What Is This Thing Called Love?
An excerpt from What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs
Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2010
This pop lyric from the 40's catches an important note about love in modern societies, its mystery and magic. If love can be defined, should it be? This book will argue that we need to define love carefully if we are to understand pop song lyrics, and more importantly, ourselves and our society.
The first step toward defining love will be to refer to the large literature on this topic, the way in which classic and contemporary scholars have conceptualized love. I begin with vernacular meanings of love. If love is defined so broadly in modern societies as to be virtually meaningless, how can we rescue its meaning?
Before proceeding, it should be said that investigating love might seem to be subversive. Any study of the fundamentals of a society could challenge assumptions that are taken for granted in everyday life. As we go about our daily activities, we have neither the interest nor the resources to check on the thousand of assumptions that we make, and to a large extent, share with other members of our society. Just getting through the day is enough of a challenge.
Only eccentrics, artists or scientists have the time and inclination to challenge everyday assumptions. Erving Goffman's work, for example, partakes of all three of these worlds: eccentricity, art and science. One of the most common criticisms of his writing is that it is bitter, cynical, or sour. The charges, for the most part, seem to arise out of his challenge to our taken-for-granted assumptions. Any sustained investigation of the social-emotional world might challenge major institutions; not only the political and economic ones, but also those dealing with family, education, religion and also the cult of individualism in modern societies.
One of the central ideas in this book is that a total individualism is taken for granted in Western societies. Our "commonsense," the shared understandings we have in these societies, tells us to focus on individuals, rather than relationships. Another set of assumptions concerns which emotions are good and which are bad.
In this chapter, I suggest that the emotion of love is seen as good, and is used, therefore, as often as possible. This assumption is groundless, of course, since love in itself is neither good nor bad, or better yet, both good and bad. Love can be experienced in different modes, some very painful. Increasing our understanding of love, step by step, to the extent that it brings out these various shades of love, may also challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions about ourselves, the people in our lives and our relationships with them.
One obvious cause for confusion is the many ways the word love is used in Western societies. According to Harold Bloom (1998 p. 549), Aldous Huxley suggested "we use the word love for the most amazing variety of relationships, ranging from what we feel for our mothers to what we feel for someone we beat up in a bordello, or its many equivalents."
The comment about beating someone up out of love is probably not an exaggeration. A recent set of experiments suggests that subjects' condemnation of murder is softened if they are told that it was caused by jealousy (Peunte and Cohen 2003). These subjects seem to entertain the idea that one can love someone so much that one kills them, loving them to death.
Solomon (1981, pp. 3-4) elaborates on the broad sweep of the word love:
Consider... the wealth of meticulous and fine distinctions we make in describing our feelings of hostil?ity: hatred, loathing, scorn, anger, revulsion, resentment, envy, abhorrence, malice, aversion, vexation, irritation, annoyance, disgust, spite and contempt, or worse, "beneath" contempt. And yet we sort out our positive affections for the most part between the two limp categories, "liking" and "loving." We distinguish our friends from mere acquaintances and make a ready distinction between lovers and friends whom we love "but not that way." Still, one and the same word serves to describe our enthusiasm for apple strudel, respect for a dis?tant father, the anguish of an uncertain romantic affair and nostalgic affection for an old pair of slippers...
Solomon (1981, p. 7) goes on to quote Voltaire: "There are so many sorts of love that one does not know where to seek a definition of it." In modern societies the broad use of the word love may defend against the painful absence of true intimacy and community. The idea seems to be that ANY kind of relationship that has positive elements in it, even if mixed with extremely negative ones, can be called love.
What does Love Mean?
One place to seek definitions is the dictionary. The English language unabridged dictionaries provide some two dozen meanings for love, TWO DOZEN! most of them applicable to romantic or close relationships. These are the first two meanings in the American Heritage Dictionary (1992):
These two definitions are of great interest, because they touch upon several complexities. Particularly daunting is the idea that love is ineffable (indescribable). I can sympathize with this idea because genuine love seems to be quite complex. Both popular and scholarly accounts flirt with the idea that one of the crowning qualities of love is that it is mysterious and therefore indescribable. Nevertheless, this chapter will attempt to summarize some of love's features as described by dictionaries, scholars and other writers.
