What is love and when we find it what makes a relationship work? This is a question many of us have pondered over, talked with our friends, and consulted the experts about. There are many kinds of relationships, of course, and all relationships require some degree of attention, forethought, and investment. We might also add to that list qualities such as commitment, reciprocity, empathy, social intelligence; navigating a relationship successfully takes a lot. However, of all the kinds of relationships there are none evokes more interest, fascination, and unfortunately, vexation than romantic love.
What is romantic love? Passion is the fuel that constitutes its first “pillar,” but first let’s examine what romantic love is. When we say “love” we can mean many different things. The ancient Greeks had names for eight kinds of love. Eros, or romantic love, was just one. In Western history, romantic love originated from the Middle Ages when troubadours serenaded maidens from ivory towers, but this is probably more myth than reality. When we are “in love” we are susceptible to a kind of confused state of mind that simulates madness. The ancient Greeks called this “mania.” In Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare describes this state eloquently,
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
When we are in love we are suffused in a bath of hormones, testosterone and oxytocin, which quickens our urge to mate and bond simultaneously. The psychoanalysts point out how its intensity originates from the primal bond formed in infancy. The special bond between mother and child is annealed in the visual gaze that psychoanalysts call “mirroring,” an essential building block for the development of empathy and self-esteem. When a mother reciprocates its child’s gaze the specialness of that bond, as well as the goodness and worthiness of the self, is affirmed. When we fall in love we are in a sense recapitulating the exhilaration that the affirmation and security of that special bond creates. It is no wonder, then, how the intensity and force of romantic love cannot be underestimated.
Though passion is the driving force that compels humans to bond, a successful relationship of course cannot be established on a foundation of madness and confusion. And romantic love, the fantasy that thrusts us toward the hope of loving and being loved by another person eternally, can be tragically misleading. As the philosopher, Alain de Botton, in his book and series of lectures entitled, “The Course on Love,” tells us, romanticism in relationships leads inevitably toward disillusionment inasmuch as it is founded on idealization and the idea of perfection. A successful relationship needs dimension to provide the ground upon which it is made viable and lasting. We may call this grounding factor love, in its broader and deeper sense, that constitutes the second pillar of romantic love.
In my blog, Love in Dimension, I listed the eight kinds of love identified by the ancient Greeks. The wisdom of this catalog of emotions shows how love in dimension fosters a lasting bond that helps relationships become successful lest Eros, or passionate love, blinds us compellingly toward an ill-fated, unforeseen, and tragic end. In his book, A triangular theory of love, Robert Sternberg, professor of human development at Cornell University, identified three dimensions of love, passion, intimacy, and commitment, that enable romantic relationships to become successful. In the last two of these, intimacy and commitment, we may find the dimensions identified by the ancient Greeks, such as friendship, playfulness, partnership, and compassion, that are necessary to transform a romantic relationship into a lasting one.
The dyadic matrix from whence romantic love is derived, the emotional bond between mother and child, establishes the foundation from which the third “pillar” of lasting love is made possible. The emotional bond between caretaker and infant is forged within the reciprocal balance between longing and desire for the other on the one hand and the desire for self-affirmation on the other. In its immature state self-affirmation manifests merely as pure narcissism, in other words the need to be admired, idealized, and to be the center of attention. However the establishment of a lasting relationship necessitates the recognition of the sovereignty and dignity of the self, a form of self-affirmation that both respects and at the same time expects respect for those aspects of the self that differ from the other, that transcend the desire to fuse, sovereign to the self alone, and revered for their ability to rise above selfishness and vanity.
Self-esteem and the ability to love oneself, as the saying goes, is necessary in order to be able to love others, this is true. However, self-love alone is not enough inasmuch as in its nascent form it seeks adulation and attention toward oneself while at the same time projecting idealization and devaluation onto the other, distortions that have disastrous effects on the capacity to form lasting, successful relationships. For these reasons, I choose the word, respect rather than self-affirmation, as the third pillar because this emotion in particular reflects the kind of self-affirmation that is founded on good character, embodying qualities such as responsibility, integrity, self-knowledge, and forbearance, without which a lasting relationship would not be possible. The need for self-affirmation does not disappear as we mature; rather as with love, it must grow in dimension from pure narcissism toward a mature self, founded on strong character, in order for lasting love to be established.
These are the three pillars, passion, love, and respect. Together, they render a useful formula that helps us understand how romantic love can develop into a stable, viable relationship that transcends infatuation and passion. However true this is, it must be granted that without the passion of romantic love life would not be imbued with the color, drama, and emotion that make life what it is. We might not feel compelled to develop the closeness necessary for truly rewarding and fulfilling relationships to blossom. We might not have the great books, art, poetry, music, and more that make life what it is. Life would be much less painful and confusing, but the price to pay would be life itself as it is treasured by most of us. Moreover, romance satisfies our most basic needs for self-affirmation to be desired, adored, and accepted unconditionally.
But most of us also want to have our cake and eat it too. We want something that is enduring. Here we must heed the ancient Greeks who endorsed the wisdom of temperance and knowledge. In order for passion to become lasting, it must grow in dimension, as well, into a friendship imbued with qualities of commitment, compassion, and selfless devotion. The conditions necessary to love and be loved in this dimensional way depend on our character and maturity both to offer and expect respect from each other. While these qualities do not adequately substitute for the passion and needs for self-affirmation that romantic love offers, they are nonetheless necessary in order for love to last. Romance stokes the fires that keep the embers burning, but the cultivation of love in its broader dimensions made possible by qualities of character that both command and offer respect to one another is what makes a passionate relationship work.
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Robert Hamm Ph.D