The Search for Romantic Attachment
When we fall in love it’s naturally a romantic experience filled with many overlapping, sometimes confusing, emotions. If the first rush of romance matures and the couple grow together then a long and happy relationship can emerge. On the other hand, if one or both people are drawn out of the relationship once it gets past the romantic stage, then this may be an indication that something else is not yet reached, healed or completed.
In some the search for a primarily romantic relationship can repeat throughout their adult lives, becoming an obsession. This can be distracting and destructive but there are ways of looking at and working on the underlying dynamics that can soften their effect and release the individual into different and more deeply satisfying relationship patterns. This article explores the dynamics behind repetitive romantic searching or obsession and offers fresh paths to resolution.
A search for romantic attachment can emerge in people for a number of different reasons. It is often connected to deep bonds and dynamics in the system, dynamics that are a result of a longing for completion of a damaged or missing bond in the history of the wider relationship system. Think for example of someone who partners or marries young, or those who are partnered in a way that is not of their own volition. In these ‘arranged’ marriages where a partnership with a chosen one was not allowed, the force to find ‘true love’ can be very powerful as they have missed out on the natural experience of falling in love, the romantic phase of a relationship. Even in these circumstances however the search is often also a reflection of a just-out-of-conscious need for completion or connection at a much deeper level.
The search can intensify or escalate when it is unaddressed, to the point that the need for fulfillment is so great that the desire for change may feel overwhelming. This can lead the searcher to connect with another, outside of their normal sphere, in an attempt to engineer the desired change, perhaps in a way that may be dangerous for them and others. The strength of this drive for change may be a useful indicator of the hidden dynamics that lie underneath, just out of sight. These dynamics are often connected to the inclusion of an excluded person, or an unconscious request to be seen, by someone who wasn’t able to fully see the one who searches. The yearning is to attach to someone who sees and acknowldeges them more fully.
Connection in this hyper-romantic way may also happen through mutual wounds that can create a blind spot, where all that is important is connecting through romantic attachment and creating change. While the system is asking to change through what feels like love, this may in fact be a deep systemic loyalty to an emotion that feels like love. But is it the love of the partner that is desired? Or might it be the love or attention of a distant or emotionally unavailable parent or other close ancestor, deeply desired but only rarely or never felt?
Romantic attachment can sometimes be described as blind, idealised love. It can be felt as a deep desire – fascination, addiction or quest. Often it feels like a sacred search and yearning. This is the way of addictions with their roots in the system and so the forces are strong as individuals get caught up in the system’s search for coherence and completion.
Some examples of the most common hidden dynamics in romantic attachment and repetitive searching follow:
Romanticism to a level that affects your ability to live as you would like often occurs as the result of an interrupted bond with a parent, most often the mother but also the parent of the opposite sex.
For example if a woman has difficulty connecting to her father in a way that she can feel that he is truly there for her, mentally, emotionally and through his consistent and benign physical presence, she may develop a longing for an idealised version of him, a ‘knight in shining amour’ who really sees her, connects with her.
In this way she is caught up in an incomplete inner movement towards her father, an uncompleted connection with him, that she keeps trying to bring to a conclusion. Her search for love keeps trying to reach the first man she became aware of but with whom she didn’t get to fully connect or complete with. The unconscious fantasy is of finding Daddy and him holding her safe in his arms. This can lead to avoidance or extreme caution around romantic and intimate relationships or a search for connection through romantic attachment.
So, an intense focus on the early stages of a relationship and the romantic idealisation of another may be as a result of an interrupted bond, and ‘interrupted inner reaching out’ as a child. Reaching out to connect.
In romantic attachment the feeling of being connected with the longed for one is apparently achieved, but the point of connection is lost, not quite reached. The object of desire and romantic ideation is unable, just like the original person or parent, to meet the deep need for completion, to meet the need for attachment and belonging.
An interrupted bond can also be the source of ‘love at first sight’ where people believe they have found someone with whom they have made an instant intimate connection. It may be a look in the eyes, a smile or a movement that the other makes. In either case it is common that this is simply acting as a trigger that reminds them of the person with whom they longed to connect, one that their embodied mind has internalised deeply and for which they search and recognise.
