121. How does love work?
Earlier in this blog (item 6) I discussed romantic love (eros) in contrast with loving friendship (philia). Romantic love is utopian, reaching for an unattainable ideal outside reality, and tends to be possessive, aiming to own the loved one.
As an outflow of the Enlightenment, in modern society our self-image is that we make our choices in freedom, as a rational, autonomous being. But in love we are about to surrender our autonomy and freedom, incurring constraints on our actions. That step is difficult to reconcile with rational autonomy.
Romantic love is needed to cause blindness, initially, to the imperfections of the loved one, in order to be prepared to take the leap into the hazardous adventure of love. But how can a possessive, self-oriented, obsessive eros next develop into the openness and reciprocity of philia?
Freud had more to say on this issue. Eros entails dependence and a risk of loss, of sinking a deep emotional investment without receiving equally intense love in return, or of losing the loved one. This fearful dependence can yield suspicion, lack of trust. The lover anticipates unrequited love, and is on the lookout for signs of it, twisting perception to confirm the fear. It can yield hate. The urge to appropriate the loved one is an attempt to maintain control, to eliminate dependence and risk of loss. Of course all this only antagonizes the loved one and threatens to fulfil the fearsome risk of a lost love and of desertion, in a mutual escalation of fear and mistrust. The greater the passion the greater the risk, possible suspicion and hate, and the hazard of breakdown.
The perversity of perfect passion especially tempts the adolescent, with its dream of purity and perfection, in disdain of adult cowardice and compromise.
Could it be the other way around: start with philia rather than eros? Is there a way to develop acquaintance and familiarity first and release the passion of eros later? As described by Eva Illouz, in her book ‘Why love hurts’, that is what we had in the past, in social rules and rituals of acquaintance and engagement prior to commitment. Presently, love has to be immediate and ‘authentic’, preferably in love at first sight. I would not want to go back to former social and ritualistic strictures that locked up love in class endogamy, but how, then, can we proceed?
The challenge is to learn not only to recognize but also to accept, and next even to cherish, the quirks and imperfections of the loved one, in what Eva Illouz called incremental reciprocity. Here again we find imperfection on the move. Learning to trust and shed suspicion. To give space to the loved one, not to appropriate. Not to jump to dark interpretations of innocuous conduct. To learn to talk about it, and to hear the other out. To count to ten. To extend benefit of the doubt, to allow for errors of interpretation and for mistakes of judgement or perception of the partner. In other words: to exercise voice, as discussed in the items on trust in this blog (items 68 to 74). That, I propose, is the maturity of love.
Next to the negative freedom of being free from constraints, there is positive freedom of having access to new sources for fulfilment or development of the self, to be discovered in a process of incremental reciprocity. While the leap of eros limits freedom in the negative sense, it can enable positive freedom, in the building up of philia.