On Love

Amatonormativity and the Case for Marriage Reform

Minimizing MarriageHeteronormativity is the belief that sexual and marital relations are only appropriate between a man and a woman. It’s a belief that has been embedded in our culture for thousands of years. Only now is it being challenged. However, there is a more fundamental belief about marriage and sexuality that continues to be taken for granted. In Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, Elizabeth Brake calls this amatonormativity. It’s the belief that a normal relationship is exclusive, amorous, long-term, and involves the partners prioritising each other above everything else; that obtaining such a relationship is a universally shared goal; and that such a relationship should be preferred to other relationship types.

Evidence for amatonormativity is everywhere. It’s in the concerned parental questions about when you’re going to find someone nice and settle down. It’s in the raised eyebrows that greet you when you dine alone, put friendship above romance, bring a friend to a formal event or attend alone, or show no interest in finding romance. Such behaviour is considered odd. That’s amatonormativity.

Adults whose lives don’t follow the amatonormative norm face discrimination. They are subject to negative stereotyping, including accusations of being immature, selfish, irresponsible, a “man-child” or a “crazy cat lady”. Their friendships are denied the social recognition given to those in amorous relationships. They are denied access to the privileges afforded to the married, for example the ability to extend spousal immigration or hospital visiting rights to a close friend instead.

However, amatonormativity is so entrenched that most people consider this justified preferential treatment rather than wrongful discrimination. It is widely believed that amatonormative relationships are superior because they require commitment and promote mutual care. Brake disagrees. Such relationships may require the partners to make a commitment to each other, but they do not guarantee that they will have a commitment, as the divorce rate attests. Moreover, commitment is not desirable in itself. It may facilitate the achievement of complex, long-term goals, but such goals may have no more inherent value than short-term goals that do not require commitment. Likewise, abuse and unidirectional caring can be found as often in amatonormative relationships as in other ones.

Amatonormativity also has negative effects on the lives of those who subscribe to it. “Amatonormativity sustains the belief that marital and amorous relationships should be valued over friendships, and this undermines the attempt to pursue enduring friendships,” Brake writes. “Pressures to enter amorous love relationships likely result in individuals viewing friendships as less valuable than they might otherwise, and in some cases choosing less fulfilling relationships, given their idiosyncratic needs and preferences, than they otherwise might.” Amatonormativity is also responsible for our unrealistic belief that one person should be able to satisfy all our emotional, erotic, intellectual and companionship needs, an expectation that frequently causes unhappiness.

Marriage is not necessary to benefit from amatonormative privilege, but it is usually sufficient for it. Indeed, argues Brake, our current conception of marriage is a major cause of amatonormativity. By holding up one kind of relationship as special, and explicitly privileging it, our culture encourages people to pursue it.

Because marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient for the goods commonly attributed to it, is not inherently more valuable than other kinds of relationship, and actively produces harm, Brake argues that it is a matter of justice to reform it.

Alain de Botton on Changing our Expectations of Marriage

TheCourseOfLoveAlain de Botton's The Course of Love is an unsentimental - some might say pessimistic - look at modern marriage. Writing in the latest issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine, Skye Cleary suggests that the book's main weakness is "that it napalms the Romantic ideal so successfully that it’s not clear that the institution of marriage is worth rescuing". But De Botton doesn't argue that we shouldn't get married, just that we should enter it with much more realistic expectations.

“Once, you were deemed ready for matrimony when you’d reached certain financial and social milestones: when you had a home to your name, a trousseau full of linen, a set of qualifications on the mantelpiece, or a few cows and a parcel of land in your possession. Then, under the influence of Romantic ideology, such practicalities grew to seem altogether too mercenary and calculating, and the focus shifted to emotional qualities. It came to be thought important to have the right feelings, among these a sense of having hit upon a soul mate, a faith in being perfectly understood, a certainty of never wanting to sleep with anyone else again. The Romantic ideas are, he knows now, a recipe for disaster.”

Instead, de Botton offers a quite different set of criteria.

One, you’ve given up on perfection:

“Choosing a person to marry is hence just a matter of deciding exactly what kind of suffering we want to endure rather than of assuming we have found a way to skirt the rules of emotional existence. We will all by definition end up with that stock character of our nightmares, “the wrong person.” This needn’t be a disaster, however. Enlightened romantic pessimism simply assumes that one person can’t be everything to another. We should look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of living alongside another fallen creature. There can only ever be a “good enough” marriage.”

Two, you don’t expect to be fully understood:

“Love begins with the experience of being understood in highly supportive and uncommon ways. They grasp the lonely parts of us; we don’t have to explain why we find a particular joke so funny; we hate the same people; we both want to try that rather specialized sexual scenario. It cannot continue. When we run up against the reasonable limits of our lovers’ capacities for understanding, we mustn’t blame them for dereliction. They were not tragically inept. They couldn’t fully fathom who we were—and we did likewise. Which is normal. No one properly gets, or can fully sympathize with, anyone else.”

Three, you admit that you are crazy:

“It’s profoundly counterintuitive for us to think of ourselves as mad. We seem so normal and mostly so good—to ourselves. It’s everyone else who is out of step . . . and yet, maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.”

Four, you understand that marriage itself is deeply flawed:

“Rabih is ready for marriage because he has understood that it isn’t Kirsten who is difficult. They seem “difficult,” of course, within the cage of marriage when they lose their tempers over such petty things: logistics, in-laws, cleaning duties, parties, the groceries . . . But it’s not the other person’s fault, it’s what we’re trying to do with them. It’s the institution of marriage that is principally impossible, not the individuals involved.”

Five, you are prepared to love, rather than be loved:

“We speak of “love” as if it were a single, undifferentiated thing, but it comprises two very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural—and dangerous—fixation on the former. We start out knowing only about “being loved.” It comes to seem, quite wrongly, the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent were just spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, and clear up while remaining almost constantly warm and cheerful. We take this idea of love with us into adulthood. Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly, and make everything better. It sounds “romantic,” yet it is a blueprint for disaster.”

Six, you understand that sex cohabits uneasily with love:

“The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. We are properly ready for marriage when we are strong enough to embrace a life of frustration.”

Seven, you accept that in some ways your partner is better than you, and you want to learn from them:

“We should bear having things pointed out to us. And at other moments we should be ready to model ourselves on the best pedagogues and deliver our suggestions without shouting or expecting the other simply to know. Only if we were already perfect could the idea of mutual education be dismissed as unloving.”

Eight, you accept that, deep down, you and your partner are not compatible:

“The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the “right” person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the “right” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.”

Nine, you accept that the love stories in books and movies and TV shows bear little relation to reality:

“By the standards of most love stories, our own real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than split up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories—stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalize our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.”

Is de Botton too pessimistic? I don’t think so. As he puts it himself, “Melancholy isn’t always a disorder that needs to be cured. It can be a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face-to-face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start.” If we entered marriage with more realistic expectations perhaps there would be fewer divorces and fewer children shuttling between two houses with no one place to call home.

Alain de Botton on What Children Can Teach Us About Love

TheCourseOfLove“We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity,” says Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. “We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood.”

It’s a persuasive argument, one that would explain why most of us see love as “a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love”, however much we might try to convince ourselves otherwise. It’s also a reminder than parental love is much less selfish than romantic love. As such, de Botton suggests, perhaps we should try to emulate it in our adult relationships too.

“Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. The word has grown freighted with negative connotations. An individualistic, self-gratifying culture cannot easily equate contentment with being at someone else’s call. We are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us, for their capacity to entertain, charm, or soothe us. Yet babies can do precisely nothing.”

Marriages often founder if the couple believe they no longer have anything in common. Yet this is not the basis of our love for our children:

“Neither Kirsten nor Rabih has ever known such a mixture of love and boredom. They are used to basing their friendships on shared temperaments and interests. But [their baby daughter] is, confusingly, simultaneously the most boring person they have ever met and the one they find themselves loving the most. Rarely have love and psychological compatibility drifted so far apart—and yet it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Perhaps all that emphasis on having “something in common” with others is overdone: Rabih and Kirsten have a new sense of how little is in truth required to form a bond with another human being.”

We are often more forgiving of the bad behaviour of children than we are of the bad behaviour of our partner. But adults should know better! we may think. De Botton is sceptical:

“The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior. The parent has to second-guess what the cry, the kick, the grief, or the anger is really about. And what marks out this project of interpretation—and makes it so different from what occurs in the average adult relationship—is its charity. Parents are apt to proceed from the assumption that their children, though they may be troubled or in pain, are fundamentally good. As soon as the particular pin that is jabbing them is correctly identified, they will be restored to native innocence. When children cry, we don’t accuse them of being mean or self-pitying; we wonder what has upset them. When they bite, we know they must be frightened or momentarily vexed. We are alive to the insidious effects that hunger, a tricky digestive tract, or a lack of sleep may have on mood. How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships—if here, too, we could look past the grumpiness and viciousness and recognize the fear, confusion, and exhaustion which almost invariably underlie them. This is what it would mean to gaze upon the human race with love.”

We believe that treating adults like children is patronising. De Botton argues that not only is this not always true, it is often precisely what we want. But rather than seeking such unconditional love from another, something over which we have no control, perhaps we should just focus on providing it:

“It isn’t surprising if, as adults, when we first start to form relationships, we should devotedly go off in search of someone who can give us the all-encompassing, selfless love that we may once have known in childhood. Nor would it be surprising if we were to feel frustrated and in the end extremely bitter at how difficult it seems to be to find—at how seldom people know how to help us as they should. We may rage and blame others for their inability to intuit our needs, we may fitfully move from one relationship to another, we may blame an entire sex for its shallowness—until the day we end our quixotic searches and reach a semblance of mature detachment, realizing that the only release from our longing may be to stop demanding a perfect love and noting its many absences at every turn, and instead start to give love away (perhaps to a small person) with oblivious abandon without jealously calculating the chances of it ever returning.”

