What is love?
I am frequently asked by therapy clients about love. I would estimate that 75% of the trouble people have in their lives, that is a catalyst for going to therapy, is about love. That is, trouble in relationships where one wants to feel loved or be able to love another. I hear complaints like, “I’m not in love with him anymore.”, “I love her but I’m not in love.”, “How do you know when you’re in love?” and so on. I’m sure you have heard the same complaints and questions from friends. By the way, what does “in love” mean? I’ll get to that later.
Love has been a preoccupation of ours since antiquity. All you have to do is turn on the radio and you will hear songs about love from rap to rock n’ roll. We also find this preoccupation in literature, periodicals, movies, and television. While we kind of know what they are singing or saying about love, we are still left with the mystery of the feeling. I, like many young people of the day, looked to rock ’n’ roll to resonate our emotional experience. Sammy Hagar in the band Van Halen tried to provide clarity about love. Here is what Hagar had to offer in When It’s Love:
How do you know when it’s love?
I can’t tell you but it lasts forever
Oh, how does it feel when it’s love?
It’s just something you feel together when it’s love
What? I feel what they’re saying but I don’t know what they’re saying.
Self help and love
Similarly, the self help book industry has tried to help America clear the love fog that apparently plagues us all. People have spent a lot of money reading about love languages, stages of love, the seven types of love, etc. Even with all this self help and pop psychology we seem to be confused and still struggle with what love means to us. How could this be?
There are many different kinds of love such as love for one’s children, love for thy neighbor, family love, agape (love for fellow humans), mature love, and the idealized infatuation (in love?). I’m going to comment on romantic love and mature love. What I mean by romantic love is the kind of feeling and behavior that couples experience while courting, dating, mating, partnering, and marrying. It is being madly in love where madness and love look alike. You can’t sleep, eat, or think straight. It’s very hot and sexual. It‘s also known as infatuation. Romantic love seems to give people immense joy and trouble. While romantic love provides good momentum to relationships, it starts to fade about a year into a new union. Is this what it is to be “in love”? Can we endure being “in love”?
Mature love (kindness, respect, sensitivity, and affectionate treatment) is a sustaining goal for long term relationships. In their book Fear of Intimacy, psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett have defined love as behaviors that “enhance the emotional well-being, sense of self, and autonomy of both partners. “Love has an “overall positive, ameliorative effect” on both partners. Mature love is an appreciation and respect for “the true nature” of each person in the relationship and their freedom to pursue personal life goals. It is beyond one’s self interest in the other and perceives one’s partner as a separate entity with full rights to an independent existence. Mutuality and shared life experience are a choice and not an obligation.
Sex and love
Many people “fall in love” based on sexual attraction and sexual pleasure. Often when the heat cools in a relationship the couple discovers they have little in common other than the strong physical attraction that ignited the union. However, erotic feelings and sexual response in long-term relations can be an extension of affection felt by each partner. Firestone offers, “a combination of sexuality and close personal communication represents an ideal in couple relationships.”
Why is love difficult to find?
It is difficult to find people who are emotionally mature enough to show love on a consistent basis. It is even more difficult to accept love when one does receive it. I think these are the two main reasons why love is difficult to find. Both of these love problems are rooted in our early and ongoing experience of being loved. When we are hurt in past associations we develop an anxious response to being close to another. In order to manage the anxiety we develop defensive ways of interacting that thwart our efforts to love and be loved.
What to do about love
Here’s how I think about the nature of love. If you are fortunate enough to fall “in love”, enjoy that first 9 to 12 months of infatuation. However, know that at first, romantic love is not truly loving the other. We are not in love with the other but in love with how we feel while we are with the other. Yes, it is narcissistic. As the idealization wears off, the couple begins to experience conflict. This is where many relationships end. Yet, if you can begin to work out the conflicts of dealing with who each other really is, then you are on the road to what could develop into a lasting loving relationship. Of course, one can have a fulfilling life without a long term relationship. Serial monogamy for the “loveoholic” can be a viable lifestyle if you can endure the ups and downs. It is also not necessary to be in a committed relationship to be happy in life. This is one of those irrational beliefs about relationships. Furthermore, getting into a relationship to compensate for one’s own shortcomings can cause disappointment and disillusionment which then can lead to a troubled experience.
If you want and are having difficulty establishing a long term loving relationship, consider getting help. Psychotherapy, done well, will slowly expose and desensitize the underlying anxiety that often interferes with the desire to be loved and love another. This experience in psychotherapy, learning to love and be loved, gradually transfers to your daily life.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, Ph.D.