29 Mar A Vision of Romantic Love, by Dr. Nathaniel Branden
The passionate attachment between man and woman that is known as romantic love can generate the most profound ecstasy. It can also generate, when frustrated, the most unutterable suffering. Yet for all its intensity, the nature of that attachment is little understood. To some who associate “romantic” with “irrational,” romantic love is a temporary neurosis, an emotional storm, inevitably short-lived, which leaves disillusionment and disenchantment in its wake. To others, romantic love is an ideal that, if never reached, leaves one feeling one has somehow missed the secret of life.
Looking at the tragedy and confusion so many experience in romantic relationships, many persons have concluded that the idea of romantic love is somehow fundamentally wrong, a false hope. Romantic love is often attacked today by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, who frequently scorn it as an immature, illusory ideal. To such intellectuals, the idea that an intense emotional attachment could form the basis of a lasting, fulfilling relationship is simply a neurotic product of modern Western culture.
Young people growing up today in century North America take for granted certain assumptions about their future with the opposite sex, assumptions that are by no means shared by all other cultures. These include that the two people who will share their lives will choose each other, freely and voluntarily, and that no one, not family or friends, church or state, can or should make that choice for them; that they will choose on the basis of love rather than on the basis of social, family, or financial considerations; that it very much matters which human beings they choose and, in this connection, that the differences between one human being and another are immensely important; that they can hope and expect to derive happiness for the relationship with the person of their choice and that the pursuit of such happiness is entirely normal, indeed is a human birthright; and that the person they choose to share their life with and the person they hope and expect to find sexual fulfillment with are one and the same. Throughout most of human history, all these views would have been regarded as extraordinary, even incredible.
Only during the past nine or ten decades have some of the educated classes in non-Western cultures rebel against the tradition of marriage arranged by families and looked to the West and its concept of romantic love as a preferred ideal.
Although in Western Europe the idea of romantic love (in some sense) has had a long history, its acceptance as the proper basis of marriage has never been as widespread as it has been in American culture. As Burgess and Locke (1953) write in their historical survey The Family: From Institution to Companionship, “It is in the United States that perhaps the only, at any rate the most complete, demonstration of romantic love as the prologue and theme of marriage has been staged.”
Why the United States? The answer, at least in part, is philosophical. What was distinctive about the American outlook and represented a radical break with its European past were its unprecedented commitment to political freedom, its individualism, its doctrine of individual rights, and, more specifically, its belief in a person’s right to happiness here on earth. Both the individualism and the secularism of this country were essential for the ideal of romantic love to take deep cultural root.
Even now, in the midst of the rampant cynicism of so many people today, and notwithstanding the attacks on romantic love by American intellectuals, men and women continue to fall in love. The dream dies, only to be reborn. Moved by a passion they do not understand for a goal they seldom reach, men and women are haunted by the vision of a distant possibility that refuses to be extinguished.
What, at its best, is the nature of that vision? And what does its realization depend on? That is the subject I wish to address.
1. A Definition of Love
Let us begin with a definition. There are, after all, different kinds of love that can unite one human being with another. There is love between parents and children. There is love between siblings. There is love between friends. There is a love made of caring and affection but devoid of sexual feeling. And there is the kind of love we call “romantic.”
Romantic love is a passionate spiritual-emotional-sexual attachment between two people that reflects a high regard for the value of each other’s person. When I write of romantic love, this is the meaning I intend.
I do not describe a relationship as romantic if the couple does not experience their attachment as passionate or intense, at least to some significant extent (allowing, of course, for the normal ebb and flow of feeling that is intrinsic to life). I do not describe a relationship as romantic love if there is not some experience of spiritual affinity, by which I mean some deep mutuality of values and outlook, some sense of being soul mates; if there is not a deep emotional involvement; if there is not a strong sexual attraction (allowing, once more, for normal fluctuations of feeling). And if there is not mutual admiration—if, for example, there is mutual contempt instead, (which can certainly coexist with sexual attraction)—and again I do not describe the relationship as romantic love.
