Some Philosophizing About Love

by Ben Best




"In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make."

                      — The Beatles

People who write on a subject are generally expected to be experts. Where the subject is a goal or activity — such as wealth, fitness or golf — the writer is further expected to have been successful in the endeavor. I am sure that there are people with expertise in romantic love, but I am not sure who they are. I do know of one self-proclaimed expert whose expertise I doubt (a "drip under pressure", as they say — see my critique: A Logical Analysis of Eric Fromm).

I am not a self-proclaimed expert or a success in the area of love. I have loved and I have been loved so I have not been a failure, either. My abilities to observe, to question, to think and to write are the main resources I bring to this investigation.

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Love is a feeling. A more specific delineation of that feeling cannot be given so simply & easily.

People may say that they love food, love traveling, love toys or love dancing. I do believe that our strongest positive feelings about objects & activities contain many of the same elements found in all forms of love. Love of country or community adds elements of loyalty, pride of membership or common cause. Love for animals, co-workers, children, friends and non-spousal family members add elements of personal relationship and reciprocity of feeling. I am choosing to focus my attention on what is usually called romantic love — the main subject of a significant portion of popular music.

Romantic love (which I will usually abbreviate to "love") drives exclusive relationships. Because love is a feeling there is no guarantee of reciprocity. Unrequited love is commonplace. Moreover, simply because love drives and is most frequently expressed in exclusive relationships does not necessarily mean that it is always expressed in exclusive relationships. One can be in the formative and/or terminal stages of romantic love with more than one person. And some people seem to be able to have more than one "significant other", although qualitative & quantitative equality of feeling is not possible. I believe that with social & economic progress such manifestations of romantic love will increase.

Love is not desire — love is a feeling that can be expressed and can include the experience of fulfillment. (Desire needn't result in fulfillment.) In love, the thoughts, feelings, actions and opinions of the beloved matter. There is a focus of interest, attention & caring on another person and their words & actions impact our emotions. Loving is a deeply involving process which can entail profound emotional interactions with the beloved.

Love is not necessarily closeness in the sense of familiarity because it is possible to love a total stranger — "love at first sight". Love can cause desire for the greatest possible closeness — or it can stir such anxiety as to make someone fear closeness and run away. Love can be a barrier to closeness when being honest with the beloved risks revealing faults, inadequacies or shameful deeds.

Love is a feeling, not a command. Love cannot be willed into existence. One cannot sincerely make a vow to love. One can, however, commit oneself to be loyal to another person despite momentary feelings. When one feels love for another person repeatedly & strongly over a long period of time there is good reason to believe that those feelings will continue. Vowing to love under such circumstances is not misleading in the sense that the person who vows believes that love has a high probability of continuing. Lovers often have a desire to reassure each other and to be reassured. Few people would agree to buy a house or have children with a beloved without a strong expectation that the love is an enduring one.

Love is not a habit or a duty. But when commitments have been made and/or expectations are high, the consequences of not expressing love, whether heartfelt or not, can be fearsome. When one is aware that it would be painful for the beloved to not hear words of love, habits seem a safe recourse.

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People often seek social contact to overcome their sense of loneliness or isolation. Social contact can be superficial or it can touch us in a more personal way. The very most personal & meaningful social contact — and the one that is the most fulfilling opposite of loneliness — is romantic love. But love is not simply intense companionship — it is a feeling invoked by the presence-of or thoughts-of the beloved.

Although desire — or need — for love is not love, it is a source of love. For some people the desire to be loved is primary, and for others it is the desire to love that is primary. There are others for whom these distinctions are of less significance than the desire to be in a loving relationship. When desire/need to love is very strong, an emotion is searching for an object to fix-upon — a person. Although the attachment may be very strong once an appropriate person is found, loyalty may not be so strong if circumstances force a prolonged separation. The situation may be very different when someone not particularly looking for love encounters a person who evokes strong & unexpected passions. When the whole experience of love is so intimately associated with a specific person the durability of the attachment may be greater.

Some people with a strong desire to have love in their life may engage in the practice of affirmations — a kind of self-propaganda or self-programming of phrases intended to mold emotions & attitudes so as to "create the space" for a lover. Although it is not possibly to willfully become tumescent (have an erection), the self can be "seduced" into erotic arousal by guided fantasy. Similarly, it may be possible to "seduce" the emotions or redirect them toward love — just as willpower can subdue anger when it is inappropriate to express that emotion.

