A good question for Valentine’s day.  And there will always be an air of mystery about the whole thing.  But we do know something of what’s going on in the business of falling in love.

An interesting introduction to the subject is provided by John Cleese and psychotherapist Robin Skynner in their best-selling book, ‘Families and how to survive them’.  What follows is drawn from that.  Cleese and Skynner themselves admit that seeing a stranger across a crowded room and deciding you’re going to spend the rest of your life with them borders on the occult.  Arranged marriages, they remind us, were the norm not so long ago with Samuel Johnson opining that all marriages should be arranged by the Lord Chancellor because falling in love as a basis for lifelong union was a recipe for disaster.

Chemistry under the microscope

So what explains the ‘chemistry’ that much of the world now exalts so highly?  Skynner challenges the view that opposites don’t attract and similars, especially where there’s similarity in family background, do.  Skynner describes the Family Systems Exercise where a group of complete strangers are put in a room and, with talking forbidden, are asked to choose another person who could have been a member of their family.  These two in turn choose another pair and the foursome are asked to make themselves into a family, assigning family roles to each individual.

The remarkable thing is that they will usually all have chosen each other because their family backgrounds are similar and their families also functioned in similar ways:  for example, struggling to express affection, envy or anger, or having to be optimistic or having a father who was frequently absent and so on. 

Other similarities

All this is fundamentally linked to why we fall in love.  Yes, part of our choice of a mate rests on social factors like class, money and religion and on things we’re very aware of like good looks and shared interests.  But there are reasons for our choice that we’re unaware of – unconscious reasons – as demonstrated by the Family Systems Exercise and they’re about similarity.

More examples of the similarity might well be a missed component in emotional development.  That could be a lack of care by a mother producing in us a difficulty in caring for others, or an absence of loving firmness and control by our parents leading to a deficit in self-discipline in us and problems with authority.  Or, in the case of only children, it might be the lack of the rough and tumble that siblings provide – a lack which can lead later to social problems and bullying.  The missed developmental component can take many forms.

Behind the screen

According to Skynner, we may know that something important has been missed out so, because that fact makes us feel embarrassed, uncomfortable and even unacceptable, we hide it from others and that becomes such a habit that we end up hiding it from ourselves and eventually forgetting about it altogether.  In Skynner and Cleese’s language, we ‘screen it off’.  Whole families can also do this.  For instance, a family message may be that anger is bad and accordingly anger gets put behind the screen.  In every family some emotions are regarded as good and some as bad.

The hidden part of falling in love

The point about falling in love is that couples who are attracted to each other will often have missed out on the same components of development.  They will both have problems with the same emotions because important lessons won’t have been learned.  They will have similar things behind their screens and similar things in front of their screens – ie ‘human nature minus what’s been screened off’, as Cleese puts it.  But it’s what’s in front that causes the attraction that people feel:  ‘all the qualities, the emotional attitudes, that they’ve been brought up to approve and admire’ and none of the bad ones.  So it’s a match made in heaven, they have their perfect partner and they can’t believe how much they have in common.


At the same time there’s something else going on too.  People tend to have a bit of fascination with the things behind the screen.  If it’s lust, then perhaps it’s enjoying reading salacious stories in the media while tut-tutting with one’s partner about them.  If it’s cruelty then perhaps it’s being drawn to read a report about torture while feeling guilty about it and hiding from one’s partner that there was a pull towards reading it.  Skynner and Cleese comment that if people sense just for a moment what’s behind their partner’s screen it can add to the fascination.  ‘Provided it’s only a hint of the feelings back there’ [behind the screen] ‘it can be exciting, a bit of a ‘turn on’’, Skynner observes.

Becoming whole

Taboos, then, can be enticing.  But what’s really going on is that we have a strong desire to be whole.  ‘When we sense, and are drawn to, the denied parts behind the screen in our partner, we’re really hoping, deep down, to get back the missing parts of ourselves again’.

Because of all the similarities, our partners seem to instinctively understand us and accept us and perhaps unconsciously we may sense that they can make us complete.  But how can this person who may have the same weaknesses as us possibly help us?  The paradox is that our partner may simultaneously be the one we can most grow with and the one we can most get stuck with.

The courage to face reality

It all depends on how much a couple are willing to look at what’s behind the screens and how brave they can be in accepting the uncomfortable truth that they’re different from the idea they have about themselves.  The more they can do that the richer the relationship will be and the better the chance they will have of riding out problems if, as and when they come up.  Communication will be key.

There’s obviously a lot more happening around falling in love than has been said here and more than ‘Families and how to survive them’ suggests.  This is just a beginning.  But maybe it’s raw material for a conversation over a candlelit dinner.