Good (Pre-)Marriage: Avoiding Infatuation Intoxication
A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot. (Pv 18:30)
Genuine love in marriage is modeled after the love between the three persons of the All Holy Trinity. The revelation of this love for us is the self-emptying kenotic love that the Son of God has for mankind. By assuming human flesh, suffering, being crucified and rising from the dead, Christ conquered sin and death so that we might be, as St. Peter (2 Pt 1:4) informs us, “partakers of the divine nature.” (Morelli, 2008)
One obstacle to practicing the highest level of kenotic love, called agape, in a blessed marriage, is the problem of infatuation. In the scientific psychological literature (Beck, 1988), infatuation is related to mania. Elsewhere I discuss the dysfunctional emotions of anger, anxiety and depression[i] This article focuses on infatuation as a mania. Mania is usually associated with serious mental disorders such as Bipolar Disorder; Borderline, Histrionic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder; and substance abuse disorders.
Most individuals experience the mania of infatuation as part of the first step in dating and sexual attraction. For some, however, infatuation becomes the dominant emotion controlling their lives. Mania, as with all emotional dysfunction, can result in behavioral, interpersonal, social and spiritual damage.
The neuropsychology of infatuation
One of the major communication components within the divinely-designed human body is the hormone-neurotransmitter system. Hormones are chemicals secreted into blood and tissue that produce a bodily reaction. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit impulses between nerve cells. The following hormones and neurotransmitters are related to sex differentiation and development, infatuation, and sex attraction:
· Androgen: Produced in the testes and responsible for male primary (internal and external sex organs) and secondary (such as muscle mass, body hair) sexual characteristics. Androgen levels have been implicated in the regulation of human aggression and level of sexual desire and arousal.
· Testosterone: An androgen-related hormone directly responsible for primary male sexual organs that is followed by increased production of testosterone by the male testes; responsible for the development of male secondary sex characteristics. Females have this hormone in lesser amounts than males.
· Estrogen: Initially produced by cells that will develop into the ovaries and be responsible for female primary (internal and external sex organs) and secondary (such as breast development) sexual characteristics. Regulates menstruation. Males have lesser amounts of estrogen than females. In males, estrogen has been implicated in the regulation of sexual desire.
· Pheromones: A chemical secreted by an animal that influences the behavior or development of an animal of the same species. In females, pheromones have been associated with the synchronization of menstrual cycles of females living together, and the bonding of new mothers with their newly-born offspring. One study of humans (Wyart, Webster, Chen, Wilson, McClary, Khan, and Sobel, 2007) suggested that pheromones are associated with the initiation of sexual attraction in the opposite sex.
· Norepinephrine: Serves as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, norepinephrine is produced by the medulla of the adrenal gland (two small glands, one located above each kidney) and the nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system (brain stem) to cause vasoconstriction and increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and the sugar level of the blood and which in turn signal generalized arousal as well as sexual arousal.
· Dopamine: Serving as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, dopamine is produced in several parts of the brain, including the hypothalamus, which regulates many body functions. It is involved in important roles in behavior and cognition, motor activity, motivation and reward, lactation, sleep, mood, attention, and learning.
· Oxytocin: A hormone produced by the pituitary gland which stimulates uterine contractions during birth, facilitates lactation and facilitates pair-bonding or connection.
Fisher (2004, 2006) has described the hormone and neurotransmitter processes that underlie infatuation. Excitatory chemicals such as norepinephrine and dopamine lead to intense stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain. They further propel us toward sexual intimacy. A form of norepinephrine called phenethylamine (PEA) actually produces an overwhelming sense of euphoria, exhilaration, elation, exultant outlook, energy upswing, expansive and elevated mood and talkativeness, as well as a decreased need for sleep and decreased appetite. Studies indicate that infatuation and mania are a type of psychomotor agitation induced by overstimulation of the pleasure centers that are located in the lower brain. These effects are also not dissimilar to the intoxicating effects of the amphetamines and akin to the psychological features of mania. This similarity actually led one writer (Slater, 2006) to comment: “… the brain chemistry of infatuation is akin to mental illness.” These lower brain areas, collectively called the limbic system (from the Latin limbus, meaning border or collar because they resemble a circular structure [left]) that regulate pleasure such as sexual function (as part of a reward system serving emotional reactions) are increased in action. The cognitive correlates of limbic system activation are that we tend to focus on the favorable aspects of the person that we are infatuated with while ignoring the unfavorable aspects. Important differences in intellect, interests, marriage and parenting styles, personality, religion and values tend to be overlooked or glossed over altogether. This psycho-physical phenomenon may underlie the popular aphorism: “Love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t.”
