Overemphasis on Love
By Karen Horney
[This lecture, recorded and included in the New York City Municipal Archives: WNYC Collection, opens similarly to the main text of “Overemphasis on Love” (1945), translated from German into English by Andrea Dlaska. That essay was included as Chapter 9 in The Unknown Karen Horney: Essays on Gender, Culture, and Psychoanalysis (2000, ed. by Bernard J. Paris). The lecture, dated May 23, 1950, expands significantly on the theme. Horney discusses the myriad ways in which neurotic persons tend to rely excessively upon love as a kind of magical curative for all of life's problems. This occurs without regard to the more tedious, drab realities of providing the right conditions in which love may take root and grow, and to the exclusion from awareness of the un-exciting tasks of looking after and taking responsibility for sustaining a mutually nurturing relationship — in sickness and in health. Horney emphasizes, however, that even in a severely neurotic form, a need for love retains some of its constructive potential, and may be tapped to reconnect the individual with healthier energies and find more constructive directions of growth. - AKS]
Overemphasis on Love
from NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on wnyc.org):
Tuesday, May 23, 1950
In speaking of love, I do not mean sexual infatuation, but think of all varieties of human closeness, friendship, and affection. Sex may or may not be a part of the relationship. I am thinking of the sort of love for which we all long — even the so-called “hard-boiled” among us — for not only does it denote happiness, but it is uniquely instrumental in our growth as human beings. Since it is so important, the question might well be raised, is it possible to overemphasize or overrate love? Does not the danger lie rather in underrating its importance? Would not the world be a far better place in which to live if people loved more? Might this not be the answer to the age-old problem of how to eliminate war and other forms of human strife? And then there are the children — is it possible for them to have too much love? Do they not have a much better chance to develop into constructive human beings when they get more love, instead of too little? Do we not all concur in the belief that a life without love of some kind is unfulfilled?
I wholeheartedly agree, for it would be difficult to find anything that outweighs the importance of love. Nevertheless, if we expect of love what it cannot give, or anticipate its benefits under faulty circumstances, it will not grow. Nor can it possibly be of true service to us. This at bottom is a banal truth and applies not only to love. When, for instance, we plant strawberry seeds, we do not expect apples to grow, nor do we expect the plants to lay eggs, provide shade, or produce wood for the fireplace. All good things need cultivating. To get strawberries, we must plant the seeds properly, in the right kind of soil, supplying the moisture, sun, and shade required by this particular type of plant. Later, we would have to re-plant the young shoots when they have reached the right stage of development, and tend them continuously. That we do not see these relations as clearly in love has to do with love being less tangible, less concrete than strawberries. Therefore we can more easily harbor illusions on this score.
Let us ask now, how can we discover whether we overemphasize love or whether somebody else does. It is not an easy task. However, for all practical purposes, it can be assumed that some of our longing for love is normal. But it is essential that we be on the alert to observe, and to analyze, every element in it that is of a compulsive nature, for it is precisely this compulsive aspect that denotes a neurotic exploitation of love. An irrational attitude toward love is revealed, for instance, in the rather frequent assumption that it is only “natural,” especially for a woman, to be desperate if a fiancé does not call or write, or for a woman to go to pieces if her husband goes out with another woman, or for a woman to claim all her husband’s or lover’s time, even begrudging him a natural interest in his business.
Throughout this lecture, I shall speak in terms of the woman who overemphasizes love because such an attitude is not only encouraged, but exaggerated by our culture. It is, however, not a problem which has to do essentially with femininity. It may concern men as well. In general, we can gauge the degree of dependency upon love by observing the position it occupies in the total scheme of our lives. If, for instance, all our interests, desires, plans, and fears revolve around love, our days will be filled with, and our minds occupied by, such fruitless questions as, “Why doesn’t he write oftener?”; “Will he come home early this evening?”; “Why doesn’t he call?”; “How much does he really love me?” It can easily be understood that as a consequence of this desperate constriction of our energies and interests, all else in life becomes meaningless, and that time’s passage is made memorable merely by the punctuated silence occasioned by the ringing of the phone or doorbell, which inevitably is followed by a frantic question, “Is it he?” Obviously there is no room in such life for mere friends, or for productive work. These people, being thus dependent on love, often have plenty of neurotic troubles, like feeling tense, having fears, inhibitions, timidities, et cetera. In analysis, we can observe that all of life[’s] problems — that they believe that all of life[’s] problems would be magically solved for them if only they had the right husband or lover.
