Dr. Bernard Stein
A discussion based on the writings of Erich Fromm, Scott Peck, Brenda Schaeffer, David Smail and on the author’s professional experience (edited version).
What is Love
Love is one of the hardest concepts to define accurately. Scott Peck defines it as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”.
I find Scott Peck’s definition the most helpful to work with as a psychotherapist, though I would replace the word “spiritual” with the words ”emotional and spiritual”. His definition is in terms of the goal, or purpose which the love aims to serve. It is purposeful in an altruistic direction, it is active, an act of choice which is under the control of the giver. It puts the other person’s needs first, or at least on an equal footing with those of the person who offers the love.
Addiction, on the other hand, is defined by Peel and Brodsky as an unstable state of being, marked by a compulsion to deny all that you are or have been, in favour of some new and ecstatic experience.
Addictive love is a reliance on someone else, in an attempt to fulfill unmet needs for affection, love, affirmation, acceptance, etc…. or to avoid fear and pain, solve problems and attempt to get others to take care of us. The addicted person sees no alternative way of maintaining his balance without using other people. The problem for the addict is that addictive love gives personal power to someone else than the self, since the addict needs the other person. It therefore disempowers the addict.
The problem for the other person, whom the addict has latched on to, is that the addict never has, indeed never can have, enough. Addictive love or dependency is parasitism, not love. A parasite requires another human being for its survival. There is no choice, no freedom involved in that relationship,
Dependency is an inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by another. We all have the wish to be taken care of for a change from time to time, and this is quite healthy. A characteristic of the dependent person is that the need is ongoing and cannot be fully satisfied. Just like a starving person, they have an inner emptiness crying out to be filled, but they won’t, or do not know how to, fill it themselves. A dependent person is more concerned with what others can do for him than what he can do for himself or for them. He is confusing NEED with LOVE.
The origin of dependency lies in a lack of parental love, attention and care at a crucial time in a child’s development, in the early years of life (see Dr. Thomas Harris’s book: I’m O.K., You’re O.K., regarding the influence of the early formative years on a person’s identity and character). This leads to a person who feels questionably lovable or valuable, and who will then cling to love whenever they find it with a desperation that leads them to be unloving and manipulative. They will often destroy the very relationships they seek to preserve by holding on to them so tightly that they strangle them to death. Love needs freedom to survive just as a person needs oxygen to live. Dependent people look passively on others as the source of their happiness and fulfillment, and feel that others are responsible when they are not happy and fulfilled. They therefore feel endlessly angry and let down by others who, in fact, can never hope to fulfill all their needs – nor would it be appropriate. They are addicted to people, sucking the goodness out of them, virtually gobbling them up, consuming them. They may turn to the bottle or to drugs or food as people substitutes when no one is available to be sucked or gobbled up any more.
Dependency may appear to be love because it causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another, but it is unhealthy love, the antithesis of real love. It is manipulative and ultimately destroys rather than builds relationships and people.
Falling in Love
Falling in love is a sex linked erotic experience in Scott Peck’s view, and I agree with him. Firstly, we don’t tend to fall in love with our children or with friends of the same sex if we are heterosexual or of the opposite sex if we are homosexual, even though we may care about them greatly. Secondly, it is invariably temporary: if the relationship continues long enough we eventually fall out of love. This does not mean we necessarily cease loving the person with whom we fell in love, but the feeling of ecstatic lovingness characterising the experience of falling in love always passes, though some maintain this passion longer than others. To identify in what ways falling in love is different from love, we need to look a little closer at ego boundaries.
To begin with there is no separate identity, no boundary, no separation between “Me” and the world. Gradually, that sense of “Me” develops from the interaction between the infant and the mother and the world. By mid- adolescence most of us have learned that we are individuals confined to the boundaries of our bodies and of our family and societal expectations, and with limited power each of us is a relatively frail and impotent organism, existing only in co-operation within a group of fellow persons called society. We are isolated from others by our individual identities, boundaries and limits. This isolation can feel very lonely and painful in comparison to the blissful oneness with the world we experienced as an omnipotent infant and toddler, when our needs were automatically attended to (if our mother was reasonably attentive). Yet we yearn to escape from behind the walls of our individual identities to a condition in which we can safely be more unified with the world outside ourselves. A wish to return to the blissful experience of oneness with the mother, either in utero, or soon after birth, to lose our ego boundaries, and to re-experience that unconditional love which nurtured us in infancy, and made no demands of us. The experience of falling in love allows us this escape – temporarily.