Let it be acknowledged that almost any statement we make about love, sex, or man/woman relationships entails something of a personal confession. We tend to speak from what we have lived. I have shared some of the life experiences that lie behind my thoughts on love in The Psychology of Romantic Love 1980/1981) as well as in What Love Asks of Us (written with my wife and colleague, Devers Branden, 1987). But the personal context aside, my writing about love draws on two primary sources. First, it represents an attempt to reason about and understand man/woman relationships on the basis of facts and data more or less available to everyone, the material of history and of culture.
Second, as a psychotherapist and marriage counselor, I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of people over the past thirty years and to see something of their struggle to achieve sexual and romantic fulfillment. I have been keenly interested in the question of what people seek from love—as well as the question of why some people succeed in their quest while others fail.
2. The Emotional Experience of Love
Love is our emotional response to that which we value highly. I am speaking now of love in general, love as such, of which romantic love is a special case. Love is the experience of joy in interaction or involvement. To love is to delight in the being whom one loves, to experience pleasure in that being’s presence, to find gratification or fulfillment in contact with that being. We experience the loved being as a source of fulfillment for profoundly important needs. (Someone we love enters the room; our eyes and heart light up. We look at this person; we experience a rising sense of joy within us. We reach out and touch; we feel happy, fulfilled. Note that this might describe our relationship to a spouse, a lover, a parent, a child, a friend—or a pet).
But love is more than an emotion; it is a judgment or evaluation and an action tendency. Indeed, all emotions entail evaluations and action tendency. Emotions by their nature are value responses. They are automatic psychological responses, involving both mental and psychological features, to our subconscious appraisal of what we perceive as the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect to ourselves (Branden, 1984/1985).
If we consider any emotional response, is a dual value judgment. Every emotion reflects the judgment of “for me” or “against me”—and also “to what extent.” Thus, emotions differ according to their content and according to their intensity. Love is the highest, the most intense expression of the assessment “for me,” “good for me,” “beneficial to my life.” In the person of someone we love we see, in extraordinarily high measure, many of those traits and characteristics that we feel are most appropriate to life—life as we understand and experience it—and therefore most desirable for our own well-being and happiness.
Every emotion contains an inherent action tendency. The emotion of fear is a person’s response to that which threatens his or her values; it entails the action tendency to avoid or flee from the feared object. The emotion of love entails the action tendency to achieve some form of contact with the loved being, some form of interaction. (Sometimes a lover will complain, “You say you love me, but I could never tell it from your actions. You never want to spend time with me, you don’t want to talk with me, so how would you act differently if you didn’t love me?”)
Finally, and in a sense more fundamentally, we may describe love as representing an orientation, an attitude or psychological state with regard to the loved being, deeper and more enduring than any momentary alteration of feeling. As an orientation, love represents a disposition to experience the loved being as the embodiment of profoundly important (conscious or subconscious) personal values—and, as a consequence, a real or potential source of joy.
What is unique about romantic love is that it incorporates or draws on more aspects of the self than any other kind of love—our sense of life, our sexuality, our body, our deepest fantasies or longings regarding man or woman, our self-concept, the cardinal values that energize our existence (Branden, 1969/1971, 1980/1981). Our spiritual-emotional-sexual response to our partner is a consequence of seeing him or her as the embodiment of our highest values and as being crucially important to our personal happiness. “Highest,” in this context, does not necessarily mean noblest or most exalted; it means most important, in terms of our personal needs and desires and in terms of what we wish to find and experience in life. As an integral part of that response—and this differentiates romantic love from the love for a friend, a parent, or a child—we see the loved object as being crucially important to our sexual happiness. The needs of our spirit and body melt into each other; we experience a unique sense of wholeness.
3. What Romantic Love Is Not
In light of the widespread misunderstandings on this subject, I want to say a few words about what romantic love is not.
Many of the commonest criticisms of romantic love are based on observing irrational or immature processes occurring between people who profess to be “in love,” and then generalizing to a repudiation of romantic love as such. In such cases, the arguments are not in fact directed against romantic love at all—not if we understand its roots in genuine appreciation and admiration for the person of another. There are, for example, men and women who experience a strong sexual attraction for each other, conclude that they are in love, and proceed to marry, ignoring the fact that they have few values or interests in common, have little or no admiration for each other, are bound to each other predominantly by dependency needs, have incompatible personalities and temperaments, and, in fact, have little or no authentic interest in each other as persons. Of course, such relationships are doomed to failure. But they do not represent romantic love.