Another way to discover a neurotic attitude towards love is to observe the reactions of deep despair and depression occasioned by any slight frustration in the realm of love. People who exhibit such extreme reactions — quite out of proportion to the real significance of a situation — feel desolate when not in the company of their partners, and are irreparably humiliated by any form of neglect, irrespective of extenuating circumstances. And when such people ask themselves, “why doesn’t he write,” what is actually implied by their query is the blindly insistent injunction “he should write,” or “he would write if he really loved me.” Also implied, of course, is the neurotic assumption, “if he really loved me — as I love him — then nothing else, no one else, could possibly be more important to him at any time. In any instance, whether it is this extreme dependency on the partner, there is a frenzied clinging that is not only degrading but that inevitably fosters a terror of being deserted. As a result, the entire relationship is disturbed. And when the partner, too, is neurotic, the malady is considerably aggravated by the operation of externally conflicting trends. Thus, for instance, a detached partner might well be exasperated by such persistent encroachments upon his precious isolation. A sadistic partner, on the other hand, would be inclined to misuse and exploit the dependency. These, then, are the features that characterize a neurotic overemphasis on love. In any normal love relationship, some of them may be present.
But if the entire character structure presents evidence of the existence of all of these symptoms, the condition is of a decidedly harmful nature. For inevitably, the effects are crippling to the entire personality, in addition to causing acute suffering. People vary considerably, both in their comprehension of, and their response to this neurotic symptom in themselves. Those who do not understand its significance consider their behavior completely natural. Others, sensing a deficiency, are inclined to place the responsibility outside of themselves. Life, they claim, has offered them nothing but bad breaks. They are certain that everything would be fine if only the right person came along. This mythical being, presumably, would have to be a de-personalized paragon of devotion, very really to satisfy the exorbitant claims made upon him.
But there are others, who have a clear realization of their state of dependency, and who earnestly desire to liberate themselves. They have become acutely aware of the havoc wrought, not only upon their personality, but upon their entire life. For them, the problem is how to cope with this excessive need for love. They must question their deepest, most fundamental expectations of love. In doing so, they may first discover that their extreme dependency upon it is partly due to a rather constant fear of hostility on the part of others. This was illustrated by a patient who brought in a picture she had drawn in which she had portrayed herself as an infant, surrounded by menacing animals and insects — a bull, a cat, and a bee — all threatening the infant’s life. This picture was an unconscious revelation of her real and basic fear of people. To her, they appeared strange and menacing, and in their presence she felt infantile in her helplessness to cope with them in any kind of human relationship. It is understandable, therefore, why such a woman depends so much upon her husband or lover. Not for love, but rather, because of her need for acceptance and security.
Love has a reassurance value for those who overemphasize it precisely because they themselves feel so defenseless. Consequently, they regard their partners essentially as allies against a hostile world. This becomes evident, for instance, when a woman insists that her husband make arrangements with the landlord for household repairs. She may even go so far as to expect him to assert his authority when the maid becomes difficult. In general, she counts upon him to defend her against others, including, for instance, her own relatives.
Are we to understand, now, that such people are by nature inclined to be too soft? Or altogether lacking in self-assertiveness? This may not be so at all. As a matter of fact, they frequently do reveal a certain degree of aggressiveness, although indirectly. For without being aware of it, they may haunt their partners by their clinging, or by constantly demonstrating their disappointment and misery. They seem to be afraid, though, to be aggressive, and act as if they had neither spunk nor initiative. They lean over backwards to be agreeable, and frequently are apologetic, as well as too yielding, or too appeasing. At the same time, however, they smart beneath the burden of the subordinate role in which they have placed themselves. A wife who makes exclusive claims upon love looks upon her husband as the mainstay of her existence. She expects him to be not only an adequate provider, but an effective intermediary between her and all life situations. Thus she manages to protect herself from the hazards of asserting her insecure self or of making faulty decisions. She may even persuade herself into the conviction that his love must have endowed him with a sensitivity expressly attuned to her unexpressed wishes. And, inevitably, she regards herself as winsomely helpless and fragile. In view of all these things, it is only natural, therefore, that such a woman frequently is attracted to an aggressive man. Aware of her own lack, she desires resourcefulness in her partner. More important, even, she feels that with a strong or aggressive partner, she can remain safe in her weakness. Unfortunately, despite the undeniable shrewdness of her logic, this course is destined to perpetuate her malady.
