Matti Baldassari, MA, LMFT
How Did You CHOOSE Your Valentine?
by Matti Baldassari, MA, LMFT
Romantic love takes up a lot of headspace. In both positive and negative ways, human beings have a tendency to dwell on romance. As the sometimes-dreaded Valentine’s Day approaches, both the joys and tribulations of romantic love seem to occupy many people’s minds, sometimes to the point of obsession.
No one likes to think they have unfinished business. In the book, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. claims that when you choose your mate, you are trying to resolve exactly that—unfinished business from your past (p. 36). If this point is relevant, how did you choose your one and only? How did you actually decide to be with that person who touches you, makes your heart race, yet also can annoy you mercilessly and drive you absolutely batty at times?
Hendrix has proposed an extremely relevant theory that helps answer this question; one that is widely-known in the field of psychology. In fact, as the co-creator of Imago Therapy, he has been a pioneer in the field of romantic love. Perhaps his theories can give us some clues into how you unconsciously chose your beloved. Hendrix says, “We appear to be searching for a ‘one and only’ with a very specific set of positive and negative traits” (p. 14). The rich and promising question is how can we understand what those traits are? Before we get into Hendrix’s thoughts, let’s take a look at a few of the other theories on courtship that have been prevalent and popularized. Hendrix clearly outlines and examines the relevance of these theories in his book.
First, the “biological” theory states that we, “instinctively select mates who will enhance the survival of the species.” We are attracted to mates with qualities of robust health and the ability to provide. Since they tend to dominate in the tribe, they will bring home more than their share of the kill, and we will thrive alongside them (p. 5).
According to this theory, a man’s choice of a mate is determined by youth and beauty as this indicates signs that, “a woman is at her peak of childbearing years” (p. 5). Furthermore, choosing a man with “alpha” qualities, such as dominance, ensures the ongoing survival of the family unit. These base perspectives on survival are at the heart of some of the most fundamental, but oftentimes most problematic, ideas about gender and attractiveness that pervade our society today.
Second, “exchange” theory from social psychology asserts that rather than having just base biological impulses, we actually search and settle down with “mates who are more or less our equals” (p. 6). The theory proposes that, “we size each other up as coolly as business executives contemplating a merger, noting each other’s physical appeal, financial status, and social rank, as well as various personality traits such as kindness, creativity, and a sense of humor” (p. 6).
We compare ourselves to this person, then determine if he or she is “worthy” of being in a relationship with us. Does the person fit within our self-conceived social framework?
Finally, “persona” theory maintains that we hone in on the “way a potential suitor enhances our self-esteem” (p. 6). Persona theory proposes that we look for someone who will enhance our “self-image” in order to make us feel better about ourselves. Persona theory emphasizes, “What will it do to my sense of self, if I am seen with this person?” (p. 6).
Taking these theories as a starting point, Hendrix has gone on to build a theoretical orientation on psychotherapy and couples counseling that highlights a different set of ideas. “We are searching for a mate with a specific set of positive and negative traits” (p. 8), Hendrix writes in Getting the Love You Want. He goes on to assert, “We are highly selective in our choice of mates” (p. 14). In fact, he explains how our search for a mate is based in very specific and precise criteria developed unconsciously over time. As a direct result, “those few individuals that people are attracted to tend to resemble one another quite closely” (p. 8).
In the book, Hendrix cites neuroscience as an integral part of this phenomenon. He distinguishes between the “old” and “new” brains. The “old” brain, also called the unconscious, is comprised of the brain stem and limbic system. The brain stem oversees reproduction, self-preservation, and vital functions, such as circulation of blood. The “old” brain is also made up of the limbic system, which is the power source behind our most “vivid” emotions, such as anger, fear, and yes, you guessed it, romantic love.
However, at the conscious level, we are unaware of how the functioning of the “old” brain affects us. Since the old brain’s main concern is “self-preservation,” it has the ability to play a role in our choices and behaviors without us even knowing it. The old brain is that part of us that is always asking, “Yes, but is it safe?” (p. 10). In addition, our old brain “has no sense of linear time…Everything that was, still is” (pp. 12-13). As a result, our lives are influenced by a part of us that cannot distinguish the past or present.
The crux of Hendrix’s theory about falling in love is that it is the “old” brain trying to, “recreate the conditions of your upbringing, in order to correct them” (p. 36). In other words, we are looking for someone who has the predominant character traits of the people who raised us. The goal is to heal past trauma through a new relationship. As Hendrix expresses, “Our old brain…is trying to recreate the environment of childhood [out of] a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds” (p. 14).
Does that seem like a “healthy” framework for a positive relationship? Is it surprising that close to 50% of marriages fail in light of such pressure? Maybe now we can more closely understand why this fact is a reality and help clients temper their expectations. Hendrix believes you need to understand that you often fall in love because your “old” brain had your partner “confused with your parents” (p.14). Furthermore, “your old brain believed that it had finally found the ideal candidate to make up for the psychological and emotional damage you experienced in childhood” (p. 14). How is that for interpersonal expectations?
You could be asking, “How could this apply to me? I don’t have any such damage in my past.” According to Hendrix, no parents, no matter how devoted, are able to respond perfectly to all the needs of the complex, dependent creatures we are when we are first born. We believe our partners will magically restore a feeling of wholeness we knew as babies when all of our needs were met. All we have to do is “persuade” our partner to accomplish this Herculean task. However, when he or she proves to be a mere human being and unable to fix our core trauma, this leads to our “eventual unhappiness” (p. 15).
When you think about it, such perceptions are frighteningly common. Have you ever said to your partner: “You treat me just the way my mother did!” or “You make me feel just as helpless and frustrated as my stepfather did!” (p. 36). Even if you haven’t said it out loud, it is bound to have crossed our minds at one point or another. Maybe it will even pass through your mind this Valentine’s Day.
Hendrix believes in this fashion, you choose a mate with complementary traits. If you felt unintelligent in the past, you may have chosen someone intelligent to be your partner. Being “emotionally attached” to this person could make you feel “a part of a larger, more fulfilled you. It was as if you had merged with the other person and become whole” (p. 37).
Have you observed this in your life? Maybe your best friend, Kelly, is quite talkative, while his wife is undoubtedly introverted. Hendrix defines the term imago as “a composite picture of the people who influenced you most strongly at an early age” (p. 38). This could be parents, siblings, family friends, or the like.
Hendrix asserts, “To a large degree, whether or not you have been romantically attracted to someone depended on the degree to which that person matched your imago… If there was a high degree of correlation, you found the person highly attractive” (p. 39). What’s more, “Unconsciously you have compared every man or woman that you have met to your imago” (p. 39). In other words, the imago is the all-powerful source of our relationship choices when it comes to our cherished other.
If this makes you stop and think, consider doing the following exercise:
- What are some of the personality traits of your partner, positive and negative?
- Are these similar in any way to the people that influenced you growing up?
Remember, the imago is not a single person, but a composite of people. It is an image that references more than one person from your past.
Such a correlation may be intriguing to think about. How could you improve your current relationship or search for a new relationship with this knowledge? How could the understanding of the role of the imago in the human psyche improve relationship choices moving forward? Perhaps, this wisdom could mean more fulfillment, happiness, and love this Valentine’s Day–and for the many days thereafter.
Citation: Hendrix, H. (1988). Getting the love you want: A guide for couples. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Matianna Baldassari, MA LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Kundalini yoga teacher at Pacific MFT Network in Santa Monica. Matti specializes in private practice at helping clients struggling with family issues, managing emotions, and addiction. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 424.254.9611.