For some people love is primarily taking, for some people love is primarily giving and for some people it is more evenly a matter of "give & take". A person driven by intense need rather than desire may manifest the taking form of love. When the emphasis is on taking, the love can be very threatening when it is not reciprocated — like meathooks that rip the flesh. When love is reciprocated or non-threatening, however, a very needy, taking love can be flattering — a gratifying passionateness. It can be a pleasure to feel intense passion directed toward oneself. Moral censure of a taking form of love is not intended. A relationship between a taker and a giver can be fulfilling for both.

I have had the experience of wanting to give love to a person who could give, but was often reluctant to take — and it can be very frustrating. Giving can be less personally threatening than taking for some people. Those who primarily want to be givers may even be attempting to manipulate love from a safe distance — trying to ingratiate or to "buy" love. Someone who only feels comfortable in giving and not in taking is lacking in trust or other qualities necessary for closeness & intimacy. Nonetheless, it is not always easy to separate giving motivated by the desire to ingratiate from giving motivated by the desire to express love or gratitude — because such emotions readily commingle.

Although love cannot be bought and love is not gratitude, feelings of love do contain feelings of gratitude. Under the right circumstances being loved can lead to loving in return — "the heart is won". There is less risk in loving someone who loves us and the ardor of another can touch our heart.

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The ego is very much involved in romantic love. Lack of self-worth may turn love into an unexpressed secret when there is fear of possible non-reciprocation. Loving another person can make us intensely sensitive to the regard with which we are held in the eyes of our beloved. When love is expressed but love (or respect) is not reciprocated — or not reciprocated enough — it is the ego that hurts. When the beloved forgets about us in plans & actions — or is otherwise insensitive — it is the ego that hurts. This is the awful truth that so often turns "love" into hate — the extreme bitterness & vengefulness of love spurned. Even when love does not turn to hate, the sadness & hurt of the one whose love has not been returned is a suffering of the ego — a wounding of pride. Those who most easily turn love into hate are those most at the mercy of their own ego.

Ego is also involved in the jealousy & possessiveness that often accompanies love. Competition puts the ego at risk and holds the threat that love may be lost. Marriage institutionalizes the vows of exclusivity that lovers so often seek. Marriage is a device to protect love and ego. The desire of one's lover to possess can be flattering. And the feeling that one "possesses" the loved-one gives a feeling of security.

Jealousy arises from fear of competition. One has reason to fear competition because of lack of self-worth and/or because of lack of trust for one's beloved. If one suspects that one's lover will find more love in another when given the right opportunity the incentive will be high to reduce such opportunity. This has the unfortunate consequence of turning a lover into a police officer of the heart — attempting to control the behavior of one's lover at all times. This attempt at emotional control can easily backfire by strangling the lover enough to end the love. Ironically, such policing efforts are most likely to succeed when they are the least required. The more devoted the lover of the jealous partner, the greater the willingness to allay fears and to conform to dictates.

Jealousy can cause problems, but the same can be said of almost any emotion. Someone feeling jealous may simply not be getting enough attention or be feeling unrealistically threatened by competition — things a caring lover might help alleviate. A lover who sees a lover suffering from jealousy may want to relieve the suffering. But there is never a guarantee that the problem can be solved.

Pride can be distinguished from ego in the sense that it is at least as much concerned with public image as with one-on-one relationships with the beloved. Social ego — concern with public image, image display and image manipulation — can be important to those who feel a need to be seen as masculine/feminine and seen as being in an idyllic, successful relationship. In the extreme, a "beloved partner" can be little more than a pawn for obtaining a favorable public image.

A large portion of humanity feels chronic resentment over not being properly appreciated — feelings that are poisonously destructive in work, family and romantic relationships. Others feel chronically overly privileged — fortunate to have the position or relationship, and feeling it is more than is deserved.

Two people with different skill sets can respect each other as having specific expertise or abilities. Some disrespect for qualities such as intelligence, cleanliness or competance (as examples) can be compensated for by other qualities such as integrity, dependability, communicativeness, sexiness or warm-heartedness (as examples). Both partners may recognize a general superiority of one partner and be comfortable with that relationship. Many women prefer the feeling of being with a strong, competent, protective man — who may enjoy the feeling of superiority. Other women who are strong, independent & nurturing, may feel comfortable having a mothering relationship with a lover. Unequal, loving relationships may not be wounding to the ego if the person in the "inferior" position is nonetheless treated with respect.

