Imitation Love (#662)

Nina and I just got back from a weekend away celebrating our 19th wedding anniversary and 21st year together, and for a bit of light reading I brought a long a copy of Greg Baer’s wonderful book Real Love in Marriage. In the book, Dr. Baer makes a distinction that I find incredibly useful – the distinction between “Real Love” and “Imitation Love”.

Real Love is unconditional – it is that place of profound connection with another human being that transcends circumstances and comes with no conditions, no judgments, and no expectations. In Dr. Baer’s words, it “is caring about the happiness of another person without any thought for what we might get for ourselves.” It is what we all crave, and many of us can remember even a single experience of loving or being loved unconditionally for the rest of our lives.

It may have been the first time you held your baby in your arms or looked deeply into your sweetheart’s eyes. You may remember being picked up by a parent after falling or comforted by a friend after a particularly crappy day. It may even have been a time where your cat jumped into your lap and began to purr; or your dog lovingly nuzzled you as if they somehow knew that you were hurting and needed a little something extra in that moment. Whatever your history, it is virtually impossible to forget an experience of Real Love, and many of us spend our lives trying to recreate the circumstances in which we first felt it.

By contrast, conditional or “Imitation Love” is dependent on your behavior and the circumstances you find yourself in. In the book, Dr. Baer describes it as “distinguished from Real Love by the presence of disappointment and anger.” It is a system of punishments and rewards, and is learned from an early age at the knees of our parents. Here’s how I described it in You Can Have What You Want:

“Mommy and Daddy love you very much. As long as you do what we want, we will continue to love you as much as we do; if you don’t, we will withhold our love (or at least our approval) until you do what we want, at which point we will give all (or at least some) of it back.”

This “loving as behavior modification” model works up to a point, but it never quite fills the space in our hearts that is designed to give and receive love unconditionally.

As Dr. Baer goes on to say:

“With Real Love, nothing else matters; without it, nothing else is enough.”

Here are the four forms of Imitation Love as laid out in the Real Love/Imitation Love model:

1. Praise

I once worked with a famous comedian who was having trouble grasping a concept we were discussing and was beginning to show his frustration. I jokingly said “I’m sorry – am I not giving you enough praise?” to which he responded in all seriousness “No, it’s not you – it’s like a black hole in here. There’s no possible way you could fill it.”

And this is the problem with praise – like any other “feel good” medication we might take to make ourselves feel better, the more of it we have, the more we need in order to continue to feel OK.

2. Power

Nina and I finished our getaway with a trip to the cinema to see “Ghosts of Boyfriends Past”, and despite some holes in the plot you could drive a truck through, I found it extremely enjoyable. At one point the newly reformed ladies man played by Matthew McConaughey points out that “In relationships, the person who cares the least has the most power – but the person who cares the most is almost always the happiest.” This is not the kind of over-care that has an almost desperate, needy, or suffocating quality – it is the simple, genuine care that comes naturally from a place of innate well-being and an attitude that places feeling and communicating love at least one step above the desire for your partner to pick up their socks.

As Dr. Baer points out, “If you doubt that you control your spouse, consider how you feel when he doesn’t do what you want. Your disappointment or anger indicate that you want to control his behavior – however unconscious your efforts may be.”

3. Pleasure

I first heard a variation on the “I don’t love him but the sex is great” reasoning behind staying in a toxic relationship from a client who also suffered from an eating disorder. Essentially, whenever she was feeling empty inside, she would seek to fill that feeling of emptiness out with sensual pleasures. But as I said to her once in the midst of a session, “There aren’t enough cookies in the world to make you feel loved and whole.” Another client insisted that his drug use was no different than the Native American peace pipe ceremonies until I pointed out that a) he wasn’t on a vision quest and b) he wasn’t experiencing any peace.

Personally, I’m a big fan of pleasure – it’s just that if you’re using it as a substitute for Real Love, you will never be able to get enough of it no matter how hard you try.

4. Safety

In the absence of Real Love, attempting to keep ourselves safe from the pain of loss or heartbreak can seem like a pretty good strategy. This can lead to a life where everything seems “fine”, which my friend John LaValle defined as “F*%#d up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional”. As with each of the other forms of Imitation Love, the problem is not in being safe – it is in attempting to use safety as a substitute for real, unconditional love, acceptance, and happiness.

Let’s go back to Dr. Baer’s book for a closer look at the cost of trying to make do with Imitation Love:

“Insufficient Real Love creates an emptiness we cannot ignore, especially when we also don’t have enough Imitation Love to make us feel better temporarily. Our subsequent behavior is then often determined by our need to be loved and our fear of not being loved. Without Real Love, we do whatever it takes – Getting Behaviors – to fill our sense of emptiness with Imitation Love. To eliminate our fear, we use Protecting Behaviors. The Getting Behaviors include lying, attacking, acting like a victim and running. The Protecting Behaviors include lying, attacking, acting like a victim, and clinging.”

So how do you create a relationship that isn’t based on getting and protecting?

By allowing yourself to see your partner as they really are, and by allowing your partner to see you as you really are.

If that’s a frightening thought for you, take a few minutes to do today’s experiment adapted from John F. DeMartini’s book Count Your Blessings: The Healing Power of Gratitude and Love


1. Write down the name of the person you would most like to share Real Love with.

2. List at least ten character traits you like and then at least ten character traits that you don’t like about that person. Continue with both lists until you can begin to see them as they really are – good and bad, positive and negative, sinner and saint. You will know that your perceptions are truly balanced when you begin to feel a sense of genuine love and gratitude for this person being in your life. You may even experience the presence of a tear (or tears) in your eyes as you make the shift from trying to love “the good” in them to loving them as they are.

3. Repeat the exercise with yourself as the person.

Have fun, learn heaps, and happy exploring!


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