by Alfred E. Fireman
Some say love is magical. I say the word love is commonly used to invoke magic — the kind that helps us fill neediness, or gloss over despair, or convey the illusion of wholeness upon a life unable to be whole.
I have seen countless people try to make connections to others through the magic that the word evokes—the physical attraction, sexual pleasure, jokes shared; it’s a kind of euphoria we’ve all experienced — what a colleague of mine, Dr. Elvin Samrod, has called “the only socially acceptable psychosis.”
Today, love, like gravity, is dismissed by most folks as another event that controls our lives but just can’t be fathomed by the average observer. As a result, we don’t seem able to teach our young how to take an interest in whether the people they love are capable of taking on that assignment
In a relationship there are ways to measure a partner’s ability to form an adult love — concrete ways — rendered so by keen observation. The point is, that real love can be verified. The sooner we know that love is a skill to be mastered, not an instinct to be expressed or a need to be sated, the sooner we will learn how to enjoin it to the reality and loveableness of a partner. What that means, as well, is that the magical kind of love, the unreal kind that we allow to masquerade as real, can be unmasked.
Anybody can say, “I love you,” but many who profess it are claiming something that they cannot do. When babies, children and immature people say “I love you,” what they feel is satisfaction and gratitude at having their needs met. When, for instance, someone says, “I must be in love, look at all the abuse I put up with,’ ‘what is the underlying premise?
Isn’t it that putting up with abuse must be a sign of love? That attitude indicates a compulsion to repeat pain. And, while no one likes pain, the people for whom it was a major part of childhood will often hold fast to the familiar rather than brave the mystery and anxiety of the unknown.
Another, all too common, misuse of the word love is when it is invoked to justify a good sexual experience. “I never would have slept with him if I weren’t in love,” is part of everyday conversation. Those who confuse sexual attraction and satisfaction with love crave sexual union with others because it is the only way they can feel, “Yes, I exist.” They are “love addicts,” seeking to renew the elusive sense of themselves as whole by falling in love with partner after partner.
Whatever you may call these crazy connections, they are surely not love. Literally hundreds of thousands of couples are entwined in such absurd, destructive duos. Shackled by myth and distortion, those sick and sad connections thrive on a partner’s fear of being alone. “I would rather have the discomfiting voice of my partner’s anger than the silence of my own uncertainty.”
Certainly our language doesn’t help us in our efforts to finepoint the real experience of love. Isn’t it socially and culturally confusing to glom thousands of connections between related and caring, troubled and warring couples into one ambiguous label? And, for that matter, isn’t it confusing that there is no satisfactory word to describe intercourse between people in like? Are the wordsmiths of our culture frightened of the prospect of a language that describes people who are sexually involved but are neither making love nor fucking one another? In between these two extremes might be something akin to “making affection.”
Once a couple professes their love for one another they also own each other’s delusions about love. One of these is that a whole set of entitlements should flow from the use of that word. “Now that you’ve said you love me,” one says, “how can you ignore my needs, keep me waiting, forget my birthday?” The word does not have to pass a standard. It can mean anything each person thinks it means.
As for the person to whom love is professed, one may respond, “You say you love me, but I do not feel respect for you, or like, or trust.” Only that person can confirm the presence of the experience, and only then is the relationship valid.
Love, in order to be, derives from the virtue of the lover. It can be measured, and it must be deserved. There is, for example, no more reliable measure of a satisfactory, adult relationship than to note the way in which our partners have dealt with the inevitable losses and disappointments that come with living.
So, how do we find reasonable people and take the measure of their ability to love? We must know what love is and possess the character traits to be able to give it. Personal consistency and continuity in those we love are absolutely crucial in assessing their worth. Not knowing what romantic turn or creative enterprise a partner may undertake may be great fun for a day, but wholesome relationships rely on the sure knowledge that reliability and tenderness will persist. The quality of a successful relationship derives from the continuity of traits and virtues that both partners agree are essential and respected properties of the other person.
In searching for a quality relationship, or deciding if yours is a dangerous one, you must inquire, “Is my partner bound to her/his essential virtuous traits? Is she/he secure and sufficiently self-identified with them to be free to negotiate our wants and needs, to be able to give ground without feeling it as a threat to her/his sense of self?”
Most important, if we are viable, able to love and be loved, we will pick partners who can manage without us, but prefer not to. And, of course we should possess that ability ourselves.
We should not want people who would feel lost without us. Contrary to the junk of romance novels, “I need you,” and “I can’t live without you,” are not profound representations of caring, though they may be of dependence.
However far and to what heights of joy a relationship takes us, we must never allow it to bum the bridge for either partner’s safe return to home, alone — nor should a relationship be undertaken until such a home, within the self, exists. Too many have dared such journeys with no provision for safe return. What is even worse is that many begin the journey with self-doubt and self-deprecation, preferring to play the lottery for a bad relationship to staying home alone. What most folks haven’t appreciated is that just being better with someone, but okay without her, is the true grail of interpersonal success. What makes it work is a mastery of solitude: The ability to be okay alone first, then better with someone.
In taking the measure of love we must note how securely the objects of our love hold allegiance to the truth, how reliably they adhere to facts and logic. Only by observing their understanding of territorial rights and imperatives, by seeing their sense of mercy and forgiveness, by watching how much they charge for favors and punish errors, can we know. Love, I submit, is a functional derivative of personal ethics, and it is not antithetical to reason or logic.
Alfred E. Fireman, M.D., P.A. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Clearwater, FL.