At the same time, these same chemical processes attenuate the inhibitory system of the brain, the amygdale [right]. The consequences of making the amygdala function less effectual is interference with the stop feature of the brain. Once the manic features kick in, they are hard to slow down. This attenuation is analogous to someone who, after tasting a chocolate chip cookie, wants another and can’t stop. Peele (1976) has likened infatuation to an addiction.
Cognitive psychiatrist Beck (1988) points out that the brain functions described above do not mean that infatuation is under the control of the lower brain and that cognitive control can never be achieved. As in mitigating all emotional dysfunction (Beck, 1976; Ellis, 1962; Morelli, 2006a,b), cognitive-control techniques can be applied and practiced. These cognitive-control strategies are modulated by the upper cerebral cortex area of the brain [right]. Neural pathways extend from the cognitive-control brain areas located in the cortex to the lower brain centers.
Cognitive distortions in infatuation
The follow list describes common behavioral tendencies related to infatuation:
- Selective Abstraction: Focusing on one event while excluding others. Jack focuses on Jill’s overwhelming beauty. He doesn’t recognize her quickness of temper and snide remarks.
- Arbitrary Inference: Drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. For example, Jill thinks Jack’s angry remark is “proof that he loves her.”
- Personalization: Interpreting a general event in exclusively personal terms. Jill concluded Jack’s despondency was caused by something she had done. She could not stand his disapproval.
- Polarization: Perceiving or interpreting events in all or nothing terms. Jack perceives all that Jill does is “done for him.” Whether she is eating, working on a job assignment, cleaning her apartment, or doing the most mundane tasks, it is all ‘good.’
- Generalization: The tendency to see things in always or never categories. If Jill has Jack’s love, her life is complete; she will never need anything else in her life again. She now has the ultimate meaning of her existence.
- Demanding Expectations: Beliefs that there are laws or rules that must always be obeyed. This cognitive distortion may arise later in marriage when the beliefs and feeling associated with infatuation are muted. Jill’s previous interpretation of Jack’s intellect and strong personality as favorable changes to unfavorable. Later in the marriage these same characteristics are perceived as judgmental and controlling. She has a demanding (and unrealistic) expectation that the courtship relationship should continue throughout their marital years.
- Catastrophizing: The perception that something is worse than it actually is. Jill cancels a ‘date’ with Jack, because she has to study for an important test. Jack views this as a catastrophic event and reacts with anxiety and depression.
- Minimization: The perception that an event is much less important than it actually is. Jill so idealizes Jack because of his prominent, powerful occupation and high salary that she does not consider his making ordinary decisions for her that affect her life to be of much importance.
- Emotional Reasoning: The judgment that one's feelings are facts. Because Jill cancelled their date Jack feels Jill doesn’t love him. Because he feels Jill doesn’t love him, it makes his conclusion true.
Metacognition is defined by Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) (Morelli, 2009) as “thinking about your own thinking.” It is a regulatory or control process to guide thinking and problem-solving. It involves planning, regulating, monitoring, and evaluating in a step-by-step process leading from where the person currently is to an end goal to be solved or achieved. Psychologically it is similar to mindfulness which Kabat-Zinn (2003) defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention to purpose, in the present moment, and [which is] nonjudgmental to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
In another article (Morelli, 2009) I indicate that mindfulness focuses on the sensory and physical aspects of the present moment, recognizes cognitions, emotions and physical sensations occurring in the present moment, develops cognizance of the streams of awareness in the present moment, and practices separation of the cognitions from emotional and physical sensations. The goal of mindfulness is to consider all decisions that could be made, rejecting choices that are under emotional control while making choices based on the reasonable mind and intuition (what feels right).
Linehan (1993), making therapeutic use of controlled breathing and meditation regimens, describes to the “enteric brain,” the large complex matrix web of nerve fibers in the gastrointestinal region and its ligature with the cerebral brain. It is hypothesized that this neuropsychological linkage underlies the interactive relationship connecting intuition, reason, breathing, and meditation together with mindfulness. These exercises can be considered in conjunction with the metacognitive procedures discussed below.
