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The unconscious roots of love

In this month’s blog, Lyn French (A Space, Director) highlights some of the feeling states featured in the recently published A-Z of Emotions, exploring the unconscious roots of love. We are currently developing free worksheets to accompany this new set of emotional learning cards which can be downloaded from the resources section on this site.

February is the month we commonly associate with love. Valentine’s Day has its origins in the Christian tradition of celebrating saints.  According to legend, most probably embellished, St Valentine was imprisoned for performing weddings for Christian soldiers and for tending to their general needs during the time when they were persecuted under the  Roman Empire. 14th February was first linked with romantic relationships in the Middle Ages during  Geoffrey Chaucer’s time. Throughout the Court and within the privileged classes, idealised narratives were constructed around intimate love. Gifts of flowers and exotic sweets representing the pleasure-giving sides of love were – and still are – exchanged. In some countries, St Valentine’s keys are given to potential lovers as a symbolic invitation to unlock their heart.  Today’s cards are usually ‘off the shelf’, featuring hearts, flowers, doves, and of course Cupid, the god of erotic love and desire.

H Larry Achiampong Hateful Loving large

Larry Achiampong Hateful / Loving, The inter-parallel Adventures of Cloud 9, Digital Montage (2014)

It is tempting to view the state of being in love through rose-tinted lenses. The concept of love at first sight plays on the tantalising fantasy that we each have a soul mate awaiting our discovery. We may well recognise something in the other that draws us to them but it might have more to do with unconscious pulls than who the person really is. We are shaped by our early experiences in the family which create an internal template for future relationships.  The qualities in a potential lover which so overwhelmingly catch our undivided attention may be mostly physical however this too can echo early attachment figures.   The way a person stands, the tilt of their head, their hand gestures, the sound of their voice, their speech patterns, the way they move and so on may invoke unconscious, archaic memories of a parent or carer or even a sibling.

The hidden roots of love lie deep in the mind and our experiences in the family inform how we relate to others.  This is not as simple as unconsciously seeking out someone who resembles our mother or father. We all carry emotional wounds and unresolved conflicts for which we seek healing and resolution. Selecting a mate or partner is tied up with this. Without being aware of it, we may choose someone with whom we can enter into a dynamic resembling the kind of verbal and non verbal communication which marked our relationship with a significant other in childhood. We search out someone whom we can position in a particular way in order to re-enact specific scenarios often with the aim of stage-managing a different ending.

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Shiraz Bayjoo Controlled Digitised collage, acrylic ink on paper with archival photograph (2014)

However, as Freud first realised, this kind of ‘repetition compulsion’ doesn’t work.  We repeat in order to try to master past emotional traumas by re-creating them but it is almost impossible to re-write the script. Instead, we repeatedly find ourselves in a version of the same situation, arriving at the same endpoint.  Another reason we unconsciously seek out the known is because the familiar is so comforting and non-threatening. The new, representing uncertainty and risk, is harder to embrace. Even when we consciously try to break with the past by choosing the opposite type of person from our mother or father, we usually find that this still binds us to our original attachment figure: we are, in this instance, locked in an on-going reactive positive rather than moving on.  We are, in a sense, fighting against a parent, trying to be completely different from them but this oppositional position still bind us to them. Recognising patterns such as these but being unable to break away from them is what motivates many to see a therapist.   It is difficult to be completely free of the emotionally potent experiences of infancy and early childhood. As we develop self-awareness, we begin to be more adept at recognising when internal relationship models are reasserting themselves.

Larry Achiampong’s
image depicting Hateful / Loving (above) features a quote from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest:

Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service…

This captures the power of instant attraction which itself can be understood as a form of primal recognition. We see something in the other that unconsciously resonates and the emotionally charged feelings of love are immediately idealised.  The love object is elevated and worshipped.  But once we begin a relationship, none of us can keep the object of our intense love on a pedestal, nor can we stay up there either.  Real love is complicated, messy, ambiguous, ambivalent, and ideally, acts as a spur to getting to know ourselves better.  We may yearn to recreate the unconditional love we experienced as children or to have for the first time a kind of love we feel we missed out on in infancy but it is not possible to achieve this form of primal love later in life.  The idea of being ‘twinned’ with another, with all of our needs known and met by a primary other, never having to be alone, is a powerful one even though we may know it is unrealisable. We can never know another completely nor can we be wholly known ourselves, even to ourselves.  We accompany each other through life using each other to learn from and with.

However, most of us find this hard to accept and may try to control the other, trying to manoeuvre them into fulfilling our wishes.  In common with the military figure in Shiraz Bayjoo’s image illustrating Controlled (above), it is tempting to try to get the upper hand in relationships so that we can ‘order’ the other to be and do what we want.  How much energy do we expend silently fighting for the dominant position in our relationships?  What is at risk if we let go of control?  Perhaps we are terrified of being overwhelmed by fear, the primal fear that our needs will never be met.

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Shiraz Bayjoo Overwhelmed Digitised collage, acrylic ink on paper with archival lithograph (2014)

Shiraz Bayjoo’s mixed media image entitled Overwhelmed* features a ship being tossed about in a storm. Maybe this symbolises how wary we can be of finding ourselves at the mercy of powerful forces if we don’t stay in control.

Letting go and ‘letting be’ is a common mantra. However living this way is more difficult than we might imagine.  We need to strike a balance between mindfully navigating our way through the vicissitudes of life and being open to the unexpected or the unexplored.  Aiming to hold a steady course while remaining curious and flexible may seem contradictory but it sums up the art of living well.

*Shiraz Bayjoo’s residency ‘Ile de France’ is currently on display at Iniva within the Education Space and continues until 14th February. A limited print version on his image ‘Overwhelmed’ has been produced and is on sale at Rivington Place or on Iniva’s website

Written by Jenny Starr