Overemphasis on love is revealed, also, in those who depend upon the love and admiration of others to bolster up their self-confidence. The state of their morale is determined pretty much by the amount and degree of devotion and admiration that surround them. In the absence of such bolstering, their basic feeling of insignificance leads them to become hypercritical of themselves, since they lack the sense of security that is essential to accurate and dependable self-evaluation. Others take inordinate pride in their partner’s achievements, simply because they are able to bask in the warm glow of reflected glory. However, theirs is a worn and limp sort of existence. For they have succeeded merely in living vicariously. The emotionally dead, as well as those whose feelings have been consistently and rigidly repressed that they have become inaccessible to normal stimuli, nevertheless look to a love relationship for the emotional warmth and vitality that they so sadly lack and need. No longer able to tap their own resources, they are lured away from their own shortcomings and stimulated into a pseudo- sort of well-being and self-confidence by an ebullient partner. The myth-makers of old showed a discerning observation of this aspect of love dependency in their narratives about the old man or woman who felt more alive after sleeping with a youthful person. Strangely enough, these people labor under the illusion that it is really possible to acquire vitality from others, much in the manner in which plants absorb nourishment from the soil.
Yet even plants have to make something of what they absorb. It would seem, then, that these people have consigned themselves to a parasitical state in life. To sustain and fortify their illusions, they are strongly inclined to endow love with truly magical powers and qualities. Like Cinderella in the fairy-tale, or like Madame Bovary, in Flaubert’s realistic delineation of a romantic attachment, they regard love as an ‘open sesame’ to fantastically happy living, and under its miraculous aegis, they confidently hope to acquire all that which they lack — strength, assurance, warmth, and magnetism — in short, a completely rounded vision of happiness. But the outcome is always the same. Their dreams, their illusions, their fantasies eventually become like leaden weights that strangulate the beloved. In summary, we may say that people who are alienated from themselves, who are possessed of neurotic fears, and who are incapable of utilizing their own resources, are compelled to live through others. Their predicament is due largely to an aversion against changing themselves in any way, and to their subsequent dependence upon miraculous and external solutions. Because they cannot cope with life as it is, they escape into an idealized realm wherein love, devotion, and sacrifice are glorified, and make the principal activating forces in the lives of others. For them, however, love remains illusory. They are incapable of giving it; hence, incapable of receiving it.
Let us consider, now, what we must be and do, if we expect to reap the benefits of love. Such fulfillment can be achieved only if we ourselves have the capacity for love and are willing to make the necessary personal adjustments essential to its proper utilization. Those who are neurotically dependent upon love are too often disposed to disregard their own responsibilities. Despite their deification of love as the only worthwhile thing in life, it never occurs to them to question their own qualifications as active participants or deserving recipients. They are far more inclined to take love for granted. Although it is my belief that everyone is endowed with the potential capacity for love, nevertheless experience teaches that all the fears, weaknesses, pretenses, and excessive demands that many of us make upon love deprive us of its eventual fulfillments. My convictions concerning our inherent potentialities have been fortified considerably by my analytical experience. I have seen people, liberated from constricting fears and inhibitions, become more realistic in their attitude toward love. This indicates that their emotional capacities have been successfully tapped and their love impulses effectively channeled. Obviously, this could not have been achieved had the patient been inherently lacking in this capacity, for it is not within the power of the analyst to instill in the patient what was not already present.
It would be pertinent at this point to inquire of ourselves why we so rarely consider our own capacities and qualifications as lovers. Might not the answer be that in our culture, we are inclined to confuse equality with capacity, or to assume that opportunity in itself denotes fulfillment? Thus we assume, for instance, that everyone is equally capable of being a good mother, a good lover, or a good citizen in a democracy. How valid are these assumptions? Let us limit ourselves for the time being to the sphere of love, since that is our particular interest for the moment. Isn’t it true that many of us deliberately avoid analyzing our capacities as lovers? And might not be the reason that we are fearful of losing our illusions about ourselves? Instead, we exert all our effort and ingenuity in preserving the grand illusion that we are great lovers. Perhaps nothing in our present culture reveals this better than our fondness for the movies. For does not the popularity of this entertainment medium derive largely from our neurotic propensity towards identifying ourselves with the ideal lover in his successful exploits, or with the femme fatale whose repose will absorb the worship of her lovers, like a flower raised towards the sun?
