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.
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: