Infatuation... we're in love with it! Millions of men and women live in anxious hope of experiencing it as soon as possible... and over and over again... if necessary. Come to think of it, infatuation has become a popular model for love itself, and at this very moment, infatuation fever is directing the most critical intimate choices of an enormous sub-culture of singles.
But wait! Before you rush to your next rapture, consider some of the following viewpoints on this most popular of all feeling states. Think about what it really is to be infatuated.
Plainly, the word itself is officially defined as a kind of affliction. In common parlance, infatuation is known as "being a fool for love". Most of us recognize it as a state in which a person's normal ability to think clearly and act rationally are flung aside with suspicious eagerness.
Desire focuses on a particular someone and suddenly nothing matters but that compelling attraction. The dictionary strongly suggests that the overt result of infatuation is a reduction in mental capacity. A frequent synonym given for infatuation is "folly", predicting grave consequences to follow from stupidity resulting from fixated passion.
Sounds ominous. Nonetheless, there must be something about infatuation that accounts for the hold it has over our imaginations... and our choices. Most of us know the feelings of infatuation from direct personal experience.
Certainly we've all been introduced to Love Fever through stories told in pajama party whispers, fairy tales, the anguished confidences of dear friends, through cartoons and fine literature, B-movies and cinematic art, TV sitcoms and soap operas, and romantic novels. Wherever and however reported, though, the sensate phenomenon are remarkably similar.
Infatuation Phase I: Stricken!
The first act in the life of an infatuation is that magic moment when someone suddenly takes on "special" meaning for us.
You hear a phrase or a particular inflection in someone's voice that strikes a chord in your heart. You are struck by the exact tilt of his head. You are warmed by a gaze or an unexpected tenderness. An intriguing remark goes straight to your soul. Or, perhaps from a respectable distance, you notice legs or skin or hair (or a more private physical trait) to die for. Lightning has struck.
Infatuation Phase II: Intrusive Thinking
After the bolt of lightening comes a storm of intrusive thinking about the desired one.
Every experience you now have seems interwoven with their qualities, every shared moment weighted with new meaning. When apart from them, you review and relish each moment spent in their presence and ruminate on their flavor. In fact, many infatuation informants report spending 80 to 100 percent of their time compulsively trying to crystallize the vision of their new love, living in vigilant expectation of the next contact.
Infatuation Phase III: Idealization
Early in the intrusive thinking phase, idealization sets in. The erotic sizzle permeates everything and creates that famous halo with which we love to blind ourselves. For a while, the infatuee sees no flaws in the beloved and admits to no blocks to forward progress.
Infatuation Phase IV: The Emotional Rollercoaster
From this high intensity anticipation comes the primary emotional dynamic of infatuation: an exquisite combination of hope and uncertainty which has funded libraries of poetry.
At this point, life becomes that famous rollercoaster ride: precious moments of delightful reciprocity (real or imagined) followed by agonizing doubts of ultimate success. Infatuation is now more consciously driven by simple fear. In fact, The Nagging Fear of Not Getting What You Have Begun to Desire is the unique torment reserved for the infatuated elite.
This pattern of human experience is as well-documented as any emotional experience has ever been. You can find poignant elaborations on the process incised upon clay tablets, etched in marble, painted on papyrus, fixed in celluloid, playing on the radio, and filtering through the voices all around you. It is a famous and favorite form of anguish.
But how can something so uncomfortable be so irresistible?
Science Has An Answer For Infatuation!
Research has confirmed the existence of an amphetamine-like chemical which is rapidly activated (like lightning!) when we begin to feel attracted to someone. This chemical is called phenylethylamine (PEA), that famous substance that makes laboratory rats press levers until they drop dead from exhaustion.
Diane Ackerman, author of The Nature of Love and A Natural History of the Senses, describes PEA as a "molecule that speeds up the flow of information between nerve cells", whipping the brain into a frenzy of excitement, sending ordinary attraction into overdrive and providing the assertive oomph! needed to take social risks and overcome any obstacles to mating. We can consider this a well-designed molecule from the point of view of species survival.
But... some other researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute claim to have discovered that PEA has a tendency to pave the way for that peculiar contemporary disorder, The Relationship Addiction. They point out that this internally-generated infatuation drug acts a lot like speed. Some people (and a lot of rats) not used to the rush begin to crave it.
In other words, some people are always infatuated, but not necessarily with the same person, and not long enough to develop a relationship that makes them really happy or leads to lasting happiness.