On the other hand, to some the mere idea of love is appealing that they make neurotic attempts to appear lovable, and engage in unconscious strategies to win approval and admiration, but in their avid quest for love, they characteristically overlook its basic qualifications: friendliness, loyalty, considerateness, warmth. Instead, they refashion themselves to become merely appeasing, docile, ingratiating, and abjectly diffident. Because they mistake their unconscious strategies for the real thing, they delude themselves into thinking that they are blessed with an exceptional loving nature.
Let us review, now, the factors that commonly interfere with the capacity to love and that subsequently lead to failure in any close relationship. To begin with, neurotic people are too self-centered, and consequently evaluate a partner in terms of their own needs. Possessed of a false sense of their own worth, they find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to give themselves. Also, their constant fear of self-disclosure compels them to retreat behind a façade of hypothetical virtues, which gradually they incorporate into a spurious reality. Furthermore, neurotic individuals are too vulnerable and too easily hurt because of their excessive expectations. Since their neurotic conflicts compel them to create their magnificent illusions about themselves, they are easily humiliated by the uninitiated who do not share the secret of their uniqueness. And, living so much in the world of their imagination, they eventually lose touch with their own reality as well as with the reality of their close associates. Finally, those who overemphasize love jeopardize their chances for its fulfillment because they are so unaware of the excessive demands that they make. Dwelling in their imagination, they feel entitled to expectations on a fantastic scale. In view of these attitudes, it is easy to understand why neurotic people regard the so-called ‘unconditional love’ as the ideal state of being. Seen from the vantage point of the partner, however, this neurotic ideal actually means ‘unconditional surrender.’ Imbued with the knowledge of their own insufficiency, they are obliged to cast about for devious and subtle ways of commanding the devotion and admiration that are so necessary to them.
The analytic situation clearly reveals what happens to the neurotic person who has come to regard love as a panacea for all the difficulties ensuing from his unresolved conflicts. This attitude is especially well illustrated in the instances of some women patients who confidently declare to their male analysts, “If you would only love me, all my problems would be solved.” Clearly and definitely, they do not wish to be analyzed. Much less do they wish to alter themselves in any way. They grant the desirability of change and adjustments in the general scheme of things, but the general activity, they assume, must proceed from the outside. Circumstances should be improved; the analyst should do the work; other people should do the adjusting. Being driven within themselves by inner, egocentric compulsions, they can appreciate emotions and events only in terms of their own isolated and distorted values.
It was Freud’s contention that such people are biologically so constituted as to require sexual gratification beyond the needs of the average person. This view predicated a fatalistic outlook for the patient, leaving him the hopeless and unhappy victim of his abnormal physiological makeup. It is my opinion, however, that this is not really the case. For in analysis, such unhappy situations eventually reveal themselves to be of distinctly neurotic — rather than physiological — origin. Over and over again, they tell the sad tale of dependency, of the escape from reality, and of the fantastic expectation that love will triumph over all obstacles and solve all problems. Implied in the classical Greek definition of tragedy is the conviction that man is forever subjected to, and controlled by, the idle caprices of sterner wills of the gods. In this light, too, should we understand the tragedy that encompasses the lives of those neurotic people who worship at the shrine of love. They cannot know love’s fulfillment because, like the characters in a Greek tragedy, their fortunes and their reverses are constantly at the mercy of their own exploitive drives for a security that forever remains a will-of-the-wisp. Such people have not love, nor have they lived.
Even if they regarded love as one of the crucial factors in neurosis, Freud and his followers have given insufficient consideration to the meaning of this phenomenon. They were content to regard love — in whatever context it appeared — as some manifestation of the sex instinct. Actually, the desire to be loved, appreciated, or admired plays a powerful role in neurosis. As I tried to show in my book The Neurotic Personality of Our Time , the intensity and pervasiveness of this craving are, in large part, the result of an underlying fear of people. The neurotic need for affection is an attempt to allay such fear. But even more than that, it is an attempt to remedy a poignant incapacity to accept oneself. For, indeed, these self-impose inferiority or guilt feelings are a heavy burden to bear. In the process of every analysis, we see how frequently the neurotic turns against himself, frustrating and berating himself in a manner that is clearly sadistic. Recently, I have seen some excellent illustrations of just such behavior. After attending a lecture, a patient had left with some very stimulating ideas of his own. In fact, the enthusiasm of the moment inspired him to consider developing his ideas along literary lines. Immediately, however, the cynical voice of self-contempt cried out, “You conceited fool! You think you can write?” In another patient, revealed itself through internal dialogue. Thus, confidently, he thinks, “Thank goodness! Tonight, I shall sleep my head off,” while that other voice snidely remarks, “Oh no you won’t.” These are but a few examples — which I could easily multiply by the hundred — which illustrate how, mostly without knowing it, the neurotic constantly frustrates himself as well as the very people who love him. Co-existent with corrosive self-contempt is the neurotic’s pathetic dependence upon the opinions, admiration, and love of others. His argument is, “If I am loved by somebody, then I cannot be so bad. I must really amount to something.” Obviously, the dependence upon the approval of everyone makes a neurotic extremely vulnerable, because if he feels rejected, or is rejected, then his falsely gained, spurious self-esteem drops immediately to zero. In this way, the need to love, or to be loved, may become compulsive. There is nothing voluntary about such love. It is prompted by dire necessity.