These are examples of interrupted bonds and are just as common in men as in women and can arise not only out of a search for the opposite sex parent but also simply as a result of an interrupted bond with mother, because mother is the first, the primary bond we make as human beings.
To soften the pain and limit the power of the pattern the inner journey needs to be completed and because that may not be possible with the actual person it can be simulated to a level that has a deep impact and begins a healing and reconnection process. Constellations offer a practical way to catalyse this movement and settle the inner yearning and can catalyse the journey that releases the romantic to make more conscious choices.
An example of the inner ‘Life Sentence’ that may be being enacted in this dynamic is: “I’ve been looking to complete with you in all the partners I have dated”.
Examples of releasing ‘Sentences for Life’ that may be co-created between the facilitator and the client of a constellation may be something like this:
“Dear mother/father I have looked for you in all those I have dated. I couldn’t connect with you and I couldn’t connect with them.” Another, later in the process may be along these lines: “Dear mother/father I longed for your connection, your arms around me while I grew. I’ve missed you. Please look kindly on me if I build a relationship with a partner who is available in a way that was not possible for you.”
In common with all the other examples of ‘sentences’ in this article and within this website these are only examples of those that have emerged, been offered and willingly spoken by the participating issue holder, the client, within the constellation. Each is unique and serves the particular context and facts of the specific situation.
“I wonder if men who could not complete with Mom keep trying to finish this, make a connection and get the ‘you are so good to Mom’ resolved in order to be able to move on to a more robust love. There is be an element of the hero here – ‘I can save the day.’ ”
✣ It is hypnotic and people are in a light trance as they search and when they find, that they believe will last forever.
Even though the experience often ends in feelings of isolation and sadness the search begins again.
✣ Senses are heightened and those involved will often exclude others – they are truly ‘in their own world’.
They exclude others in a similar way to a child excluding all else to protect their relationship with their mother.
✣ It is seductive and almost hypnotic and seems to feel as though without it the lover may die.
“We will never separate. This love will last forever. You complete me.”
✣ There is often an element of being in service of the partner at the cost of self.
“I will do anything for you.” Sometimes with a hidden sentence “I am your child”. Or even “Come to me, my child”.
✣ It can carry people to a high place intellectually but is ‘translated’ as a mystical experience full of emotions and ‘true love’.
This ‘heady’ place may become more attractive than emotional and physical connection.
✣ People feel very special and above the world, thinking that only they are the perfect couple.
This may get expressed as “We were destined for each other; we are twin-souls. Only we know what true love is.”
✣ It can be demanding and possessive, smothering and obsessive, sometimes leading to danger and great risk.
The inner sentence may be something like: “I will do anything to sustain this.”
✣ It yearns and longs and so heightens and dramatises situations.
“We must be together soon or I will die.”
✣ It appears to create a sense of unattainable fulfillment but is coupled with a deep sorrow.
Outer sentence: “I love you so much, beyond words.” Inner sentence: “And yet I feel so sad, so tired, so lost.”
If you are struggling with romantic obsession you may also be the one who is key to changing this dynamic into a pattern of completion and fulfillment in yourself and in the wider system.
“We get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
“I yearn for distance and pining; commitment to an idea of someone rather than an actual someone. It’s why I’m a sucker for the epistolary love stories of ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘You’ve Got Mail.’
But, ultimately, romantic penpalship is a deeply flawed model. It creates false intimacy and makes goddesses and gods of mere mortals, only ending in disappointment when you meet each other in the flesh.”
The Sunday Times (November 2016)
An identification means we take on the ‘fate’ or burden of another as though it were our own. Perhaps for example, a mother tells her daughter that she was deeply in love with a man before she was married but she could not, or was not allowed, to fully partner with him. Her daughter identifies with this loss and so suffers with her mother, ‘falling in love’ with unavailable men in a whirl of romantic idealisation. This is an identification with her mother’s fate, one that she is unconsciously entangled with as if trying to alter or heal it, but which results in her making multiple attempts to complete the relationship her mother could not.
