The Idea of Love
Love. Such a loaded word. No other word in the world has been as upheld and revered. We’ve all read the Bible verse, how does it go again? “Love is patient, love is kind”? Something like that. It’s in our movies, books, childhood memories, and even our dreams! Yet, the thing about love is that it’s one of the simplest things you can fall into. Remember your younger years when you swore you were in love and thought “THIS IS THE ONE”. Only to move on and find another ONE. You see love is easy, anyone can do it. It’s as easy as grabbing your favorite snack and munching down. The difficult part is not overindulging.
Now for the sake of this article I am referring to the love between a couple…or threesome, or whatever the case is for you. I am also talking about love as a verb or an act. You see love isn’t a feeling, it’s actually more like a mashed-up version of many feelings that are based on our beliefs and prior experiences with things such as companionship, respect, affection, and warmth to name a few. It’s more of an experience that we seek based on our preconceived notion of what “love” should be like (more on that later).
But have you ever wondered where the description or concept of love came from for you? From our earliest experiences in our childhood we have all been filled with ideas, thoughts, and beliefs about love. What it should look like, what it should FEEL like, and what it should sound like. Yet, a lot of the mess in our heads about love comes from unrealistic, and excuse my French, “bullshit” fantasies about two imperfect people attempting to be perfect together… Doesn’t make any sense does it? But for many of us the reality is that we have a hard time in our relationships because we come into them with a preset idea about what we heard they should be like. When that doesn’t work out or there’s rough seas ahead, we bail, we jump ship, and we move on. Now, I’m not referring to toxic relationships that puts us in mental or physical harm. I am referring to relationships that involve things like difficulty communicating, personal differences, value differences, affection differences or even those that experience life challenges (economic, loss). These relationships often sink because couples feel hopeless or are not able to let go of the “we should be living happily ever after” idea.
The Curse of Disney Syndrome
As I was writing this article I thought a lot about where my own ideas of love came from. It’s important to note that there are many cultural representations of love that can be damaging or misleading. For this article I am focusing on Disney Syndrome because it’s one of the most prevalent and influential ones. Now I love Disney, I always have and probably always will. Like most people my age I grew up watching Disney movies and going to Disneyland. My room was always decked out with Mickey Mouse décor and most of my birthday parties were Disney themed. Yet, its safe to say that the idea of “Happily Ever After” has in one way or another greatly influenced many people’s misconceptions about love (including myself at one point). You see, there’s a reason why one of Disney’s biggest franchises is the Disney Princess Collection. I am talking huge, like billion dollar industry huge. The Princess franchise alone includes movies, toys, tv shows, clothing, and other products. The concept is simple, although it has changed in recent years (Moana & Brave: Merida), but basically the story goes princess meets a prince and BAM! Her life changes forever. Sure there’s some conflict and some sort of iconic villain like Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) or Ursula (The Little Mermaid), but the point is always the same. The princess finds her Prince Charming and they live in perfect harmony without ever so much as an argument or disagreement. Oh how lovely would life be. I want to introduce you all to what is referred to as “Disney Syndrome”.
It actually sounds like a kinda cute illness doesn’t it? But the truth is that Disney Syndrome is a set of beliefs/values founded on several cognitive distortions. The first one being that people live happily ever after! Umm, I don’t know a single person that is living life a la’ Cinderella after Prince Charming came into the picture. In fact relationship problems are extremely common and many of us can share one or two horror stories about love. Sure some people have done the work and continue to do it, but it didn’t just happen. These people had to put effort into maintaining their relationships on course. Another distortion is that there is one true love. We love many times in our lives, for many reasons. Is there someone we are maybe way more compatible with? Well of course and it’s why it feels so “perfect.” Yet, it doesn’t mean there is magically one person perfectly weaved for us in life. Finally, the distortion that we need saving and that our lives are not complete until we find and get saved by prince charming. We sit on isolation island thinking that someone will come swoop us up and make life magical. But then they get there and we feel even more alone. So, why are these distortions so unhelpful? It’s simple, they set a precedent about what we need to expect or look for in partners. They tell us that if it’s not a fairytale wedding or there’s no evil step mother involved then its not romance. These same distortions often throw relationships off course and into dangerous waters because we cling on to ideas that create unhealthy and unrealistic views for ourselves and our partners.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
You might be asking yourself, “what are cognitive distortions?” Well, in a nutshell they are inaccurate thoughts that reinforce our negative thinking and emotions. These thoughts are so embedded in our cognitive structuring that they shape our outlook and the way we respond to our environment. Cognitive distortions are at the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which includes lots of work in identifying and shifting these types of thoughts. There are actually quite a few types of cognitive distortions and you can read about them here. Below you can also see a small diagram of how the theory of CBT explains the impact of thoughts in our lives.
These thoughts also apply to our view of relationships and how we engage in them. For example you may think “I am not good enough” and this will affect the relationship dynamic by increasing your thoughts of insecurity & jealousy which lead to feelings of anger or sadness. As a result of these feelings and thoughts we may act distant or confrontational with our partners. Identifying these cognitive distortions is not always simple and can take a lot of exploration. This is where individual and couples therapy can be very helpful in strengthening relationships.
Therapy can be a safe space for people to explore their thinking patterns and work on cognitive restructuring (shifting our thought process). Mental health professionals are also trained to help individuals understand themselves better and identify areas for growth. Therapy can seem a little scary or mysterious at first, especially if you have never been, but it’s an investment in ourselves. If it makes sense to go to the doctor when we feel physical symptoms, then it makes sense to see a mental health practitioner when we are struggling or need support emotionally/mentally.
Sink or Swim
If you find yourself going from the love boat to the titanic, then it might be time to consider getting help. Couples are often very private about their issues which can stem from so many things like shame, anger, loneliness, or fear. We’ve put relationships and “happily ever” after so high on a pedestal that when it’s not working out we try to force it. We keep on course and even though the boat is rocking, we keep holding on in silence. Denying the problem or minimizing, however, won’t help. Now I’m not saying going to therapy will magically solve things either, but its an opportunity to explore and collaborate on rebuilding the relationship. It’s also an opportunity to heal and grow together. This doesn’t make it easy though. Therapy is work regardless of whether it’s individual therapy, couples, or family. You can think of therapy as a lifeboat. One that is designed to increase your chances of survival as a couple, but it only works if you two work together and paddle to safety. Sometimes though, therapy can be two lifeboats that help you both move on individually to your next destination.
Luis is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who graduated from Long Beach State University with a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology (2015). He also has a Bachelors's degree in Child and Adolescent Development with an emphasis on Public Policy from San Francisco State University (2011). Luis has over 9 years of experience working with children and families both in education and mental health. Previously, Luis worked for a non-profit agency in San Francisco, CA providing mental health consultation in early head start programs and SFUSD pre-schools. Currently, Luis works at Kaiser in San Francisco providing mental health services.
His therapeutic interests include working with Trauma, the LGBTQ community, Children, Families, Couples, and POC. His personal interests include; Films, Reading, Writing, Art, Travelling, Disney, and Food. He is also a recipient of the California State Stipend award (2015). PsychoSocial is part of Luis' dedication to mental health and an example of his passion to educate others. Luis hopes that through PsychoSocial he will be able to help in the fight to end the stigma around mental illness.