To love a human being is to know and love his or her person. This presupposes the ability to see, and with reasonable clarity. It is commonly argued that romantic lovers manifest a strong tendency to idealize or glamorize their partners. Of course, this sometimes occurs. But it is not in the nature of love that it must occur. To argue that love is necessarily blind is to maintain that no real and deep affinities of a kind that inspire love can really exist between persons. This argument runs counter to the experience of men and women who do see the partner’s shortcomings a well as strengths and who do love passionately.
Infatuation differs from love precisely in that, whereas love embraces the person as a whole, infatuation is the result of focusing on one or two traits or aspects and reacting as if that were the total. I see a beautiful face, for example, and assume it is the image of a beautiful soul. I see how kindly this person treats me and assume we share significant affinities. I discover we share important values in one area and expand this area to include the whole sphere of life.
It is sometimes argued (by Freud, for example) that the experience of romantic love is generated solely by sexual frustrations and, therefore, must perish shortly after consummation. True, frustration can create obsessive want and can foster a tendency to endow a desire object with temporary value. Yet anyone who argues that love cannot survive sexual fulfillment is making an extraordinary personal statement and is also revealing extraordinary blindness or indifference to the experience of others.
Since romantic love, in literature, is dramatized through lovers battling obstacles to their love, some writers have concluded that these obstacles are essential to the experience. “Romantic love,” writes Arnold Lazarus (1985), “thrives on barriers, frustrations, separations and delays. Remove these obstacles, replace them with the everyday-ness of married life, and ecstatic passion fades.” What is one to say, then, to couples who have been married for twenty years and who have preserved their vision of each other as well as their devotion—to say nothing of their sexuality? Such couples exist. Is psychology to have no place for them? “Romantics,” says Lazarus, “ignore the fact that people grow weary of each other unless thy have cultivated common interests and values.” Do they ignore this fact? And is such blindness essential to the romantic experience? I do not think so. This is the kind of straw-man version of romantic love that is typical of its critics.
It is sometimes argued, too, that since so many couples do in fact suffer feelings of disenchantment shortly after marriage, the experience of romantic love must be a delusion. Yet many people experience disenchantment somewhere along the line of their careers, and it is not commonly suggested, therefore, that the pursuit of a meaningful and fulfilling career is a mistake. Many people experience some degree of disenchantment in their children, but it is not commonly supposed that the desire to have children and to be happy about them is inherently immature and neurotic. Instead, it is generally recognized that the requirements for achieving happiness in one’s career or success in child rearing may be higher and more difficult than is ordinarily supposed.
Romantic love is not omnipotent—and those who believe it is are too immature to be ready for it. Given the multitude of psychological problems that many people bring to a romantic relationship—given their doubts, their fears, their insecurities, their weak and uncertain self-esteem—given the fact that most have never learned that a love relationship, like every other value in life, requires consciousness, courage, knowledge, and wisdom to be sustained—it is not astonishing that most relationships end disappointingly. But to indict romantic love on these grounds is to imply that if love is not enough—if love of and by itself cannot indefinitely sustain happiness and fulfillment—then it is not the ideal of romantic love, but in the irrational and impossible demands made of it.
4. The Many Needs Of Love
Let us now consider what are the psychological needs that romantic love satisfies?
There are, I believe, a network of complementary needs involved.
1. There is our need for human companionship: for someone with whom to share values, feelings, interests, and goals; for someone with whom to share the joys and burdens of existence.
2. There is our need to love: to exercise our emotional capacity in the unique way that love makes possible. We need to find persons to admire, to feel stimulated and excited by, persons toward who we can direct our energies.
3. There is our need to be loved: to be valued, cared for, and nurtured by another human being.
4. There is our need to experience psychological visibility: to see ourselves in and through the responses of another person, one with whom we have important affinities. This is, in effect, our need for a psychological mirror. (The concept of psychological visibility, developed in considerable detail in The Psychology of Romantic Love, is basic to my understanding of man/woman relationships.)
5. Three is the need for sexual fulfillment: for a counterpart as a source of sexual satisfaction.
6. There is our need for an emotional support system; for at least one person who is genuinely devoted to our well being, an emotional ally who, in the face of life’s challenges, is reliably there.
