Struck dumb: why love at first sight is just another kind of narcissism

Monique Roffey
Photograph: Alamy

Coup de foudre. In France, that’s how we say love at first sight. Translated literally, though, it means “thunderbolt”, or “lightening strike”. Good grief. Love doesn’t get more dramatic than that.

A coup de foudre is the apex love experience in romantic western myth; it’s when Eros marks you out, takes aim, draws back his bow and lets his arrow fly. Thunk. You are struck. In the heart. A much idealised experience – why, I’m not sure, because this one single love event can’t be love at all. It’s something else, I believe, an inner psychological phenomenon. Jung says it’s when the anima or animus complex is triggered, suddenly and mysteriously, and then – shazam - you see yourself in the opposite gender. A divine narcissism. Some kind of flag is raised and some inner part of the self recognises the signal, as though a flare is shot up … into the universe: you’ve sighted “another” as a romantic ideal. That’s the version I most buy. It is when you recognise your chosen beloved, your “soul mate”. You think you’ve met “the one” … but is “the one” you’ve met really some complex mix of yourself in opposite and those who cared for you as a child, or didn’t? Is our beloved what psychologists call the imago, ie, an image of the first ever one who loved us (or not): our mother or father?

A coup de foudre is not always a comfortable experience. A god has wounded you in the heart, on purpose, for his pleasure

The idea is that we all have this complex ideal lover buried deep inside. We tend, in adulthood, to romantically fixate on “a type” of love object already buried deep, from very early on. So, it follows, the one we are waiting to meet, we actually know well. Ergo, we’ve already met our beloved before we’ve met him, or her, or them. We’re just looking for this same person again.

My father, for example, was an aloof, emotionally distant, charismatic alpha male. It’s no surprise that this is “my type” of man. When I was younger, this type of man again and again raised the flag of animus. My chakras all lit up in a row. Poof. Imagine how cute and alluring that is, a woman flashing all her chakras, involuntarily, at a man. A Shakti a-twinkling, behind a potted plant, trying to act normal and cover up a kind of outbreak from within. That’s him. Many people blush profusely when they meet “the one” (of course, we fancy the one rotten), or get flustered. Others find themselves struck dumb, unable to speak coherently. A coup de foudre is not always a comfortable experience. Why should it be? It might change the course of your life. A god has wounded you in the heart, on purpose, for his pleasure. Some people stare. The heart rate can gallop. We can be rendered stupid. Sound familiar? Never mind. I was forever oddly and embarrassingly propelled towards this surly, hard to know, alpha type of male, a man I knew very well. Daddy.

Advice for the lovestruck … Monique Roffey. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

This raises the question: is the thunder strike really some kind of cruel trick? Are we forever driven towards a barely disguised version of our parents? That works well if the childhood was loving and secure, but not so well for those of us who suffered neglect.

What we do know is that when lightning strikes two people at the same time, lucky them. It leads to a kind of mutual spaced-out zone, a glowing gloam of loved-upness that can last a couple of years. People marry if they are both shot by Eros at the same time, or they should. It’s heady stuff. However, a double lightning strike, shared love at first sight, is actually quite rare.

If you alone are struck and your love object is indifferent, with someone else and/or repulsed by you, then you’re left to manage your thunder strike as best you can. Here’s a tip: never, under any circumstances, declare yourself. It can’t go well. There will be a period of unrequited love and this will be painful. The good news is, your projection on to another, if not received and returned, will eventually fizzle out.

There are generalised types. Few men find Penélope Cruz not their type. Likewise, Keanu Reeves is almost every woman's type

Speaking of types, sadly, there are some generalities to the mystery, too. Beauty, youth, power, wealth, intellect, good health, good teeth … we are all generally attracted to these traits in others. Of course, a young (ie fertile) and beautiful woman is every man’s “type”. She is the manifestation of every goddess there is, more or less, and men are preternaturally drawn to her from childhood. Strong earth mother types draw men too. Hence the archetypal power of the very famous. Hollywood stars are the targets of our global idealised love projection. They are generalised love objects; few men find Penélope Cruz not their type. Likewise, Keanu Reeves (he of the age-appropriate girlfriend) is almost every woman’s type. A bold, handsome, manly “warrior” will fell most straight women. Mostly, a coup de foudre makes itself apparent immediately. My advice: stay cool. Interrogate it, and good luck. But do remember, its only an aspect of love, not the thing itself.