The question arises: Since neurotic love is in a sense compulsive, has it therefore no redeeming virtues? This question may appear strange coming from me, inasmuch as I have so often talked about the detrimental effects of the compulsive need for love — how we are disappointed in it, and how it affects others; how such love is lacking in real warmth; its incapacity to allay our fears, or to help us to live in peace with ourselves. All of this is quite true, and I retract none of it. Yet I wonder whether, even in this neurotic distortion, love does not retain some of its inherent constructive power. I would not have raised this question were I not familiar with a certain type of patient in whose life love apparently plays no role.
I am thinking, for instance, of a patient whose neurotic structure necessitated the absolute exclusion of love. He had a mother, an older sister and brothers, all of whom treated him sadistically. In fact, there was almost no love in their relationships to him. Inevitably, he became a neurotic person — a person who expected only hostility from others. Furthermore, in the course of the evolution of his neurosis, he developed a hatred for himself, a need to turn against himself, to tear himself apart in a sadistic way. This self-destructive impulse was so dangerous for him that it necessitated the adoption of defensive attitudes of arrogance and self-righteousness. As a result, he constantly courted hostility with his pontifical conviction, “I am always right! It is the others who are wrong.” He could maintain this conviction of unsullied rectitude only, however, at the expense of all human feelings. Thus, other people acting in a friendly manner toward one another frightened him. To defend himself, he had to consider as neurotic all expressions of mutuality and congeniality. Even so, with a defiance bristling with bitterness, we would proclaim, cynically, “There is no such thing as real goodness.”
This patient developed what I would call the ‘closed system’ — one which would brook no interference from the outside. No giving, no receiving. Since he did not wish to be corrupted by any emotions — his own or others — he was driven in the direction of asceticism. One can readily see that this situation provided a minimal incentive for growth. Because he had become almost suffocated in his grim armor of rectitude, there was almost no appeal that you could make to anything in this man, for none of the things that are meaningful to others had any real meaning for him. But if you compare people like this — who, fortunately, are rarely in the extremity that I have just described — with the type of neurotic individual who has a compulsive need for affection, then you will sense the difference. For no matter how distorted this need for affection may be, it nevertheless proclaims the affirmative, “I do want something! I do want a good relationship with people.” It is precisely this affirmative attitude towards life which makes such an individual accessible to therapy, makes him interested in all the factors in himself that alienate him from desirable relationships with people. For this reason, we could say that even in its neurotic, distorted form, love, or a desire for love, still retains some of its constructive and beneficent powers.
What, then, is love — real love? Is it merely a romantic illusion? Does it necessitate living through another in a state of dependency, or sadistically? These questions are frequently raised. Yet, while they are scientifically valid, they are not the reason for our scientific interest.What we sense in them is a note of distress — a protest against what is felt as debunking — an anxious plea, “Is there nothing but neurotic love?” And this question is of the utmost value. But are we debunking love? I do not believe that we are. What we are seeing, and with reasonable conviction, is that neurosis impairs the capacity to give and to receive love. In some cases, this very incapacity creates a compulsive need for love, while in others, it leads to a defensiveness and hostility. Fortunately, however, even a neurotic love, though it may be impaired, is rarely completely submerged, for there always a remains a part of ourselves that is not determined by unconscious or ulterior motives, that is not given to secretive manipulations, that does not, in short, consider other people as means toward an end. To put it positively, there exists within all of us some degree of genuine sympathy — a sincere liking for others, for what they are. There is real enjoyment in being together, in sharing both joy and sorrow. And there is, too, the deep satisfaction in helping in the growth of another, and in the warm, close feeling of growing together. All of this is real love. But if this description does not suffice, I can do no better than quote Paul’s advice in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, for I do not think that it has ever been equaled as a definition of love. You will note that I have substituted ‘love’ for the word ‘charity’ wherever it appears in the text quoted below, because, it seems to me that ‘love’ is the more pertinent term for us today.