The first dictionary definition (above) is very broad, covering both romantic and other kinds of love, such as love of kin or friends. The second is narrower, involving only romantic love, and emphasizing sexual attraction. Of the twenty or so remaining definitions, a few are unrelated to relationships (such as the use of the word love in scoring a tennis match). Most of them, however, involve various shadings and gradations of love, and especially, of romantic love. Given the many possible meanings of the word, it is no wonder that scholars and, more recently, social scientists, seem so divided on its significance.
Of all the basic emotions, love is the least clearly defined. Our conceptions of anger, fear, shame, grief, contempt, disgust, and joy are fuzzy around the edges, but they are clear enough so that we can begin to communicate about them. At the most elementary level, we feel we are able at least to distinguish between painful emotions, such as fear, grief and shame, and pleasurable ones, like interest, excitement, and joy.
But about love, particularly romantic love, there is little agreement. Even on so basic an issue about whether love is painful or pleasurable, experts are divided. Indeed, reading the scholarly literature, it often seems that they are not talking about the same emotion. Some experts, both classical and modern, consider love not only pleasurable, but in many ways the most important thing in life. Nevertheless, this view represents only a minority. The dominant view has long been that love, especially romantic love, is a painful affliction or madness, a view widely held by the ancient Greeks (De Rougement 1940). Over 2500 years ago, Sappho described the pain and impairment of love.
For should I see thee a little moment,
Certainly in the teachings of the Church Fathers, beginning with St. Augustine, romantic love has been viewed as a disorder because of the sinfulness of sexuality. The 11th century scholar Andreas Capellanas (The Art of Courtly Love 1969), after an extended indictment of romantic love, concluded that it was the work of the Devil.
The most surprising thing of all about love is the first step, the violence of the change that takes place in the mind... A person in love in unremittingly and uninterruptedly occupied with the image of the beloved.
In the later stages, Stendahl notes, many other surprises await, most of them unpleasant: "Then you reach the final torment: utter despair poisoned still further by a shred of hope"
Although Stendahl included positive aspects of love, the philosopher Ortega y Gasset saw only the negative (On Love 1957), calling romantic love an abnormality. This passage suggests the flavor of his critique:
The soul of a man in love smells of the closed-up room of a sick man--its confined atmosphere is filled with stale breath.
Even Freud, a champion of sexuality, saw romantic love negatively. He commented that falling in love was a kind of "sickness and craziness, an illusion, a blindness to what the loved person is really like" (Freud 1915). Here he seems to equate love with infatuation, a topic I will take up below.
On the other hand, to give Freud credit, he also saw the positive side of love, at least of non-erotic love. When Jung challenged him to name the curative aspect of psychoanalysis, Freud answered very simply "Love." This answer is very much in harmony with the definition of love that will be offered in this chapter.
Modern scholarship is more evenly divided between positive and negative views than classical discussions. Hatfield and Rapson (1993) distinguish between passionate love (infatuation) and companionate love (fondness). Both Solomon (1992) and Sternberg (1988) distinguish between love and infatuation. They note that both involve intense desire, but that love also involves intimacy and commitment. Kemper and Reid (1997) also distinguish between what they call "adulation" and what they see as later stages, ideal and romantic love. Like Persons (1988), they seem to assume that beginning with infatuation is likely to lead on to love.
However, infatuation can also lead to more infatuation, either with the same or different persons. For Solomon and for Sternberg, love is highly positive and complex; it is infatuation that is simple and negative. As we shall see, this distinction may be too crude. But, if refined, it could be one step toward the development of a workable concept of love.
Soble (1990) provides a summary of the many components of the meaning of love, such as the uniqueness of the beloved, how the beloved comes first, satisfies desire, is exclusive and constant, and provides reciprocity. His account is historical, however, rather than analytic.
Another detailed analysis of the meaning of the word love in English is provided by Johnson (2001). He shows that the vernacular word implies three different kinds of love: care, desire for union, or appreciation. These three forms, he argues, may exist independently or in combination. One limitation of his approach is that it does not include the physical component of love, attachment. Another is that it is atheoretical, in that it is based entirely on vernacular usage in the English language. Although it is useful to have such detailed treatments, it still leaves the analysis of the meaning of love located completely in only one culture. Nor does either book propose a single overarching definition.
Kemper (1978) analyzed the way in which social relationships generate love as well as other emotions, in terms of status and power. The awarding of status, which is crucial in Kemper's theory, will be important here also, since it is an aspect of shared identity. Power, however, does not seem to be involved in love as defined here, since shared identity means its absence. Although I agree that most emotions arise out of relationship dynamics, Kemper's theory seems to deal only partially with shared identity, and not at all with attachment, attraction, and empathic resonance (attunement).
