My Mummy Valentine

Are today’s lovers seeking romance, or what their parents didn’t give them?

Here’s hoping you remembered this Valentine’s Day to hop out and buy those chocolate hearts and dozen roses for the significant other. It’s also a good time to remind yourself what professionals in today’s love business think those tokens really represent.

Love, according to most couples therapists today, is the product of our parents’ dysfunctions, our childhood wounds providing the very stuff of attraction. There are differing schools, but whether your love counselor talks about “love maps” or “imagos,” almost all now agree that what we call “romance” is actually a wounded subconscious looking for someone who will treat (or mistreat) it more or less the way our parents did. Having re-created our childhood heaven or hell, the subconscious tries to wrest from this substitute the love it needs.

A typical case might go like this: Mary’s father was an absent parent, a workaholic whose long hours at the office allowed him to avoid Mary’s domineering mother. When Mary meets John, who avoided his own overbearing, constantly squabbling parents by never leaving his room, she falls hard. Her subconscious has recognized John’s emotional unavailability, and sees the chance finally to conquer her dad’s affections.

For his part, John subconsciously feels that Mary, practiced as she is in trying to get the attention of her father, will break through his emotional wall and give him the aggressive love he craves. “We want wholeness from the person who won’t give it, but the subconscious is willing to work with a reasonable facsimile,” says Harville Hendrix, founder of the Institute for Imago Relationship Therapy in Orlando, Fla. Hendrix’s book Getting the Love You Want, published in 1988, is now in its 37th paperback printing.

Romantic love is the initial phase, which bonds us to the one who will reopen our deepest wounds. “There’s a spurious quality to the romantic phase,” says Helen Hunt, Hendrix’s wife and colleague. “There’s a trick in there.” Our conscious mind swoons for the stranger we feel we’ve known forever (we have: it’s Mom or Dad). We coo and use baby names; we bathe in our love’s attention; we display our domestic and romantic talents; we charm everything in sight, basking in our newfound favored-child role.

Romance, however, inevitably ends. Instead of conquering her past, Mary finds herself frustrated by John’s distance, just as she was by her father’s. She yells, and John reacts by burrowing further into his privacy. Both are as powerless to get sufficient love from their parental substitutes as they were from the originals. “The person of your dreams is really the person of your nightmares,” says Hendrix.

Understandably, some thinkers find this view a bit bleak. Deepak Chopra, who has entered the field with a new book called The Path to Love, believes romantic passion is a liberating glimpse into an eternal realm. Anthropologists, on the other hand, have been telling us for years that love is an animal drive for ample reproduction. Blitzed during romance with endorphins, our conscious self becomes a slave to our glands. The rest of it, from chocolate hearts to whole libraries of literature, is mere cultural encrustation. “Infatuation is something we share with all mammals,” says Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher. “If we could talk to foxes and chimpanzees, I’m sure they would say they undergo much the same thing.”

But Fisher’s pragmatism and Chopra’s pure spirituality address mostly why we love and not, as therapists must, why we love whom we do. Nor do they shed much light on why, when the romantic phase ends, the disturbance is enough to rip apart half of all marriages. Darwinists might answer that the strong need stay together only long enough to get the next generation safely on its way.

Hendrix argues that Nature is not half so cruel. “We are the part of Nature that is the most wounded,” says Hendrix, “and Nature provides us a healing process.” Since none of our parents were perfect beings, we all burn with some childhood anger. In her scrupulous efficiency, Nature recycles this energy, using it to attract our mates. The horrible disillusionment that follows is only the beginning of the healing: Our resentments can be overcome if we can recognize their true source and stop expecting salvation from our partner. Those who find this satisfaction report a spiritual uplift that connects them with the greater universe.

So deep is this urge to find our healing partner, Hendrix believes, that it has history-driving force. “The evolution of the psyche has been toward the freedom to choose this person,” he says, and away from hierarchies that put restrictions on whom we may marry. “It’s been a force in the move toward democracy.”

None of this is easy to work into Hallmark verse, but (Hendrix’s historical imperative aside) this paradigm of love has been infiltrating the mainstream. To a nation increasingly populated by victims, the notion that we’re all acting out the “injustices” of childhood seems particularly apt. “Every decade has its own definition of love,” notes Peggy Penn of the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York. “In the ‘50s we believed in a big, powerful romantic love that would take you right through life.” In the ‘70s, instant intimacy was the rage. When things didn’t work out, the lover left that person and tried another set of vulnerabilities that might mix better. Divorce skyrocketed. “If you got stuck with the wrong person,” says Martin Grebel, a clinical psychologist in New London, Conn., “the answer was, don’t stay with them.”

By the mid-1980s, Grebel points out, “reality began to break down the illusion that the good life was in the next relationship. People saw that all of this wasn’t dispensable.” Seeing patients encounter identical troubles with each new involvement, Hendrix says, he realized that “divorce was an experiment that had failed.” He traces the ideas in his book, begun in 1984, to a long series of conversations with his wife, but the portrait of love it drew only codified a growing consensus among his colleagues. Says Hendrix, in the lovely noun-is-a-verb-is-a-noun vernacular of therapists, “We were the languagers of an emergent idea.”

It took the rest of us a few years to catch on, but a number of social accidents–the rise of homes dependent on two incomes, AIDS, the children of divorce swearing not to follow their parents–have apparently convinced couples to stop running from their histories and to work with what they have. We have become perhaps the most highly educated generation of lovers in history. Therapists report feeling compelled to read Hendrix’s best seller simply because all their patients already have.

All this has put Cupid on the verge of a comeback. For decades, romantic love, or “the love illusion” as professionals call it, has been suspect, and many therapists, like Grebel, still blame our culture for supporting the “frail hopes and fantasies” of romance. “It’s hard to escape all that pathology,” Grebel says. “But that’s not real love.”

And yet, if we are to come to terms with our childhood hurts, we must fall in love with our parental substitutes. Real love, says Hendrix, is only born in the midst of the power struggle that romantic love ushers in. Accordingly, therapists have learned to talk about romance’s positive side. “Romantic love has an enormous imaginative power. Make hay while the sun shines,” says Penn, admitting that she probably would not have made those kinds of statements only a few years ago. “Go with your heart,” echoes Hendrix. The alternative, he says, “might be a love without passion.”

And on Valentine’s Day, it might mean going without those little chocolate hearts.