Unhealthy Love Life Experience and Mental Illness
Your love life started the day you were born. You start learning about love relationships in the relationships with family members usually beginning with your mother. That learning takes place unconsciously, meaning, you don’t know that you’re learning and you don’t know what you’re indeed learning. Nevertheless, what you’ve learned becomes the mental “blueprint” that controls what you’ll experience in your love life.
As a psychologist and psychoanalyst I have been studying, treating, and teaching about the unhealthy love relationship for more than 30 years now. I have come to the unequivocal conclusion that the origin of mental illness can be found in a person’s experience of love starting from the beginning of life. The love relationships we participate in, first in our families of origin, then in the world beyond the family, have a lasting impact on our experience of love in our lives. Unhealthy relationship experiences are the true cause of mental illness.
Over time I have come to the realization that how we are related to while in the experience of love will determine how we will feel about ourselves and others, sometimes tragically, for a lifetime. With this kind of acknowledged importance, why aren’t love and love relationships a more serious and dedicated topic of research? The stigma that love research is unscientific, too emotional, or beyond the application of science is still around. The way in which the history of psychoanalysis has dealt with this topic is a case in point. Starting with Freud’s avoidance of love and the interpretation of love life experience in the limited terms of energy dynamics, instincts, and sex is the first major disallowance. I believe the true origin of Freud’s avoidance can be found in his own post-trauma experiences in his own family of origin. It appears that Freud’s own learning about love relationships was fundamentally unhealthy and he avoided the topic to remain in control of painful re-experiences and conscious acknowledgements. Unfortunately, we will have to wait for clarification of these personal influences on Freud’s work since information is still being withheld and research refused or largely ignored.
The good news is that persons interested in transforming their disappointing love lives can begin the journey once they become aware of what they have learned about love relationships that is unhealthy. You don’t have to stay under the influence of unhealthy relationship experiences for the rest of your love life. Step 1 is always to identify what is unhealthy in your love life. Usually this starts with an acknowledgment that you are leading a love life ruled by disappointments. Repeating disappointments indicate that you’ve learned something unhealthy and it’s in control of your love life experience. From there, spending a little time figuring out how you’ve been coping with disappointment will bring you to a review of the ways in which you protect yourself from being hurt in love. Love life defenses like trying to love at a physical or emotional distance, using conflict to reduce vulnerability, and avoiding love altogether when it emerges are common defenses. Once love life defenses are honestly and openly acknowledged, they tend to soften and their ability to impede and interfere with identifying what you’ve learned about love relationships lessens.
Challenging what was once unconscious and the cause of disappointment in your love life is the next Step in this process. Our innate ability to stand up to anything we’ve learned that is now in our way is incredible. Once you realize you have this ability, strengthened by the fact that a healthy love relationship is the reward, you can practice keeping what you don’t want in your love life out of your love life.
Step 3 involves making a correction by choosing a healthier alternative which is usually the “opposite” of what you’ve experienced that is recreating trouble in your love life. For example, if you’ve experienced any form of dishonesty in your family relationships growing up or in relationships between family members, perhaps in the form of cheating or lying to manipulate or control, this experience tends to work its way into the adult love life. Realizing that a dedication to honesty in love relationships is not only therapeutic but will dramatically increase the health of your love life, moves your love relationship in a far better direction.
I have witnessed and directly experienced each step in this unlearning process both personally and with patients. The results have been so gratifying that I have dedicated a portion of my practice to treating people interested in changing their unhealthy love lives.
Tell me what you think. All comments are welcome.
Dr. Thomas Jordan, Clinical Psychologist & Psychoanalyst, author of “Learn to Love: Guide to Healing Your Disappointing Love Life.”