The popular culture is very much concerned about love. Paradoxically, there are relatively few articles about love in the psychoanalytic literature. Articles about sex abound; aberrant sex, inhibited sex, perverted sex, but there are relatively few about love. Contemporary psychoanalysts, if they address the question of love at all, attempt to distinguish “mature” love from romantic love, loving from being in love. The former being healthy, the latter neurotic (perhaps worse) or inconsequential. Most mental health treatments of love are stale, antiseptic and preachy; they generally denigrate the experience of falling in love. They downgrade romantic love and endorse some version of nonpassionalte “love” which is based on a rational decision to commit oneself to a person or situation. They counsel a kind of love stripped of “excess”- mature as it were- based on mutual respect, shared values, and common interests. Duty and responsibility are valued above emotional pleasure and sexual passion. Their hope is that a tamed, mutual love will be less disorderly than romantic love.
Some of this may go back to the origins of psychoanalysis and Freud’s concern about presenting psychoanalysis as a reputable science. He wanted to present his theories as “objective”. He focused on forces rather than feelings. Although there is a complex psychological theory of love scattered through his writings, most analysts have subscribed to his most schematic formulation of love which depicts it as sublimated libido. Libido rather than passion is viewed as the central force of personality. Libido is better suited to explain sex than love.
Freud did focus on the child’s need to be loved by his parents. However, he was less explicit about the adults need to love and to be active in loving. Many modern analysts when they talk about love tend to speak exclusively in terms of the childhood antecedents for adult love. The implication is that romantic love is a regressive process. There has been little attention to the process of adult loving and the capacity for romantic love to change a life. This will be my focus.
I address those love relationships where there has been some reciprocal response from the beloved to the lover’s declaration of love. I don’t consider those love relationships where the beloved does not respond; the case of unrequited love. I focus on barrier’s to falling in love.
My focus is on those people who have difficulty letting go; abandoning themselves or surrendering to the power of love. Often these people have been hurt in the past. They fear to trust new relationships for fear they will be hurt in the same way they have been hurt in the past. They also fear to trust themselves because experience has taught them to doubt the wisdom of their choices. They can spend their life perpetually frozen because of this fear. This can be one major barrier to falling in love. I touch on others barriers as well.
The phenomenon of love has been explored more often by poets, philosophers, songwriters, novelists and opera composers. These disciplines give serious attention to love. The reader or listener is able to feel with the character. I will use excerpts from Opera, Musicals and film to illustrate my points about the psychology of love.
The longing for love and the experience itself open us to some of the most enriching and liberating possibilities that life can offer.
There are many people, however, who are either dismissive of love or fearful of it. Love has always had its enthusiasts as well as its naysayers, and each group can provide ample evidence for its own viewpoint-that love is a self-transforming and self-transcending experience or alternately, it is a self-deluding and often self-destructive one. This very split in the value of romantic love tells us something of the power of love. Few other aspects of our emotional lives are capable of evoking such strong and conflicting feelings. When love ends, and alas it often does, they curse it and feel that they were victimized by the storm in the blood or by a capricious Cupid whom they swear to evade the next time he aims his poisonous arrows at them. Those who have never felt those darts may long for them, fear them or make light of them. But for anyone who has been struck, there is no denying that love, though seldom endless and never perfect, is an extremely powerful force, filled with joy as well as sorrow.
Lovers want to be together. Barring that, they most enjoy two other pastimes like thinking, daydreaming, or brooding over the beloved. For the lover, the aspects of his/her subjective experience are paramount. First is the centrality of his/her passion. The lover is lost in contemplation of the beloved, and obsessed with the minute shifts, the ups and downs, of their relationship; love intrudes upon every moment of waking life (and many of sleep). Second is the “fact” of the superiority of the beloved. The beloved is idealized, endowed with almost supernatural powers and attributes, felt to be the most wonderful creature in the world. The lover basks in the reflected glory of the beloved and believes (or fears) that life would not be worth living if the beloved were to leave. The lover’s raison d’etre and self worth are inextricably bound up with the continued reciprocation of love.
Once we lose the psychological sense of oneness with mother, which prevails (if ever) during infancy, we become increasingly isolated beings. Sometimes that isolation is so profound as to be painful, raising the fear that one may exist as a consciousness all alone in the universe. Only by sharing in each other’s subjective realities can we mitigate isolation. While empathy, intuition and identification help, romantic love goes much further: it denies the barriers separating us, offering hope for a concordance of two souls; or at least for a great flow between them in what has been called “emotional telepathy.”
PERSON, E. S. (1988). Dreams of love and fateful encounters. The power of romantic passion. Washington, DC. London, England.: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
KERNBERG, O. (1995). Love relations: normality and pathology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
MITCHELL, S. A. (2002). Can love last? The fate of romantic love over time. New York/London: Norton.
VERHULST, J. (1984). Limerence: Notes on the Nature and Function of Passionate Love. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 7:115-138.