If for example a parent or grandparent tells their children or grandchildren about a ‘true love’ that was lost, this event and the story around it can get held in the family psyche, in the family system, which will then entangle later members through unconscious identification, so that the missing member is ‘re-membered.’
The pattern of ‘the perfect one who got away’ repeats in a later generation, passed on to children one or two generations later who ‘willingly’ inhabit that message, language and energy and get repeatedly drawn into long distance or otherwise ‘impossible to reach’ relationships. A descendant makes an unconscious identification with the ancestor and lives their life, in this dimension at least, in an attempt to resolve what was left incomplete and who or what was excluded.
There may be a story around an event or loss with the covert message ‘I was not able to have the love I wanted’.
This can then ricochet down the generations, through the family system and get amplified into a ‘Life Sentence’ for the one who identifies with it. They may then embody and enact something like: “I will never be able to have the love I want.”
Sometimes there is an incompletion dynamic at play. For example, when a child loses a sibling there may be inner life sentences that say “Because you could not complete a full life I will not complete the important things in my own life.”
They may start relationships but be unable to complete them fully. This may be expressed as the romantic ‘damsel in distress’ or the ‘suffering hero’.
If you are identified with a parent or ancestor who couldn’t fully have their partner or lost their first love or partner, the healing will come if you are able to respectfully leave their fate with them and live your own life fully, in honour of them.
If you are entangled in this way you may be carrying an unspoken and just-out-of-consciousness ‘Life Sentence’ like this: “Me too, just like you. I too will suffer nobly and lose the one I love.” In contrast to this kind of self-limiting inner and unconscious commitment to stay identified with someone else, constellations offer the opportunity to speak and then internalise ‘Sentences for Life’. These are spoken by the romantic to a representative of the person they are identified with. Here are some examples: “Dear mother, you lost the love of your life. I wish I could have helped. I tried to carry the pain of incompletion for you, out of love. I leave it with you, with great respect for what it cost you.” And perhaps later: “Please smile on me if I am able to find and keep my true love.”
Out of place
In another example a woman is close to her father, but his attention and attachment to her is too much, he has become too close and his presence floods her psyche.
Perhaps her father treats her as a friend, sibling or surrogate spouse – this can be due to the emotional absence of his partner, the girl’s mother, and/or that one of his own parents treated him as if a sibling or friend – then she may grow up with confusion between father figures and lovers.
In this example she may find it hard to separate from father fully and grow up to be with a partner herself, idealising and searching for the perfect romantic ‘hero’. This is one of the sources of what is sometimes described as a ‘Daddy’s girl’.
Similarly a young man who is very close to his mother, perhaps because of a physically and/or emotionally absent father, may become almost like a surrogate spouse to her, will have difficulty separating from her. This is an example of one of the sources of what is referred to as a ‘Mother’s son’. The man may feel an almost mythical quality in his bond with his mother and so looks for the ideal ‘goddess’, a vision of ideal attachment. Men caught in this dynamic may say that they can never find ‘the right one’ when it comes to settling with a partner but may respond very quickly to their mother’s call.
Another subtle source of romanticism in men is when their apparent closeness with mother is actually at an idealised level. He may be left longing for a deeper connection and understanding and may grow up to find that romance and the early stages of a relationship become addictive. He becomes addicted to the true distance that existed in his relationship with his mother and the feelings that come with an ideal-looking, ‘beautiful but impossible’ relationship.
The fantasy is of someone who is either as close to them as the parent felt, or wished they felt, or can somehow be healed from the parent’s wound (or their own) and ‘saved.’
In most manifestations of romantic addiction completion and union appears to be desirable yet is frequently not the real driver.
In fact, when the ‘romantic’ gets to the point of actual physical and emotional contact with the one with whom they have become obsessed, they may suddenly withdraw, just at the point of connection, as though the shock of the original ‘abandonment’ has to be repeated. Additionally the connection may be coupled with a sudden realisation that it is not who or what was really being searched for.
