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March 2015

Scott Peck on Love

RoadLessTraveledIn the first part of The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, psychiatrist Scott Peck discusses discipline, conceiving it as a set of tools used to solve life's problems. In the second part, he considers what he believes is the source of the motivation to use these tools: love.

But what do we mean by "love"? Echoing Margaret Atwood's observation that "The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love", Peck observes

"Our use of the word "love" is so generalised and unspecific as to severely interfere with our understanding of love... As long as we continue to use the word "love" to describe our relationship with anything that is important to us... we will continue to have difficulty discerning the difference between the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad, the noble and the ignoble."

Accordingly, he proposes his own definition:

"The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."

Peck uses the word "will" deliberately, to mean not only the desire to help another grow, but also actively doing something about it. Action is what defines love, not good intentions.

Peck begins his discussion of love by identifying a number of misconceptions about it.

Love is not romantic

Peck distinguishes between true love, as defined above, and "falling in love". Our tendency to confuse the two, says Peck, is one of the most powerful and pervasive misconceptions about love. Peck asserts that falling in love is specifically a "sex-linked erotic experience":

"We do not fall in love with our children even though we may love them very deeply. We do not fall in love with our friends of the same sex even though we may care for them greatly. We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsciously sexually motivated."

In contrast to real love, falling in love is not a conscious choice ("try as we might, we may not be able to fall in love with a person whom we deeply respect and with whom a deep relationship would be in all ways desirable"), does not require effort and is not about personal growth. It is simply the collapse of part of our personal boundaries and the temporary merging of our identity with that of another. In Peck's view, falling in love is nothing more than a biological mechanism to increase the probability of mating, or to put it another way, "falling in love is a trick that our genes pull on our otherwise perceptive mind to hoodwink or trap us into marriage".

The "myth of romantic love" propagated by our culture, the idea that there is one true love out there for each of us, makes this misconception worse. The ecstatic feelings of falling in love always pass, says Peck, but the myth suggests that if we can only find the right person, "the one", they would last forever. This myth is a lie, and one with damaging consequences:

"Should it come to pass that we do not satisfy or meet all of each other's needs and friction arises and we fall out of love, then it is clear that a dreadful mistake was made, we misread the stars, we did not hook up with our one and only perfect match, what we thought was love was not real or "true" love, and nothing can be done about the situation except to live unhappily ever after or get divorced...

As a psychiatrist I weep in my heart almost daily for the ghastly confusion and suffering that this myth fosters. Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth."

Peck acknowledges that falling in love does have one beneficial consequence, however: it makes us care about someone enough to actually want to begin truly loving them. Indeed, Peck asserts that it is at the moment when the mating instinct has run its course that the opportunity for genuine love begins.

This is reminiscent of anthropologist Helen Fisher's three stages of love - lust, romantic attraction and attachment - where each stage can serve as the basis for the next. Peck's description of "falling in love" parallels Fisher's "romantic attraction", while his definition of love seems similar to her "attachment" stage.

Love is not dependency

Peck also cautions about mistaking dependency - "the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by another" - for love:

"Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but choose to live with each other... The only way to be assured of being loved is to be a person worthy of love, and you cannot be a person worthy of love when your primary goal in life is to passively be loved. This is not to say that passive dependent people never do things for others, but their motive in doing things is to cement the attachment of the others to them so as to assure their own care...

Allowing yourself to be dependent on another person is the worst possible thing you can do to yourself... If you expect another person to make you happy, you'll be endlessly disappointed."

Love is not self-sacrifice

Helping another is often an unselfish thing. However, Peck argues that whenever we do something for someone else, it is because we have chosen to do so, because it satisfies some need we have. That also makes it selfish. Thus:

"There is a paradox in that love is both selfish and unselfish at the same time. It is not selfishness or unselfishness that distinguishes love from nonlove; it is the aim of the action. In the case of genuine love the aim is always spiritual growth. In the case of nonlove the aim is always something else."

For example, if we behave in a self-sacrificial way to maintain an image of ourselves as a loving person, that behaviour should not be mistaken for love.

Love is not a feeling

The final misconception about love, says Peck, is the idea that love is a feeling. This misconception exists because we confuse love with cathexis.

Cathexis is the act of investing mental or emotional energy in a person, object or idea. We can cathect many things: money, power, fame, a piece of jewellery, our pets, our hobbies, as well as other people.

The feeling of love is the emotion that arises when we cathect something. However, this is not the same as love itself.

"When love exists it does so with or without cathexis and with or without a loving feeling. It is easier — indeed, it is fun — to love with cathexis and the feeling of love. But it is possible to love without cathexis and without loving feelings, and it is in the fulfilment of this possibility that genuine and transcendent love is distinguished from simple cathexis."

Peck continues:

"True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision... This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present. If it is, so much the better; but if it isn't, the commitment to love, the will to love, still stands and is still exercised... In a constructive marriage, the partners must regularly, routinely and predictably, attend to each other and their relationship, no matter how they feel."