Considering the attenuated cognitive functioning of individuals already infatuated, pre-planning and preparation should be consider the first step in coping with the problem of infatuation. Use of prevention strategies are consistent with the goals of the United States Department of Public Health (www.cdc.gov/prc/). This would mean it would be beneficial to train individuals to cope with infatuation before infatuation takes hold.
Metacognitive control, also known as self-instructional training, makes it possible for individuals “to do a kind of thinking they could not, or would not, otherwise do.” (Meichenbaum and Asarnow, 1979) This preparation procedure is described by Meichenbaum (1974) as a “cognitive prosthesis.” Self-instructions serve to motivate the individual, focus the individual on what to attend to, and direct the rehearsal of the tasks needed to reach the goal. Self-instructions serve as a guide to thought and a set of cognitive rules or principles to follow in dealing with problems. Here is an example of a set of initial metacogntive instructions:
- Ok, I am attracted to ____________
- Let me step back and slow down my feelings to think.
- What is attractive about ____________?
- What is unattractive about ___________?
- Let me get some more information.
- Do our personalities match?
- Do we have the same values?
- Do we have the same commitment to Christ and His Church?
- Do we have the same interests?
- Can I be myself?
- Does he/she accept me for who I am?
- Would he/she parent our children the same way?
- Can I accept him/her for who he/she is?
- Can I accept him/her for 10 years, 20 years, and for the rest of my life?
- How does he/she relate to parents, siblings and friends? (a good predictor of how he will relate to you)
Watchfulness (metacognition) in the mind of the Church
Consider St. Peter’s words: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” (1 Pt 5:8) Regarding this scriptural passage, our holy spiritual father St. Symeon the New Theologian (Philokalia IV) writes: “To speak generally, it is impossible to acquire all the other virtues except through watchfulness.” Later St. Symeon develops the point further: “…the intellect repulses all distractive thoughts that encircle the heart, attempting to get in, and it rebuffs them through attentiveness.” The counsels of the spiritual Church Fathers, in their understanding of Our Lord’s teachings, foreshadow the techniques of the cognitive psychological ‘treatment’ procedures of recognizing cognitive distortions and themes, challenging and restructuring these distortions and integrating mindfulness exercises.
The early fathers of the Eastern Christian Church present the concept of nepsis, or the vigilance and watchfulness of the mind and heart. This is similar to the cognitive therapy technique employed by psychologists in helping patients to learn to control their thoughts through mindfulness.
For Orthodox Christians, mindfulness not only means the human activity of clear attention and dispelling of distorted thinking, but also cutting away that which is ungodly and attending to what is Godly. Hausherr (1990) taught that nepsis is “wakefulness, attention, from the Greek verb nepho (to be vigilant, mindful).” Thus, we can be completely “present” to our thoughts and surroundings. A mindful person is not dissimilar to a military scout at the head of a column, or a busy parent “attending” to their newborn infant.
St. Hesychios described the effects of mindfulness: “Watchfulness is a graceful and radiant virtue when guided by Thee, Christ our God, and accompanied by the alertness and deep humility of the human intellect…[I]t cleanses the intellect consumed in ungodliness by the brine of demonic thoughts and the hostile will of the flesh, which is death." (Philokalia I)
Strengthening a Christ-like courtship
These metacognitive guiding questions and spiritual reflections presented in this article are not meant to exorcise the beauty, joy or mystery of true love leading to a holy and blessed marriage. Rather, these questions and reflections, by integrating into the love equation the thinking processes and the enlivening of Christ in the depth of our hearts, are meant to prevent our “losing our heads.” Spiritually, watchfulness and nepsis are also meant to help the couple, in courtship or after a marriage blessed by God, to stay faithful to His commandment of love. In Christian marriage, authentic and true love seeks to replicate the self-sacrificial love that Christ revealed to us when He became man and dwelt among us (and which continues today in Christ's faithfulness to His Church). Self-sacrificial love conforms to the Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. In so doing we also love and honor God (Mt 25:36–40; 1 Jn 4:19–21).
