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False Forms of Love: The Devastating IFD Syndrome

Strong, tall, handsome Trent came into my office with tears streaming down his rugged cheeks.  In a groaning, deep tone voice he almost whispered, “I have lost my reason to live.  I lost her – my one, true love.  She was so perfect and I drove her off.  I tried and tried and I can’t get her back.  How am I going to go on?  She won’t have anything more to do with me.  My life is ruined.  It hurts so bad”.  Then he spilled out the story of their relationship.

It was a familiar tale.  Like so many before him Trent had become a victim of one of the big, romantic love killers, the sometimes even fatal IFD Syndrome.  Trent had met and come quickly to think of Tricia as ‘perfect’ in every way.  Things went quite well for them until one day she cut short her long, flowing, gorgeous, locks which had been just right as Trent had seen her lovely hair.  Ever so carefully Trent told Tricia how her hair had looked ideal long and flowing.  He gently insisted she grow it back and never cut it again, plus he sort of pontificated that this was how females should look.  Soon after Tricia started wearing rather short skirts with low necklines.

With some frustration Trent told Tricia it was no longer appropriate for her to wear her clothes like that since they were now in a committed relationship with one another and that type of look was just for attracting men.  Soon thereafter Tricia’s skirts became even shorter and her necklines lower, plus she became rather flirtatious with other men at various gatherings.  As Trent saw it her femininity also was marred by her increasingly risqué talk.  Trent decided he must correct her ways and get her back to acting like she did when he met her.  He tried reason, guilt trips, cajoling, anger and everything else he could think of to get her to conform to the ideal girl he had perceived her to be at the beginning of their relationship.  The more he tried and failed the more frustrated he got.  Then Trent and Tricia began to fight about all sorts of stupid, little things.  That went on for quite a while and kept getting worse.  The end came one day when Trent, in a state of extreme frustration, risked saying “You’re just not the girl I fell in love with and if you don’t go back to being her we are done!”.  Trisha replied, “I am the same girl I always was and if you really loved the real me you would love me as I experiment with new, innocent stuff, go through ordinary changes and find little ways to be more me.  I haven’t done anything I’m ashamed of and you don’t have a right to censor me.  The core, real me is the same.  I don’t think you ever saw the core me and I don’t think you love the real me either.  You’re just in love with your image of me, so, yes, we are done”.  And done they were, leaving Trent defeated, demoralized, dejected and nearly suicidally depressed, trapped in the devastating “D” phase of a strong IFD false love syndrome.

Way back in 1946 a rather then famous linguistic psychologist, Dr. Wendell Johnson, published a book describing the IFD Syndrome and telling of how it negatively effects almost everyone sooner or later.  He called it a “disease” that is particularly common and devastating among university students, sending many into breakdowns and mental hospitals.  Unfortunately mental-health professionals mostly do not read linguistic psychology publications and so this phenomenon went largely unnoticed in the therapeutic community, although it was fairly well received in social psychology and for a time by the lay public.  An experimental psychologist introduced the IFD Syndrome to me when I was in my residency at a psychiatric hospital and we did an in-house study concerning IFD and suicide.  Our results showed that a significant 28% of our most seriously suicide attempting, young, adult patients made their serious suicide attempts in the “D” phase of an IFD Syndrome.  It appeared Dr. Johnson was right about the commonness and severity of this form of false love.  This pattern also showed up in other age ranges to a significant but somewhat lesser degree.

The IFD false love syndrome is thought to work like this.  First, in your childhood and youth you subconsciously begin to get ideas of what your ideal love mate will be like.  This grows into an idealized image of what ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ ‘Just Right For You’ will look, sound, act and be like.  Then one day you meet someone who seems to be rather like that idealized, just right, one and only love mate for you.  Your subconscious then projects your idealized image onto that person, blinding you from seeing who’s really there.  Just as you do not see the screen at the movies you only see what’s projected onto it, so too you only see your idealized, projected image and not the real person who is there.  The letter “I” in the IFD syndrome stands for “idealized image” or just “idealization”.

In time you begin to get glimpses of who is really there and you don’t like it because it’s different than your ideal image.  This can be said always to occur because people are dynamic, changing, growing, altering, maturing, etc. and because people are more complex than idealized images.  So even if a person stays pretty much the same for a time the person doing the projecting will start to see more than was seen at first and that will be unexpected, disconcerting and frustrating.  Of course for a time the person you project your idealized image onto may artificially act in accord with what you desire as a way to relate to you.  Eventually new and differing aspects of the ‘real person’ will emerge into your awareness and that will be more troubling to you.  Another way to think about this is that since no two things can be exactly alike your idealized image and a real person cannot be the same, and with time that will be discovered and become disturbing.

What comes next is growing frustration.  As you try to get your lover back up on your ‘idealization pedestal’ and try to get them to ‘act right’ they keep stepping down off your pedestal and being themselves.  After all, pedestals are very narrow, dull places on which to live even if, at first, they seem flattering and safe.  People who live on a pedestal come to feel unloved because in truth they are not loved but only idealized.  Healthy, real love accepts change, supports growth and understands the need for maturation and variety.