Alain de Botton on Monogamy

TheCourseOfLove“Marriage,” notes Alain de Botton in one of many pithy observations in The Course of Love, “is a deeply peculiar and ultimately unkind thing to inflict on anyone one claims to care for.” And no more so, perhaps, than when it comes to sex.

De Botton suggests that there is a fundamental contradiction between love and monogamy:

“If love is to be defined as a genuine concern for the well-being of another person, then it must surely be deemed compatible with granting permission for an often harassed and rather browbeaten husband to step off the elevator on the eighteenth floor in order to enjoy ten minutes of rejuvenating cunnilingus with a near stranger. Otherwise it may seem that what we are dealing with is not really love at all but rather a kind of small-minded and hypocritical possessiveness, a desire to make one’s partner happy if, but only if, that happiness involves oneself.”

De Botton suggests that the near-universal value we place on monogamy (a value so ingrained that attempts at polyamory often founder on jealousy) has a religious origin:

“In the West, we owe to Christianity the view that sex should only ever rightly occur in the presence of love. The religion insists that two people who care for each other must reserve their bodies, and their gaze, for each other alone. To think sexually about strangers is to abandon the true spirit of love and to betray God and one’s own humanity. Such precepts, at once touching and forbidding, have not entirely evaporated along with the decline of the faith that once supported them. Shorn of their explicitly theistic rationale, they seem to have been absorbed into the ideology of Romanticism, which accords a similarly prestigious place to the concept of sexual fidelity within the idea of love. In the secular world, too, monogamy has been declared a necessary and crowning expression of emotional commitment and virtue. Our age has strikingly maintained the essential drift of an earlier religious position: the belief that true love must entail wholehearted fidelity.”

In an age where contraception has separated sex and pregnancy, shouldn’t such fidelity be unnecessary?

“It is, so its adherents conclude, just as absurd to suppose that one should only ever have sex with the person one loves as it would be to require that only those in committed couples ever be permitted to play table tennis or go jogging together.”


“This remains, in the current age, the minority view by a very wide margin… Despite the liberal atmosphere of our time, it would be naive to assume that the distinction between “weird” and “normal” has disappeared. It stands as secure as ever, waiting to intimidate and herd back into line those who would question the normative limits of love and sex. It may now be deemed “normal” to wear cutoff shorts, expose belly buttons, marry someone of either gender, and watch a little porn for fun, but it also remains indispensably “normal” to believe that true love should be monogamous and that one’s desire should be focused exclusively on one person.”

The problem, suggests de Botton, is that, for many people, love is “a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love”. We want to feel special, to be the sole object of our lover’s attention, not one of many. Romanticism tells us that we should be all our lover needs. This value is so deeply ingrained in us that most of us cannot feel loved if we know that our lover is sleeping with someone else.

What’s the answer? De Botton concludes that there isn’t one:

“Adventure and security are irreconcilable, he sees. A loving marriage and children kill erotic spontaneity, and an affair kills a marriage. A person cannot be at once a libertine and a married Romantic, however compelling both paradigms might be. He doesn’t downplay the loss either way. Saying good-bye to Lauren means safeguarding his marriage but it also means denying himself a critical source of tenderness and elation. Neither the love rat nor the faithful spouse gets it right. There is no solution.”

Alain de Botton on Why We Marry

TheCourseOfLove“There is no-one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry,” says Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. Marriage is certainly a risky proposition: some estimates suggest that only around 38% of married couples describe themselves as happy and around 50% of marriages end in divorce. So why do we do it? De Botton dissects some of our most common rationalisations.

We marry because we love the way we feel when we’re with our partner, and we assume we’ll continue to feel this way:

“He proposes because he wants to preserve, to “freeze,” what he and Kirsten feel for each other. He hopes through the act of marrying to make an ecstatic sensation perpetual…

[But] Rabih is not marrying—and therefore fixing forever—a feeling. He is marrying a person with whom, under a very particular, privileged, and fugitive set of circumstances, he has been fortunate enough to have a feeling.”

We marry because it’s intoxicating to find someone who loves us:

“We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal, to someone who has often and painfully doubted many things, not least herself, of a proposal from an ostensibly kind and interesting person who seems unequivocally and emphatically convinced that she is right for him.”

We marry because it’s better than being alone:

“To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone. This isn’t necessarily our fault as individuals. Society as a whole appears determined to render the single state as nettlesome and depressing as possible: once the freewheeling days of school and university are over, company and warmth become dispiritingly hard to find; social life starts to revolve oppressively around couples; there’s no one left to call or hang out with. It’s hardly surprising, then, if when we find someone halfway decent, we might cling.”

We marry because our culture has taught us to value instinct over reason in matters of the heart:

“For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing grain business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages there flowed loneliness, rape, infidelity, beating, hardness of heart, and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, from any sincere perspective, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish, exploitative, and abusive. Which is why what has replaced it—the marriage of feeling—has largely been spared the need to account for itself. What matters is that two people wish desperately that it happen, are drawn to one another by an overwhelming instinct, and know in their hearts that it is right. The modern age appears to have had enough of “reasons,” those catalysts of misery, those accountants’ demands. Indeed the more imprudent a marriage appears (perhaps it’s been only six weeks since they met; one of them has no job; or both are barely out of their teens), the safer it may actually be deemed to be, for apparent “recklessness” is taken as a counterweight to all the errors and tragedies vouchsafed by the so-called sensible unions of old. The prestige of instinct is the legacy of a collective traumatized reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable “reason.””

We marry because our culture has lead us to believe that unless a relationship leads to a commitment to stay together for the rest of our lives, then it lacks purpose, and we’re tired of looking for a relationship that can live up to that ideal:

“He asks her to marry him in order to break the all-consuming grip that the thought of relationships has for too long had on his psyche. He is exhausted by seventeen years’ worth of melodrama and excitements that have led nowhere. He is thirty-two and restless for other challenges. It’s neither cynical nor callous of Rabih to feel immense love for Kirsten and yet at the same time to hope that marriage may conclusively end love’s mostly painful dominion over his life.”

We marry because we think we’d be easy to live with:

“He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy. Rabih’s tendency to tidy obsessively when he feels chaotic inside, his habit of using work to ward off his anxieties, the difficulty he has in articulating what’s on his mind when he’s worried, his fury when he can’t find a favorite T-shirt—these eccentricities are all neatly obscured so long as there is no one else around to see him, let alone to create a mess, request that he come and eat his dinner, comment skeptically on his habit of cleaning the TV remote control, or ask him to explain what he’s fretting about. Without witnesses, he can operate under the benign illusion that he may just, with the right person, prove no particular challenge to be around.”

We marry because of a reckless desire to demonstrate our commitment:

“Those voices which hint that marriage is no longer necessary, that it is far safer simply to cohabit, are right from a practical point of view, concedes Rabih; but they miss the emotional appeal of danger, of putting oneself and one’s beloved through an experience which could, with only a few twists of the plotline, result in mutual destruction. Rabih takes his very willingness to be ruined in love’s name as proof of his commitment.”

This recklessness is captured perfectly by de Botton’s definition of marriage:

“Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.”

Mark Vernon on Friendship, Love and Sex

The Meaning of Friendship

“A friendship which includes a sexual element is the best sort of relationship that many people hope to have,” says Mark Vernon in The Meaning of Friendship. “The downside is that sex can clearly imperil friendships by its possessiveness or its inappropriateness.”

Sex presents a number of problems to friendship. First, relationships based on physical attraction can form quickly, with little need for personal disclosure. In this respect, they are similar to relationships based on utility or a shared interest. As a result, the relationship may fall apart if the couple later realise there is no real basis for any friendship between them.

Conversely, friends who sense a sexual undercurrent developing between them may hesitate to pursue those feelings lest they put the friendship at risk.

However, even just the possibility of such feelings developing can cause problems:

“Imagine a man and woman becoming friends at work - good friends - and deciding to go out for dinner together as an apparently natural extension of the friendship. Then, as they're sat across the table from each other - starched linen, candles and a rose between them - they start to feel awkward. Unwittingly, they have been drawn into uncharted waters as dinner for two is the sort of thing that lovers do, not friends. The evening is one of embarrassment, and the friendship flounders. What's happened is that cultural assumptions about the activities associated with a sexual relationship have imperilled a friendship quite as effectively as any actual erotic attraction itself…

The complication that comes from such an unresolved sexual frisson is the suspense. Indeed, suspense is as much a cause of erotic frisson as any actual sexual attraction might be: people do not even need to fancy each other, just be conscious that they might. In Evelyn Waugh's phrase, even 'a thin bat's squeak of sexuality' can frighten people off or distract them from becoming friends.”

However, sex doesn’t just imperil the friendship between lovers, it can jeopardise their other friendships too:

“In today's world, there is a myth of romantic love based upon the idea that two lovers become one flesh, a totalisation of life in the other, supremely enacted in sexual ecstasy which is symbolic of that union. The myth or ideal tends to exclude others, not because lovers do not want friends, but because it tells them that their friends are incidental - pleasant but non-essential adornments to the lover's life together. Although few people in real life believe the myth in its entirety, it is difficult to ignore it entirely too...

Think of the estrangement that can come about between friends after one of them marries another... Or recall just how hard it can be to sustain a friendship when your friend started a new sexual relationship..."

Vernon suggests this may be because the partiality of friendship may be seen as a threat to the supposed primacy of the sexual relationship.

“Is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife - 'forsaking all others', as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.”

To my mind, this is one of the great tragedies of modern marriage. The idea that one person can satisfy all of our sexual, emotional and intellectual needs is infantile. Our notions of exclusivity, indoctrinated in us by our culture, all too often cut us off from a richer, albeit more complex, tapestry of relationships that have the capacity to profoundly improve our lives.

At the root of the problem is our tendency to value sexual relationships above mere friendships. We often talk about how a friendship can blossom into “something more”.  Yet by doing so, we have created an incentive to misunderstand our feelings:

“In a culture where sexual consummation is seen as the highest expression of love that two people can hope for, a fascination for someone is easy to mistake for falling in love, even when it is simultaneously obvious that a sexual relationship would be inappropriate, unsustainable and possibly ruinous of the friendship.”

