By Kevin Murphy,
Of the many reasons why people choose to engage with therapy, you often find the issue of love somewhere in the background. Either in terms of its absence in people’s current life, or in terms of its absence in their earlier lives. A common experience you’ll hear spoken about is, having found the right person and fallen in love with them, they are not being loved back in return.
Or you’ll often hear about a repeated resistance towards entering relationships for fear this very thing will happen; it is a powerful unspoken fear that can sometimes keep people in and out of relationships most of their lives, and mostly out. Love, despite what the romance novels and magazines will tell you, is not a self-explanatory human phenomenon. When it goes right yes it is the simplest thing in the world.
But when it doesn’t work properly it is a complex, confusing experience. This less talked about side of love represents a profound puzzle for more people than you’d think. And while the circumstances are always particular to the individual, the questions it poses are generally on how to find it, how to keep it and how not to be hurt by it.
It is fascinating how often love is written or spoken about and yet very little time is spent on the question of what actually goes on when we love someone or they love us. Yes we know that our emotions go into overdrive, that we can often feel elevated, inspired, confident and happy. These are all wonderful things that spur us on to find love. That’s when it goes right.
But, as we see from examples all around us, love can also go dismally wrong. Freud, in one of his texts, famously listed a number of paths to human happiness and one of them was falling in love. Yet interestingly, he added that love was also the most high risk path to take because the happiness it provided could be taken away at a moment’s notice. Anyone jilted, or deserted, or cheated on, or even bereaved knows how this feels.
So we have this thing called love between two people, between men and women, women and women, and men and men. What is it? Some call it a madness, others call it the salvation of the human race. Others still believe it does not exist in any true form. And yet, if we listen to the major discourses that are going on in contemporary culture, you could reasonably assert that the attainment of love is among the highest goals set by contemporary society. Just think of the amount of time and money invested, by both sexes, in making ourselves worthy of someone else’s love. Not all of it is vanity or narcissism; wanting to love and to be loved is a fundamental human desire.
Finding thinkers who understand love and who can put an understandable shape on this enigmatic desire is not the easiest of tasks but one person who has some very interesting ideas on love and its place in human experience is, surprisingly enough, a philosopher. The late Jean Paul Sartre’s most famous work is Being and Nothingness, one the founding texts for a philosophical movement called Existentialism. Put simply, the philosophy of our being in the world, our existence. It’s probably not the first place you’d think of looking to find out about love. Yet here are some of the things he says.
In his view, the human relationship is not simply a benign, harmless, fully empowering experience. We need others but there is a push and pull going on all the time. We need the other person but we want to be free of them too. We want to master the other person, be the boss if you like, but they in their own way want to master us too. So while being human is about being someone for others, or in this case a special other person, there is an almost unnoticed conflict running through the heart of human relations, no matter how much we love someone. When you hear someone say they can’t understand why they argue so much with their partner when they are so much in love, this is why.
Sartre also says the notion of finding someone with whom we can become ‘one’ is a strong and necessary ideal that drives us to find love. But he says we need to be wary of that ideal and remember that if such a unity were to truly exist, the thing that makes the other so attractive to us i.e. the fact that they are different and unique and refreshingly ‘other’ than us, would disappear. We’d be left with what? Someone very different to the person we fell in love with.
So becoming everything the other person wants you to be in the relationship might seem like the perfect formula for success. But in reality you are turning yourself into someone very different to the person you were who began the relationship, to the person you were who attracted your partner at the outset.
Sartre is possibly most interesting when he talks about what it is that we look for in another when it comes to love. In the first instance, the thing that draws us to another, apart from their looks, prospects, biological suitability and so on, is that they represent for us a model of freedom. This is an interesting concept when you considered the attraction that the lives of the rich and famous have had for generations. Behind the glitz and the glam, these people probably represent icons of freedom. And not just financial freedom but an almost indefinable freedom whereby they have truly made themselves into what they perhaps always wanted to be. Or so we imagine. Let’s be wary of this too because our successful idols tend to be all too human, just like the rest of us.
Nevertheless when we love we want some of this freedom that the suitable or chosen ‘other’person represents both for us and, we presume, for everyone else in the world. But here too there is a paradox. By wanting it for ourselves, we tamper with this very freedom by trying to contain it if you like, and so there is always a risk of damaging the very quality we were attracted to in the first place. We want to ‘own’ that freedom, or at least share in it, but we want it to remain free at the same time. As Sartre says, the lover does not want to possess the beloved as a thing, instead he or she demands a special type of ownership: he or she wants to possess a freedom as freedom. (See p.478, Being and Nothingness, Washington Square Press, 1956).
This is a hard one to manage and it is probably the reason why love is such a difficult game to play, as the song says. This sense of freedom's indefinable place at the heart of love is probably also the reason why so many love relationships lose their magic for one or other partner after time. Owning the freedom that attracted us can make that freedom less attractive, we can inadvertently tarnish it, in other words. So how does one get around this? For Sartre we almost have to imagine ourselves into the place of being the new reason why this freedom in the other person exists. We didn’t cause it, certainly not, because it was probably there long before we ever came along. But we want to be the continuing reason why it burns brightly and strongly. As Sartre says, ‘in love, the Lover wants to be “the whole World for the beloved”.
So when love goes right, yes it is about wanting to love and be loved by someone special, that much is certain. It is a two way street. We want to love someone but we also want that someone to love us in a way that perpetually re-creates us through a freedom that was freely given and remains true. On this point Sartre says, ‘if the Other loves me, then I become the ‘unsurpassable’ which means I must be the absolute end (for the other). In this sense I am saved from instrumentality’. By this he means that the loved person becomes different to all the other instruments of satisfaction in the world; he or she becomes special, unique.
'Thus to want to be loved is to want to be placed beyond the whole system of values’, to be everything for the lover. Or as he puts it, ‘I must no longer be seen on the ground of the world as a ‘this’ among other ‘thises’, but the world must be revealed in terms of me’. That’s why you’ll hear someone in love telling their partner, ‘you mean the world to me’. And that is a freedom, freely given, that loses none of its magic by being either offered to another,shared with another or received from another.