3And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. 4 Love suffereth long, and is kind. Love envieth not. Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemingly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Still another definition of real love is given by the modern psychologist and philosopher John Macmurray. Discussing the personal life in his book Reason and Emotion, he finds chastity as the capacity to love whole-heartedly, without ulterior motives. Macmurray distinguishes between personal relationships, entered into for their inherent value to the participants, and relationships which are developed and cultivated for some purpose. The latter he defines as functional relationships. For instance, if you work with others on the auxiliary council, or in a union, or in a scientific group, you don’t come together primarily because you like to see each other. You may enjoy their company, but your main purpose in associating with them is the work to be done. In contrast to this, a personal relationship is one into which we enter for no other purpose than the relationship itself, in which we can express our whole selves in an atmosphere of mutuality and fellowship. It is difficult to find a word to express the unique quality of such a relationship — not because our language is inadequate, but because the more familiar words have been bandied about so much that they have come to mean either too much or too little.
Indeed, through constant misuse, they have accumulated such a variety of emotional connotations that they blur our concept of what they precisely denote. Take, for example, the words ‘friendship,’ ‘fellowship,’ ‘communion.’ Each conveys a part of the meaning. But what is common to them all is a relationship between people which has no purpose beyond itself, in which they associate because it is natural for human beings to share their experiences, to understand each other, to find joy and satisfaction in living together, in expressing and revealing themselves to one another. If we ask why people form friendships, or love one another, the question must remain unanswerable. We can simply say that it is the nature of people to do so, for only in this way can they truly fulfill themselves. Essentially, both Paul and Macmurray agree that the very value of love does not lie in something mysterious or ecstatic. Nor, certainly, is it confined to sexual satisfaction. Rather, it is to be characterized by the quality of the relationship between two people and their capacity to give whole-heartedly in this relationship.
To be sure, the ‘love’ we speak of is often confused with ‘falling in love.’ No one will deny that it is a wonderful feeling, but let us always remember that it is the easiest part of love, its most charming aspect. It is also the part in which we deceive ourselves most frequently, insofar as we are inclined to mistake for love, for instance, what actually may be a wish to conquer, or simple sexual desire. This confusion is not only fostered by the movies, but glamorized and romanticized. In our celluloid romances, people eventually embrace each other. From there on, we are free to suppose that they live happily ever after. Thus, movies seduce us, willingly enough, from the uncomfortable problems of reality, into every human being’s most delightful pastime, ‘wishful thinking.’ Indeed, they make it all too easy for us to assume what cannot and should not be taken for granted. Even the directors and producers realize that although our ability to love is impaired, we are nevertheless highly susceptible to its more ingratiating gestures. Exploiting this rather commonplace human weakness, they consistently throw the spotlight on the romantic aspects of being in love, pretty much to the exclusion of the paler and more sober realities.
Such erroneous attitudes are bound to result in a gross underestimation of the human elements which are really the most important factors in the relationship. As a consequence of such misconceptions, people are wont to talk ever so glibly about friendship. They would refer to a casual travel acquaintance as “my very best friend.” Or they may say, “I have so many — ten, twenty — very best friends.” All of which, of course, is quite impossible. On the other hand, sometimes they casually remark, “Oh, that’s merely a friendship.” Or they may terminate a sexual relationship with a coy proposal, “But we can still be friends.” When speaking of friendship, it is easy to belittle it without realizing that it really is a serious expression of a cultural dilemma. With the many disturbances in our personal relationships, which are the outgrowth of our living in a changing world, and in a competitive civilization, we all have a measure of anxiety, and we all need affection. At the same time, however, we are inhibited in love for the very same reasons. And so we start to pretend, to make-believe, that we have friends, or that friendship may be had for the mere asking. In my opinion, the very essence of love is friendship at its best.
What, then, we must ask ourselves, is it that gives love its unique significance? We might reply that it offers so many possibilities of making us happy. But I don’t think that this, while it most certainly is true, answers the question satisfactorily. For surely there are many other things that bring us happiness — for instance, our work. Then, too, not even the greatest love is immune to sorrow and hardships. For all of these reasons, we must be more specific in expressing its unique value. All that I am about to say about this question hinges upon the demonstrable fact that human relationships are the most essential part of our life, and that the quality of these relationships constitutes much of what is specifically human.
