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Marcia Sirota Headshot

Do You Love Like an Adult or Child?

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When I observe how people engage in romantic relationships, it seems that they do this in one of two ways: either from the perspective of a child or from that of an adult.

People who pursue love from an adult perspective are looking for companionship, romance, a life partner. They're realistic about what the other person has to offer but they won't settle for less than what will make them truly happy. They understand that while love is enriching and meaningful, it can't make up for what's missing in their lives or be the center of their existence.

The adult who pursues love won't stay in a bad relationship just for the sake of being with somebody and they won't tolerate mistreatment, as they know that this isn't preferable to being alone. An autonomous, self-sufficient adult would rather be alone than with someone disappointing or hurtful.

In an adult relationship, both people are intact, fully-functioning members of society with their own lives and interests. They bring out the best in eachother and feel good about themselves when they're with their partner.

People in adult relationships aren't constantly frustrated with their partner, complaining about them or passive-aggressively leaking anger at them. Adults are willing to work on a relationship that they feel is worth saving, but they're able to walk away when it's clear that it no longer make sense to stay together.

Adults don't cheat. If they're unhappy in their relationship they address the issues directly. If they develop feelings for someone else, they explore what's driving this attraction and then choose either to resist temptation or to end their current relationship. They don't act out in ways that are hurtful to themselves or others.

People who approach love from a child-like perspective, however, have a very different agenda. Rather than looking for romance or companionship, they're unconsciously seeking a solution to emotional wounds and needs which have arisen from past experiences.

When the child part of the psyche is in charge of love, what's driving the pursuit of relationships is the need to fill up an emptiness and compensate for love that was lacking in childhood, or to heal hurts and losses incurred in the past.

In such cases, the agenda of the child within drives bad choices. In one such pattern, the person unconsciously seeks out potential partners who remind them of their (neglectful, rejecting) parent(s) in the false hope that by converting this unavailable or hurtful person into a loving partner, they'll vicariously heal the wounds and meet the needs of the past. This is what Freud called the "repetition compulsion."

Of course, transforming a rejecting, neglectful partner into a loving one is something that mainly happens in the movies or on TV. Even if this partner were to change, it would never heal the wounds of the past or compensate for missing or absent love. These are tasks best done internally, preferably with the help of psychotherapy.

If the partner were to change, the child-like lover would still end up frustrated and disappointed, as their agenda for healing and compensation couldn't be fulfilled. They'd end up resenting their partner and would begin to look elsewhere for the healing and compensation they'd sought in this partner. This is why it's called a compulsion and it's one explanation for the compulsive pursuit of new relationships.

Another way the child comes out in relationships is in the idealization of the romantic partner. Here, the individual projects the qualities of their beloved parent(s) onto their lover, or at least the qualities they'd hoped for in their parent(s). Since Mom and Dad were the original love-objects, the child within persists in seeking unconditional love from an ideal mate.

Sadly, the idealized person is soon discovered to be a normal, imperfect individual whose love can never be as unconditional as that of a parent. The disappointed child-driven partner will reject the once-idealized mate for having fallen short of their expectations, even though otherwise, they might have been very compatible.

The search for perfection in a partner is another way the child is manifest in supposedly adult relationships. In this scenario, the person will accept only the most beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, charismatic and well-connected of partners. Even if such an individual were found, the child-driven lover would soon start looking for someone else.

The compulsion to be with a better and better partner is driven by the child's false hope that the "perfect" one is out there for them and that if they keep trying, eventually they'll find this person. All this does is propel the child-like lover through multiple dates or brief relationships. These individuals are left deeply disillusioned because they're operating under the illusion that perfection in a partner is both possible and desirable.

The most unfortunate way the child within drives the pursuit of relationships is in how a person will stop at nothing and tolerate just about anything in order to have a partner. This child-driven individual is so convinced of their need for someone that they broadcast their desperation to every unscrupulous low-life out there.

These people end up with predators who treat them badly, but they'll stay in the relationship for as long as the partner is willing to keep things going. In fact, they'll often attempt suicide if their partner breaks up with them. Alternatively, as soon as the previous relationship has ended, these people will immediately enter into a new relationship with whoever will have them.

They're constantly unhappy in love but are wrongly convinced that they'd be worse off alone. They're unaware of their adult power, resilience and self-sufficiency, and don't see themselves as capable of tolerating rejection or being happy on their own.

If you recognize yourself in the latter group or if your relationships resemble any of the dysfunctional ones described above, your love-life might be driven by the child within as opposed to your adult self.

If this is so, a good resolution for the New Year would be to finally attend to the unmet needs and unhealed wounds that are driving these counter-productive patterns of behaviour.