NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, May 14, 2023

Relationships: Confusing Love With Longing

Confusing love and longing is a common problem for many people.  And it's no wonder: We're bombarded with damaging cultural messages that longing is love and love is longing in songs, movies, TV programs and social media.

Confusing Love With Longing: A Traumatic Childhood History of Emotional Neglect
Aside from damaging cultural messages, a traumatic childhood history of emotional neglect can lead to confusing love and longing (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).

Confusing Love With Longing

Wanting to be loved is normal.  It's every child's birthright to be loved for who they are and not based on conditional love for accomplishments (see my article: The Connection Between Conditional Love, Perfection and Shame).

But if you grew up in a family where you were emotionally neglected, this can set you up to be in a perpetual state of longing for love (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Unlovable and Emotionally Invalidated).

Longing becomes the template for love so that you might unconsciously choose people who are emotionally unavailable to replicate your early childhood experience. 

Confusing Love With Longing: Nothing is Ever Enough
Even if the people you chose are emotionally available, you might still feel emotionally deprived because it feels like it's not enough.  For many people, who experienced childhood emotional neglect, nothing is ever enough.

The feeling that nothing is ever enough occurs when you grew up, as an adult, you're looking for someone else to fill in the emotional void that was created in your childhood. 

But, unless you grieve and heal in therapy for what you didn't get as a child, whatever love you do get as an adult won't be enough to make up the childhood emotional neglect.

Under these circumstances, even if the person you love is emotionally available, you might experience your partner as if they're not available (see my article: What is the Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Adult Romantic Relationships?).

No matter how much time they give you or how much they do for you, you feel it's never enough because the emotional void is still there from your childhood experience.  This can leave you in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

When you're confusing love and longing, without realizing it, you can "test" your partner by creating situations where you expect more and more and they always come up short.

Confusing Love With Longing

For instance, if you're in a relationship and partner is available to see you twice a week, you might demand even more time from them with the unconscious thought that if they really love you, they'll find a way to spend more time with you.  

But even if your partner, who is very busy, finds a way to spend more time with you, it's still not enough.  You come up with other ways to "test" how much they care for you which makes it increasingly difficult for your partner.

You come up with other demands that are difficult or impossible to meet, and when your partner can't meet your demands, you say to yourself, "Aha! I knew it! She doesn't love me!" as if you found the proof of what you feared all along.

This can also confirm what you might have unconsciously believed about yourself since childhood--that you're an unlovable person (see my article: Overcoming the Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Conversely, if you fall in love with someone who is emotionally available and gives you the time and attention you want, you might lose interest in them because longing equals love for you and you're no longer longing for them because you have them.

This is a setup for a no-win situation where you never feel fulfilled because your childhood trauma is getting played out in your current situation and your lack of emotional fulfillment is tied to your past (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences From Your Past).

Clinical Vignette - Relationships: Confusing Love and Longing
The following scenario, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information removed to protect confidentiality, illustrates how confusing love and longing in an adult romantic relationship can be resolved with trauma therapy.

Ed, who was in his mid-30s, sought help in trauma therapy because he was confused about his feelings for his girlfriend Patty.  

Within weeks of meeting her, Ed fell head over heels for Patty, but he wasn't sure how she really felt for him--even though she told him that she really liked him.

They spent a lot of time together, but then Patty, who was a journalist, was given an assignment in London for two weeks.  

She assured Ed that she would stay in touch with him as much as possible considering the time difference between New York and London.  She also said she wanted to get together with him soon after she returned.

Despite her assurances, Ed felt anxious and sad while she was away.  He felt so obsessed about her that he couldn't get her out of his mind.  

With each passing day, he missed her more and he felt like he wouldn't be able endure her absence.  The more he missed her, the more he longed for her.  And the more he longed for her, the more he felt he loved her.  

At first, Patty was flattered when Ed told her how much he missed her.  But as he continued to dwell on his longing in their long distance telephone conversations, Patty began to feel uneasy.  She thought to herself:  We've only known each other a short time.  How could he have developed such strong feelings for me so quickly?

Patty had dinner with Ed the night after she returned from London.  She was jet lagged from her trip and Ed interpreted her tiredness as a lack of interest in him--even though she reassured him that she really liked him.

Soon after that, Ed began making more demands on Patty's time.  In response, she told Ed that she wanted to spend time with him, but she was working on a demanding project which required a lot of extra time, so she couldn't see him more than twice a week.

This created a lot of anxiety, doubt and confusion for Ed.  He could barely stand it as he waited to see Patty between dates.  Then, it occurred to him that the problem could be resolved if she moved in with him because then they could be together all the time. 

Much to his disappointment, Patty didn't respond well to this suggestion. She told him that they needed to get to know each other better and it was too soon for them to move in together.

After a while, Patty felt burdened by Ed's emotional demands, and she told him that they should take a break to get some perspective on their relationship.  

She knew about Ed's childhood trauma and she suggested he get help in trauma therapy (see my article:  What is a Trauma Therapist?).

This is what brought Ed into trauma therapy.  

His trauma therapist did a full assessment on Ed's family history and she told him that his traumatic childhood experiences were having an impact on his relationship with Patty.  She explained how Ed was confusing love with longing, but he didn't understand the connection between love and longing at that point in his therapy.

In the initial stage of therapy, his therapist talked to Ed about EMDR therapy (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

She also helped him to develop the internal resources to be able to process his early childhood memories of emotional neglect.

During that time, Patty contacted him and told him that she wanted to get together with him so they could talk.  Ed was elated.  

During their dinner, Patty told him that she was happy he was getting help in trauma therapy.  She also told him that she was being transferred to a less demanding job at her newspaper, which she had applied for before she met Ed.  This meant she would be more available to see Ed.

At first, Ed was ecstatic that he could see Patty more often.  But as they spent more time together, he became less interested in Patty.  Even though nothing had changed between them, he felt bored and restless.  He also wondered if he even wanted to be with her anymore.

When Ed discussed this with his therapist, he realized he was no longer longing to be with Patty because she was available and he was spending a lot of time with her.

He also realized that, since nothing else had changed, he now understood what his therapist meant when she told him that he was confusing love and longing.

This frightened Ed because he wondered if he could ever be in love with an emotionally available partner like Patty. He worried he would never be in a fulfilling, loving relationship if he needed to long for his partner.

During the next several months, Ed and his therapist processed his early childhood experiences of being emotionally neglected.  Although it was difficult to process these traumatic memories, Ed felt an emotional burden being lifted from him.

During that time, Ed also learned to separate love and longing in his relationship with Patty. 

As he worked through his early trauma of emotional neglect, he developed a less emotionally dependent, more genuine way of loving her that wasn't based on emotional deprivation.

Working on Unresolved Early Trauma in Therapy
As mentioned earlier, confusing love with longing is usually rooted in traumatic experiences of being emotionally neglected.

Confusing Love With Longing

There are specific types of trauma therapy that are helpful to work through early trauma, including EMDR, AEDP, and Somatic Experiencing.

Getting Help in Therapy
If early traumatic experiences have created an obstacle to developing a healthy adult relationship, you could benefit from working with a trauma therapist.

A skilled trauma therapist can help you to work through traumatic experiences so you can free yourself from your traumatic history, develop healthier relationships, and lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I am a trauma therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW.- NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.