To begin with, love carries us out of our emotional isolation — loneliness, egocentricity — in short, out of our exclusive concern for ourselves. Sex alone may also do that. Even infatuation may crack the shell that encases and imprisons a personality. But love does much more. It affords the opportunity for sharing — sharing responsibility, sharing joy, sharing good, giving mutual assistance. Then, too, love offers the possibility of feeling at peace and at home, of feeling, “Here, I have roots, something I need.” Our life is so strenuous, so precarious, that this restful sense of being entirely welcome is doubly important to us in that it carries with it the assurance that our welcome derives not from possible fame or fortune, but from what we ourselves really are.
This does not mean, of course, that we should abuse the spirit of a relaxing home environment, by using it as a convenient opportunity to blow off steam or to fly off the handle, or even to abandon all the amenities of civilized living, all at the expense of a patient spouse. On the contrary, it is highly important for us to cherish a congenial home environment for its real value to us, providing an atmosphere of good will, of welcome, and of warm appreciation. And finally there is the plain fact — the essential point of this lecture — that love will always be the most effective stimulus to human growth. We cannot grow in a vacuum. How, actually, does a person grow? To begin with, love provides us with powerful incentives to overcome our shortcomings and difficulties. Our human frailties are bound to appear in any close love relationship. You can be an excellent teacher, social worker, businessman, or executive, without revealing many of your personal shortcomings. Your position may provide conditions which enable you to function easily, such as deferential recognition or rewards for ambition. You may even withhold large parts of your personality from such a situation. But, in a close relationship, any disturbance that you have is bound to manifest itself sooner or later. Whether it be hypersensitivity to hurts, an arrogant insistence upon having your own way, abject dependence upon the wishes or approval of others, an overbearing conviction of the infallibility of your judgment, or any other eccentricity of yours, it will reveal itself in a close relationship, and it is certain to cause friction. On the other hand, if you really desire and value a sound companionship, then you will bend every effort to avoid hurting your partner, or ruining the relationship, and as soon as you become aware that you have done either, you will begin to examine yourself to discover what factors in yourself are interfering with the proper growth of that desirable relationship.
Whatever changes ensue from this self-analysis enrich not only you but your partner as well. So, too, if your partner changes for the better, in response to your sympathetic encouragement, not only you, nor he, but the partnership as a whole has benefitted. For it must always be understood that it is mutual interest which provides the most powerful incentive for undertaking the painful task of self-examination and change for the better. Furthermore, any moderately good love relationship provides opportunities for mutual help in this respect. And by mutual help, I definitely do not mean that people in love should engage in analyzing each other. So used, analysis may become a very destructive tool, and at best may lead merely to feelings of frustration on the part of both people.
As I see it, mutual help is something quite different. I am thinking of the very simple fact that not only do people in love have very strong reactions to each other, but that the closeness of their relationship enables them to discuss their reactions to each other in a friendly spirit of give-and-take. Consider, for example, the situation of the wife who is sexually responsive some nights, but disconcertingly frigid on others. Wondering what the trouble might be, her husband in all probability would make an earnest attempt to discover the difficulty. A frank discussion of the matter might reveal hypersensitiv[ity] on her part, or some aggressiveness on his part, of which he may not even be aware. In any case, such a discussion could help to develop a sound partnership. In this manner, both partners may grow more secure in the feeling that they are accepted, despite their shortcomings, or at least that they are not condemned nor rejected because of them.
At this point, you may well ask, “But does not the analytic relationship provide a similar situation?” Yes, it does — because there, too, the patient can freely express himself without fear of being rejected or condemned. Unfortunately, however, not everybody can be analyzed. Moreover, a love relationship contains one factor which the analytic relationship does not have, either to the same degree or to the same extent: namely, the factor of mutuality in assistance. That, in itself, is highly conducive to the development of all the qualities that are so essential to our human growth: tolerance, considerateness, sympathy, a feeling of “we,” rather than the barren and isolated “I.” These are the possible gains. On the other hand, we must be aware of the fact that anything which has such power to help may, if not properly used, become a destructive force. And the destructive aspect, unfortunately, is not so rare that all of us have not observed the evidence of its encroachment upon happiness, leaving little else but disappointment, disenchantment, and bitterness. But whether the one or the other will be the outcome in any given situation depends on both partners, and to a much greater extent than is usually assumed. As with any other good thing, this sort of love does not fall into our laps. It is difficult to obtain and requires effort.