If you have got out of the natural order in your family system, too close or bonded with one parent or ancestor in a way which keeps you entangled – then you may struggle with romantic obsession, keeping potential partners at a distance or obsessing over unavailable objects of your desire.
It is perhaps as if you embody and enact an inner ‘Life Sentence’ that gets expressed in romantic attachment driven by the loss of your true place: “I will never be able find my place in intimate relationships”.
In those circumstances these examples of ‘Sentences for Life’ that you may hear or be offered in a constellation, may support your path out of this pattern:
✣ “Dear father/mother I’m just your son/daughter, not your sibling, friend or partner. You are the parent, I the child.”
✣ “We got confused and I lost my true place.”
✣ “That is your place, this is mine.”
✣ “When I understand where you belong, I also know where/how I belong. Now I take my own place.”
Healing wounds in another
If a young man, for example, grows up with a subtle awareness of his mother’s wound, that she lost someone – perhaps a parent or sibling before he was born – he may try to become that person to fill the void he perceives in his mother or find other ways to attempt to heal her and to soothe her loss and loneliness.
Later on as he grows to become an adult he may try and rescue women with similar wounds, bonding with them with protestations of ‘true love’ and romantic gestures.
In fact, he is identified with his mother’s trauma and loss and reenacts that through romantic attachment to others with wounds, hoping to heal it for her and for his mother.
Healing wounds in self
Romantic addiction can develop as the result of a trauma, including sexual trauma, at an early age where the victim hasn’t told anyone, processed or integrated the trauma and fantasises about the ‘right’ partner healing this wound by ‘getting’, ‘understanding’ and ‘healing’ their inner pain.
They may dream about this ‘perfect partner’ finally showing what proper physical, loving connection looks like so they can heal and finally grow up and yet they find themselves unable to stay present in reality, so they become addicted to the illusion but are often disappointed, frightened or become dissociative by the reality.
“Apart, the lovers could neither live nor die, for it was life and death together. They gazed at one another, but did not know they suffered.”
“The dynamics behind romanticism and affairs are often connected to a longing for completion. The completion of a damaged or missing bond in the history of the wider relationship system. ”
Healing a wound in another
If you are trying to heal a wound in a parent or ancestor and using romantic attachment in an attempt to do so then you may be caught up in an embodiment of an inner ‘Life Sentence’ that keeps you trapped in a cycle. For example: “My dear Mum/Dad, only I can make you smile/be happy. I will do so for the rest of my life, through others. In this way I will heal you…”
Some examples of ‘Sentences for Life’ that may be offered in a constellation, spoken by the romantic to a representative of parent or other ancestor:
✣ “My dear Mum/Dad you suffered a great loss. I look at it with respect. I also look at it with deep gratitude for even with the loss you gave me life. I can’t carry it for you but I can look at it with deep respect”
✣ “Mum/Dad you suffered a great loss and even so you also gave me life. I will take the gift and use it to live happily and find my own love. I will remember the one you lost and give them a place in my heart too.”
✣ “I tried to take care of you, to make it all better. But you are the parent, I am the child and I leave your difficulties with you, with respect.”
Healing a wound in self
If you are trying to heal a trauma of any kind, including sexual abuse, by searching for ‘the perfect one’ who will love you properly you may be embodying a ‘Life Sentence’, expressed through romantic attachment like this:
✣ “I was hurt. Only you can fix me.”
✣ “I can see you were hurt like me. Only I can fix you”
✣ “I was traumatised and now I look for the one who will heal me.”
Example of ‘Sentences for Life’ that may be offered in a constellation, spoken by the romantic to a representative of the perpetrator:
✣ “You hurt me and I leave that with you. I will gain and keep insight and wisdom from this.
The rest I leave with you.”
✣ “I got hurt and I allowed that wound to become my identity. I am also more than that.”
✣ “With the strength I take from this I will grow in new ways.”
✣ “I will heal my own wounds, not use you. You are free.”
Head, heart or body?
