Why do we love others? Why do we want to feel loved? These are seemingly simple questions with answers that I believe are more complex than they seem. As you might suspect I’ve been pondering love and the meaning of love recently. I’ve actually written about it before. Our angst filled need for love is pervasive. What are ninety percent of the songs on the radio about? Love. Why do we marry? Usually we do it for love. Why do romance books sell more than any other kind of book? Because we enjoy the addictive feeling of a romance and because we know that in real life passionate love is fleeting.
It strikes me as odd that with so much need for love there seems to be so little of it. Or perhaps there is plenty of love, just not enough to keep up with demand. The need for love can be insatiable. It can be a craving. It can be an addiction. If you have ever been fortunate enough to be loved in a way that is meaningful to you then you probably have experienced the crushing feeling when it is withdrawn. Withdrawal from a love relationship can be so painful that many of us will endure relationships that are not loving at all, but offer the illusion of love.
The latest book which has me thinking about love is Harville Hendrix’s well known book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. Hendrix talks a lot about projection, but it was Sigmund Freud who invented the term. Psychological projection happens when we project onto our spouses and significant others our own dark sides that we cannot acknowledge. It’s a bit humbling for many of us to realize that the roots of our romantic conflicts are unresolved issues from our childhood (usually centered on our relationships with our parents). According to Hendrix we are usually attracted to those people who on an unconscious level we realize can help us work through our inadequacies. Generally we sell ourselves on the illusion that our significant other can complete us. It is harder in our romantic haze to see the reality of the person our lover actually is. We know intellectually that our lovers are flawed human beings like ourselves. But it is more intoxicating and certainly more pleasurable for us to believe they fit into us as if they were a perfect puzzle piece.
It is tempting to generalize and suggest that all these love songs have the purpose of regressing our feelings back to our infancy. There was a time when we were truly one combined entity with our mother. In this context love seems not mystical and instead seems like a form of adult thumb sucking. Since we detached from our mothers and realized the world is a complex place we can’t help pine for those moments of intimate connectedness that we did have very early in life. In reality they don’t come again in the same way in adult life unless we accept the illusion that they have occurred. And that illusion seems to be one manifestation of this nebulous entity that we call love.
According to Hendrix many of us do so poorly in our love relationships because we unconsciously use the love patterns that worked for us in infancy. If our spouse isn’t giving us what we need we can imitate what worked for us as a child: cry and mother will come. Crying is not the usual tactic used by adults to get their lover’s attention, but we do it unconsciously in similar ways. We snipe at each other. We withdraw sex. We cut lovers off emotionally. We engage in passive aggressive behavior. Naturally these strategies don’t work very well. The problem is exacerbated rather than worked through.
Yesterday I spent about an hour with my mother, who was in the hospital. My poor mother is 85. Her affliction, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy is reaching a chronic stage. Her home will no longer be the apartment she shared with my father, but likely a nursing home. She requires more care than a 78 year old man can manage. To say the least my mother is having a difficult time accepting the reality of her condition. I could see her rage in fine display last night when I visited. Of course her congestive heart failure exacerbated her symptoms. Her sodium level was likely low and that made her a bit forgetful and a touch paranoid. But the pain from her six broken ribs was real enough. She was a hurting woman who could not begin to care for herself. She let it all out on me. No one had come for hours. She was starving. She needed to be turned because her back hurt. She was dying of thirst. Her half eaten dinner belied sincerity. It didn’t seem that I could do much to make her feel better.
Or could I? I did what I usually do when I visit her in the hospital. Ministers call it “the presence”. Mostly it involves active listening. For me it also involves holding her hand. And stroking her face. And telling her in a calm voice that yes we really do love her. And getting her some water to take care of her thirst. And seeking the aid of her nurse to help move her on her side.
But she also expressed her belief that she was a bad and flawed person. I told her we all have good and bad sides of ourselves. None of us are perfect. Eventually she calmed down. After a while she became embarrassed with her behavior and said that she would be a “good girl”. The heat compress on her ribs helped too. I realized that she may be 85 but she too was working through painful issues from her childhood. I pointed out the many good things she had done, including raising eight wonderful children. In the first days of her marriage she also tended day and night to her mentally ill mother while taking care of her infant daughter.
What I did was reconnect her to her past. I offered a mental balm of sorts. I moved her toward a feeling of oneness with the people in her life. In some sense it was a role reversal. She played the child. I played the parent. Of course her parents are long dead. But she still has the need for that feeling of intimacy that she had during her fleeting infancy. (She was one of 12 children.) I helped her connect with that feeling.
What is love? I believe that love is the force that makes us realize on an emotional level that we are not alone. I believe that love demonstrates that everything that is meaningful in our lives is in the context of a relationship. No wonder for most of us our worst nightmare is to be bereft of family and friends. We do not come into life alone but arrive physically attached to our mother. Nor should we leave this life alone. We need the comfort of meaningful relationships throughout our lives. We are social animals. We can see what happens if you are bereft of friends. At best you become weird. At worst you become the Unibombers or the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world.
Love is about positive emotional connectedness. As autonomous beings we cannot force love. We can only grant it or receive it. It is nothing more than the honest expression of “I acknowledge that you are important to me” and “I may be unworthy because I am not a perfect human being, but I embrace that you care for me anyhow.” Arguably love would not be needed at all if we were perfect.
By its nature then love is destined to often be elusive. But it draws much of its power and meaning from being so elusive and fleeting. Surviving in our modern world is often difficult and full of complex choices. Despite the trappings of modern life we still live in a world of predator and prey. How extraordinary marvelous then that the harshness of life can on occasion be pulled aside and we can feel the power of intimate connectedness and compassion. That is why I believe at its root that love feels so magical.