Just as we can love without cathexis, so we can cathect without love. We can have strong feelings of love for another person without caring a whit for their personal growth. Moreover, by definition, we cannot love anything incapable of spiritual growth, such as an inanimate object or an animal. The best we can do is cathect them.

Perhaps, suggests Peck, the idea that love is a feeling is so common because it is self-serving, it being easier to find evidence of love in our feelings than in our actions.

Love is work

Extending one's self, as required by Peck's definition of love, requires pushing against either laziness or fear. Thus, Peck says, every act of love, without exception, requires either work or courage.

The main form that work takes is attention:

"When we love something it is of value to us, and when something is of value to us we spend time with it, time enjoying it and time taking care of it...

By far the most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening... An essential part of true listening is the discipline of bracketing, the temporary giving up or setting aside of one’s own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker’s world from the inside, stepping inside his or her shoes…

Keeping one’s eye on a four-year-old at the beach, concentrating on an interminable disjointed story told by a six-year-old, teaching an adolescent how to drive, truly listening to the tale of your spouse’s day at the office or laundromat, and understanding his or her problems from the inside, attempting to be as consistently patient and bracketing as much as possible — all these are tasks that are often boring, frequently inconvenient and always energy-draining; they mean work... Since love is work, the essence of nonlove is laziness."

Love is courage

Courage in love takes many forms: the courage to accept that the relationship may end, the courage to change, the courage to commit, and the courage to confront.

Love requires overcoming the fear of loss. When we love someone, there is always the risk that they may leave us, or die. When we trust someone, they may let us down. But whenever we value anything we risk the pain that would come from its loss. The only way to avoid the pain of loss, says Peck, is never to value anything at all.

Love requires overcoming the fear of change:

"When we extend ourselves, our self enters new and unfamiliar territory, so to speak. Our self becomes a new and different self. We do things we are not accustomed to do. We change. The experience of change, of unaccustomed activity, of being on unfamiliar ground, of doing things differently is frightening."

Having the courage to change also means having the courage to grow up, to step away from the values handed down to us by our parents and our culture and taking the risk of doing things differently.

Love requires overcoming the fear of commitment:

"Commitment is inherent in any genuinely loving relationship. Anyone who is truly concerned for the spiritual growth of another knows, consciously or instinctively, that he or she can significantly foster that growth only through a relationship of constancy. Children cannot grow to psychological maturity in an atmosphere of unpredictability, haunted by the specter of abandonment. Couples cannot resolve in any healthy way the universal issues of marriage —dependency and independency, dominance and submission, freedom and fidelity, for example —without the security of knowing that the act of struggling over these issues will not itself destroy the relationship."

Commitment provides a safety net for the resolution of differences. By committing to love, regardless of how we feel, we make it safe to raise and discuss our problems.

Nevertheless, raising problems in a relationship requires courage itself. By confronting someone you are implicitly asserting that your viewpoint is superior, or at least has equal validity to theirs. Rigorous self-examination is necessary to determine if this is the case. Where it is, however, Peck insists that we have an obligation to do so:

"To fail to confront when confrontation is required for the nurture of spiritual growth represents a failure to love equally as does thoughtless criticism or condemnation and other forms of active deprivation of caring... Mutual loving confrontation is a significant part of all successful and meaningful human relationships. Without it the relationship is either unsuccessful or shallow."

Love is disciplined

In Peck's view, love provides the motivation for discipline. Expressed another way, discipline is love translated into action. Thus true love, which requires action, must by definition require its giver to behave with discipline. This does not mean that love cannot be passionate. Passion is simply something that is deeply felt. Uncontrolled feelings are no deeper than those that are controlled.

The feeling of love itself is one thing that must be disciplined. Although the feeling of love is simply a feeling of attachment to someone or something, and is not true love, it can create the attachment from which true love grows. Because true love is demanding and effortful, we cannot truly love everyone. Undisciplined feelings of love, however, could cause us to develop an attachment to someone who is unable to use our love to grow.

Love is separateness

While falling in love temporarily blurs the boundaries between two people, true love must also respect and even encourage the separateness and individuality of the other person. This can be difficult in a marriage, where we can sometimes have difficulty thinking about the identity of our partner separate from ourselves. Echoing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's view that “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction,” Peck shares his view of what marriage is all about:

"My wife and I draw the analogy between marriage and a base camp for mountain climbing. If one wants to climb mountains one must have a good base camp, a place where there are shelters and provisions, where one may receive nurture and rest before one ventures forth again to seek another summit. Successful mountain climbers know that they must spend at least as much time, if not more, in tending to their base camp as they actually do in climbing mountains, for their survival is dependent upon their seeing to it that their base camp is sturdily constructed and well stocked...

[Marriage exists] for the primary purpose of nurturing each of the participants for individual journeys towards his or her own individual peaks of spiritual growth. Male and female both must tend the hearth and both must venture forth...

Great marriages cannot be constructed by individuals who are terrified by their basic aloneness, as so commonly is the case, and seek a merging in marriage. Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss.

The ultimate goal of life remains the spiritual growth of the individual, the solitary journey to peaks that can be climbed only alone."

Scott Peck on Discipline

RoadLessTraveled"Life is difficult."

