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Searching For A Romantic Attachment?
by Tom Schumacher, Psy.D., R-C.S.W

"O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!"
                                                                      - Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832)

While searching for companionship and love, almost everyone at some point of the journey falls into a trap of attaching or being attracted to the "image" a person portrays to the world.  Maybe you are spellbound and blinded by beauty, status, intellect, wealth or power.  Which image attracts you?  Because what you see (or what you are being sold) is not always what you get (the actual product that you have purchased), it is critical that we examine the role of these superficial "images" while you search for a romantic attachment and expose just how self defeating, deficient and limiting this approach can be.

For starters, the "image trap" plays on your own insecurities, which quickly pull you into a romantic attachment.  You are blindly swept off your feet and a relationship (for lack of a better word) begins. Fact:  in all of us, there is a discrepancy between our "ideal self" (false self) and our "actual self" (true self).  Because of this, we are often tempted to use a romantic attachment as a shortcut to closing the gap between your own "ideal self" and your own "actual self". Here is the problem:  instead of improving yourself and / or accepting your own shortcomings (which we all have and will bring into a relationship) you may use your own "image assets" (i.e., beauty, age, money, etc.) as bargaining tools to attach to the illusions that you desire and that the other person is selling you.  Here's some more of the problem:  this type of attachment is never emotionally based or even "real" for that matter.  Each person is mutually exploiting the other.  You may not only be misleading the other person, but also lying about your true motivation to yourself as well.  If this truth is painful, the person may utilize many defense mechanisms in order to convince himself or herself that romance and passion alone are motivating them in their search for a mate.  "Of course I like it that he is beautiful and has an abnormally perfect body, but I am attracted to him because he is a really good person with a kind heart."

If a person with a narcissistic personality style is reading this, they are not getting it.  The core of narcissistic psychological profile is fundamentally deceptive.  They need to portray to the world a carefully crafted operating lifestyle that is manufactured in order to hide their fragile, self doubting, "true self".  As a result, they develop "false image" that plays well and sells well to the world and to others.  They have no idea who or what their "true self" is all about, so "image" is all-important.  Because their core sense of self is all about their image and how others see them...their "true self" is hollow and shallow, hence offering little emotional involvement in a romantic attachment.  Those of you that have dated narcissists know exactly what I am talking about.  Being seen at the right event, in the right outfit, with the right people is a paramount to their existence.  Image is everything. Bottom line:  As soon as one partner realizes that the attraction is limited to superficial "image's", the attachment/relationship tends to immediately self-destruct.  You purchase a product (the person) because of it's clever packaging (image).  Unfortunately, inside of the beautifully wrapped box is a load of steaming cow manure.

One reason why romantic attachments based on "image" fail is that they are basically anonymous.  They lack genuine involvement in the respective partner's life.  In focusing so much on the persons superficial surface image, you miss the person within.  Many people resist any reality based insights into the partner for fear that the all shed our public mask and eventually reveal our true, private self.  With this in mind, thing can now go in two directions:  (1) you may see qualities that are even more appealing on the surface characteristics that initially attracted you or (2) you may see less appealing, disturbing personality traits.  At the very least, you are forced to see your romantic interest in a more realistic light....he now has frailties, needs, anxieties, moods and even problems!  No matter how you slice it, this is not the "image" that you were initially attracted to.  Key:  to survive as a couple, you need to accept and cope with these human complexities, as well as enjoy each other as people regardless of the "false images" you attempted to sell each other.  Enough of the staged performances.  Enough of the game playing.  It's time for each of you to stop posturing and get real.

A second reason why romantic attachments based on "image" fail is that they can intensify your own feelings of inadequacy.  Often, what you really want is to take over or possess the other person's "image" and make it your own.  After fooling yourself for a short time, you realize that your core, true self is exactly the same and you are still you!  Consequently, you start to resent the other person for having personality characteristics that you don't have.  Paradox:  the very qualities that initially attracted you to this romantic interest are the very same qualities that now spark an urge to cut off all oxygen that leads to his brain.  Your anger is rooted in the realization that you can't acquire these personality traits by simply dating him.

By learning to avoid the "image trap" you can save yourself a lot of time, emotional energy, and ultimately the purchase of a big box of steaming cow manure wrapped with a pretty bow!  Because society trains us to envy surface images, you will have to work diligently at separating these yearnings from your search for a romantic attachment.  Here is what you need to address and think about:

1)  Get in touch with your own vulnerability to image.  Consider how you were raised and what values were passed on by your family.  Were you taught to value money, intelligence, beauty, status?  As a kid, did Mom or Dad teach you to wear a "social mask" that pleased the public and simultaneously forced you to hide your "real" emotions (at all cost)?  Are you still hiding who you are in order to please them?  Are you satisfied with your own achievements, or do you long to be vastly more successful, attractive, or powerful?  The more strongly you're affected by surface images and the more disenchanted you are with your own life, the more vulnerable you are to be drawn to a box of steaming cow manure or the "image trap".

2)  Evaluate and understand your own image that you portray.  Even if you are not particularly impressed by surface images in others, you may be setting yourself up for the image trap by ignoring the way others perceive you or by misrepresenting yourself.  Many exceptionally beautiful people don't see themselves as beautiful and are hurt and annoyed when someone chases them ONLY for their looks.  Often this same person has worked very hard at developing their intellectual and/or social capacities and are once again disappointed that they are being objectified and seen only as desirable because of their "outer shell".  If you understand how others look at you, you can adjust either your image or your response so that you encourage others to see you the way you see yourself and the way you want to be seen in the world.

3)  Look beneath the surface of your romantic interest.  This may not be so easy, especially if the person is using the "image trap" to seduce you and draw you in.  The key is to strip away all the superficial things that attracted you.  Would you still be interested if he were less attractive?  25 lbs. heavier?  25 lbs. lighter?  5 inches shorter?  5 inches taller?  What if he recently lost his shirt in the stock market and had to sell his summerhouse out east?  How much of their appeal is in the clothes they wear or the company they keep, and how much is in their sense of humor and their ability to care and share their most intimate thoughts and feelings with you?  Only by separating the human qualities from the illusion of the outer shell can you honestly determine whether you can build a loving romantic attachment to this person.

It is my belief that true love develops over time.  Therefore, it is wise to plan for dramatic changes that you image and your partner's image will undergo during this time.  No one remains youthfully stunning forever.  Wrinkles happen ... hairlines recede.  No one remains in an upbeat mood 24/7.  There are no guarantees of continued wealth or status (talk to a few Wall Street brokers), even among the very rich and powerful.  But true authentic love does not require any of this.  A healthy romantic attachment requires that each person remain flexible and understanding in the face of change.  This means looking past the surface images and the deceiving illusions initially portrayed by you and your romantic interest.  Here is where you discover if you can truly honor and trust each other as you must in order to build a relationship on what is real and not illusionary or image based.

Presented as a community service by Tom Schumacher.  Individual, Couple and Marital Counseling by appointment only.  404 Jerusalem Avenue, Hicksville, NY 11801.