7. There is our need for self-awareness and self-discovery: for expanded contact with the self, which happens continually and more or less naturally through the process of intimacy and confrontation with another human being. Self-awareness and self-discovery attend the joys and conflicts, harmonies and dissonances of a relationship.
8. There is our need to experience ourselves fully as a man or woman: to explore the potentials of our maleness or femaleness in ways that only romantic love optimally makes possible. Just as we need a sense of identity as human beings, so we need a sense of identity related to gender—of a kind most successfully realized through interaction with the opposite sex.
9. There is our need to share our excitement in being alive and to enjoy and be nourished by the excitement of another.
I call these needs, not because we die without them, but because we live with ourselves and in the world so much better with them. They have survival value.
This list does not seem to me to be the slightest bit speculative. I believe common experience, observation, and reason support it. But if I were to be speculative, I might posit a tenth need— the need to encounter, unite with, and live out vicariously our opposite-gender possibilities: the need, in males, to find an embodiment in the world of the internal feminine; the need, in females, to find an embodiment in the world of the internal masculine (Sanford, 1980).
5. Behaviors of Successful Couples
There are couples who remain deeply in love for many, many years. Even allowing for setbacks, frictions, times of estrangement, and the like, they preserve over time the essential meaning of romantic love. And there are couples for whom romance, whatever that term signifies to them, vanishes almost from the moment of marriage.
Psychologists seem to know a good deal more about the failures than the successes, just as they know more about pathology than health. The danger of such one-sided knowledge, of course, is that it may blind us to life’s positive possibilities. The temptation is to believe that sickness is normal and health abnormal. Far more attention needs to be paid to these men and women for whom romantic love does not end in disenchantment.
My own studies suggest that there are at least some behaviors we can clearly isolate as being far more characteristic of successful couples than the average. Couples who remain happily in love over long periods of time more consistently exhibit these behaviors:
1. They tend to express love verbally or through behaviors the partner understands to be an expression of love.
Sometimes this means saying, “I love you” or some equivalent (in contrast to that attitude best summarized by “What do you mean, do I love you? I married you, didn’t I?”).
“Saying the words,” one married woman remarked, “is a way of touching. Words can nurture feelings, keep love strong and in the forefront of the relationship.” Her husband commented, “Saying ‘I love you’ is a form of self-expression. It’s putting a bit of myself out there. So my feelings are in reality, not just inside of me.”
2. They tend to be physically affectionate.
This includes handholding, hugging, kissing, cuddling, and comforting—with a cup of tea, a pillow, or a wooly blanket.
“Aren’t we all touch animals?” one husband remarked. “An infant first experiences love through touch. I don’t think we ever lose that need.” His wife added, “For me, cuddling is as important as talking or making love.”
3. They tend to express their love sexually.
People who are happily in love are inclined to experience sexual intimacy as an important vehicle of contact and expression. Sex remains vital for them long after the excitement of novelty has passed.
This does not mean that they regard sex as the most significant aspect of their relationship. They are far more likely to regard their connection at the level of soul (for want of a better word) as the core of their relationship. And there are great variations in frequency of lovemaking among couples who are happily in love. And yet the expression “With my body I thee worship” is one they understand and relate to. Sex is integrated with, rather than alienated from, their feelings of love and caring. The importance they attach to sex is to be found in the emotions with which they invest the act.
4. They express their appreciation and admiration.
Happy couples talk about what they like, enjoy, and admire in each other. As a result, they feel visible, appreciated, valued. “My husband has always been my best audience,” a woman said to me. “Whether I’m telling him about what I did at work that day, or a remark he liked that I made to someone at a party, or the way I dress, or a meal I’ve prepared—he seems to notice everything. And he lets me see his pride and delight. I feel like I’m standing in the most marvelous spotlight—his special way of being aware. That kind of awareness—and then talking about it—is what love means to me. I only hope I give as good as I get, because I’ll tell you something: being loved may be the second best thing in the world, but loving someone, really being able to appreciate and admire someone—as I do my husband—is the best. And I do let him know that.”