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A loving relationship is ideally the closest relationship two people can have with another person. Closeness means intimate knowledge. And intimate knowledge is dependent upon honesty, openness & communicativeness. For some people, lack of eloquence or lack of capacity for self-expression creates a barrier — a barrier which is more forgivable than intent to conceil.

Open communication is a risky matter. People who have nothing they are ashamed-of in their life are more likely to be shameless liers & brutes. Guilt & shame motivate better conduct. Telling deeds of misconduct to a beloved risks loss of trust and loss of love. Any person who can feel the riskiness of self-revelation for themselves can surely "cut some slack" in appreciating that their partner would have similar fear.

The situation is quite different, however, when evidence becomes undeniable of premeditated deception or theft. The ego & heart are wounded by such betrayal — love can quickly turn to hate mixed with grief. A single revelation can suddenly illuminate a pattern of deception & manipulation through the whole history of the relationship — and/or raise suspicions.

The desire to love entails a desire to believe in the lovability of the beloved. Love can easily be blind — facts are interpreted through the "rose-colored glasses" of wishful thinking. Denial of facts may continue for a remarkably long time — sometimes indefinitely. Hopes, dreams & plans are not easily relinquished. Remorse by the offender and forgiveness by the victim can sometimes lead to redemption.

Others — especially those with a history of having been betrayed — may err in the opposite direction. Incessant suspicion, distrust and resentment associated with imagined betrayals can poison the possibilities for love. Pre-emptive, self-protective disbelief in the trustworthiness of a prospective partner can destroy the potential for a relationship. (The same can be said for a suspicious ego that pre-emptively resents and/or rejects a potential lover on grounds that love might not be reciprocated.)

Trust can be violated by failures of competence — such as forgetfulness or clumsiness — as well as by conscious deception or betrayal. Although it is easier to forgive good intentions, any source of predictable lack of dependability undermines trust. It is normal that people love their children without trusting in their children's competence (or good judgement or even integrity). Some people have the capacity to love without trust of any kind. Whether such people are big-hearted or foolish cannot be answered objectively — it is a subjective matter. Unconditional love can be a warm security blanket, but it is also not a tribute to lovability or worth. Love that does not discriminate good from "evil" is an undeserved reward.

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(I concern myself with what might be called "emotional power" rather than physical power. The greater physical strength & size of males over females adds a dynamic to love which I do not directly address.)

"The person with the most power in a relationship is the one with the least feeling for it" is an aphorism that once popped into my head and remained unaltered for several years. Two considerations caused me to temper my view.

For some reason it had not been immediately obvious to me that by my aphorism the person with the most power may not feel very powerful. If one has little feeling for a relationship then the relationship does not matter very much to that person. There cannot be a meaningful sense of power over something which is of little importance. Except that power is ego-related, so the relationship can be ego-important, but not love-important. Or the relationship can be unimportant from the viewpoint of both ego and love, for one of the "participants".

Second, when the difference between the amount of feeling of the two persons is most extreme — and the pair are in intimate acquaintance — the "master" probably regards the "slave" with a certain contempt — or may even want to avoid the more passionate person. When two lovers do feel love and the difference in intensity is small, the partner with the most passion will have more incentive to work on the relationship — perhaps achieving more compliance from the person who is less intensely driven. Or the person with the greatest passion may also be the person with the strongest will.

Power is most significant in a relationship when the partners are seeking to control each other's behavior. How much a lover seeks to control the behavior of the beloved varies greatly with the personality of the lover. Jealousy has been mentioned as a cause for attempting control. Control may be sought when one partner is feeling more or less sexual desire at the moment than the other. Some people actually want or expect their lover to be a servant — or expect their lover to be constant companion for activities that have no intrinsic interest to their lover. A partner whose main interest is love or companionship will readily conform to these requirements. Strong-willed people often prefer weak-willed lovers/partners.

The thoughts & behavior of one's beloved are a matter of great personal import, which makes the incentive to change or influence thought & behavior very high. Emotional closeness means intimate knowledge of the sensitivities of the beloved, including how to hurt & humiliate. Sadly, punishment & hurtfulness are often applied to the one most beloved — especially when frustration over the conduct of the beloved can evoke emotional intensity & intolerable frustration. It is a sad truth that those most intimately in love can & do hurt each other more deeply than they hurt anyone else — both unintentionally & intentionally.

