As strange as it may seem, adult romantic love surprisingly mirrors the infant’s love of their mother (or primary caregiver).
These glaring resemblances are important to understand because our earliest experiences of love are prototypical ones that strongly influence how we define and recognize our current experiences of love. This includes how we expect to be loved, and how we express love to others, especially those closest to us. Put simply, we want to repeat our good experiences of love and avoid the bad ones.
The Uncanny Similarities
Both infant-mother and romantic relationships are passive-dependent forms of love. Each one relies upon external sources, “moms and lovers,” for feelings of well-being. Clearly, the physical and emotional welfare of a child hinges upon the quality of care provided by their mother. A lover also looks to another, their romantic partner, as a primary source of emotional well-being and physical gratification. In both cases, the power to gratify is vested in someone outside ourselves.
Perhaps the deepest taproots of romantic love can be found in our earliest experiences floating in the warm amniotic paradise of our mother’s womb. Here, every creature comfort was indulged, there was no asking, negotiating, or compromise needed. We did nothing, and our needs were met. This was our first “intimate” relationship. Do you think at some level we may all harbor deep cravings to repeat these passive, need-gratifying experiences? Don’t we sometimes expect it?
Likewise, for partners in the throes of romantic love, needs are often easily met as lovers eagerly bend over backward to please one another. Initially, their relationship can feel veritably effortless, as though it were on autopilot.
Not surprisingly, in couple’s therapy, partners frequently voice their desires to return to the romantic phase of their relationships. They say such things as, “At the start of our relationship, we were so happy and passionate. We got along so well and didn’t have to work as hard at our relationship.” Again, this evinces a yearning, or how we might even expect, to repeat our earlier experiences of love, both romantic (and intrauterine).
Both relationships are enmeshed. An infant, or small child, has only a vague sense of emotional identity apart from their mother. There’s a convergence of emotional selves—if my mother is happy, so am I; if my mother is happy with me, I am happy with myself; but if she’s unhappy, especially with me, I feel bad.
The emotional borders between lovers are equally blurry, under the heated torch of romantic passion, emotional identities weld together. Because of this emotional fusion, if my partner is happy, I am happy. Emotionally, we don’t always know where our partner begins and where we end. In this way, both infant-mother and romantic relationships are emotionally symbiotic.
Both relationships are idealized. Surely, in the case of the infant and small child, the mother is perceived as omnipotent, and infallible. She may even seem god-like as she wields her authority doling out rewards and punishments in a manner that fuels a perception of power and flawlessness. Everything she does is right, nothing she does is ever wrong.
Similarly, lovers place one another on a high pedestal. They inflate each other’s positive attributes thus blinding themselves to their lesser qualities. Idealized partners take on a power to bestow upon each other meaningful rewards and punishments. Moreover, isn’t bonding more easily and deeply achieved with an idealized partner?
La Joie de Vivre!
Both relationships enliven us! In every way, the mother breathes life into her child. As her resources, especially her emotional provisions, are made available, the child’s development unfolds optimally. The mother’s nurturing ministrations, her caring touch, gaze, and softness impart life, purpose, and meaning into the child’s emerging sense of themself.
A fetus has a relatively brief gestation period of nine months that abruptly ends upon the child’s birth, “paradise lost.” Likewise, infancy and childhood come with their own “term limits.” As the child develops, their dependency evolves, both emotionally and practically, as greater autonomy and self-sufficiency are taken aboard. In other words, the child’s needs that were previously managed almost the moment they were activated by a “good enough mother,” are now increasingly the responsibility of a separating and maturing individual.
And doesn’t peak romance have its time limits as well? Most of us know the splendors of a hot romance are virtually unsustainable. In fact, Zick Rubin, in his book, Liking and Loving, convincingly argues that the only way to maintain romance is by frequent, or prolonged separation. It’s easier to keep a positive romantic image of one’s partner when they aren’t always there. However, romance cries out for togetherness, and yet continued closeness snuffs out romantic passion. In this respect, romance is its own worst enemy; again, paradise has an expiration date.
Child’s Play and Romantic Love
Have you felt the urge to be playful, silly, or giggly with your partner? Many of us speak baby talk, use pet names, or nicknames to convey our feelings to our partners. Love prompts us to say or do things that feel child-like, or immature, but we do it regardless. For many of us have, it can be humorous, fun, even charming, especially when our partners are receptive, or openly invite our childishness. Conversely, it can be inappropriate and irritating when it’s not welcomed.
As we inevitably take our gradual leave of the romantic phase of our relationship, perhaps the most pernicious, infant-or-child-like-dysfunctional-leftover is a lingering tendency to expect our partners to know what we need without telling them. (Shouldn’t our partners know what we need, after all, they love us don’t they?) In their work, Between Give and Take, Boszormenyi-Nagy and Krasner, refer to this as a “non-negotiated demand.” Here it is again, in a new form, this self-entitled and potentially crippling propensity, the regressive tug of our earlier experiences of love.
Short of being a “resident” of our mother’s womb, or being a dependent infant or small child, or, of course, having a real emergency—like blood pulsating from a severed artery—can we legitimately make non-negotiated demands of our significant others? Probably not, especially not regularly, and probably not without some cost. And yet, our earliest expectations of love predispose us to do this very thing.
Does truly being in love, romantic or beyond romantic love, always carry with it these atavistic cravings to be loved in a passive-dependent way?
And is there a place for such longings in mature love? If so, how should they be managed, and if not, how can mature love be achieved despite these deep inclinations.