Aristotle valued things differently:

“[Aristotle] assigns close friendship top place in the hierarchy of human relationships, regarding it as a key ingredient in any flourishing life. There's a place for 'friendly lovers' too, if lower down: they can hope for some contentment. They belong in his second category of friendship, the kind that form because of some mutual shared pleasure, in this case that being sex...”

Vernon seems to agree:

“Perhaps friendship should assert itself more strongly in our romance obsessed world... For contra the myth, there is a love that does not desire to possess. It is called friendship. It loves the other, and wants them both to be free.”

Krista Tippett on Love and Romance

BecomingWise“What is love? Answer the question through the story of your life,” asks Krista Tippett in Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.

Tippett describes how her own views on love were shaped by her divorce, causing her to question the way that we elevate romantic love above other forms:

“When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion—to follow those love songs and those movies. After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.

This is… a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.

And here is another, deeper carelessness, which I am absolving in a spirit of adventure: I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.”

This lack of imagination, says Tippett, is endemic in our culture:

“Love is the superstar virtue of virtues, and the most watered down word in the English language. I love this weather. I love your dress. And what we’ve done with the word, we’ve done with this thing—this possibility, this essential bond, this act. We’ve made it private, contained it in family, when its audacity is in its potential to cross tribal lines. We’ve fetishized it as romance, when its true measure is a quality of sustained, practical care. We’ve lived it as a feeling, when it is a way of being…

The sliver of love’s potential that the Greeks separated out as eros is where we load so much of our desire, center so much of our imagination about delight and despair, define so much of our sense of completion. There is the love the Greeks called filia—the love of friendship. There is the love they called agape—love as embodied compassion, expressions of kindness that might be given to a neighbor or a stranger. The Metta of the root Buddhist Pali tongue, “lovingkindness,” carries the nuance of benevolent, active interest in others known and unknown, and its cultivation begins with compassion towards oneself.”

Tippett recounts a conversation with Eve Ensler, the American playwright best known for her play The Vagina Monologues, who came to a similar realisation about the nature of love after being diagnosed with cancer:

You wrote how, in that extreme moment, the loves that we tend to focus on—love with a capital L, the romantic love, the marriages, the lovers—didn’t really come through for you, didn’t feel very substantial. And yet you realized that did not amount to the equation we would often make—that you don’t have love in your life. You realized you were surrounded by love, that you were held by love, and that you’d had too small an imagination about that word, that thing.

Romantic love, absolutely. Our notion of love—it just seems a very unevolved and very unenlightened notion. That it’s this one person who you will meet.

The One.

The One. And, by the way, I’ve yet to meet anybody who has that experience in that way. Yes, there are people who have good marriages that have lasted long. But I don’t think you will talk to anybody who will tell you this is the panacea and this is the only person whom I’ve ever loved who fulfilled me. Of course not. And I feel so excited now in my life, now that my notion of love has been dispelled, that old notion. Though it still haunts you and lingers. How do we get rid of so much of that stuff? It’s in your cells. You just gotta keep purging. But since I recovered from cancer, I feel so joyful. To be sitting here occupying this space with you. This summer, I had my friends and we were in Italy and we were dancing and we were swimming and we were talking and we were having amazing evenings. And every moment of that was so dear to me and precious. We find our fulfillment where we choose to find our fulfillment. And if you’re told you can only find it here and you don’t look at where it is, which is your life, you keep thinking it’s coming. Oh, it’ll be here one day. I’ll get the big love. Well, you have the big love. It’s already here.

You talk about “the daily, subtle simple gathering of kindnesses.” It was that love you felt. It was also the love you felt from women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were praying for you.

Absolutely. I had one of those bad nights where I was thinking about all my past lovers and husbands and the failure of love in my life, with a capital L. I just didn’t get it, and my own intimacy issues, and blah, blah, blah, blah. And then I suddenly realized, okay, how many beautiful people had shown up for me? Marie Cecil, who was cooking me eggs at five in the morning to settle my stomach when I was in chemo. Or my granddaughter, who packed my bags when I went to see my mother for the last time. Or my sister who was there every minute on the couch with me, putting washcloths on my forehead. And it was just this moment of, “Oh, my God, my life is so rich.” There is the love. The paradise is here. Paradise is right in front of us. In capitalism what is engineered is longing, engineered longing and desire in us for what can be in the future. It’s always about the next product, the next big thing…

Come on. What if we actually were content with our lives? What if we actually knew this was paradise?”

“To walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier,” says Tippett, who goes on to suggest how we might do this.

Can Love Last?

CanLoveLastIn Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time, psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell explores why romantic love usually fades over time. His surprising argument is that it's because we expend considerable effort degrading it, and for good reason.

Mitchell argues that it’s our desire to stabilise our relationships, to guarantee access to love, that undermines desire:

“The great irony inherent in our efforts to make love safer is that those efforts always make it more dangerous. One of the motives for monogamous commitments is always, surely, the effort to make the relationship more secure, a hedge against the vulnerabilities and risks of love. Yet, since respectable monogamous commitment in our times tends to be reciprocal, the selection of only one partner for love dramatically increases one’s dependency upon that partner, making love more dangerous and efforts to guarantee that love even more compelling. So we pretend to ourselves that we have, somehow, minimized our risks and guaranteed our safety— thereby undermining the preconditions of desire, which requires robust imagination to breathe and thrive…

Love, by its very nature, is not secure; we keep wanting to make it so.”

Mitchell considers several factors that are often blamed for the decline of romance in long-term relationships: that it thrives on novelty and is dispersed by familiarity; that sexual lust is difficult to reconcile with respect and admiration; that romance is inspired by idealisation, which withers with exposure to reality; that it turns too easily into contempt; and because it’s eroded by the guilt and self-pity generated by the mistakes we inevitably make.

Romance may be dispersed by familiarity, but Mitchell argues that often that familiarity is not real but constructed, to give us the feeling of security we seek. We convince ourselves that we know everything there is to know about our partners, that they cannot surprise us.

Passion doesn’t decline because it’s incompatible with respect and admiration but because it’s so arousing that we do everything we can to control it.

Romance may be fuelled by idealisation, but it doesn’t ebb because reality sets in. Mitchell argues that idealisation is not inherently a bad thing. Fantasy doesn’t necessarily cloud reality, it can also enrich and enhance it. Each offers a different viewpoint that can be useful in different contexts. However, long-term relationships are necessarily utilitarian, and an idealistic view of our partner’s abilities are not helpful in that context.

Romance isn’t eroded because love inevitably becomes contaminated by our natural human aggression. Because of the risks inherent in love, anger and even hatred are inseparable from it. Aggression is a necessary component of romantic passion. Aggression is a response to threat, and the threat of losing the person we love is constant. Romance is not degraded by the presence of aggression, but by an inability to manage it skilfully. Mitchell gives an example:

“There are many different strategies for managing the confluence of love and hate in romance. The basic underlying principle is to both express and control the aggression at the same time by diminishing or obliterating the object of desire. Aesop long ago identified this common solution as “sour grapes”: the seemingly desirable other that disappoints was rotten all along. There might be good grapes out there somewhere, but self-protection against disappointment requires constant reminders not to expect any sweetness from one’s own bunch. Denigration thus serves the purpose of maintaining equilibrium, and a chronic contempt for one’s long-term partner often feels like a necessary requirement for stability.”

Romance isn’t necessarily eroded by the mistakes we make. Mistakes are inevitable, and hence so are the guilt and pathos that flow from them. However, Mitchell argues that guilt and pathos each appear in two forms. In genuine guilt we accept responsibility for what we have done, acknowledging that nothing can be done other than bear the feelings of regret and move on. In genuine pathos we may grieve over the way we were betrayed or disappointed, but again, we move on, recognising that the future can be different. In contrast, in guiltiness we become enmeshed by our guilt, becoming stuck in attempts to buy exoneration because we cannot accept the suffering we have caused. In self-pity we become stuck in a perception of ourselves as a victim. Guiltiness and self-pity degrade passion, but genuine guilt and pathos do not.

So can romance last? Yes, says Mitchell, but not by attempting to resolve the tensions inherent in it, or by “a laboured struggle to contrive novelty”. Rather, it requires two people who are able to tolerate its fragility, understand the forces that undermine it, and a willingness to constantly build and rebuild it.

Neil Strauss on Monogamy, Polyamory and Marriage

The TruthOne reason we marry is to create stability in our lives. Yet, as Stephanie Coontz noted in Marriage: A History, since we started marrying for love, around two hundred years ago, marriages have actually become less stable. Is lifelong monogamy an idea whose time has come and gone? Are there other forms of intimacy more appropriate to the way we live our lives today?

These are the some of the questions explored by Neil Strauss in The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

“We expect love to last forever. Yet as many as 50 percent of marriages and even more remarriages end in divorce. Among those who are married, only 38 percent actually describe themselves as happy in that state. And 90 percent of couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction after having their first child.”

The book is not an intellectual exploration of the subject, but a personal one, as Strauss recounts his own battle to understand what kind of a relationship he himself wants.

“When I’m single, I want to be in a relationship. When I’m in a relationship, I miss being single. And worst of all, when the relationship ends and my captor-lover finally moves on, I regret everything and don’t know what I want anymore…

Maybe the problem isn’t just me. Perhaps I’ve been trying to conform to an outdated and unnatural social norm that doesn’t truly meet—and has never met—the needs of both men and women equally…

Is it even natural to be faithful to one person for life? And if it is, how do I keep the passion and romance from fading over time? Or are there alternatives to monogamy that will lead to better relationships and greater happiness?”

The book begins with Strauss in rehab for sex addiction after being caught cheating on his girlfriend, Ingrid. Like Tomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Strauss sees his desire for variety in women no differently from his desire for variety in any other aspect of his life:

“I love traveling, eating at different restaurants, and meeting new people. Sex is the same: I like getting to know different women, experiencing what they’re like in bed, meeting their friends and family, and having the adventures and memories…

Whether it’s Nicole or Sage, Anne or Veronika, each woman is a wonderful world unto herself. And monogamy? It’s like choosing to live in a single town and never traveling to experience the beauty, history, and enchantment of all the other unique, wonderful places in the world. Why does love have to limit us?”

