights; when we're apart, we feel incomplete. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also leads to constant chatter about the missing object of affection. This fixation and preoccupation are what others find tiresome about the love-struck. People roll their eyes and think us temporarily insane. Which, of course, we are.

In 1979 psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term limerence to describe this temporary state of madness and described the conditions associated with it:
  • Overestimation of the good qualities of the beloved (and minimization of the negative)
  • Acute longing for the object of one's affection
  • Feelings of ecstasy in the presence of the loved one
  • Deep mood swings from ecstasy to agony and back again
  • Involuntary, obsessive thinking about the other
  • Deep agony when the relationship ends
The list reminds me of an old client of mine named Stu, a recovering alcoholic. Once, he told me an anecdote about the first time he got drunk at age fourteen. “We had beer and wine hidden in the trunk and pulled the car over to try it,” he described, “My friends took their time, but the moment I took my first drink I was hooked. I passed out that night and got really sick, and yet still couldn't wait to have another drink. The sun would rise and the longing set in. I craved the next drink the way my friends longed for a girlfriend.”

It startled me to hear how his words could have just as easily described what it feels like to fall in love with another person. “I just had to have it,” meaning alcohol and "I just had to have him or her" do not seem very far apart.

The reason for this is simple, if a bit surprising: new lovers do have much in common with addicts. Magnetic resonance imaging reveals that
the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that is activated in lovers, is the same part that lights up in cocaine users and gamblers when they act out their addiction.

This recent discovery brings to mind the old adage: magic is science not yet understood. What we do know, however, is that the craving associated with romantic love is very real. Greek mythology provides us with imaginative and amusing ways to describe the felt intensity of romantic love. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, had a son named Cupid. His job, as an archer, was to dip arrows into his mother's secret love potion before he took aim. Once Cupid's arrow hit its target, the victim fell madly in love with the next person he or she saw.

This myth has given rise to some of the most extraordinary love legends of all time, including those of Apollo and Daphne, Helen of Troy, Antony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet. We now know that the “hit” of romance can be partially explained by biochemistry. Science tells us that the pounding heart that leaves us breathless, trembling, and longing to be with our beloved signifies an overabundance of particular chemicals and hormones in the brain and blood, including PEA (phenylethylamine), a natural amphetamine also found in chocolate and marijuana.

As they float on a sea of PEA, lovers report more sensational and adventurous sexual experiences than they've ever enjoyed before, such as “mile-high sex” and a heightened pleasure in sensory qualities that might normally be a turnoff. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, once wrote to Josephine, “I’m coming home. Please don't wash.”

As if a generous shot of PEA weren't enough, the love cocktail is also
spiked with endorphins, which boost pleasure and decrease pain, and oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and cuddling. This cocktail infuses us with euphoria and extraordinary energy, which is why sleep and nourishment seem unimportant. Our perspective becomes so skewed that we see only what is good and beautiful in our lover; we're blind to all else.

To fall in love is arguably a passive process . For love to last is not. Long-lasting love results from the necessary work that two people do — the self-work, primarily —
to create a strong, durable partnership over time.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.