For a time in the “F” phase things progress in a troubled way.  As you observe more discrepancies between your static, idealized image and the dynamic reality of the person you are with, often you compulsively and sometimes even desperately attempt to get your lover to regress to what you first saw them to be.  Frequently that person resists overtly or covertly, and you become ever more frustrated, often angry and perhaps even violent.  [It is important to note that the one you think you love must exist as their real self to be healthy, because if they are forced or submit to other than who they really are they often may deteriorate into depression or some other illness.]  But, as you see it, any change is “for the worse” not change for the better.   Usually the relationship becomes increasingly conflicted, difficult and full of more frustration, along with fewer and fewer demonstrations of love.  Unloved people subconsciously, if not consciously, go looking for love and this can lead to cheating and all the frustrations that go with that.  Escape into some form of destructive, self abuse or addiction also may occur to either person if the “F” phase of an IFD Syndrome is prolonged.  The “F” in the IFD stands for “Frustration” and the fight for and against getting the idealized lover to return to the projected ideal.

After living in the “F” stage of an IFD Syndrome finally, by one means or another, the relationship fails completely.  Then the person who did the idealizing (Trent, in the example above) enters the “D” phase of the syndrome.  This happens when the idealizer realizes they’re not going to get their ideal lover, that person is lost, unattainable, and the ideal they had fixated on is likely never to be realized.  If that happens to you in a love relationship you enter a phase of feeling devastated, demoralized, dejected, defeated and all too often temporarily, clinically depressed, even sometimes to the point of being suicidal for a time.  The “D” in the IFD Syndrome stands for those “D” words in the sentence above: demoralized, depressed, etc..  The clinical depression can happen because love situations effect the neurochemical processes of your brain, sometimes quite positively and sometimes quite negatively.

By the way, know that IFD dynamics can occur with lots of different human endeavors.  Some people idealize their parents, or their children, or their spiritual leader, or religion, or political philosophy, or their country, etc..  The results of strong idealization are inevitably the same.  After idealizing someone or something the one doing the idealizing becomes frustrated when he or she sees that which they idealized is falling short or differing from the ideal.  Then the idealizer becomes demoralized when he or she realizes ideals exist only in the mind and not in reality, and the ideal, therefore, is unobtainable and impossible.  However, love and romance-related idealizations often are the worst type to experience when they enter the “D” phase.

Trent, who was quite bright, was helped enormously by learning of the IFD dynamics and how they worked.  He also was helped quite a lot by spending time in a therapy group where others told him of having gone through the IFD Syndrome and come out just fine, often in a surprisingly shorter time than predicted by their mental health professional.  Some mild, mood stabilizing medications which blocked Trent from sinking too low in his depression also had short-term usefulness.  A word of caution here.  Those who have suffered from IFD Syndromes sometimes are thought to have been confused with much more long-lasting mental illness conditions and, thereby, may have been over-medicated and otherwise improperly treated.
For those who get seriously depressed in an IFD pattern just staying alive for 6 to 12 weeks seems to get them over a hump.  That’s because by then for most people the brain adjusts and produces healthier brain chemistry that helps the sufferer to better process the whole relationship dynamic they have been through.  Most unfortunately a number of people in the “D” phase of an IFD pattern are thought to have successfully committed suicide before that amount of time has passed and they could feel better and see clearer.  So, if you think someone is in a serious “D” phase of an IFD Syndrome try to get them to a good therapist who can help them through this sometimes dangerous phase and on to healthier love relating.  It also is important to know that some people get stuck in repeating the IFD Syndrome with a whole string of lovers.  Others get married in the “I” or “F” phase and then divorce in the “D” phase.  Some do this over and over.

The good news is most people who go through an IFD Syndrome come out of it and go looking for new and better understandings of how healthy, real love works.  They have a good chance of developing the real thing.  Again, a good love-knowledgeable counselor or therapist can help make that outcome happen a lot more likely, more quickly and much more completely.

Trent recovered fully and went on to a healthy, real love that worked well.  Later he got to know Trisha again in a much different situation.  His final comment about her in a counseling session was, “Trisha is OK but frankly I don’t know what I saw in her that I was so passionate about.  She seems nice but she’s not someone I’d want to spend a lot of time with”.  His closure statement is representative of most of the final IFD Syndrome outcomes.

As always – Go and Grow with Love

Dr. J. Richard Cookerly

♥ Love Success Question
Do you have an ideal love mate in your mind, against which you unrealistically compare all real people?  If so what are you going to do about that?

False Forms of Love Series
False Forms of Love: Limerence and Its Alluring Lies
False Forms of Love: Meta Lust
False Forms of Love: Shadow Side Attachments
False Forms of Love: The Devastating IFD Syndrome
False Forms of Love: Unresolved Conflict Attraction Syndrome
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