Placebo Love

We scientists, coordinators and statisticians, divided the participants into two categories. To each person we promised true love. Given the parameters of our study and its intent, we were unfortunately constrained from divulging that randomly dispersed among the would-be lovers were what we call “Placebo Lovers,” those who were incapable of or unwilling to give real love. They could offer only the appearance of love, or, Placebo Love.

Despite exhaustive studies and the predictions of experts, no one really knew how things would turn out. Still, there was great anticipation and not a little anxiety over just how to deal with the projected effects on both groups: from mild-to-moderate disappointment, to wailing, the tears and excruciating sorrow of those who had not truly been loved, and at the same time, the unrestrained rejoicing of those who’d ultimately and legitimately been loved all along. Who was to say?

As the scientists and interns overseeing the experiment, it was paramount that we, ourselves, not fall in love or, in the event that someone might be falling in love with us—a process called “transference”—we were to neither panic nor find ourselves in denial. We were to stay the course, remain calm, and allow our extensive clinical experience and professionalism to guide us. Fortunately, as far as we had surmised from previous experiments, this was a non-issue; thus far no one had ever loved us, and our cool, detached demeanor, our aloof know-it-all interactions with the participants, did not allow for any of the participants to feel loved by us either.

In the end, as was theorized, people fell in love. People were loved at a rate approximating that which was known to exist in the general population, just outside our testing facility. And though we were not surprised at the emotional reactions of those to whom it was revealed they had encountered only placebo love, it was, as theorized, certainly disheartening. For the most part, these subjects became morose, disillusioned, even angry; some promising retribution, that they would never love nor allow themselves to trust the promise of love again, tearfully announcing to no one in particular that they had seen through the ‘phony’ love all along and had not really been fooled one little bit! Others sat quietly, allowing their shoulders to sink, their chins to fall, their eyes on the floor, as, salvaging what remained of their hearts, they whispered to the examiners that not actually being loved was a relief, a confirmation really.

Though regrettably predicted in earlier studies, there seemed something purposely taunting and overly celebratory about those who, having found real love, skipped, hand in hand from the facility, stopping before leaving, pausing at the door, smiling back to us and waving . . . The way they kissed, lips to lips, teeth to teeth, awash in their gaudy, carnival happiness was, to the unloved, only a kind of ‘up yours’ and ‘in your face.’ A reaction which we would surely factor into our findings.

The placebo love recipients, despite their unhappiness, their predicted displeasure with a love that was not real, one-by-one swore that the love they themselves had professed had not been real either. This apparent phenomenon was born of defensiveness, of course: spontaneous and impulsively generated reactions to their pain. And their promises regarding never loving and being loved in the future—clearly a reverse-psychological ploy for dealing with their sorrow (in the words of the observers: the soul-crushing defeat of the heart, of hope, and all preexisting dreams)—was not an entirely unpleasant sensation and, in fact, had its upside, for even true love is mottled with deficiencies, inadequacies and shortcomings, despite all the outwardly alluring promises and tantalizing embraces.

And in the end, there they sat, the last to leave: those who were not especially attractive, the ones who were the kind of smart that could not be disguised with the latest fashion, those who were smug, resolute, self-contained, and not an usual number of narcissists. There were the girls with their hated hair, their despised thighs, the boys who, at heart, feared girls even more deeply than they misunderstood them. Yet even the normal ones—the nice gals and the nice guys with confidence and relatively realistic visions of themselves, the discreetly insecure with their darting eyes and fidgeting—held their true feelings, like pocket purses, closed, secreted on in their hands. And those not relying on approval or the love of someone else, they took the news, the disappointment, in stride, doing (as we had predicted) what these people are predicted to do. The shy ones in love exchanged one of dozens of places to meet on their computers. The more emboldened agreed to meet for coffee, while the overtly, unrepentantly sexy, the social miscreants, made plans to meet for drinks, fun, dancing and to come up to her place or his place after the night had ended. To come up for a cup of tea or just one more glass of wine, but that’s all!  

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