In falling in love there is a collapsing of a section of an individual’s ego boundaries. There is a merging of one’s identity and boundaries with those of the Other, a pouring out of oneself into the Beloved and a dramatic, ecstatic removal of loneliness. This is the quest for intimacy. Brenda Schaeffer defines intimacy as the exchange of thoughts, feelings and actions in an atmosphere of open-ness and trust. In unhealthy dependency, true intimacy is frequently lost, if it was ever achieved in the first place, as true open-ness and trust are not encouraged in dependent relationships.
Falling in love has little to do with purposefully nurturing one’s spiritual or emotional development, or that of the other person. The sole purpose is to terminate our own loneliness through intimate joining. For those people who feel they have little loving to give, the only intimacy they will be capable of is sexual intimacy. Emotional intimacy is beyond their ken.
This is not to say that falling in love has no value – this desire for inter- personal fusion is the most powerful striving in human beings, the most powerful passion, rivaling hunger and the need for oxygen. It keeps the human race together. It primes many relationships, which can eventually develop into true loving relationships, in the fuller sense of the word.
Let us now take a look at a healthier kind of love. First of all, look back at Scott Peck’s definition. Extending one’s self means to extend one’s limits and to grow into a larger state of being. In loving another, we do this. Therefore, loving another is an act of self evolution, even when the purpose of the act is someone else’s growth. We are incapable of loving another person unless we love ourselves. Everyone is familiar with the Biblical injunction: “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. This is usually quoted to enjoin us to be more considerate to our neighbours. I wish to turn it on its head and use it to suggest we should learn to love OURSELVES, as a result of which we can then love our neighbour all the more deeply. We are here given a very clear message that not only is it acceptable to love one’s self, but it is actually the correct state of being! In puritanical circles, and in circles where there is very little real love, self-love has been distorted into a sin. By self-love, I mean self acceptance, affirmation, acknowledgment and approval, taking one’s feelings seriously, having compassion for one’s own failings, and not putting oneself down. Generally being caring and gentle to oneself, as one would wish others to be towards him.
Let us further define love. Love is not a feeling, but an activity. The feeling sometimes associated with love is affection.
Genuine love requires commitment. A lack of commitment would be harmful to the other person’s emotional and spiritual growth. Commitment is necessary for us to manifest our concern for the other person’s growth effectively. Commitment is the cornerstone of the psychotherapeutic relationship.
Effort and Discipline
Love is effortful, it requires work – the work of attention, time and forethought. Love also requires discipline, it requires that we put ourselves out for the other person.
The Risk of Loss
Love requires that we have the courage to take the risk of loss. Loving another encourages that other person to change. Dependent people want to hold on to sameness, they are afraid of change. A changed person may no longer allow them to be so dependent and manipulative, with the attendant fear of not having their hungry needs met by that person any more! Encouraging emotional and spiritual growth, also encourages independence. The extension of the self involved in loving is also an enlargement of the self into new dimensions. This promotes independence and self-knowledge - these are frightening attributes to a dependent partner.
The Risk of Confrontation
The truly loving person will agonise over necessary acts of criticism of the beloved, weighing up the pros and cons, and will be reluctant to presume that he or she is right and the beloved wrong. A loving relationship requires loving leadership; guiding the other in his or her spiritual path, which requires loving critical guidance. Mutual loving confrontation is a significant part of all successful and meaningful relationships. For the relationship to endure the stresses of such confrontation, requires that there be a deep commitment between both parties. Many people are paralysed by the fear of commitment: in childhood, and whenever they were shown some commitment, they could never trust it, because the trust was always breached in one painful way or another, which led to the feeling of being unworthy of commitment.
We may have a limited ability to love, because of the amount of energy required in truly loving another person. We need not feel guilty about this. As we grow as people emotionally and spiritually, it requires less energy to extend oneself to another person. It therefore becomes easier.
Finally, and this is perhaps the hardest lesson, love is separateness; in a truly loving relationship the distinction between oneself and the other is always maintained and preserved. Whereas in addictive love, there is a manipulative invasion of the other’s boundaries, and an attempt to mould the other person to one’s needs. Scott Peck makes a useful analogy between a loving relationship or marriage, and a base camp for mountaineers. Successful climbers know the importance of spending at least as much time tending to their base camp as they actually spend in climbing mountains. Climbing mountains is equivalent here to pursuing one’s own emotional and spiritual growth. Tending the base camp provides a safe base from which to evolve in the most conducive environment. Through the separateness and the personal growth each partner brings something back to the relationship which enriches the union. Returning from their individual peaks as “bigger, better” people, each spouse or friend can better nurture the marriage or the relationship. Sadly, in many marriages one or both partners spend all their time stuck in the “base camp”, thus negating the true purpose of the marriage.
Bernard Stein is medical consultant to the Clanwilliam Institute for Personal, Marriage and Family Therapy. He also practices psychotherapy form the Greenlea Psychotherapy Centre, 118 Greenlea Road, Terenure. Telephone 01-908979.