I always thought that familial love and romantic love were similar but fundamentally different types of love. It turns out that love has one template, and that template is formed for humans at the very beginning of life by the relationship between an infant and its caregivers. I’m learning this the hard way, though my own experiences in which I’m finding my own feeble attempts at romantic love short-circuiting due to issues that are almost too obviously the product of my earliest life experiences.
Ideally, the relationship between an infant and its caregivers is one of unconditional love and support. The infant feels its needs can be met and generally feels safe and secure, feeling comfort around its caregivers but also feeling free to explore and progressively develop independence. Relating this to attachment theory, such a child will generally develop a secure attachment style which they will carry through adulthood for all types of relationships, especially romantic. Romantic relationships are most similar to the parent-child relationship in that they involve mutual love and attachment. There are of course major difference between adult and parent-child relationships.
An infant is completely dependent on its caregivers for love, which is also quite literally life. An adult should be able to care of themself in the event another human isn’t with them or partnered them, but an infant cannot. For an infant, love is thus life or death. If their caregivers abandon them, they will die. In cases where love is present but inconsistent or unreliable, the infant can feel extreme fear at the times when love is lacking. If this fear persists, an infant can associate love with fear, fear that can be as extreme as the fear of death itself. This is a challenging template for love to take into adulthood.
The evidence from my present life experiences suggests that I was one of those infants who was often afraid. My parents did, and still do love me very much. But due to circumstances that no one intended, I for whatever reason did not have a safe relationship with that attached kind of love; that same basic type of love bond shared between parent and child and two lovers who might say that they’re “in love.”
I see this clearly because in circumstances that are objectively safe where I should no fears, my amygdala hijacks my thoughts and actions and makes me feel as if any love involving attachment is dangerous and terrifying. I know this comes from the beginning of life as I’ve had no other experiences with love or lovers that could possibly invoke such fear, proving that romantic love activates the same neural pathways formed in parental love. My amygdala is just trying to protect from dying. For that, I’m thankful, I don’t want to die. But I do also want to be able to not just love, but be in love, and have that be a safe place to be.
For those who have always been able to have healthy, secure romantic bonds: thank your parents. They gave you the template you needed to have intimate, attached adult relationships in which you can fully give and receive love, supporting and cherishing a partner without suffocating them. For others who struggle with this: I’m told on good authority that it’s possible to change this template that formed at the beginning of life. It’s not easy. I have yet to do it myself, though I know others who have. For my, I’m quite certain that working on this is the single greatest leverage point I have along the path to greater well-being.