In some cases it is a matter of great emotional significance that one's lover's beliefs conform to one's own beliefs. If so the lover will attempt to impose beliefs or values when attempts to convince have failed (or are too much trouble). Lovers are often willing co-conspirators in this process — it is easy & pleasant to conform one's beliefs to the belief's of one's lover on matters that are not of great personal significance. (If the love is strong or if personal convictions are weak, no belief may matter as much as the love — some people "lose their identity" in a loving relationship.) Conversely, when values & beliefs are of great importance, one may be unwilling to love or to look for love among persons who do not share those values/beliefs.

The power of love over the hearts of lovers can be a force for good. Marxist humanists brand romantic love as egotistical & selfish — morally inferior to the commandment to love all humans and to love them with complete equality. Such Ideologues fail to see that romantic love creates a powerful incentive to be knowledgeable-of and respectful-to the unique personality of the beloved. Romantic love is a powerful motive for moral improvement and co-operation. Strong motivation to try new behaviors or risk uncomfortable feelings can result in profound change.

Of course, the willingness to be compliant to the wishes of the beloved can be a force for evil when the moral standards of the beloved are low. Less dramatically, many a person has sacrificed a career for the sake of marriage & family — moving to locations more propitious for the career of the beloved. A strong commitment to "family unit" and "teamwork" makes the optimization of the earnings or work relations of one partner seem less of a sacrifice for the other.

Love can mean deep empathy: "the happiness of my beloved is my happiness and the pain of my beloved is my pain". Or even: "the happiness or pain of my beloved is more important to me than my own". With such feeling the importance of power in the relationship is subservient to the desire to serve, nourish and provide — as long as there is no loss of respect by the beloved.

(See Some Philosophizing about Conflict for more general comments about conflict. For a satirical short-story about Love & Power, see Unconditional Love.)

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"I think that I should give the rest of my life to speak to you for a quarter of an hour about the most trivial things."

                      — Stendhal, in a letter to the object of his desire

Obsessive love is generally associated with unrequited love or unequal love, but most romantic relationships involve obsession by both parties in the early stages of the relationship, at least. In cases where one partner chooses to end a relationship despite the fact that the other partner is unwilling, the unwilling partner will often be said to obsess — or this could simply be called continuing love feelings that are not easily forgotten.

In some cases of obsessive love the beloved may be completely unaware of the existence or feelings of the loving-one. Trapped in fear & lacking in self-worth, the loving-one worships in secret. The beloved is like an object of religious devotion or veneration — a love object. Sometimes the obsessive lover is more in love with love than loving.

Some unsympathetic observers deny that the desperate pinings of unrequited lovesickness deserve to be called love at all — simply classifying it as a neurotic disease. Unrequited love is described as an individual experience rather than a relationship — a wish to love or be loved rather than love itself. Having suffered this affliction numerous times myself I would not be so ungenerous. I believe that aspects of obsessive, unrequited love can be found in all manifestations of romantic love. Even if the condition is regarded as abnormal, it is not rare. By one estimate, as many as 10% of college students have considered suicide because of unrequited love.

The beloved is the obsessive lover's favorite subject — all thoughts lead to the beloved. The most trivial fact about the beloved is subjectively a matter of great importance. (Parents often impress others as having this kind of obsessiveness about their babies.) In all forms of love — whether requited or unrequited — the beloved adds a huge amount of meaningfulness to life. A "significant other" adds significance to all things.

Obsessive love — whether in a relationship or not — is the extreme case of power imbalance. The happiness or unhappiness of the afflicted is at the mercy of the beloved. The slightest gesture from the beloved can send the loving-one into transports of ecstasy or to the depths of despair. Every word or action by the beloved is scoured for hopeful signs of reciprocity. The obsessive lover lives in hope and suffers constant uncertainty about the feelings of the beloved. The entire life of the obsessive may be focused on speculations about the meaning of words & actions of the beloved.

To win the heart of the beloved, the desperate lover may beg to be told how to behave, what to believe and what mistakes have been committed. The lover wants very badly to become the person that the beloved would love.

The loving-one often lives in fear — terrified of doing anything that might anger the beloved. Fear of rejection is intense and the obsessive lover may suffer something like stage-fright in the company of the beloved — too much is at risk. Love can undermine rationality & will-power.

