Remember Bo Didley’s song “Who Do You Love”? I think it is a good question to ask yourself this Valentine’s day. Seriously, whom exactly do you love? And what do you mean by love?
I just finished reading a book (“Mind, Modernity and Madness”, by Liah Greenfeld). The book’s main focus is on culture as a causal element in mental illness. Accordingly, it starts the discussion by describing the progress of early humans from developing the capacity for language, to articulating signs and finally to articulating symbols – i.e., something that stands for or represents something else. It is always fascinating to consider the context of psychological evolution. We can think of anything we want and make up any story in our mind: be it in the distant past or the immediate future, in places we have never seen and with people we would never meet. Being liberated from the concrete and acquiring the freedom of the abstract, offers boundless possibilities.
Imagination, fantasy life, daydreaming and the ability to think in symbols offers a rich matrix for creating an “as if reality” inside our mental world. Which brings me to the avatar: Obviously, our perception of reality is very subjective. The glass is half full or half empty, the picture is dark or bright: our mood colors our thoughts and our thoughts in turn affect our mood. No matter how factually based, eventually almost everything in our life becomes relative and dependent on how we choose to see it.
Nowhere is it more poignant than in our choice of a romantic partner. Ask yourself: How do you relate to your partner when he or she is not with you physically? Or better yet whom do you relate to? Who do you miss? When your partner is with you, his or her physical existence supersedes your fantasy about them in your inner world, but when you are apart – whether at work, traveling, going to classes etc – you interact with them in your mind. Obviously, you cannot bring the actual person into your inner world, so you create a representation of your romantic partner in your mind. I call this representation, the avatar.
Often the avatar is very close to the real person it represents in your mind. But at times, they have almost nothing in common. You can have a host of interactions with the avatar that are very different from the ones you have with the real person. In fact, you may have a whole emotional experience with the imaginary figure: you can have a fight with the avatar, seduce the avatar, lecture the avatar, love the avatar or scold it; but it is the avatar, not the real person, and you might be surprised to see how far you have gone with your mind’s creation. It is common to have leftover feelings from an imaginary, inner altercation, much like the odd feeling that lingers after a difficult dream. You know it is your imagination, but your emotional device continues to create “Phantom feelings”.
Valentine’s day is a good occasion to ask yourself: Whom do you love? Is it your romantic partner’s avatar? How close is the avatar to the real person? Does the avatar possess some idealized traits the real person doesn’t’? Does “spending time” with the avatar seem better and more pleasurable?
You may discover that you indeed have a relationship with two entities: your partner and his or her avatar. Even if merely a figment of your imagination, the avatar influences your relationship with your real partner. Evolutionary speaking, our emotions are so ancient compared to our cognitive abilities, that we are often unable to separate our imagination from reality. (Try this: Think of a something you like to eat when you are hungry and your mouth would literally start watering. The food is not around, you do not see it, smell it taste it. You just imagined it. Still your body reacts to the fantasy as if it was real).
After some time together, you may find that the boundaries between the real person and the avatar become blurred. If it is more pleasurable to be with the imaginary partner than with the real person, you will start overlooking certain aspects of your relationship, idealize or devalue others, and increasingly “live” with the avatar at the exclusion of the real living breathing partner.
Fantasy is wonderful as a sweetener of life. Our childhood fantasies – those immensely pleasurable, sweet daydreams – are gone, tossed away forever by the rush of life. They are gradually replaced by “realistic” fantasies. These grown up fantasies can still bring us pleasure and sweeten our life. But they often create an alternative reality. This is precarious since we start to compare our lives to our fantasy about them. And since no reality is as good as its corresponding fantasy, they can interfere with our ability to enjoy our real life.
The question “who do you love?” is indeed quite pertinent to your relationship. Valentine’s day, the ultimate romantic vortex, is a good time to evaluate it. Do you love the real, flesh and blood person or his/her idealized imaginary version? If the avatar pops up, its time to turn back to your original love, the person with whom you chose to spend at least part of the journey, if not all of it, together.