Strauss wonders whether the desire for exclusivity is selfish:

“Perhaps on some level, the demand for exclusive love is an immature demand, the desire of the needy child who hungered to be the sole object of its parents’ attention, affection, and care.”

When a relationship starts to fall apart, should we even try to save it? Strauss observes several men in therapy with him struggling hard to save marriages they’re not enjoying anyway. “You know, Neil, I call her every afternoon and tell her I love her,” one man sighs, recounting his attempts to win his wife’s forgiveness. “I send her flowers. I do everything to show her I care.” “But do you care or are you just doing a duty?” retorts Strauss.

“Most people seem to believe that if a relationship doesn’t last until death, it’s a failure. But the only relationship that’s truly a failure is one that lasts longer than it should. The success of a relationship should be measured by its depth, not by its length.”

Echoing Anthony DeMello’s belief that our behaviour is largely programmed into us in childhood, Strauss realises his life is “running on a unique operating system that took some eighteen years to program and is full of distinct bugs and viruses”, and that the roots of his behaviour can be traced back to his dysfunctional childhood relationship with his mother.

“I move on to explain the third type of parenting: enmeshment. This is my upbringing. Instead of taking care of a child’s needs, the enmeshing parent tries to get his or her own needs met through the child. This can take various forms: a parent who lives through a child’s accomplishments; who makes the child a surrogate spouse, therapist, or caretaker; who is depressed and emotionally uses the child; who is overbearing or overcontrolling; or who is excessively emotional or anxious about a child. If you grew up feeling sorry for or smothered by a parent, this is a sign that enmeshment likely occurred: In the process, enmeshed children lose their sense of self. As adults, they usually avoid letting anyone get too close and suck the life out of them again. Where the abandoned are often unable to contain their feelings, the enmeshed tend to be cut off from them, and be perfectionistic and controlling of themselves and others. Though they may pursue a relationship thinking they want connection, once they’re in the reality of one, they often put up walls, feel superior, and use other distancing techniques to avoid intimacy. This is known as avoidant attachment—or, as they put it here, love avoidance.”

In contrast, one of his therapists says:

“A healthy relationship is when two individuated adults decide to have a relationship and that becomes a third entity. They nurture the relationship and the relationship nurtures them. But they’re not overly dependent or independent: They are interdependent, which means that they take care of the majority of their needs and wants on their own, but when they can’t, they’re not afraid to ask their partner for help.” She pauses to let it all sink in, then concludes, “Only when our love for someone exceeds our need for them do we have a shot at a genuine relationship together.”

Strauss, however, finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with his therapists’ assertions about what’s right and wrong.

“If we eliminate one half of the dysfunctional relationship, the dysfunction is gone,” I explain. “What’s left is a single guy enjoying life and its pleasures. Why is the option with two people in a reciprocal nurturing relationship any better than this option?”

Disenchanted, Strauss quits therapy, agonising over whether to end his relationship with Ingrid:

“This is it, then: I must make a decision. A lifetime of monogamy with the woman I love. Or a lifetime of dating who I want, of doing what I want, of having complete and total freedom. It doesn’t mean I’ll never have a girlfriend or a child or a family. It just means I’ll have them on my terms, not those of this repressive society that expects you to cut off your balls as soon as you say “I do”…

On their deathbeds, people don’t think about their work or their life experiences or the items remaining on their to-do list. They think about love and family. And I’m throwing it away. I may genuinely be turning that nightmare I had when I was a kid— of being a lazy, broke, unloved deadbeat sleeping on the couch in my brother’s perfect suburban family home— into a reality this time. But do I actually want that dream: a house in the suburbs, a domestic routine that never changes, a lifestyle where going out to a movie is some sort of grand adventure, ungrateful kids like me who blame all their problems on their parents?”

He decides he doesn’t.

“Ingrid strokes my head reassuringly and says, “I feel like I caught a beautiful bird in the wild and put it in a cage, just for me to look at.” I listen. She knows. She understands me. “The cage is near the window, and the bird keeps looking outside and thinking about life out there. And I need to open the cage and let it go, because it belongs in the wild.” Then her face falls, her eyes redden, and the tears start coming faster. I can’t let go, but she can. Between sobs, she sputters her last thought, the six words that will haunt me forever after: “But birds die in the wild.””

As Strauss sets out to explore alternatives to monogamy, one of his friends cautions him to remember his real objective. “The goal is not monogamy or nonmonogamy. It’s for you to be living a life that brings you happiness.”

Monogamy has its drawbacks, but Strauss quickly realises that polyamory comes with its own challenges:

“Shama Helena explains that to most people, polyamory means having multiple loving romantic relationships in which all the partners know about one another. The key word here is loving. A relationship that permits only casual sex on the side wouldn’t technically qualify. The other distinction is honesty. Having a secret mistress or being in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship wouldn’t truly be polyamorous either. And poly doesn’t necessarily come with freedom. Many relationships, Shama Helena explains, require sexual exclusivity to some or all members of the group— or, as it’s called, polyfidelity…

There’s a concept called compersion. And that means if your partner has another lover, rather than being jealous, you’re happy for her because she’s happy…

True love is wanting your partner to have whatever she wants—whether or not you approve of it.”

As Strauss starts to have non-exclusive relationships, he begins to realise how difficult this is. “Compersion is a struggle. It goes against every fiber of my being. I don’t know if my resistance to it is cultural or evolutionary or both,” he says.

When Strauss tries living with three women in a group relationship in San Francisco, he realises there are other challenges. Now he’s not managing one relationship, or even three, but six: between himself and each woman and between each of the women. The conflicting expectations rapidly bring the experiment in communal living to an end.

“A piece of relationship advice Lorraine taught in rehab rings ominously in my head: “Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments”…

In the dance of infatuation, we see others not as they are, but as projections of who we want them to be. And we impose on them all the imaginary criteria we think will fill the void in our hearts. But in the end, this strategy leads only to suffering. It’s not a relationship when the other person is completely left out of it.”

Strauss tries other open relationships, but again struggles with jealousy. When he becomes sure that one woman is on the point of leaving him for another man, he calls one of his former therapists, Lorraine, for advice.

““Just remember,” she adds soothingly, “that the only people who can be abandoned are children and dependent elders. If you’re an adult, then no one can abandon you except you.””

This doesn’t help. Strauss realises that although he wants to be able to have multiple partners himself, he wants those he’s with to be exclusive to him. The hypocrisy is not lost on him.

As he begins to realise that polyamory is not for him, Strauss’ thoughts return to Ingrid, and why he loved her.

“Love isn’t about wanting someone to save my life or see a vista with me or make me laugh or any of those selfish reasons I’ve always given for loving Ingrid. Those are just things she can do for me or ways she makes me feel…

[Love is] when two (or more) hearts build a safe emotional, mental, and spiritual home that will stand strong no matter how much anyone changes on the inside or the outside.”

Strauss realises that he should have stayed with Ingrid, and asks her to take him back. Remarkably, she agrees. As the book comes to an end, however, Strauss acknowledges that this is not the end of his story, that building that safe home together will be difficult.

“Though Disney cartoons and romance movies end the moment the lovers reunite, leaving the audience to assume they lived happily ever after, in real life this is the moment the story truly begins…

Without the intensity to keep them busy, the common enemy to unite them, or the obstacles to intensify their longing, these legendary lovers now face the biggest challenge of all: dealing with each other— and the differences, be they great or slight, in their values, upbringings, opinions, personalities, expectations, preferences, and imperfections.”

The Truth is a fascinating account of one man’s journey from monogamy to polyamory and back again, and a sobering reminder of the difficulty of maintaining any kind of relationship with another human being.

Anthony De Mello on Attachment and How to Love

TheWayToLoveAttachment is the cause of all suffering. It’s the central tenet of Buddhism and the recurring theme of Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love.

We are programmed from a young age - by our parents, our friends, our culture, our religion – with certain beliefs. Because these beliefs are established while we’re young, and because many of them are widely held, it rarely occurs to us to question them.

However, says De Mello, many of these beliefs are false. Foremost among them is the belief that we need certain things to be happy:

“Everywhere people have actually built their lives on the unquestioned belief that without certain things—money, power, success, approval, a good reputation, love, friendship, spirituality, God—they cannot be happy. What is your particular combination? Once you swallowed your belief you naturally developed an attachment to this person or thing you were convinced you could not be happy without. Then came the efforts to acquire your precious thing or person, to cling to it once it was acquired, and to fight off every possibility of losing it. This finally led you to abject emotional dependence so that the object of your attachment had the power to thrill you when you attained it, to make you anxious lest you be deprived of it and miserable when you lost it. Stop for a moment now and contemplate in horror the endless list of attachments that you have become a prisoner to.”

These attachments cause almost all of our negative emotions:

“Each time you are anxious and afraid, it is because you may lose or fail to get the object of your attachment, isn’t it? And each time you feel jealous, isn’t it because someone may make off with what you are attached to? And almost all your anger comes from someone standing in the way of your attachment, doesn’t it? And see how paranoid you become when your attachment is threatened—you cannot think objectively; your whole vision becomes distorted, doesn’t it? And every time you feel bored, isn’t it because you are not getting a sufficient supply of what you believe will make you happy, of what you are attached to? And when you are depressed and miserable, the cause is there for all to see: Life is not giving you what you have convinced yourself you cannot be happy without.”

To be happy, we have to change our programming. We have to rid ourselves of our attachments. “You must choose between your attachment and happiness. You cannot have both,” says De Mello.

De Mello is careful to distinguish between happiness, which cannot co-exist with attachment, and pleasure, which can. Pleasure is what we feel when things are going our way. It is different from happiness because it is short-lived and accompanied by the fear that it will not last (which it never does).

“What you call the experience of happiness is not happiness at all but the excitement and thrill caused by some person or thing or event. True happiness is uncaused. You are happy for no reason at all.”