Hearts are sometimes won through persistence — and it is the ardent hope of the obsessive lover to achieve this victory. It is a sad truth that desperate love may not be very attractive. A beggar-bowl evokes pity, not love & respect. It is hard to admire a puddle at one's feet. Because respect & admiration are key features of being attractive, the lover may find it prudent to hide the desperation.

Because water is readily available, it may not seem precious. But a prospective lover who only values love that is not readily available may not be a person with whom a fulfilling love relationship is ever possible.

Anxiety and the winning of hearts are features associated with normal courtship. A highly anxious personality type and/or a very indifferent object of affection can raise the stakes of this "game" very high.

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Surveys generally indicate that women regard love as an essential ingredient for good sex far more often than men do. Yet the fact that so many women do or have masturbated should be an indication that they can appreciate the purely physical aspects of sex. No one demands that love be essential for the enjoyment of food, even when they "love pizza". Not all eating is an emotionally meaningful experience — and much eating is done for pure pleasure. People can have sexual appetite.

Most people find sex with a partner more enjoyable than masturbation, but that enjoyment needn't be essentially tied to love. Many people can have enjoyable sex with good friends or casual acquaintances. Sex does have a powerful potential for bringing-up strong emotions, however. And love often entails trust in order to enjoy sex. People who respond with strong emotions to sex — and whose feelings of love are inseparable from gratitude — may be unable to have enjoyable sex without the invocation of feelings of love. Or the intensity of connectedness experienced by having sex with a beloved may make the experience of sex with a non-lover seem too banal to contemplate. Conversely, some people who do not have much physical response to sex may use sex as a means of experiencing closeness.

Some detached observers have wondered why a penis thrusting in a vagina would be an expression of love. The profound & intimate pleasures of sex also involve profound vulnerability — nakedness, close contact and perhaps exchange of bodily fluids. The need for extreme safety under such circumstances would be reason enough for many people — especially women — to demand that sex not be experienced with anyone but a trusted lover. Risk of vulnerability rather than the requirement that sex be an expression of love is the foremost consideration in this case.

Sex is not so sinful that it can only be redeemed by love. Physical & emotional safety provide practical reasons for combining sex with love. I once had a lady-friend who told me of having had sex with an academic man at his home. When they were done he showed her to the door, said to her "thanks for the entertainment" and then closed the door in her face. She stood there feeling very humiliated, used & alone. Women face the added risk of being physically vulnerable to larger & stronger males. A non-loving partner may be less concerned about unwanted impregnation or practicing safe sex to prevent spread of venereal disease.

Feelings of love can be a barrier to good sex when those feelings are associated with anxiety. Passionate love may not always entail trust — especially for the insecure. People with high levels of anxiety and fear of being judged can be very emotionally at risk when having sex with their heart's desire. I once had a woman-friend who had gone through a hellishly frustrating experience in attempting to overcome her boyfriend's anxieties — but was unable to achieve fulfilling sex with him. Unfortunately she judged that I had the same sensitivities as her former boyfriend and she never gave me a chance to prove otherwise. In her mind the risk of repeating the experience was too great.

Anxiety in having sex with a loved-one can be associated with more than worries about the ability to satisfy one's lover. Much of the satisfaction of having sex with a lover is the opportunity to experience the lover experiencing pleasure — and to feel responsible for giving that pleasure. Women often fake orgasms for this reason — and paradoxically may fail to have an orgasm because of too much worrying about not having one. But men also can — and often do — exaggerate their expressions of sexual gratification for the purpose of pleasuring or impressing.

Sex is a very personal & intimate activity that can evoke strong emotions. Feelings of gratitude & closeness invoked by sexual activity can easily be felt by — or lead to — feelings of love. Certainly sex with love can enhance the feelings of love.

Love creates an environment of safety for sex — it can be less risky to be vulnerable to someone who cares deeply about you. Kissing, stroking, caressing & hugging are actions associated with expressing love and with sexual activity. These actions seem genuine & natural in the context of love and can seem hypocritical outside that context. Moreover, sex can be expressed with the greatest caring & sensitivity to a loved-one — and is most fulfilling when expressed by a loved-one. To feel so physically close to someone for whom there is so much emotional passion & closeness can be an overpowering sense of connection. Sex is a wonderful way to make love.

(For more on the relation of sex to emotion, see my essay Some Philosophizing About Sex).

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