Is this what it means to be A Fool For Love? A Fool for Phenylethylamine? By many indications, once we are pierced by the arrow of attraction, the biologically compelling quality of infatuation insures for many people a helpless emotional state.
Psychology Has An Answer for Infatuation!
Biological models explain a lot about the "how" of infatuation, the mechanism governing the actual phenomenology of love foolishness. The social sciences have a lot to tell us about the "why". Why this particular man, why that woman?
Naturally, Freud would have said that it is all in your head. What else? His most profound contribution to modern thought was to show us the extent to which our behavior, especially our love behavior, is guided by unconscious processes. He might further have emphasized that we are attracted (compelled?) to experience specific relationships in an attempt to meet intimacy needs shaped in our earliest years, with our first love objects: Mom and Dad. (Just the basic meat and potatoes of attraction dynamics, folks!)
Carl Jung popularized the idea that opposites attract, and for very good reasons. He theorized that we are unconsciously drawn to those who exhibit qualities we find lacking - or somehow undeveloped - in our own psyches and that we always seek to complete or balance ourselves somehow through intimate attachments. In the state of infatuation, then, we are pulled like a moth toward the flame we wish to acquire for our permanent warmth.
The Imago Model of Infatuation
Harville Hendrix, author of Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide For Singles, has one of the best explanations I've heard for why we tend to fall so heavily and helplessly, if sometimes so briefly, into the infatuated state.
He says we each have in our memory banks a highly individual imprint, a mental construct called an imago, in which the best and worst attributes of our earliest caretakers have been crystallized.
The imago we have of our dream lover is like an intimacy template. It influences and filters our perception so that we are particularly attentive and sensitized to those who match our private patterns. This then accounts for the highly specific nature of our infatuations.
Dr. Hendrix thinks we have something like psychic receptor-sites for certain people who evoke highly idiosyncratic responses in us. He argues - as do many others - that we are unconsciously attracted to people who help us recreate early relationship dynamics in the (also unconscious) hope that things will turn out better and we will have a lot more control this time around.
The perception of strong attraction then acts as an internal signal which flips the PEA switch (remember the infatuation drug?). Apparently, such attraction is relatively involuntary, primitively-driven, and seemingly beyond our control. Just like the drug itself.
Good News/Bad News
The deeper we go into this matter, the more infatuation seems to reflect its dictionary definition as the epitome of foolishness. The experience seems to take conscious choice right out of the picture. When we are infatuated with someone - or something - it is as though we become little love robots, biochemical puppets with no will of our own, without a rational thought in our heads! And what is the stupendous pay-off for what seems to be a love offering of mindless surrender?
Answer truthfully, now: How often have you experienced highly erotic and deeply gratifying love-making with someone with whom you were infatuated? How often has the object of your feverish desire turned out to be as you imagined him or her? How many smoldering, day-dreamed passions have actually burst into flame for you?
How many times have you been a Fool For Love only to realize within weeks (if you are lucky) or months that there was no love there, only helpless yearning? How many sunny, companionable days have you actually spent with someone you worshipped and longed to possess? In short, how many times has infatuation worked for you?
The answers to these questions will tell you there is little happiness in infatuation itself, precious little daily satisfaction is possible while we are acting the Fool For Love. That is because the state of infatuation thrives on distance and frustration. It flourishes under difficult circumstances. It is not magnified by consummation and familiarity.
Please note: Infatuation cannot exceed its own expectations. It is the spark and the emotional kindling, not a steady, warming fire. It is an appetizer that makes you anticipate the full banquet. But it will not keep you warm and it will not fill you up.
Infatuation begins as an important emotional signal to point you in the direction of desire and get you moving. But it is not yet love and its impetus will never take the place of thinking about what you want and acting persistently on that intention.
Still and all... there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater!
When all is said and done, we will always want to fall in love with the pull of a potent attraction. We will always want to love infatuation and we will always reserve our right to be a Fool For Love. And that is as it should be. Who does not want to feel moved by the thrill of a profound, mysterious attraction that is able to overpower our ego defenses and cause us to open our soul to another with the impetuosity of a child? The state of infatuation is so powerful that we want infatuation to have a meaning beyond that of a chemically-induced trance phenomenon. And that is possible, but with just one little catch.
In order to make certain that infatuation can fulfill its true role in the natural discovery and growth of love, we have to stay semi-conscious and aware of our choices. Only conscious surrender and sustained attachment can make the original spark of infatuation eventually work to our benefit.
Dana Peach, M.A., M.Ed.
The Authoritative Matchmaker