Romantic addiction is different to sex addiction in that the romantic is living in their head with complex ideas and fantasies about the perfect partner, the perfect life, even perfect sex. But their interest and energy for actual physical relationships is low, whereas someone who is addicted to sex seeks the physical satisfaction, and will most often reject the emotional completion.
Romantic addicts have trouble with the reality of an actual relationship because, although it may feel like love, like something embodied – even perhaps an out-of-body experience of heightened awareness and joy – it is largely going on in the head; it is a very ‘heady’ experience. This heady experience is often interpreted as a sacred, even mystical experience.
The trance/shock cycle
Romantic obsession may be described as ‘soul-sex’, in that it appears to offer a resolution of a deep inner yearning for connection and leaves both people in a trance-like state that they believe or hope will last forever. However, the actual reality of the other person in close and prolonged physical proximity may leave the romantic feeling confused, overwhelmed and disappointed that reality doesn’t live up to or feel the same as their idealised fantasy.
The shock of discovery that ideal and fantasy are very different can lead to periods of remorse, regret, hopelessness or depression. Even so, unless the dynamic has been resolved at source, the pattern repeats and another person becomes the focus of the romantic energy. It’s as though another ‘hit’ of the systemic trance is needed. The pain repeats but also offers great learning.
Enactment resolves nothing, but only results in the inner question “Why do I keep getting into these hopeless romantic relationships?” or “What’s wrong with me?”
Often the real question that needs to be asked is “Who am I trying to connect with, heal or find in these relationships?”
Like many dynamics that have their origins in the system-of-origin it’s as if the cross-hairs are just a fraction to one side of the true target.
In romantic obsession the couple may unconsciously offer the suffering or wounded part of themselves, the part that seeks completion and resolution. In this case both believe that they have now found the one who could facilitate a lasting solution and healing. In these kinds of romantic, closely bonded relationships, there is a deep recognition and then connection through the wounds.
If one of the two wakes up, becomes more consciously aware of the underlying dynamic, the other may still be locked into the suffering and yearning stage and feel quite unable to end or leave the relationship due to the systemic dynamic, which acts like a trance and keeps them stuck.
As soon as one or the other grows beyond the wound, the relationship can lose its attraction. The suffering together will no longer hold the same attraction or interest. Trying to rescue the martyr may be felt as a burden that is too heavy and the healing is, in part at least, achieved in the letting go of the relationship and the wound of the other.
Conversely there may be an awakening to live beyond the wound for the martyr, which can then leave the caretaker without a job or a place.
Until the underlying pattern is seen and resolved all consuming periods keep emerging in their lives as they project their needs for this particularly hypnotic kind of ‘love’ onto different people.
You can think of this as a systemic trance, a state of emotional turmoil, feelings of deep and ‘pure’ love, yearning for completion combined with sadness and a feeling of incompleteness.
Romantic obsession doesn’t solve the underlying need for connection or healing or release people from identifications. It simply offers a series of ‘quick fixes’ with limited potential to sustain or grow a lasting relationship. The quick fixes can result in increasing frustration and sadness. This kind of ‘systemic trance’ can also be seen in cults or communities where the sex is converted into a ritual that suggests healing, transformation or transcendence.
In these cases, sometimes the one is seen to ‘offer’ themselves to another as though they could be purified or healed by that surrender to another who is ‘the one.’ In reality this is often an enactment of a deep inner need: “Please hold/see/heal/release me.”
In this situation there appears to be a ‘saviour’ or a sacred bond, but they are really looking through a lens of systemic entanglement that needs and wants to be untangled. This can’t happen until the original person or painful event is ‘re-membered.’ Then the healing can begin.
The romantic idealisation pattern can also emerge from a thwarted, unrequited first love. A young person begins to notice and then idealises another.
Soon that turns to feelings of desire and ‘love’. Sometimes however the social, religious, physical and/or family system in which this first love awakens prevents the relationship from developing or completing and only a glimpse of a connection is possible. This can lead to a life-long search for the completion of the connection with that lost first love.