However, the pursuit of happiness cannot be our goal, because that, in itself, would be an attachment:

“If you desire happiness you will be anxious lest you do not attain it. You will be constantly in a state of dissatisfaction; and dissatisfaction and anxiety kill the very happiness that they set out to gain.”

Rather, happiness arises naturally when attachment has been eliminated, like the blue sky that is revealed when the clouds clear.

De Mello stresses that ridding ourselves of attachment does not stop us loving people and things and enjoying them thoroughly. Nor does it prevent us preferring that a favourable situation continue or savouring the enjoyment we are experiencing right now. It simply means not worrying about prolonging the experience because we know we don’t need it to be happy.

“If you just enjoy things, refusing to let yourself be attached to them, that is, refusing to hold the false belief that you will not be happy without them, you are spared all the struggle and emotional strain of protecting them and guarding them for yourself. Has it occurred to you that you can keep all the objects of your attachments without giving them up, without renouncing a single one of them and you can enjoy them even more on a nonattachment, a nonclinging basis, because you are peaceful now and relaxed and unthreatened in your enjoyment of them?”

Letting go of our attachments and beliefs and expectations is difficult because they have often been part of us for a long time. They feel like statements of absolute truth rather than an arbitrary set of inherited values.

However, we need only look at other people to see this cannot be true. We are all programmed differently. We know that many people are perfectly happy without a thing or person that we have convinced ourselves we cannot live without. We know that there are people who would not be irritated by the things that annoy us. “You see persons and things not as they are but as you are,” says De Mello. Our negative emotions are not caused by external things but by our programming. And this is something we can change (although doing so may not be easy).

Attachment is not only the cause of our negative emotions. It also discourages us from seeking out other people or things:

“If you learn to enjoy the scent of a thousand flowers you will not cling to one or suffer when you cannot get it. If you have a thousand favorite dishes, the loss of one will go unnoticed and leave your happiness unimpaired. But it is precisely your attachments that prevent you from developing a wider and more varied taste for things and people.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in romantic love. Our culture promotes monogamy, encouraging us to attach ourselves to a single person, to the exclusion of all others.

Most of us seek love because we want to be special to someone. However, most people will only care for us if we please them in some way. This requires us to modify our behaviour to gain and keep their approval. And thus we lose our freedom to be ourselves.

Requiring someone to satisfy our expectations of how they should behave isn’t love, argues De Mello. We cannot truly love another person without giving them the freedom to be themselves:

“Now say to this person, “I leave you free to be yourself, to think your thoughts, to indulge your taste, follow your inclinations, behave in any way that you decide is to your liking.” The moment you say that you will observe one of two things: Either your heart will resist those words and you will be exposed for the clinger and exploiter that you are; so now is the time to examine your false belief that without this person you cannot live or cannot be happy. Or your heart will pronounce the words sincerely and in that very instant all control, manipulation, exploitation, possessiveness, jealousy will drop. And you will notice something else: The person automatically ceases to be especial and important to you. And he/she becomes important the way a sunset or a symphony is lovely in itself, the way a tree is especial in itself and not for the fruit or the shade that it can offer you. Your beloved will then belong not to you but to everyone or to no one like the sunrise and the tree.”

Love, according to De Mello, is about seeing and appreciating another person for the person they are. It is not about finding someone to meet our needs. Love demands nothing. It is unconditional.

And this means we cannot love unless we are comfortable with solitude. “To love persons is to have died to the need for persons and to be utterly alone,” says De Mello.

Stephanie Coontz on the Changing Role of Marriage

MarriageAHistoryMarriage has existed for around five thousand years. But as Stephanie Coontz observes in the fascinating Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, the idea that love should be the main reason for getting married has only been around for the last two hundred. Coontz presents compelling evidence of how this shift has rendered marriage more optional, fragile and risky than ever before, and illustrates the extent to which our ideas about love and marriage are determined by when and where we are born.

"For thousands of years, marriage served so many economic, political, and social functions that the individual needs and wishes of its members (especially women and children) took second place. Marriage was not about bringing two individuals together for love and intimacy, although that was sometimes a welcome side effect. Rather, the aim of marriage was to acquire useful in-laws and gain political or economic advantage. Only in the last two hundred years, as other economic and political institutions began to take over many of the roles once played by marriage, did Europeans and Americans begin to see marriage as a personal and private relationship that should fulfill their emotional and sexual desires. Once that happened, free choice became the societal norm for mate selection, love became the main reason for marriage, and a successful marriage came to be defined as one that met the needs of its members."

Different perspectives

There are similarities between the institutions classified as marriages throughout history, but coming up with a common definition is difficult.

"Marriage usually determines rights and obligations connected to sexuality, gender roles, relationships with in-laws, and the legitimacy of children. It also gives the participants specific rights and roles within the larger society. It usually defines the mutual duties of husband and wife and often the duties of their respective families toward each other, and it makes those duties enforceable. It also allows the property and status of the couple or the household head to be passed down to the next generation in an orderly manner.

But marriage does not serve all these functions in any one society. Moreover, almost every single function that marriage fulfills in one society has been filled by some mechanism other than marriage in another."

Coontz provides numerous examples to illustrate how our current ideas about love and marriage, far from being timeless and universal, are specific to our culture and age. 

“In the Chinese language the term love did not traditionally apply to feelings between husband and wife. It was used to describe an illicit, socially disapproved relationship. In the 1920s a group of intellectuals invented a new word for love between spouses because they thought such a radical new idea required its own special label.”

Adultery was sometimes considered a good thing.

“In Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adultery became idealized as the highest form of love among the aristocracy. According to the Countess of Champagne, it was impossible for true love to “exert its powers between two people who are married to each other.””

In some societies today, too much love is considered a bad thing.

“In many peasant and working-class communities, too much love between husband and wife is seen as disruptive because it encourages the couple to withdraw from the wider web of dependence that makes the society work.”

Coontz provides some fascinating examples of how other cultures have regarded same-sex relationships.

“In many Native American groups, for example, the rare person who chose to do the work of the other gender could marry someone who shared the same biological sex but played the opposite role in the division of labor. A man doing “woman’s work” could marry a man doing “man’s work,” and a woman doing “man’s work” could marry a woman doing “woman’s work.”

These social gender roles completely overshadowed the actual biological sex of the partners. As a result, sexual relations between two people of the same sex, when one had chosen man’s work and the other woman’s work, would not have been considered homosexual, had an equivalent of that label even existed. But eyebrows would certainly have been raised at the idea of a man and a woman living together if both were playing the same work and gender roles.”

The ancient Greeks valued some homosexual relationships above heterosexual ones:

“The Greek model for true love was not the relationship between husband and wife. The truest love was held to exist in the association of an adult man with a much younger male.”

In Victorian England, despite general condemnation of actual homosexual acts, intense same-sex friendships were considered unremarkable:

“People did not pick up the sexual connotations that often make even the most innocent expression of affection seem sexual to our sensibilities today. Perfectly respectable nineteenth-century women wrote to each other in terms like these: “[T]he expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.” They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights.

Only at the end of the nineteenth century did physical expressions of affection between men begin to be interpreted as “homosexual,” and only in the early 1900s did ardent woman-to-woman bonds start to seem deviant.”

Coontz also reminds us that marriage is not a fundamentally religious institution. Not only does it pre-date the Christian church by several thousand years, “for the first eight centuries of its existence, the church itself showed little concern about what made for a valid marriage or divorce among the lower classes of society”.

The rise of the love match

When the idea of marrying for love started to emerge in the late eighteenth century, there were several factors that still acted to stabilise the institution. There was a belief that there were large, innate differences between men and women, and that marriage enabled them to gain the benefit of each other's unique abilities. There was no reliable contraception, so sex and child-bearing were still closely linked. There were penalties for illegitimacy. There were strong social controls on people's personal behaviour and penalties for non-conformity. Divorce was not readily available. Women were legally and economically dependent on men and men were domestically dependent on women.

One by one, these restraining factors fell away. Reliable contraception had a huge impact:

“The pill gave unmarried women a degree of sexual freedom that the sex radicals of the 1920s could only have dreamed of. But when a large number of married couples stopped having children, it also radically changed marriage itself. Not only did effective contraception allow wives to commit more of their lives to work, but it altered the relationship between husbands and wives. Without a constant round of small children competing for their attention, many couples were forced to reexamine their own relationships more carefully. In addition, the growing number of childless marriages weakened the connection between marriage and parenthood, eroding some of the traditional justifications for elevating marriage over all other relationships and limiting it to heterosexual couples.”

Improvements in healthcare and nutrition resulted in people living longer, and therefore being married longer.

“In England in 1711 the median age at death for men was thirty-two. By 1831 it had risen to forty-four. By 1861 it had reached forty-nine, and by the end of the century the median age of death was in the high fifties. “The average duration of marriage,” estimates historian Roderick Phillips, “increased from about fifteen to twenty years in preindustrial Europe to about thirty-five years in 1900.””

The erosion of the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy in the 1960s and 1970s, while reversing an ancient inequity, also stripped marriage of one of its traditional functions.

In parallel with these changes came a rise in individualism, in the belief that everyone is entitled to personal happiness and satisfaction. Marriage became freighted with increasingly high expectations: that it should provide sexual satisfaction, emotional intimacy, self-fulfilment, a sense of meaning and a source of fun. Married couples should be best friends and put each other above all other relationships. Each should provide the other with everything they need. Such a package of expectations, notes Coontz, is historically extremely rare.

As love became the main reason to marry, loveless marriages started to be seen as a problem. The idea that women might have to enter such a marriage just to survive economically was seen as unacceptable, and spurred demands for women’s rights. The risk of being trapped in a loveless marriage, if love and intimacy disappeared, prompted calls to make divorce easier. 