Perhaps the best empirical study of romantic love, and certainly the most detailed, is by Tennov (1979), who interviewed hundreds of persons about their romantic life. She found that the great majority of her subjects had frequently experienced the trance of love, like the one in Sappho's poem. However, Tennov does not call this state love or even infatuation. Instead she used the word "limerance," which refers to a trance-like state. Perhaps aware of the many ambiguities in the way the word love is used, Tennov seems to have wanted a neutral term, rather than the usual one.
The conflict between the different points of view described above is the result, for the most part, of the broad sweep covered by the word love. The arguments are a confusion of meanings, since the various sides are referring to different affects. Those who see romantic love as pathological are considering the affect that I prefer to call infatuation and/or the sex drive, without considering other aspects of what is called love. This usage is perfectly proper in English and French (but not in Spanish). Most references to "falling in love" or "love at first sight" concern infatuation. With regard to lust, recall that one of the dictionary definitions of love is "A feeling of intense desire and attraction toward a person with whom one is disposed to make a pair; the emotion of sex and romance," which is entirely about sexual desire.
On the other hand, those authors that stress the positive aspects of love focus on the emotional and relational aspects, companionship and caring. I will consider these aspects under the heading of "attunement," the sharing of identity and awareness between persons in love. As should become clear in this essay, this is only one part of love, even non-erotic love. Perhaps there will be less conflict and confusion if we can agree on a definition of love that is less vague and broad than vernacular usage.
Three Components of Love
The social science literature on love is divided into three separate schools of thought. The first school focuses on biology. This school holds that attachment, a genetically endowed physical phenomenon, is the basis for non-erotic love. The second school considers only romantic love, and focuses only on sexual attraction. The idea that the dominant force in love is attachment and/or sexual attraction is stated explicitly by Shaver (1994), Shackleford (1998), Fisher (1992), and many others. This idea has strong connections with evolutionary theory, proposing that love is a mammalian drive, like hunger and thirst.
A further frisson for these two schools of thought has been provided by discussions of limbic communication (Lewis, et al 2000). According to this work, persons in physically close quarters develop physiologically based resonance, body to body. One striking example they cite concerns women roommates whose menstrual cycles gradually move toward the same date of the month. Lewis and his colleagues urge bodily resonance as the dominant component in love. They also explicitly link it to attachment theory (idem, pp. 69-76). From this point of view, love is a constant and a universal, from individual to individual, in all cultures and historical times.
Various studies both of humans and animals have suggested that attachment is primarily based on the close relationship of infants to their caretakers. Infants imprint on one or both parents, and anyone else in close and continued proximity. Although not all of the causes of imprinting have been established, touch, body warmth, and the sense of smell are prime candidates. Several studies suggest that an infant will select its own mother's milk over the milk produced by other mothers, probably based on smell. This smell may be carried with us as long as we live, even if only far below the level of conscious awareness. As adults, we may still become attached to others because of their smell, even if we don't realize it. But there are may be other roads to attachment, as will be discussed below.
There is a third major school of thought, however, that gives little or no attention to a physical basis for love. This school proposes that love is largely a psychological/ emotional/cultural phenomenon. In this perspective, love is seen as extremely variable and changeable, by individuals, social classes, and/or cultures and historical epochs.
Most of this chapter will be devoted to this idea. Not because the first two ideas are unimportant. In the scheme of things, the physical bases of love are just as important as the cultural/cognitive/emotional one. My attention will focus mainly on the latter idea because it is much more subtle, complex, and counter-intuitive than the first. It is also a component that is more susceptible to intentional change than attachment and attraction.
Attachment and sexual attraction are relatively simple, constant and universal in all cultures and historical periods. They are built into the human body, as they are built into the bodies of other mammals. They can vary in intensity, and in the degree to which they are expressed or inhibited, but they are basically one-dimensional. Not so with the cultural/cognitive/emotional component, which has many dimensions, ramifications, and contradictions.
Love as Mutual Identity
By far the most sophisticated version of the third perspective is proposed by the philosopher Robert Solomon (1976, 1981, 1994). There are many features of Solomon's treatment of love that distinguish it from other writings. First, his analysis of love is conceptual and comparative: in his treatments, he examines love in the context of a similar examination of other emotions. The way in which he compared the broadness of the meaning of love with the specificity of anger words, quoted above, is illustrative of his approach. Indeed, his first analysis of love occurred in a volume in which he gave more or less equal space to the other major emotions (The Passions 1976). Locating love with respect to other emotions is extremely important, since many of the classical and modern discussions get lost in the uniqueness, and therefore the ineffability of love.