The distance, feelings and communication style within that first relationship are often repeated in those romantic attachments and partnerships that follow.
Incomplete separation from first love
If you are not fully separated from your first love and are secretly yearning for the recovery of those first feelings of romance, that lost connection, then you may be embodying an inner ‘life sentence’ that is unspoken but expressed through romantic attachment. For example: “You were the first. The one. I thought I’d love forever. I’ll keep searching for that connection in others….” and/or “My heart belongs only to you. I refuse to even see others.”
In contrast here are some examples of ‘sentences for life’ that have been co-created in constellations, spoken by the romantic to a representative of a first love:
✣ “When I lost you, part of me gave up on finding true love again.”
✣ “I loved you. You were the first and that place belongs to you.”
✣ “Even though I lost you, I’ll always keep a place in my heart for you.”
✣ “I never said goodbye. I will do that now.”
✣ “Even though it’s over, it’s beautiful that it was.”
✣ “You and I are free to go on different paths now…”
‘Only when a boy’s attachment – loving or resentful – to his mother is resolved can he give himself fully to his partner and enter manhood. A girl’s attachment to her father – loving or resentful – must also be resolved before she can give herself to her partner and be a woman. Success demands the sacrifice of our earlier childhood bonds – the boy to his mother and the girl to her father.
A boy lives his prenatal and early childhood years primarily within his mother’s sphere of influence. If he remains there, her influence floods his psyche, and he experiences the feminine as all important and powerful. Under his mother’s dominance he may become a skilful seducer and lover but he does not develop into a man who appreciates women and who can maintain a long-term loving relationship. Nor does he become a strong and dedicated father to his own children. To become a man capable of joining fully in a partnership of equals, he must give up the first and most intimate love of his life – his mother – and move into his father’s sphere of influence.
A girl enters life firmly within her mother’s sphere of influence, but she experiences the feminine and attraction to the masculine differently to her brother. Her father holds a strong fascination for her, and if all goes well she can practice the art of attracting men in the steady safety of his love. If however, she stays in her father’s sphere of influence, she will become a “Daddy’s Girl”. She may become someone’s lover, but she finds it difficult to mature fully into her womanhood and may have difficulty relating as an equal partner.
To become a woman, it’s necessary for a girl to leave the first man in her life – her father – and return to stand by her mother.’
Extract from ‘Love’s Hidden Symmetry’
By Bert Hellinger
‘Lust, that state commonly known as “being in love,” is a kind of madness. It is a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers. And yet, as we all know, it is a madness that, however ferocious, seldom, if ever, lasts. Nor, contrary to the popular teaching on the subject, does lust usually give a way to “a deeper and more meaningful love.”
There are exceptions of course. Some spouses “love” forever. But, as a rule, if the couple is truly well matched, it gives way to a warm and interdependent friendship enhanced by physical attraction. Should they be ill-sorted it simply fades into boredom or, if they have the misfortune of being married in the interim, dull hatred. But, paradoxically, mad and suffering as one is, and the heat of the flame, few of us are glad as we feel that passion slip away.
How many of us, re-meeting objects of desire who once burned a scar through seasons and even years, whose voices on the telephone could start up flights of butterflies, whose slightest expression could set off a petal of tremulous sexual bells in our vitals, search our inner selves in vain for the least attraction to the face before us? How many of us, having cried bitter, rancid tears over a failed love, are actually disappointed when we discover, seeing the adored one again, that all trace of their power over us is gone? How often one has resisted the freedom-giving knowledge that they have actually begun to irritate us as that seems like the worst kind of disloyalty to our own dreams.
No, while most people have been at their unhappiest while in love, it is nevertheless the state the human being yearns for above all.’
Extract from ‘Snobs’
By Julian Fellowes
This article was authored by John Whittington in consultation with Judy Wilkins-Smith.
The articles in this series do not offer specific advice but stimulus for your own reflections. They provide only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic coaching or workshop constellations process. This way of looking and working can be combined with others to give an understanding of the human condition. The writing is always a work in progress as the authors continue to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.
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