“Evidence of a slippery slope leading directly from the celebration of free choice to the destruction of family life was provided by the mounting demands to liberalize divorce laws. In the mid-seventeenth century, the poet John Milton had already argued that incompatibility should be reason enough to declare a marriage contract broken. His view found little support in the seventeenth century but gained much broader backing in the eighteenth. By the end of the eighteenth century Sweden, Prussia, France, and Denmark had legalized divorce on the grounds of incompatibility…

The strongest opponents of divorce in the nineteenth century were traditionalists who disliked the exaltation of married love. They feared that making married love the center of people’s emotional lives would raise divorce rates, and they turned out to be right...

In 1891 a Cornell University professor made the preposterous prediction that if trends in the second half of the nineteenth century continued, by 1980 more marriages would end by divorce than by death. As it turned out, he was off by only ten years!”

Today, 43% of all first marriages in America end in divorce within fifteen years.

All these changes came to a head at the end of the twentieth century:

“In less than twenty years, the whole legal, political, and economic context of marriage was transformed. By the end of the 1970s women had access to legal rights, education, birth control, and decent jobs. Suddenly divorce was easy to get. At the same time, traditional family arrangements became more difficult to sustain in the new economy. And new sexual mores, growing tolerance for out-of-wedlock births, and rising aspirations for self-fulfillment changed the cultural milieu in which people made decisions about their personal relationships. During the 1980s and 1990s, all these changes came together to irrevocably transform the role of marriage in society at large and in people’s personal lives.”

Coontz does not argue that these changes are bad. “When a modern marriage is stable, it is so in a more appealing way than in the past,” she says. Her point is that marriage is no longer necessary:

“Marriage used to be… the gateway to adulthood and respectability and the best way for people to maximize their resources and pool labor. This is no longer the case. Marriage still allows two people to merge resources, divide tasks, and accumulate more capital than they could as singles. But it is not the only way they can invest in their future. In fact, it’s a riskier investment than it was in the past. The potential gains of getting married need to be weighed against the possibilities offered by staying single to pursue higher education or follow a better job. And the greater likelihood of eventual divorce reinforces the appeal of leaving your options open while investing in your own personal skills and experience.”

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage is a fascinating read in its entirety.

On Giving

The next time you need to buy a present for someone, and have absolutely no idea what to get them, consider this advice from David Whyte, offered in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"Giving that is… automatic, chore-based, walking round the mall-based, exhausts us, debilitates us, and in the end is quite often subtly insulting to the one whom we eventually give the random item.

Better to spend a long time sitting in our armchairs in silent contemplation of those we want to gift, looking for the imaginative doorway that says I know you and see you and this is how I give thanks for you, which may bring us to the perfect objet but also may bring us instead to write the short heartfelt message that acknowledges their place in our lives."

We are generally unaccustomed to telling others what we appreciate about them, however, and it can be hard to know what to say. For inspiration, look no further than the first book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Titled “Debts and Lessons”, it lists those whom the Roman Emperor felt contributed to his life, and why he was grateful for each of them. It’s an uplifting read.

If we can overcome our own discomfort at being so emotionally expressive, such a written message can be what Whyte considers the perfect gift:

"The full genius of gift giving is found when we give what a person does not fully feel they deserve, but that does not overstretch the point, it is the appropriate but surprising next step in their lives. It disarms and moves and empowers all at once while gratifying the one who gives beyond most everyday satisfactions."

Barbara Fredrickson on Love

Love20In Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson offers a fresh paradigm of love as "micro-moments of positivity resonance".

"Forget about the love that you typically hear on the radio, the one that's centred on desire and yearns for touch from a new squeeze. Set aside the take on love your family might have offered you, one that requires that you love your relatives unconditionally, regardless of whether their actions disturb you, or their aloofness leaves you cold. Set aside your view of love as a special bond or relationship, be it with your spouse, partner or soul mate...

Love is not exclusive, not something to be reserved for your soul mate, your inner circle, your kin, or your so-called loved ones...

Love is not lasting. It's actually far more fleeting than most of us would care to acknowledge. On the upside, though, love is forever renewable..."

Instead, says Fredrickson:

"Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care... Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong."

She calls this "positivity resonance", in order to deliberately dissociate it from our  common preconceptions of what "love" means. (Fredrickson's book opens with an oh-so-true quote from Margaret Atwood: "The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love".)

What's unusual about this conception of love is (1) the idea that it can arise between any two people and (2) that love is not something that can exist solely in one person but that exists in the connection between them. Or as Fredrickson puts it:

"Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections."

In other words, unrequited love is not love at all.

Neither can love be unconditional. There are certain prerequisites that must be satisfied for it to occur. The first is a perception of safety, the second the existence of connection:

"True connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires sensory and temporal copresence of bodies... Love requires you to be physically and emotionally present."

So what's the difference between the love you feel for your partner and other kinds of love?

"At the level of positivity resonance, micro-moments of love are virtually identical regardless of whether they bloom between you and a stranger or you and a soul mate; between you and an infant or you and your lifelong best friend. The clearest difference between the love you feel with intimates and the love you feel with anyone with whom you share a connection is its sheer frequency. Spending more total moments together increases your chances to feast on micro-moments of positivity resonance."

It's not just about the total number of micro-moments we experience in our closest relationships, however. When we deeply understand someone, and accept them for who they are, those moments get triggered more frequently:

"Whereas the biological synchrony that emerges between connected brains and bodies may be comparable no matter who the other person may be, the triggers for your micro-moments of love can be wholly different with intimates. The hallmark feature of intimacy is mutual responsiveness, that reassuring sense that you and your soul mate — or you and your best friend — really ‘get’ each other...

Your intimates offer you history, safety, trust, and openness in addition to the frequent opportunity to connect. The more trusting and open you are with someone else— and the more trusting and open that person is with you— the more points of connection each of you may find over which to share a laugh, or a common source of intrigue, serenity, or delight."

Sharing an activity with someone can be a way to generate positivity resonance:

"Couples who regularly make time to do new and exciting things together— like hiking, skiing, dancing, or attending concerts and plays— have better- quality marriages. These activities provide a steady stream of shared micro-moments of positivity resonance."

However, some shared activities may generate positivity, but not love. For example:

"You and your family members take in the same television comedy. Yet absent eye contact, touch, laughter, or another form of behavioral synchrony, these moments are akin to what developmental psychologists call parallel play. They no doubt feel great and their positivity confers broaden-and-build benefits both to you and to others, independently. But if they are not (yet) directly and interpersonally shared experiences, they do not resonate or reverberate, and so they are not (yet) instances of love. The key to love is to add some form of physical connection."

Fredrickson is unafraid to follow this line of reasoning through to its logical conclusion, carefully drawing a distinction between positivity, love and the bond of marriage:

"And here’s something that’s hard to admit: If I take my body’s perspective on love seriously, it means that right now— at this very moment in which I’m crafting this sentence— I do not love my husband. Our positivity resonance, after all, only lasts as long as we two are engaged with each other. Bonds last. Love doesn’t. The same goes for you and your loved ones. Unless you’re cuddled up with someone reading these words aloud to him or her, right now, as far as your body knows, you don’t love anyone. Of course, you have affection for many, and bonds with a subset of these. And you may even be experiencing strong feelings of positivity now that will prime the pump for later, bona fide and bodily felt love. But right now— within this very moment that you are reading this sentence— your body is loveless."

Nevertheless, Fredrickson's paradigm remains a uniquely liberating one:

"Viewing love as distinct from long-standing relationships is especially vital as people increasingly face repeated geographical relocations that distance families and friends. Falling in love within smaller moments and with a greater variety of people gives new hope to the lonely and isolated among us."

[First published 26 January 2015; updated 16 June 2015]

David Whyte on Expectation, Gratitude and Unrequited Love

ConsolationsExpectation is the foundation of disappointment. Without a preconceived notion of how something should be, it is impossible for us to be unhappy.

When it comes to other people, we are often told to accept them for who they are. However, we should also be willing to accept them for what they are, for the particular kind of relationship we actually have with them rather than the relationship we wish we had. Instead of wishing that an acquaintance could be a close friend, we should appreciate them for simply being someone we can share a hobby with. Instead of wishing that a friend could be a lover, we should simply be content that they are our friend.

It's this kind of acceptance that poet David Whyte writes about, among other things, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations."

Perhaps, says Whyte, "being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention". To be grateful for the particular relationship we have with another person, to appreciate its beauty, simply requires us to fully inhabit the present moment with that person, not some imaginary, wished-for future. "Beauty," says Whyte, "is the harvest of presence."

Perhaps the hardest kind of relationship to be grateful for is that of unrequited love. And yet, says Whyte, this is the most common form of love:

"What affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? Every man or woman loves differently and uniquely and each of us holds different dreams and hopes and falls in love or is the object of love at a very specific threshold in a very particular life where very, very particular qualities are needed for the next few years of our existence. What other human being could ever love us as we need to be loved? And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?"

It is the expectation that love should be perfectly requited that so often leads to heartbreak:

"Requited love may happen, but it is a beautiful temporary, a seasonal blessing, the aligning of stars not too often in the same quarter of the heavens; an astonishing blessing, but it is a harvest coming only once every long cycle, and a burden to the mind and the imagination when we set that dynamic as the state to which we must always return to in order to feel ourselves in a true, consistent, loving relationship."

The key, again, is to let go of our expectations and simply be grateful for what is:

"Human beings live in disappointment and a self-appointed imprisonment when they refuse to love unless they are loved the selfsame way in return. It is the burden of marriage, the difficult invitation at the heart of parenting and the central difficulty in our relationship with any imagined, living future. The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation."

The Art of Loving

TheArtOfLovingMany believe that love is a feeling, which comes and goes as a result of forces that are mostly outside our control. In The Art of Loving, philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm asserts that love is an art and just like any other art - music, painting, carpentry - requires knowledge and effort to be successful.

Fromm attributes our scepticism of the need to learn about love to three misconceptions.

First, that we are mostly concerned with how to be loved, how to be lovable. We focus on how to make other people like us and give little thought to what love requires of us.

Second, that we believe the difficulty of love lies primarily in finding the right object to love or be loved by. Our culture has conditioned us to think of ourselves as a commodity. We trade ourselves not only in the job market, but in the love market too. "Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values," as Fromm puts it.

