What is Love?

Throughout history philosophers, poets, spiritual leaders and even psychotherapists have struggled to define love. Love is thought to be the cause of great joy and suffering. Some have referred to love as an aroused emotional state or “temporary insanity”; others have described love as an activity requiring the utmost care and attention by the one who loves. This brief article hopes to elucidate some of the distinctions between immature and mature love.

Immature Love

In today’s culture, romantic notions of love abound. Popular culture seems to define romantic love as enmeshment and obsession. It is not uncommon to hear movie lines or song lyrics such as, “You complete me” or “You belong to me.”  In other words two half people become a whole, or one person wishes to possess the other. According to Fromm, immature forms of love are similar to the relationship of a pregnant mother and her fetus; they are involved in a symbiotic union where one feeds the other. The desire for fusion drives immature love.

James Hollis, a Jungian analyst, describes romantic love as the narcotic of our time; it feeds our existential hunger and has more to do with anxiety than love.

Hollis writes that the pursuit of the Magical Other is one of the main fantasies that drive humankind. “The Magical Other is the idea that there is one person out there who is right for us, will make our lives work, a soul–mate who will repair the ravages of our personal history, one who will be there for us, will read our minds, know what we want and meet those deepest needs; a good parent who will protect us from suffering and spare us the challenging journey of individuation.” (Hollis, 1998, p. 45).

Tied into this notion of the Magical Other are parental images; the parent–child interaction is usually our first relationship experience. We generally carry these images unconsciously – which is why they are so difficult to uproot – and transfer them onto potential partners. Relationships often break down when we come into contact with the other’s ordinary, flawed humanness. When we realize the Magical Other isn’t our ticket to Nirvana, disappointment sets in…but we usually view the problem as being the other, not our unconscious desire for fusion.

Thus, one can achieve no higher or better relationship with the Other than one has achieved with oneself. Hollis (1998, p. 74) summarized four principles of relationships:

  1. What we do not know about ourselves (the unconscious project), or will not face in ourselves (the shadow), will be projected onto the Other.
  2. We project our childhood wounding (personal pathology), our infantile longing (the narcissistic going home agenda), and our individuation imperative onto the Other.
  3. Since the Other cannot, and should not, bear responsibility for our wounds, our narcissism or our individuation, the projection gives way to resentment and the problem of power.
  4. The only way to heal a faltering relationship is to make our unconscious projections conscious and take personal responsibility for our individuation.

From these four principles, it is clear that learning to love well is a developmental process requiring time and attention. This leads us to the complexity of mature love.

Mature Erotic Love

Many have attempted to capture the essence of mature love: St. Augustine wrote that love is wanting the other to be, wanting him or her to thrive. Erich Fromm (2000) described love as “an activity not a passive affect; it is a ‘standing in’ not a ‘falling for.'” (p. 21). Fromm believed that care, responsibility, respect and knowledge were necessary qualities of mature love – one cannot say he or she loved without demonstrating these qualities. They are mutually interdependent and are attitudes that a mature person holds towards others and life. At its core, mature love is more about giving than receiving – giving of oneself, not material objects.

Love, like ethics, is never static; one can always love more or behave more ethically in interpersonal interactions. In other words, human love is always relative, fluctuating with the changing circumstances of our lives. John Welwood (2006) writes, “Relationships continually oscillate between two people finding common ground and then having that ground slip out from under them as their differences pull them in different directions. This is a problem only when we expect it to be otherwise, when we imagine that love should manifest as a steady state. That kind of expectation prevents us from appreciating the special gift that relative love does have to offer: personal intimacy.” (p.44).

The experience of personal intimacy with another human being requires two distinct beings. Thus, as mentioned above, the capacity for mature love depends on the level of one’s personal development. “Mature love is a union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality.” (Fromm, 2000, p.19). Mature love is not about emotional fusion or enmeshment, but rather love is communion while maintaining separateness.  A term used to describe this process is differentiation. Similar to individuation, differentiation is one’s ability to maintain a sense of self while remaining emotionally and/or physically close to others. It is the ability to stand up alone, stay close to one’s partner and soothe oneself when not getting what one wants. It involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness (e.g., Schnarch, 1997). Individuals who have unresolved issues of abandonment (neglect) or engulfment (intrusion) find it difficult to maintain a sense of self in relationship – they struggle with dependency and isolation as opposed to a desire for personal intimacy. Again, intimacy requires two differentiated – emotionally distinct –people who can tolerate their own and others’ intense emotions without fleeing, shutting down or blaming.

Martin Buber wrote that the ultimate challenge of relationship is to experience the Other as a Thou, as a legitimate Other, not as an object to meet our needs. When two people genuinely encounter one another, the possibility of a third emerges: ” We are more than two ones who, in fusing to become One, remain only two; we are ones who have also become a third. ” (Hollis, 1998, p. 59). Thus, unlike immature love, mature love involves two whole people devoted to one another and the relationship. It is through this third – the relationship – that personal growth is enhanced. If I am open to your otherness, then I am open to seeing your perspective, which in turn expands my perspective: “When we are able to bring the mystery that we are to engage in the mystery of another, then we are in a developmental, dynamic process that enlarges” (Hollis, 2005, p. 119). Therein lay the beauty of love and relationship.

To summarize, it takes courage and risk to love another human being. Remaining open to love is a commitment to personal growth. One must 1) surrender the fantasy of the Magical Other; 2) attend to our wounds and withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others; and 3) develop a sense of self in relation – work towards differentiation/individuation. The words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke say it best:

“For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces gathered around their solitary, anxious upward-beating hearts, they must learn to love. But learning time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is solitude, a heightened and deepened aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?). It is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person.”

Elsie De Vita, R. Psych.
March 30, 2006