A second feature of his approach is that he provides a broad picture of the effects of emotion on the person undergoing them, in addition to the central feeling. He calls this broad summary "the emotionworld." For example, he compares the "loveworld" to the "angerworld." The loveworld (Solomon 1981, p. 126) is "woven around a single relationship, with everything else pushed to the periphery..." By contrast, he states, in the angerworld "one defines oneself in the role of the 'offended' and someone else....as the 'offender.' [It] is very much a courtroom world, a world filled with blame and emotional litigation..." Solomon uses the skills of a novelist to try to convey the experience of emotion, including cognition and perception, not just the sensation or the outward appearance.
From my point of view, however, Solomon's most important contribution is his definition of the central feature of love as shared identity (Solomon 1981, p.xxx; 1994, p.235): " ...love [is] shared identity, a redefinition of self which no amount of sex or fun or time together will add up to....Two people in a society with an extraordinary sense of individual identity mutually fantasize, verbalize and act their way into a relationship that can no longer be understood as a mere conjunction of the two but only as a complex ONE."
By locating love in the larger perceptual/behavioral framework, and by comparing love with other emotions, Solomon manages both to evoke love as an emotion, and develop a concrete description of its causes, appearance and effects, a significant achievement.
His work suggests that the reason scholars decide that love is ineffable is because they treat it that way, a self-fulfilling prophecy that Solomon avoids.
At first sight, Solomon's deconstruction of the concept of love may appear to be Grinch-like. Why remove the aura of ineffability, of sacred mystery by means of comparison with other emotions, by locating feelings within a larger framework of perceptions and behavior, and by invoking a general concept like shared identity? Perhaps this attempt is only one more example of what Max Weber called the progressive disenchantment of the world.
This is an important issue; we cannot afford just to shrug it off. Perhaps it is the price one has to pay for the advancement of understanding. But there is a further reason that is less obvious, that the broad use of the word love is a defense against painful feelings of separation and alienation. People who go around proclaiming their love for others, as in the farewell "Love ya," may be running on empty. It is possible that the way that the idea of love evokes positive feelings of awe and mystery is also a defense against painful feelings of separation and alienation.
In any event, this chapter seeks to extend Solomon's conceptualization of love as an emotion like other emotions. Solomon's idea that genuine love involves a union between the lovers is not new. It is found, as he suggests, in Plato and Aristotle. It also appears in one of Shakespeare's riddling poems about love, The Phoenix and the Turtle, as in this stanza:
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was call'd.
The idea of unity is also alluded to in the first dictionary definition, quoted above, as "a sense of oneness," and in many other conceptions of the nature of love. In current discussion, the idea of unity is referred to as connectedness, shared awareness, intersubjectivity, or attunement.
Love and Solidarity
Any theory of social integration, like attachment theory, assumes that humanness requires being connected to others. There is a vast literature supporting the idea that all humans have a need to belong (Baumeister and Leary 1995). Love is one form of belonging, friendship and community are two other forms. But in modern societies these kinds of needs are difficult to fulfill. Infatuation, heartbreak, and on a larger scale, blind patriotism offer a substitute: imagining and longing for an ideal person or group instead of connecting with a real one. (In his treatise on the psychological bases of nationalism, Anderson  calls the nation "an imagined community.")
One complication involved with the idea of the need for connectedness is that humans, unlike other mammals, also have a strong need for individual and group autonomy. These two needs are equal and opposite. The clash between needs for both connection and autonomy form the backdrop for cooperation and conflict between individuals and also between groups. I will return to the issue of autonomy in the discussion of micro-solidarity and micro-alienation below.
The idea of a connection between two persons is difficult to make explicit in Western societies because of the strong focus on individuals, rather than relationships or connectedness between persons. The idea of connectedness implies that humans, unlike other creatures, can share the experience of another. That is, that a part of individual consciousness is not only subjective, but also intersubjective.
The idea of an intersubjective component in consciousness has been mentioned many times in the history of philosophy, but the implications are seldom explored. As indicated in Chapter 2, Cooley argued that intersubjectivity is so much a part of the humanness of human nature that most of us take it completely for granted, to the point of invisibility.