5. They participate in mutual self-disclosure.
There is a willingness to share more of themselves and more of their inner lives with each other than with any other person. They share thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, aspirations; hurt, anger, longing, memories of painful or embarrassing experiences. Such couples are far more comfortable with self-disclosure than the average and, as a corollary, more interested in each other’s inner life.
Often, of course, one partner is more verbal than the other is. One partner may be somewhat awkward at times about verbalizing intimate thoughts and feelings. And yet, on a relative scale, he or she reaches out to the partner as to no other person, and trusts the partner above all others, and listens to the partner above all others.
6. They offer each other an emotional support system.
They are there for each other in times of illness, difficulty, hardship, and crisis. They are best friends to each other. They are generally helpful, nurturing, devoted to each other’s interests and well being.
7. They express love materially.
They express love with gifts (big or small, but given on more than just routine occasions) or tasks performed to lighten the burden of the partner’s life, such as sharing work or doing more than agreed-upon chores.
The desire to give pleasure to the partner is powerfully in evidence here. As regards gifts, price and income level are not relevant; what is, is the underlying intention. The reward is to see an expression of joy or satisfaction on the partner’s face.
8. They accept demands or put up with shortcomings that would be far less acceptable in any other person.
Demands and shortcomings are part of every happy relationship. So are the benevolence and grace with which we respond to them.
Another way of thinking about this point is to say that couples who know how to live together happily do not torment themselves or each other over “imperfections.” Each knows he or she is not perfect and does not demand perfection of the other. They are clear that, for them, the partner’s virtues outweigh the shortcomings—and they choose to enjoy the positives rather than drown the relationship in a preoccupation with the negatives. This does not mean they do not ask for—and sometimes get—changes in behavior they find undesirable. But they do not catastrophize difficulties they know they can live with.
9. They create time to be alone together.
This time is exclusively devoted to themselves. Enjoying and nurturing their relationship rank very high among their priorities: they understand that love requires attention and leisure.
Such couples tend to regard their relationship as more interesting, more exciting, more fulfilling than any other aspect of social existence. Often they are reluctant to engage in social, political, community, or other activities that would cause them to be separated unless they re convinced there are very good reasons for doing so; they’re clearly not looking for excuses to escape from each other, as is evidently the case with many more socially active couples.
“We’ve been called selfish for wanting to spend so much time alone together,” one woman said to me, laughing; she was obviously untouched by the accusation. Her husband added, “But we’ve never heard that from anyone who’s happily married.” His wife continued, “I once pointed that out to someone who was trying to give me a hard time. Do you know what she answered? ‘Happiness is so middle class.’ A loser’s consolation prize if ever I heard one.”
It can require considerable independence of a couple to treat their relationship as a major priority. But we find that kind of independence among couples who know how to sustain love across many years.
Once, following a lecture in which I was discussing the importance of time and intimacy for a relationship, a young man and woman came over to me, very enthusiastic about the talk, and proceeded to tell me how happily in love they were—which was how they looked. Then the man said to me, “but there’s one thing that troubles me. How do you find the time for that intimacy?” I asked him what his profession was and he told me he was a lawyer. I said, “There’s one thing that troubles me. Given how much in love you are with your wife, and looking at you both it seems clear that you are, how do you find the time to attend to your law practice?” He looked disoriented and nonplussed. “The question is incomprehensible, isn’t it?” I said to him. “I mean, you have to attend to your law practice, don’t you? That’s important.” Slowly a light began to dawn on his face. I went on, “Well, when and if you decide that love really matters to you as much a your work, when success in your relationship with this woman becomes as much an imperative as success in your career, you won’t ask: How does one find time? You’ll know how one does it.” This, of course, is what happy couples understand perfectly.
In my observation the biggest time threat comes not from our work but from our social relationships or what we tell ourselves are our social obligations. Often it is against these that our love needs to be protected. The time that we and our partner spend in the company of relatives, friends, or colleagues can be a source of pleasure, but it is not a substitute for time spent alone together. Nothing is. Evenings spent with people who do not matter to us, or do not matter nearly as much as the one we love, cannot be reclaimed at a later date, cannot be taken back and relived. Successful couples seem to know it is now or never.
Now the characteristics I have outlined are not equally present in every happy marriage or love affair. Even within a relationship each partner does not exhibit them equally at all times. But I strongly doubt that anyone could point to a happy relationship that did not show most of these traits.