Third, we confuse the initial experience of falling in love with the state of being in love. We are misled into believing that love should be easy because of the ease with which we fall in love, that exhilarating but temporary time when the boundaries between ourselves and another are first falling away.

Once the initial euphoria has worn off, however, love isn't easy and it's not about making ourselves attractive to another. It's about knowing another person deeply enough that we can support them effectively (recognising what they really need), respect them (understanding who they really are), and care for them.

"I may know, for instance, that a person is angry, even if he does not show it overtly; but I may know him more deeply than that; then I know that he is anxious, and worried; that he feels lonely, that he feels guilty. Then I know that his anger is only the manifestation of something deeper, and I see him as anxious and embarrassed, that is, as the suffering person, rather than as the angry one."

This is the art of loving. It requires discipline, mindfulness and patience. It is primarily giving, not receiving.

"What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other— but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness— of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him."

"Giving" does not mean "giving up". Fromm argues that love does not necessarily require us to sacrifice or be deprived of something. The misconception that giving means impoverishment causes some not to give at all, some to only give in the expectation of getting something in return, and others to trumpet their willingness to sacrifice as a virtue. Fromm has little patience with the latter:

"They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation than to experience joy."

Instead, Fromm argues that we should give because by offering our talents to another person we get to feel alive:

"Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness."

When we give we are able to think of ourselves as a person who has something valuable to offer. It provides us with a positive self-image:

"Whoever is capable of giving of himself is rich. He experiences himself as one who can confer of himself to others."

Nevertheless, the reason man loves at all is "to leave the prison of his aloneness". Thus, while giving offers its own benefits, it must stimulate love in return. Fromm quotes Marx:

"If you love without calling forth love, that is, if your love as such does not produce love, if by means of an expression of life as a loving person you do not make of yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent, a misfortune."

Perhaps, argues Fromm, this is our greatest fear about love:

"While one is consciously afraid of not being loved, the real, though usually unconscious fear is that of loving. To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person."

And if we fail?

"The absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity, because the panic of complete isolation can be overcome only by such a radical withdrawal from the world outside that the feeling of separation disappears— because the world outside, from which one is separated, has disappeared."

See also:

Why Good Women Leave Good Men

It's tempting to believe that a marriage only fails when something goes spectacularly wrong. Drug abuse. Alcohol abuse. Verbal abuse. Physical abuse. Cheating. That it requires one or both partners to be significantly defective in some way. Even if a marriage could be blown towards the rocks by less cataclysmic events, we reassure ourselves that we would have sufficient warning to correct course before it foundered.

It's sobering to learn that neither of these things is true. We may see ourselves as a good person, we may try our hardest, we may think that our marriage is healthy. Yet one day, without warning, our partner may leave us anyway.

When this happens, understanding what went wrong may be extremely difficult. Even if we ask our partner why she is leaving, the reasons she gives us may be little more than post hoc justifications of a decision she has already made, not the fundamental reasons that caused her to make it. If she feels guilt or doubt over her decision to walk out, if she dare not admit the true reasons to herself, or herself does not fully understand them, those rationalisations may be essential to allow her to preserve her self-respect. But in an attempt to learn the truth, they may be largely useless.

For the one who has been left, the realisation that they may never understand what went wrong can be as devastating as the loss of the relationship itself. In the absence of a plausible explanation, the tidal forces of cognitive dissonance may threaten to pull them apart. They may feel as if they did nothing to warrant such a betrayal, that they are a fundamentally a good person, yet find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that, having been abandoned, they must be in some way defective. They may instinctively judge the one who left as having acted callously, unforgivably, yet struggle to reconcile this with the kind, thoughtful woman walking out the door, still loved by her friends.

However, while the specifics may remain elusive, there are general templates that may fit such an apparently inexplicable ending.

Perhaps it was a gradual accretion of resentment due to an inability to communicate:

"I have a friend who is going through a divorce right now and “we fell out of love” is her explanation... In this particular relationship, nothing really bad happened. My guess is just that the two of them got on a bad path of non-communication and instead of talking things through, one or both harbored resentment for years. When one of them started talking divorce, they probably went to marriage counseling, but at that point it was just too late. There could have been years when one or both felt lonely and sad and that their marital situation was hopeless."

Perhaps it was a lack of presence:

"Women leave because their man is not present. He’s working, golfing, gaming, watching TV, fishing… the list is long. These aren’t bad men. They’re good men. They’re good fathers. They support their family. They’re nice, likeable. But they take their wife for granted. They’re not present."

Or perhaps it was a lack of passion:

"She wants to feel your passion. Can you feel your passion? Can you show her? Not just your passion for her or for sex; your passion for being alive. Do you have it? It’s the most attractive thing you possess. If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time."

However unfathomable it may be, a reason still exists. No-one walks out on a whim.

Our desire for understanding may be driven by a need for closure, or a fear that, without it, our next relationship may founder on the same rocks. But closure is elusive and the circumstances that doomed one relationship are unlikely to play out in exactly the same way in another. Perhaps the best we can do is accept that people change, and two good people, who once fit together well, may not always remain well-matched.

Marriage guarantees nothing. 

Erich Fromm on Conditional Love

TheArtOfLovingApart from the love of our parents, most of the love we receive as adults is conditional. Moreover, in our meritocratic society, we are taught to believe that this is fair, that to expect to receive anything other than what we deserve would be presumptuous.

However, in The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm argues that such love can be debilitating:

"To be loved because of one’s merit, because one deserves it, always leaves doubt; maybe I did not please the person whom I want to love me, maybe this, or that— there is always a fear that love could disappear."

Not only does conditional love breed fear in the loved one, it can lead to resentment:

"Furthermore, “deserved” love easily leaves a bitter feeling that one is not loved for oneself, that one is loved only because one pleases, that one is, in the last analysis, not loved at all but used."

Conditional love suggests a lack of respect:

"If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use.

See also:

Erich Fromm on Marriage

TheArtOfLoving"True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed," said Scott Peck. "It is a committed, thoughtful decision... This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present."

In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm starts with the same premise, and extrapolates what this means for marriage:

"This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love. Love should be essentially an act of will, of decision to commit my life completely to that of one other person. This is, indeed, the rationale behind the idea of the insolubility of marriage, as it is behind the many forms of traditional marriage in which the two partners never choose each other, but are chosen for each other— and yet are expected to love each other...

To love somebody is not just a strong feeling— it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?"

However, Fromm continues, it's not that simple:

"Inasmuch as we are all one, we can love everybody in the same way in the sense of brotherly love. But inasmuch as we are all also different, erotic love requires certain specific, highly individual elements which exist between some people but not between all.

Both views then, that of erotic love as completely individual attraction, unique between two specific persons, as well as the other view that erotic love is nothing but an act of will, are true— or, as it may be put more aptly, the truth is neither this nor that. Hence the idea of a relationship which can be easily dissolved if one is not successful with it is as erroneous as the idea that under no circumstances must the relationship be dissolved."

See also:

Louis de Bernières on Love

Scott Peck suggested that it is when the mating instinct has run its course that the opportunity for true love begins. Writing in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernières makes the same distinction between true love and being "in love":

"Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident."

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."

“Looking Outward Together”

In Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes,

“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

It’s an idea that’s echoed in Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, an allegory of love masquerading as a children’s book. A wedge-shaped character, the eponymous missing piece, is “waiting for someone to come along and take it somewhere”.

After several unsuitable candidates pass by, he eventually finds a circle with a hole that he fits perfectly, and for a time the two roll on together. But the piece continues to grow, whereas the circle does not, and before long the two no longer fit. Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova makes the obvious inference:

"And just like in any relationship where one partner grows and the other remains static, things end in disappointment — and then they just end. The static circle moves along, looking for a piece that won’t grow."

Then one day a shape rolls by that has no pieces missing, the Big O.

“I think you are the one I have been waiting for,” said the missing piece. “Maybe I am your missing piece.”

“But I am not missing a piece,” said the Big O. “There is no place you would fit.”

“That is too bad,” said the missing piece. “I was hoping that perhaps I could roll with you…”

“You cannot roll with me,” said the Big O, “but perhaps you can roll by yourself.”

At first, the missing piece is baffled. He has corners and flat edges and won't roll well at all. But the Big O points out that corners can be rounded off ("another elegant metaphor for the self-refinement necessary in our personal growth" notes Popova), and so the missing piece painfully begins to haul himself end over end. Gradually his corners do start to round off; indeed, he becomes rounder and rounder, until finally he starts "rolling, like it always dreamt of doing with the aid of another, only all by itself".

It's then that the Big O returns, and at the end of the book the two are seen rolling in the same direction, side by side.

This idea of two independent, self-sufficient people moving through life in the same direction is echoed by Alexander Seinfeld in an answer to the question, “What is the purpose of marriage?”, on Quora:

“Marriage is a commitment that two people make in order to pursue their life goals together.

This definition sheds light on why marriages succeed or fail. To the extent that the two (a) share the same life goals and (b) remain focused on those mutual goals, they have a high chance of a long-term stable happy marriage. The opposite is also true.

One of the big mistakes couples get when they get married is failing as individuals to clarify their life goals. Sometimes the only life goal they have in common is having and raising children. Guess what happens in such marriages once the kids are grown?”

In this view, marriage is more durable when it’s about cementing Saint-Exupéry’s idea of love rather than the traditional romantic ideal. Far easier to accommodate separate rates of growth when you’re rolling side by side than when you’re snugly interlocked.

Epicurus on Love

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived between 341 and 270 BC. He had some unconventional ideas on love, summarised here in an article from the Montreal Review:

“Love, for Epicurus, falls under the category of desires that are both unnatural and unnecessary. It is not anything in nature that makes us desire to have one sex partner to ourselves, but rather dictates of the society around us… Basically, we would not consent to the arrangement known as love if we had never heard of it before. It is essentially to make oneself obsessed with fulfilling a desire that can never be fulfilled, therefore condemning oneself forever to unhappiness.”