The idea that we "live in the minds of others without knowing it" is profoundly significant for understanding the cognitive component of love. Intersubjectivity is so built into our humanness that it will usually be virtually invisible. It follows that we should expect most people have learned to ignore clues that point toward intersubjectivity.
This element is what Stern (1977) has called attunement (mutual understanding). John Dewey proposed that attunement formed the core of communication:
Shared experience is the greatest of human goods. In communication, such conjunction and contact as is characteristic of animals become endearments capable of infinite idealization; they become symbols of the very culmination of nature. (Dewey 1925, p.202)
In ordinary language, attunement involves connectedness between people, deep and seemingly effortless understanding, and understanding that one is understood. As already indicated, this idea is hinted at in that part of the dictionary definition about "a sense of oneness."
In order to visualize intersubjectivity, it may be necessary to take this idea a step further than Cooley did in his idea of the looking-glass self, by thinking of it more concretely. How does it actually work in dialogue? One recent suggestion that may be helpful is the idea of "pendulation," that interacting with others, we swing back and forth between our own point of view, and that of the other (Levine 1997). It is this back and forth movement between subjective and intersubjective consciousness that allows mutual understanding.
The infinite ambiguity of ordinary human language makes intersubjectivity a necessity for communication. The signs and gestures used by non-human creatures are completely unambiguous. For example, bees can instantly detect the smell of strange bees: it signals enemy. But humans can easily hide their feelings and intentions under deceitful or ambiguous messages. Even with the best intentions, communications in ordinary language are inherently ambiguous, because all ordinary words are allowed many meanings, depending on the context. Understanding even fairly simple messages requires mutual role-taking (attunement) because the meaning of messages is dependent on the context.
As suggested, any context can easily change the meaning of any message. To understand the meaning of messages in context, we have all become adroit at pendulation: seeing the message from the point of view of the other as well as our own.
Independently of meanings, winging back and forth between self and other viewpoint also has a great advantage in the realm of emotions. In this process, one is able to access otherwise occluded emotions. One can experience one's feeling from the point of view of the other, which may be less painful than feeling them as one's self. The state of balance, which I referred to in an earlier work (1979) as "optimal distance," suggests how solidarity and love benefit close relationships whether in families or psychotherapy.
Mutual understanding often fails to occur, of course. Yet if a society is to survive it must occur more often than not. When we find that our friend with whom we made a dinner date shows up at the right time and place, we realize that he was not joking or lying. Driving an automobile safely requires taking the role of other drivers. In making a loan, a bank must usually accurately understand the intention of the customer to repay. In fact, our whole civilization is possible only to the extent that mutual understanding usually occurs.
It may help to understand this process by also considering contexts where mutual understanding breaks down. There is a debating tactic that is sometimes used in conversation such that one or both of the speakers doesn't actually hear the other person out. In the quarrel mode, this practice takes the form of interrupting the other person mid-sentence. But there is also a more subtle mode, where one party listens to only the beginning of the other's comments. Instead of continuing to listen until the other is finished, the "listener" instead begins to construct his own retort, based only on the first few sentences that the other has uttered. This practice is difficult to detect, and has probably never been studied empirically. But it represents one source for the breakdown of pendulation, and therefore of mutual understanding.
Certain types of personality also tend toward lack of mutual understanding. Narcissism, for example, is a tendency to see the world only from one's own viewpoint. This idea is played out in detail in the film As Good as it Gets. The character played by Jack Nicholson falls for the character played by Helen Hunt. But he has great difficulty in relating to her because he must struggle to get outside his own point of view. The last scene, in particular, portrays the agony he suffers in trying to take her point of view as well as his own.
There is also a personality type with the opposite difficulty, balancing one's own point of view against the others. Perhaps there is a passive or dependent personality type whose penchant is to stay in the other person's viewpoint, rather than balancing it against one's own. I have personally known professional actors and politicians who had no secure bond because they seemed not to have a point of view of their own.
A relationship may be relatively stable when the personality styles of the two persons are opposite. A person with a narcissistic or isolated style might fit with a person with a dependent or engulfed style. The first person would expect the second to take his point of view, and the second person would expect the other person not to. But in As Good as it Gets, the Helen Hunt character would not put up with the male character's lack of empathy: she clearly showed that he would have to change his ways.
Undoubtedly there are many other sources of lack of mutual understanding that require investigation.