How are we to qualify ourselves for it? First, we must have the willingness and capacity for a friendly acceptance of the partner as he really is. By that, I do not mean a blindness to shortcomings. For certainly, idealization of the partner — or what is worse, mutual admiration — may be quite pleasant for a time, for I do not believe that anyone minds being admired, but there is much to be said against it, because we are destined to disappointment. The act of idealization implies putting another person on a pedestal, which is dangerous both for him and for yourself. It also carries with it the wish and the expectation that you, too, be idealized. But it also means that you are too exacting — that rather than considering the ideals of your partner, you insist upon imposing your own upon him and demanding that he live up to them. This is a sin against a fundamental sense of accepting the other person as he is, which implies the full realization that he is a different person, with different needs, and probably one with different wishes from those that you have. Consequently, idealization is not useful in helping us to grow, chiefly because it blurs our critical vision, prevents us from seeing the things that should be changed.
On the other hand, I do not mean that having a critical eye is synonymous with fault-finding. So many people pride themselves on being realistic when actually they are merely peering through the cracked mirror of their own discontent. In any case, criticisms that are made in a fault-finding spirit will not be helpful because they have been made without a true perspective of the whole situation. Such people will look only at the shortcomings and will have no appreciation of the whole person. Accepting the partner as he really is would also include not making him responsible for what he is not and hence for what he cannot be responsible [for being].
What does such acceptance imply? Does it mean being aware of all the aspects of his personality? Certainly, that is part of what is meant, but the awareness should be of a constructive nature. For one can be aware of the person and of the many facets of his personality, yet harbor a feeling of mere tolerance. That is not being constructive. Thinking constructively means being aware of assets and shortcomings, always with the conviction that these shortcomings are neither fatal nor final. Acceptance has a further meaning which it is difficult for me to describe. When an artist paints a picture, he presents what he considers essential in the landscape, omitting the irrelevant. In the Bible, we learn that man sees what is before his eyes, but God sees the heart. I don’t mean that we should assume that divine faculty, but we might strive a little in that direction.
A second qualification for love is the feeling of mutuality, which implies the existence of some basis of equality. There will be plenty of differences, but within the realm of friendship and love, there should be equality in the sense that both partners are equally entitled to respect and considerateness. There should be also an equal share in making efforts. Moreover, mutuality distinctly implies a feeling of we, that this is our life, these are our goals, this is our happiness. Why is this mutuality so difficult for the neurotic person? Principally because, as a result of his basic anxiety, he is unconsciously ruled by the feeling of “I against the world.” He tends to suspect everyone and to expect everyone to be hostile. He would like to exclude his partner from this grim picture, but often cannot do so. Sooner or later, even the partner will belong to those potentially hostile people. Then, too, because the neurotic is so imbued with a sense of his own weakness, he often develops a defensive feeling of superiority and arrogance. Thus, in a relationship that he considers mutual, he nevertheless expects his partner to make all the adjustments. He assumes that criticism is a faculty that only he may exercise, while expecting graciousness and frankness from her. These, it must be understood, are unconscious claims which may take a long time to bring into a patient’s awareness. Finally, a good love relationship requires emotional sincerity — that is, the whole-hearted expression not only of thoughts but of feelings. Here, we might well recall Macmurray’s words, “Chastity is the ability to love wholeheartedly, without ulterior motives.”
We are, by and large, much less appreciative of emotional sincerity, than of intellectual integrity. Emotional sincerity implies not only withholding the expression of feelings we do not have, it also assumes the willingness to express those which are immeasurably important to another. Unfortunately, the neurotic often is afraid of having any positive feelings, preferring rather to be sadistic and frustrating. Consequently, he may restrain his emotions, regarding them as a weakness. Although the neurotic is badly equipped for love, he is not excluded from it. For his capacity as a rule is not dead, but impaired. And, despite his many handicaps, love offers even him the greatest possibility for growth. But it is essential that he should want a good relationship.
What we see during the course of an analysis is that when one partner improves, the other improves also. This shows that the vicious circle, wherein the more the one clings, the more the other withdraws, can be reversed. This is also possible without analysis — if, instead of being too convinced that the fault is on the other side, or too resigned to the notion that “I just don’t love him,” we honestly search for our own share in each difficulty that arises. But this is difficult and requires much self-discipline.
In conclusion, I should like to say a few very simple things. Love is of the utmost value for our growth. But it is no fairy-tale land. As with all things, it requires cultivation and conscientious effort. This should be common knowledge, but unfortunately it isn’t. We acquire all the background necessities for our work, but we are not prepared for what is most important: a love relationship.