So begins psychiatrist Scott Peck's exploration of personal growth in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. The book considers the role of discipline, love and faith in our mental and spiritual development and as the opening line suggests, is unafraid to remind us of some fundamental truths that our self-centred, pleasure-seeking culture often minimises.

“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy…

Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them?”

Peck goes further, however, asserting that overcoming problems is what gives life meaning:

“Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.”

Peck begins by looking at discipline, which he defines as a set of tools for solving life’s problems. He identifies four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing.

“The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them. For they are tools with which pain is confronted rather than avoided, and if one seeks to avoid legitimate suffering, then one will avoid the use of these tools.”

Delaying gratification

Delaying of gratification is being willing to tolerate some discomfort today for greater satisfaction later. 

A desire to deal with problems as quickly as possible, or a belief that we are incapable of dealing with them at all, can indicate an inability to delay gratification. Peck describes a patient who was having difficulty with her children:

“[She] was a basically loving and dedicated but rather helpless mother to her two young children. She was alert and concerned enough to perceive when her children were having some sort of emotional problem or when something was not working out in her child-raising. But then she inevitably took one of two courses of action with the children: either she made the very first change that came to her mind within a matter of seconds—making them eat more breakfast or sending them to bed earlier— regardless of whether such a change had anything to do with the problem, or else she came to her next therapy session with me, despairing: “It’s beyond me. What shall I do?” This woman had a perfectly keen and analytical mind, and when she didn’t procrastinate, she was quite capable of solving complex problems at work . Yet when confronted with a personal problem, she behaved as if she were totally lacking in intelligence.”

The cause?

“The issue was one of time. Once she became aware of a personal problem, she felt so discomfited that she demanded an immediate solution, and she was not willing to tolerate her discomfort long enough to analyze the problem. The solution to the problem represented gratification to her, but she was unable to delay this gratification for more than a minute or two, with the result that her solutions were usually inappropriate and her family in chronic turmoil.”

Similarly, Peck describes the first time he was able to fix a mechanical problem with a car after forcing himself to work through the problem slowly.

“Actually, I don’t begin to have the knowledge or the time to gain that knowledge to be able to fix most mechanical failures, given the fact that I choose to concentrate my time on nonmechanical matters. So I still usually go running to the nearest repairman. But I now know that this is a choice I make, and I am not cursed or genetically defective or otherwise incapacitated or impotent. And I know that I and anyone else who is not mentally defective can solve any problem if we are willing to take the time.”

Another symptom of an inability to delay gratification is a reluctance to tackle problems in the hope that they will go away. Rather than trying to find a quick solution, we try to avoid having to find a solution at all. Rather than trying to minimise the amount of pain, we try to avoid it altogether.

Accepting responsibility

The second tool in the toolbox of discipline is the acceptance of responsibility.

“We must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We cannot solve a problem by saying “It’s not my problem.” We cannot solve a problem by hoping that someone else will solve it for us. I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”

Sometimes we don't take enough responsibility for our behaviour, usually because we're trying to avoid the painful consequences of that behaviour. Sometimes we take responsibility for more than we should, attempting to solve the problems of others when we should be placing the responsibility on them.

Dedication to the truth

The third tool is dedication to the truth. We cannot hope to solve our problems if we are oblivious of, or lie to ourselves about, their nature. This means constantly examining ourselves, being willing to be challenged, and being completely honest.

We must take care to constantly revise our maps of reality as we acquire new information, however painful that process may be, lest we find ourselves using maps that once served us well but are now outdated. The best way to ensure our maps are accurate is to expose them to the criticism of others.

Dedication to the truth also means not lying to others, although Peck accepts that there are situations where withholding the truth is the kindest thing to do. However:

“The decision to withhold the truth should never be based on personal needs, such as a need for power, a need to be liked or a need to protect one’s map from challenge… [it] must always be based entirely upon the needs of the person or people from whom the truth is being withheld.”


The fourth and final tool of discipline is balancing, the ability to discipline discipline itself, to be flexible and act spontaneously. At its core, balancing is about giving things up, about trading off one thing against another. Sometimes we can become so attached to one thing that it damages our relationship with another. The ability to recognise when we are out of balance, and need to give something up to restore our balance, is essential for a happy life.

Giving something up is painful, but Peck argues that we should see this as a positive thing. To be mentally healthy we must grow, and growth requires the giving up of our old selves. The pain of giving up is thus an indicator that growth is happening.

One important kind of balancing that Peck refers to is "bracketing". He defines this as "the act of balancing the need for stability and assertion of the self with the need for new knowledge and greater understanding", and notes that this must be done "by temporarily giving up one's self so as to make room for the incorporation of new material into the self". Expressed another way, it's the ability to evaluate and assimilate new knowledge on its own terms, separated from our own preconceptions and emotional biases, the ability to view the world as others see it.

To summarise, Peck views discipline as a set of four tools - delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, a dedication to truth, and balancing - that enable us to solve the problems life throws our way. However, using these tools is difficult and requires motivation. Peck believes this motivation is provided by love. I’ll discuss his views on that subject next.