In struggling to define what is meant by a sexual perversion, the philosopher Thomas Nagel (1978) came very near to defining normal, or at least non-perverse sex in terms of attunement. Although he doesn't use that term, or any of the others I have used, such as intersubjectivity, his definition of non-perverse sex in terms of each knowing that the other knows they desire and are desired certainly implies it:
These [sexual] reactions are perceived, and the perception of them is perceived; at each step the domination of the person by his body is reinforced, and the sexual partner becomes more possessible by physical contact, penetration, and envelopment. (p. 48).
In another passage, he invokes the idea of unity and oneness. He goes on to propose that sex between two persons is perverse if it lacks this kind of self and mutual awareness. He points out that this definition inevitably broadens the definition of perversion; ordinarily one doesn't consider it perverse if one or both of the partners is imagining being with someone else other than the person they are having sex with. The idea of mutual awareness, with or without sexuality, is closely linked to a theory of social solidarity.
Solidarity and Alienation
In the framework proposed here, the non-genetic component of love would be one type of solidarity, a secure bond (Bowlby 1969), involving shared awareness between lovers. As Solomon has suggested, the love bond also means sharing of identity.
There are many passages in literature that imply the idea of shared identity between lovers. Here is an example from Wuthering Heights, in which Kathy, the heroine, exclaims that she IS her lover:
I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.... Love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I AM Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.
However, the passage "He's always, always in my mind" suggests a lack of balance, at least on the heroine's part. Rather than loving Heathcliff, from the point of view of the definition offered here, she seems to be engulfed and obsessed with him.
The amount of sharing of identity is crucial for a secure bond. Each lover needs to treat the other as of equal value as self, neither more nor less. The idea of equality of valuing self and other equally means that the loving person can see both persons' needs objectively, without overvaluing self or other. This idea is represented in the airline instructions that the parent place the oxygen mask first on her/his face first, not on the dependent child.
The idea of love involving equality of self and other has been touched on by many earlier discussions. Sullivan (1945, p. 20) states the idea exactly: "When the satisfaction or the security of the other person becomes as significant to one as is one's own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists." Note that he doesn't say that the other is more significant, only as significant. But like most of the other discussions of this point, Sullivan doesn't dwell upon it or provide examples. It is mentioned casually, and in passing.
This idea can be linked to the more general framework of social integration (alienation/solidarity). True love involves being neither dependent (engulfed) nor independent (isolated), but interdependent, to use Elias's terms (1972). It is particularly important to distinguish between a secure and an engulfed bond, since most social science confounds these two types.
In an engulfed bond, one or both partners give up basic aspects of self in order to be loyal to the other. In a traditional marriage, for example, the wife often suppressed anger and resentment to the point that it seemed to disappear, in order to be loyal to her husband. Perhaps this is the major source of emotional estrangement in long-term relationships.
Those who are infatuated or heartbroken with "love" do not have a secure bond. In cases of infatuation at a distance, the contact that is necessary for the development of attunement is missing; there goes "love at first sight!" Even where there is contact, the infatuated or heartbroken one may be so self-absorbed (isolated) or engulfed to the point that attunement cannot occur. As indicated in the last chapter, these two states are often presented in popular song lyrics as if they were genuine love.
Solidarity and alienation are usually discussed as if they were macro phenomena, occurring only in large groups or even whole societies. But these concepts are also useful at the level of interpersonal relations, both over long spans of time and also moment by moment.
Love is usually thought of as long term, involving commitment to the relationship. But love can also be seen dynamically, by observing an ongoing dialogue. In fact, the moment by moment occurrence of love and other emotions may point toward an important issue in defining attunement in genuine love.
Marshall Rosenberg (1999), defining what he calls "non-violent communication," has suggested that in close relationships, maintaining empathic connectedness (attunement) must be treated as more important than any particular topic being discussed. This idea seems to go to the very heart of genuine love, since it brings up the issue of impediments to love and resulting lapses.
In Rosenberg's workshops, this question often arises in parent-child relationships, when a mother or father complains about a child's behavior. For example, a mother may repeat dialogue between her and her son about getting his homework done before watching TV or playing electronic games. Rosenberg begins by explaining that the child has a need for autonomy, for being his own persons, as well as a need for remaining connected with the parent.