A simple imagery exercise to combat infatuation
If thinking indicated the person is not right for you, an imagery exercise may be helpful in replacing the idealized image of the person you are beginning to get infatuated with. For example, you could form a mental image of the exalted ‘loved’ one that portrays him or her in an embarrassing or foolish manner. A well dressed, handsome man could be pictured in a Chicken Little costume; a beautiful girl or young woman could be imaged with cream pie dripping from her face.
Once dysfunctional emotions occur, and are recognized as such, the next step involves helping the infatuated one recognize, and then re-label and restructure, the cognitive distortions and themes listed above. Three questions are helpful in challenging the ‘love sick’ person’s thinking so that restructuring can occur:
- What evidence do I have to support my emotions?
- Is there any other way of looking at the situation?
- Is the situation as bad as it seems?
For example, in dealing with the manic-like infatuation elicited by the selective abstraction behavior example presented above, Jack could ask:
- What evidence do I have that Jill’s beauty is the sum total of who she is? Answer: “Yes, she has many characteristics other than beauty.”
- Is there any other way to look at who Jill is? Answer: “Yes she is beautiful, but she also has a nasty quick temper and makes contemptuous gestures and remarks.
- Is my situation as bad as it seems? Answer: “If I were to break up with Jill, it might be a blessing and not a tragedy at all. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with a spouse who is judgmental and nasty.”
Behavioral response plan
Questions and answers would help Jack debrief his cognitive error by helping him understand what brought the error about. The next step is to help Jack become behaviorally proactive by developing a plan to respond more effectively in the future. Jack would follow this cognitive insight with a behavioral action plan. He would have to be assertive in his communication with Jill. Assertiveness is defined as an honest and true communication of real thinking and feelings in a socially acceptable (and in a charitable, Christ-like) manner.
Assertiveness is a skill that can be acquired to communicate a necessary view or feeling in order to bring about a favorable psychological or spiritual result. This definition has two qualifications: 1) The assertive utterance should be socially acceptable; and 2) Only when a minimal response fails to bring about the desired result should an escalation of communication occur. For the Christian a third corollary applies: All assertiveness must be done in the love of Christ which includes patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—what is known in scriptural terminology as the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22–23). (Morelli, 2006b)
A life in prayer, watchfulness, and union with Christ and His Church
Living a life of prayer is especially important during courtship. This includes practicing being aware of the presence of God, and being watchful that our thoughts, words and deeds are Godly. Prayer and watchfulness require stillness, that is to say, taking time out to focus on God and His will for us. St. Philotheos of Sinai (Philokalia III) writes extensively on the importance of stillness and watchfulness in leading a life in Christ. In one of his counsels he tells us: “It is very rare to find people whose intelligence is in a state of stillness. Indeed, such a state is only to be found in those who through their whole manner of life strive to attract divine grace and blessing to themselves. If then we seek—by guarding our intellect and by inner watchfulness—to engage … the true philosophy of Christ, we must begin by exercising self-control … Watchfulness may fittingly be called a path leading both to the kingdom within us to that which is to be…” We can reflect on the words of St. Paul: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.” (1 Cor 9:25) St. Philotheos would have us meditate on the words of St. Paul to the Galatians (5:16–17): “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.“
Being under the guidance of a spiritual father or mother and frequent use of the holy mystery of penance to a father confessor is recommended for all Christians, but especially for those who are in the courtship years in which passions are most strong. The guile and ruse of the evil one is to have people fall into a state of dejection and abandon Christ, after being in a state of sin, that is to say, after ‘missing the mark.’ Rejecting Christ allows the evil one to win and Christ to be lost.
But Christ himself said: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Mt 9:12) During the time of life when we are most susceptible to the illness and infirmity of sin, we need Christ, our heavenly physician, to cure our soul in the holy mystery of Confession, and to give us His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. As we pray in the Divine Liturgy, just before receiving Christ in the Eucharist, “Therefore, O Master, do thou thyself distribute these gifts here spread forth, unto all of us for good according to the individual need of each … thou who art the physician of our souls and bodies.”
In leaving the topic of infatuation let us recall the words of our holy spiritual father, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Ageloglou, 1998):
The one who realizes his mistake, has already progressed halfway. However, it is also very important for him to sense his weakness. It is much better to be aware of our own weakness, than to struggle very hard, while neglecting it.
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