Attraction: First Love - The Imprint
Mother nature has for eons decreed that adolescence provides the first and most significant window for determining the shape and character of all subsequent romantic attachments. Indeed, in many cultures, taking advantage of this simple observation, promise children to one another for life when they are between the ages of 13-14 years. Although in our epoch we attempt to protract the onset of these childbearing unions for a decade or more, it is unlikely that mother nature pays any attention to our passing cultural fancies.
Just as there are sensitive periods for the acquisition of fundamental skills, i.e., language between the ages of birth and five years of age, so there are sensitive periods that determine the parameters of all subsequent romantic relationships, or a 'first love sensitizing experience.' We refer to such events as 'imprints',that is, stamps on our experience of life that forever direct and determine our sense of what an intimate relationship should feel like and how it should work.
Imprinting refers to the tendency among many life forms to attach to the first individual of their species that they interact with when they are in the midst of a 'sensitive' period of biological development. For romantic relationships among humankind this is adolescence.
As we all know from the scanty recall of our own teenage years, or when viewed through the lens of greater objectivity provided by watching our children pass through this sensitive period of biological transition, a great deal of the daily life of adolescents is best described by the German phrase, 'sturm und drang' - storm and stress. Brain research has verified these observations. We now know that the frontal lobes, the seat of considered decision making and perhaps more importantly, the brake pedal for our impulses, which is located in the one-third of the brain that lies in front of our ears is not yet fully functional. This area of cortex, once in the far distant past devoted entirely to the fine discrimination of odors, does not fully provide its input until we are between the ages of 15-18 years, and may not do all of which it is capable until we are nearly thirty years of age. Hence, 'imprints' of an adolescent romantic ideal are formed with one-third of our brain, proverbially, 'tied behind our backs.'
Indeed, recent reports of individuals in the 30-40 year age range who are attempting to recoup the romance associated with an infatuation focused on a high school, or college sweetheart suggest that 60-70% of the time such attempts at romantic reunion result in marked disappointment on the part of both parties. This outcome is hardly surprising as beyond the age of thirty years the individuals concerned are now perceiving the world and monitoring their own experience out of 'whole brain.' In short, both the accelerator (impulses) and the 'brake pedal' (frontal lobes) are now fully functional and supply the individual with a more complete and considered view of reality.
In 30 years of psychotherapy practice, a great deal of which was devoted to couples and families, I have observed that couples often seem to experience conflicts that appear to have little or nothing to do with their current feelings and circumstances. Indeed, each of the partners appears to be measuring the other against an unseen standard (an adolescent era 'imprint' of romance) that exists only within their own personal past. In these conflicts, each partner, 'sees' only the deficiencies in their partner, that is, departures from his or her own personal 'imprint' of adolescent romantic love. Occasionally these conflicts can be resolved in the course of short term counseling, however, they are likely to reemerge in the same or slightly different form years later, thus becoming a source of continuing dissatisfaction for both parties.
This 'imprint' model of romance and conflict does not set aside the real difficulties associated with substance abuse, medical and psychiatric difficulties, or the deficits in self-esteem that manifest themselves in the form of affairs in a spouse. It merely suggests that many day to day recurrent conflicts are, in fact, related to the unconscious comparisons each partner makes between the 'imprint' of their adolescent ideal of a romantic lover and the person sitting across from them at the kitchen table.
In practical therapeutic terms addressing this issue is fairly simple, but as with many significant matters within the manifold complexities that constitute human relationships, not always easy to resolve.
As my approach to counseling follows a neuropsychological model, I first complete an individual examination of the brain-behavior strengths of each member of the couple (60 minutes for each). This brief and non-threatening assessment involves analyzing the in-built left and right brain biases of each partner, which differences are, in point of fact, the neuropsychological complements that drew them together.
Next, I embark upon an in depth interview with each partner focused on the most complete description of their 'first love' that they can with prompting muster. This interview focuses on the description of the 'imprinted first love' that includes everything from eye and hair color, height, weight, good form of face and body, and level of activity including both physical and social components. Among males the strongest, fastest and most daring win fair maiden, while among females those whose face and form suggests good health and successful child bearing potential win the next generation right to pass along their genes.
The next step is also completed with each member of the couple individually and focuses on both the similarities and differences that they see between their 'imprinted first love' and their current partner. Of course, this exercise is greatly facilitated if both partners are at least 28 years of age and therefore can fully access the considerable resources that the frontal lobe has to offer.
The next step amounts to a 'frontal lobe test.' this is the penetrating question portion of the interview and consists in asking each partner, individually, to apply hard nosed reality testing and their life experience to their lists of both the similarities and differences between their 'imprinted adolescent first love ideal' and their current partner. This is a most rigorous exercise and certainly requires that the couple be assisted in focusing solely on the descriptors they enumerated on the lists of similarities and differences between their 'adolescent imprinted ideal' and their current partner.
There are several pivotal questions which must be addressed in the form of challenges to the patient's initial entries on his or her lists of similarities and differences between the 'adolescent imprint' and their current partner: First, do you believe that your 'first love ideal' is now, in appearance and demeanor, exactly as you remember him or her (fantasies informed by an 'imprinting emotion preserve that which supports the historical feeling and dismisses all else)? Second, do you see yourself now as you were, in appearance and demeanor when you experienced the 'first love imprint'? Third, do you believe that you fully understand and appreciate the individual who exists in your memory as your 'first love adolescent imprint' as well as you know your current partner? Finally, do you recognize that adolescence represents the developmental era of either/or perfectionism (as a result of little if any frontal lobe input)? This perfectionistic era of development sorts all experience into black or white categories dismissing all shades of gray and accepts only whole hearted infatuation, completely dismissing all ideas and feelings other than those which you find emotionally convincing. This adolescent feeling fueled perceptual state is a result of minimal frontal lobe input coupled with unopposed old brain - limbic and quite primitive emotional flooding.
Pursuing this line of questioning, we attempt to address beliefs and feelings that were generated before the frontal lobes were fully functional and could voice their input. Examples of questions that none us can effectively raise before the frontal lobes are wholly active include: But suppose I'm not right?, What if I'm missing some important information? Suppose what I feel is not the whole answer? Do I really know what the other person is feeling? Have I ever been wrong by just following what I felt at the moment?, and What if I don't know it all? Inasmuch as the frontal lobes were not fully operational at the time that the 'first love adolescent imprint' was formed, these questions could not be raised. It is precisely these questions that must be addressed as each partner is helped to examine the discrepancy between the 'first love adolescent ideal imprint' and their current partner.
To put it quite simply the experiences of our childhood and adolescence are ever with us.Although these patterns of feeling and thought do not shout their realizations in plain language as do our everyday ideas, they nevertheless impact every moment of our daily lives. Despite the nearly muted volume of the still small voice of 'first love' imprints, this subliminal mode of messaging has greater power over our feelings, motivations and judgments than those decisions we believe that we consciously make in every romantic relationship.