This idea seems to be lost on the parent. She or he will ask: "So how do I get him to do the homework?" The parent seems to have the idea that what is involved is a test of wills, and that the way to go is to have a stronger will than the child. Rosenberg then goes on to explain that the parent needs to show that empathic connectedness is more important to her than getting the homework done. That is, that she respects the child's need for autonomy.
In terms of love, Rosenberg's idea implies that in genuine love, the lovers show that maintaining attunement is usually more important than anything else. That is, nothing outside of the relationship (work, children, household tasks, and so on) is more important than the relationship itself.
One implication is that any kind of ultimatum, no matter how subtle, violates the love contract. One of the ways this issue comes up is in discussions of commitment between men and women. Because of differences in upbringing, often it is the woman in a relationship who confronts the man about his commitment. Typically, both sides behave badly in this confrontation. Here is a dialogue between students in one my classes that illustrates the problem.
Janey and Charlie have been dating for two months, seeing each other every day. But one day Charlie doesn't call or show up.
Janey phones: What's going on, Charley, are you still interested in me?
Confronted by Janey, Charlie appears to feel cornered. It doesn't matter whether he actually doesn't know, or if he is just stalling. He has disconnected. Whatever love the two have for each other is not happening in this particular episode, because there is no attunement.
Although lovers often confront each other with direct questions about degree of commitment, a more diplomatic approach would probably work to maintain the bond, or at least settling the issue more quickly and with less pain. For example, if Janey had opened the discussion by leaving off "are you still interested in me?" (What's going on Charley?), Charlie may have entered into the dialogue instead of disconnecting from it. Rosenberg's idea of maintaining empathic connectedness (attunement) seems to have many implications for understanding the meaning of love, and love's maneuvers.
The idea of attunement also may help to understand the intensity of the feeling of love. Balanced attunement is a way of describing a secure bond; the corresponding emotion is genuine (authentic) pride. Just as shame and embarrassment are the emotions of lack of attunement, so pride is generated by attunement. Even for non-erotic love, the conjunction of feelings of attachment and genuine pride, the absence of sadness and shame presumably can give rise to powerful sensations of wellbeing. In erotic love, when further conjoined with sexual arousal, these three different rivers of sensation may be one of the most intensely pleasurable experiences in life.
To understand the emotional components of love, it is necessary to consider both the presence and the absence of emotions. First consider the emotions connected with attachment and separation. Sadness (grief) is the crucial indicator of attachment: we miss the loved one when she or he is away, and we are struck down with grief at their loss. But what is the emotion connected with the presence of the loved one? Joy is too strong a word for this feeling. I suppose one might say that rather than feeling a particular feeling, one merely feels normal, or the absence of pain.
But the situation maybe a bit more complex than it seems. Suppose that in modern industrial/urban societies, one experiences a sense of separation from others early on in childhood. There is such intense pressure for individuation and individual achievement and recognition that we are practically forced to separate ourselves from others. Not just our parents, but from all others, even, to some extent, from those closest to us.
Supposing, for the sake of discussion, that modern societies give rise to this kind of extreme separation in virtually every one, what would be the consequences? There are two that I think are relevant to understanding the emotion of love. First, we all learn to defend against feelings of loneliness and isolation. That is to say, we learn to suppress and/or ignore these painful feelings. Secondly, however, this kind of maneuver is usually only partially successful. Most of us go through most of our life bearing at least a hint of sadness as background to our activities.
Genuine love silences this background noise, at least temporarily. When one is connected with the loved one(s), one feels normal in the sense of sadness being absent. The attachment emotion may be the absence of sadness, as if a heavy weight has been lifted. One is no longer alone in the universe.
The same reasoning applies to the presence of pride that accompanies the shared identity and awareness during moments of genuine love. The feeling of authentic pride that is registered is not only that of the emotion itself, but also, and probably much more intensely, the absence of the background noise of humiliation, shame and embarrassment.
Not only sadness, but shame and embarrassment, real or anticipated, are a continuing presence in the life of denizens of modern societies. Goffman's first and best known book, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) made this point in many different ways. His Everyperson is constantly aware of her or his standing in the eyes of the others, but helpless to do anything about it, and is usually anticipating, or often, actually experiencing shame or embarrassment. Perhaps the most powerful feelings connected with love concern not only the presence of pleasurable emotions, but the absence of painful ones.
This chapter reviewed earlier conceptions of genuine love, showing the division of opinion, and the lack of agreement on the meaning of love. The review of current approaches to love suggests a new definition, which will be enlarged upon in a later chapter.
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