Epicurus saw love as a combination of friendship and sex, but crucially, considered the whole to be less than the sum of its parts:

“Whereas friendship and sex are both, to varying extents, worth pursuing, love is nothing more than mental disturbance... As Stephens writes, "Sex satisfies the body and is a natural pleasure. Love crazes the mind and leads to heartache."”

Sherwin Nuland on Love

In my quest to understand what we mean by “love”, I recently came across a quote from surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland:

"When you recognize that pain — and response to pain — is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. It teaches you forbearance. It teaches you a moderation in your responses to other people’s behavior. It teaches you a sort of understanding. It essentially tells you what everybody needs. You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word?

Everybody needs to be understood.

And out of that comes every form of love."

This seems to imply two broad sources of love: that which arises when we feel understood, and that which arises in the act of understanding.

When we feel that someone understands us, we feel some form of love for that person. This is the appreciation of a child for a parent who is able to help them navigate the world; the gratitude of someone suffering for a person who empathises with their pain; the romantic attraction of one adult to another who finds them in some way admirable. This is love as an emotion.

Choosing to make the effort to understand someone else also gives rise to love. This is the reassurance a parent gives to their child; the support offered to a friend; the admiration of one adult for the another. This is love as a verb.

Conversely, the greatest threat to love, in Nuland’s view, would presumably be a lack of understanding.

What is Love?

There is a fascinating aside in How To Read A Book, in which Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren discuss what is meant by the word “love”.

Even once the authors have whittled down the definition, for the purposes of their example, to love between two human beings, the meaning of the word remains difficult to pin down.

Is love about what you can get for yourself, or what you can give to others?

“You would find, for instance, that love is said by some writers to consist wholly in acquisitive desire, usually sexual desire; that is, love is merely a name for the attraction that almost all animals feel toward members of the opposite sex. But you would also find other authors who maintain that love, properly speaking, contains no acquisitive desire whatever , and consists in pure benevolence. Do acquisitive desire and benevolence have anything in common, considering that acquisitive desire always implies wanting some good for oneself, while benevolence implies wanting a good for someone else?”

Is love an intellectual act rather than an emotional one?

“At least acquisitive desire and benevolence share a common note of tendency, of desire in some very abstract sense of the term. But your investigation of the literature of the subject would soon uncover writers who conceive of the essence of love as being cognitive rather than appetitive. Love, these writers maintain, is an intellectual act, not an emotional one. In other words, knowing that another person is admirable always precedes desiring him or her, in either of the two senses of desire. Such authors do not deny that desire enters into the picture, but they do deny that desire should be called love.”

Even if we just focus on romantic love, what exactly do we mean by that?

“Is the love that a man and woman have for each other the same when they are courting as when they are married, the same when they are in their twenties as when they are in their seventies?”

Are there different kinds of familial love? If so, how are they different?

“Is the love that a woman has for her husband the same as that she has for her children? Does a mother’s love for her children change as they grow up? Is the love of a brother for his sister the same as his love for his father? Does a child’s love for its parents change as he or she grows?”

What’s the difference between love and friendship?

“Is the love that a man has for a woman, either his wife or some other, the same as the friendship he feels for another man, and does it make a difference what relationship he has with the man— such as one with whom he goes bowling, one with whom he works, and one whose intellectual company he enjoys? Does the fact that “love” and “friendship” are different words mean that the emotions they name (if that is in fact what they name) differ? Can two men of different ages be friends? Can they be friends if they are markedly different in some other respect, such as possession of wealth or degree of intelligence? Can women be friends at all? Can brothers and sisters be friends, or brother and brother, or sister and sister? Can you retain a friendship with someone you either borrow money from or lend it to? It not, why not?”

Can we love someone very different from ourselves, or someone we have never met?

“If humanoid robots existed, could human beings love them? If we discovered intelligent beings on Mars or some other planet, could we love them? Can we love someone we have never met, like a movie star or the President?

To these, I’d add my own question: is love a feeling or, as Stephen Covey asserts in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a verb, something that we choose to do?

The authors don’t provide any answers. They’re simply making the point that if you read for insight on a given subject, it can be more difficult than you might think to identify exactly what that subject is.

Nevertheless, they’re fascinating questions and I’d very much like to read some books that explore them further. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Seven Habits

The book that’s probably had the biggest influence on my life is Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The book offers a paradigm, a way of looking at life, that really resonates with me. It isn’t a quick fix manual. It’s not a catalogue of techniques. It’s a framework for living, for helping you chart a course through life. It describes seven practices that, when internalised as habits, provide the basis for living a successful life, while leaving the definition of "successful" up to you.

The habits

Habit 1, be proactive, is the foundation. It’s about one simple idea: that there is a gap between a stimulus and our response into which we can step. Habit 1 is essentially nothing more than a reminder of our own free will. Yet the way Covey phrases it - a gap between stimulus and response - emphasises our ability to override our conditioning and choose our behaviour.

Habit 2 says we should begin with the end in mind. We can work as hard as we like at climbing the ladder of success, but it will do us no good if, when we get to the top, we realise it was leaning up against the wrong wall. Habit 2 is about setting a direction for ourselves, deciding what we want to achieve in our life.

Habit 3, put first things first, is about prioritising the things that are important to us, but which may not be urgent, in order to achieve our goals. It’s about managing ourselves effectively.

Habit 4, think win/win, states that in our interactions with others we should, wherever possible, go out of our way to identify solutions that both parties see as a win. It’s about having the courage to express your own feelings and convictions, balanced with consideration for the thoughts and feelings of the other person. You neither seek to win at their expense (win/lose), nor subordinate your own wishes to theirs (lose/win).

Seek first to understand, then to be understood, is habit 5. It says we should listen to the other person first, in order to deeply, thoroughly understand the way they see the situation. Only when we can explain their point of view as well as they can, should we focus on communicating our own point of view.

Habit 6, synergize, is about coming together to produce things that are better than what we could have produced alone. It’s about valuing the differences between people, building on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. It builds on the motive of win/win and the communication skills developed in habit 5.

Finally, habit 7 is sharpen the saw: preserving and enhancing our own ability to produce. Covey encourages us to do this by regularly exercising the four aspects of our nature: the physical, mental, spiritual and social/emotional. Physically, it’s about exercising, eating well, and getting sufficient rest and relaxation. Mentally, it’s about constantly informing and expanding our minds through study, reading and writing. Spiritually, it’s about keeping our bond with the sources that inspire and uplift us, whether that’s listening to great music, reading great literature, getting out in nature, or our religion. Socially and emotionally, it’s about helping and developing our relationships with others.

P problems are PC opportunities

I’ve taken more from the book than just the seven habits, however.

One of the things Covey talks about is the need to strike a balance in our lives between P - the things we produce - and PC - our production capability. He uses the analogy of the goose that laid the golden eggs: the goose is PC, the eggs are P. Enjoys the eggs and neglect the goose and before long you won’t have any more eggs. Conversely, a goose that can lay golden eggs is useless if it never actually lays any.

My biggest weakness is arguably my lack of patience. In particular, I get exasperated when my kids don’t do what they’re told and I hate being interrupted when I’m in the middle of something. Covey argues that these production problems should be viewed as production capability opportunities. If a colleague asks me to do something while I’m concentrating on a difficult task, I need to look at it as an opportunity to improve my relationship with my colleague instead of becoming frustrated because I've been interrupted. If my son refuses to tidy his room, I need to see it as an opportunity to improve my relationship with him.

I still struggle with this in practice, but it’s something I try to constantly keep in mind.

Love is a verb

People sometimes talk about love like it’s a feeling. For example, someone at a difficult point in a relationship might say, “I guess I just don’t love him any more”.

Covey asserts that love is first a verb, not a feeling. Love is something we do. It means sacrificing for, listening to, empathising with, appreciating and affirming the person we claim to love. Love the feeling flows from love the verb, not the other way around. As habit 1 emphasises, we can always choose what we do.

What is important to another person must be as important to you as the other person is to you

Covey uses the metaphor of an “emotional bank account” to describe the state of our relationship with another person. Many deposits into that account result in a relationship with a high degree of trust and mutual understanding; many withdrawals lead to mistrust and misunderstanding.

Covey lists six actions that constitute major deposits: understanding the individual, attending to the small things, keeping commitments, clarifying expectations, showing personal integrity and apologising sincerely where necessary. But the one piece of advice that really stuck with me was this: we should always strive to make the things that are important to another person as important to us as that person is to us.

If something is important to someone we care about, we should make that thing important to us too. Doing this shows the other person that we care about them and gives the relationship a significant boost. This is as true of our relationships with our children as it is of our relationship with our spouse.

Two people can disagree and both be right

Study the picture below:

image from www.phillipwells.com

Now look at this picture and describe what you see:

image from www.phillipwells.com

You would probably describe the woman in this picture as old and ugly, with a large nose and jutting chin. But what if you were told that you’re wrong, that this is actually a picture of a young woman, dressed in furs and a necklace, with a petite nose?

Covey uses this optical illusion to demonstrate that two people can see the same thing, disagree, and yet both be right. Moreover, our perception is influenced by our conditioning. By showing you a picture of an old woman first, I made you more likely to see the old woman in the second picture. Covey cites an experiment where those who were shown a picture of a young lady first tended to see the young lady in the second picture, and had difficulty identifying the old woman.

I was blown away by this demonstration when I first read about it. I now think about it every time I hear two people interpret the same event in different ways. In particular, it’s really opened my eyes as to why there often seems to be such a gulf between the way blacks and whites perceive a particular situation.


The Seven Habits was first published in 1989, but it still stands up as an insightful and thought-provoking manual for living. I first read it seventeen years ago, when I was single and just starting on my career, and it really helped me think about the direction I wanted to take my life. Now 41, married with two children, I recently re-read the book after wrestling with a sense of dissatisfaction with several areas of my life. Again, it helped me get my bearings.

It's not a panacea. Knowing what to do is one thing, doing it is another. But even when I get lost, at least I have a compass to guide me in the right direction. The rest is up to me.