6. Romantic Love and Self-Esteem
I have already suggested that if romantic love is to succeed, it asks far more of us in terms of personal evolution and maturity than is ordinarily understood.
The first thing it asks is a reasonably good level of self-esteem. If we enjoy healthy self-esteem—if we feel competent, lovable, deserving of happiness—we are very likely to choose a mate who will reflect and support our self-concept. If we feel inadequate, unlovable, undeserving of happiness, again we are likely to become involved with a person who will confirm our deepest vision of ourselves.
If we enjoy good self-esteem, we are likely to treat our partner well and to expect that he or she will treat us well, which tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will not see ourselves s a martyr or a victim. We will not feel that suffering is our natural destiny, and we will not put up with it in passive resignation—let alone go looking for it. If we lack good self-esteem, we are unlikely to treat our partner well, despite our good intentions, because of our fears and excessive dependency. And if our partner treats us badly, some part of us will feel, “But of course.” And if and when our relationship ends and we go looking for a new partner, despair can make us not more thoughtful but more blind—so our self-esteem goes on deteriorating and so does our love life.
If we are to choose a mate wisely, we need to feel that we are deserving of love, admiration, and respect—and that only someone we can truly love, admire, and respect is appropriate for us. If we are to treat our relationship with the care and nurturing it deserves, we need to feel that we are deserving of happiness—that happiness is not a miracle or a mirage but our natural and appropriate birthright.
Our sense of self, the way we perceive and assess ourselves, crucially affects virtually every aspect of our existence. That has been the central theme of all my work. As regards love, the first love affair we must consummate successfully is with ourselves. Only then are we ready for other relationships. And how well can we practice “mutual self-disclosure” if we are strangers to ourselves, alienated from our inner life, cut off from feelings and emotions and longings? Self-alienation is the enemy of intimacy and therefore of romantic love (or any other kind of love). Or if we are estranged from our sexuality, or in an adversary relationship to our body, we lack the mind-body integration that romantic love celebrates. If we have not attained a reasonably mature level of individualism and autonomy, chances are we will overburden our relationship with demands that can’t be met—such as to create (rather than express) our self-esteem and our happiness or to support the illusion that we are not ultimately responsible for our own existence.
Romantic love requires courage—the courage to stay vulnerable, to stay open to our feelings for our partner, even when we are temporarily in conflict, even when we are frustrated, hurt, angry—the courage to remain connected with our love, rather than shut down emotionally, even when it is terribly difficult to do so. When a couple lacks this courage and seeks “safety” from pain in the refuge of withdrawal, as so commonly happens, it is not romantic love that has failed them but they who have failed romantic love.
7. In Conclusion
I regret there is not space here to develop in more depth the view of love I am presenting or to discuss in detail how it differs from traditional views.
I do not, for example, share the assumption of some champions of romantic love that reason and passion are antithetical. I do not believe that “true love conquers all.” Nor that there is only one soul mate for each person on earth. Nor that love necessarily entails marriage or that marriage necessarily entails children. I do not believe it has necessarily failed if it does not last forever. I do not insist that romantic love, under all circumstances and conditions, necessarily and always entails sexual exclusivity. I do not see romantic love as the prerogative of youth. I do not identify it exclusively with the excitement of what is merely it first phase: the phase of novelty.
To say it once more, I see its success over time as a triumph of psychological maturity. I see its essence as the encounter of two selves who see in each other a mirror, an opportunity for the celebration of self and of life, a doorway to our ultimate psychological (including spiritual) home, and a challenge to the best within us.
Branden, N. (1969/1971). The Psychology of Self-Esteem. New York: Bantam Books.
_____. (1980/1981). The Psychology of Romantic Love. New York: Bantam Books.
_____. (1984/1985). Honoring The Self. New York: Bantam Books.
_____. (1987). What Love Asks of Us. With D. Branden. New York: Bantam Books.
Burgess, E.W., & Lock, H.T. (1953). The Family: From Institution to Companionship (2nd ed.). New York: American Book Co.
Lazarus, A. A. (1985). Marital Myths. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.
Sanford, J.A. (1980). The Invisible Partners. New York and Ramsey: Paulist Press.