Article 2. Love Conquers All?

by Reuben E. Gross, PhD, ABPP, LMFT

Plato once said that falling in love is a "grave mental disease." And yet, is there a person today who would marry without love? Think of the many times that you, or one of your friends, have rejected an otherwise ideal prospective mate with the heartbreaking words (or thoughts): "I think you are a wonderful person, even an exceptional one, I like spending time with you, I think you're interesting, fun, caring, and I really do like you very much, but I am so sorry… I am just not in love with you."

When one considers how often this situation repeats itself with virtually every marriage-minded single, one can easily realize that the frequency of this type of rejection is staggering. And painfully, the sword cuts both ways. Usually, when a seemingly good match fails to take place because it lacks the mystical quality of romantic love, both partners --not to mention concerned parents or friends-- end up hurting.

How Important is Romantic Love?

Although beautifully described in the Bible, particularly in Solomon's "Song of Songs," romantic love was not a common theme in Western literature until the 17th century English poets extolled their love in lilting rhymes and iambic pentameter. Consider Thomas Carew who wanted nothing of the calm state of a warm, caring relationship; he wanted either total love, or total rejection ("disdain" in old English):

"Give me more love or more disdain.
Either extreme of love or hate, is sweeter than a calm estate."

These words are typical of the 17th century English poets.

How does such a romantic declaration grab the modern suitor? Is the love that today's 21st century singles demand, before committing to a marriage, the experience so beautifully described by Carew and his ilk in their rapturous sonnets to their fantasized loves?

In truth, although virtually all Americans are romantically inclined, very few would agree with the 17th century English lyricists on the topic of love. Even by the romantic Hollywood standards of the romantic Hollywood movies of yesteryear, those old time lyricists were too romantic, hopelessly unrealistic, and overwhelmingly guilty of idealizing their beloved. Nonetheless, the English poets of yesteryear did have a powerful impact on (at least modern) American thinking, and the concept of "falling in love" or "being in love" is a virtual sine qua non, in the minds of many to initiate, and in many cases, to maintain a marital relationship. And yet, important though it may be to so many people, how important is it really for a happy marriage? Can being in love alone sustain a relationship?

The Difference Between "Being in Love" and "Loving"

Now, let's differentiate between "falling/being in love" and "loving."

Falling/being in love: The word "falling" refers to a descent: falling down, falling out of a window. falling off a ladder, falling for somebody's scam etc. It is an involuntary act, the person loses control, and all of the examples listed above are negatives; hence, what did the author of the phrase "falling in love" have in mind? And why does it find universal acceptance to this very day? Maybe Plato was onto something.

Loving (or what I call true love): Now let's consider this: The verb "loves" refers to a voluntary act (he loves his wife, his children etc). It entails a certain commitment to the happiness and welfare of the recipient of that love. If he doesn't fulfill this role, we can question whether he really does love the assumed "recipient" of his love. A person who loves contributes to the happiness of another.

Quite to the contrary the phrase "falling in love" which refers to a romantic relationship, grammatically refers to an involuntary act or status, such as "he got wet" in the rain. So what is the significance of the phrase "falling in love?" Yes, it's a wonderful romantic feeling which contributes to his own happiness, a feeling every one would like to experience, money can't buy, but what does it say about responsibilities? Further, one can be "in love" with a movie star who doesn't know that the other exists. What does this say about a relationship?

Case History I

A married man once confided to me that in spite of all his marital problems, when he took his wife in his arms, he was as close to hearing heavenly music as anyone on earth had ever experienced; furthermore, he was talking about something much beyond sexual excitement. It was an all-powerful all-consuming state of utter bliss with deep feelings of connection, comfort, union and elation. He was at the height of romantic love. Now, although this man had the good fortune to marry his childhood sweetheart, most people aren't so lucky. And wouldn't anyone give their right arm to have such a partner for marriage? Not if they knew all the facts of this particular case!

Unfortunately, notwithstanding all the background music of the celestial choir, these two childhood lovers, a few short years after their marriage and still very much in love, were unable to get along as married partners. They had furious fights, called each other the vilest of names, and were miserable in their marriage. So much so that they initiated intensive marriage counseling as a last-ditch attempt to save their very rocky marriage. Who would have foreseen this? What happened to their romantic love? Didn't it conquer all? Clearly, not. This truism is being recognized more and more by the romantic, yet ever more sophisticated singles, and marrieds of today who are correctly aware that it takes more than romantic love to sustain a relationship.

Now, it might be argued that the aforementioned childhood sweethearts were young, inexperienced, and immature when they fell in love and they knew so little about themselves, each other, or life in general, when they became entranced with each other, hence, theirs was a blind love, but what about people who are older when they marry?

Unfortunately, people of all ages, levels of experience, even those in previous long-term live-in relationships and the formerly-married still meet each other, fall in love, and get married….and often end up with severe problems and, too often, divorce. In fact the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than that for first marriages. On the other hand, it is true that the older the age and the more educated the couple is, the better their chance for permanence. In either case, falling in love and staying in love, even if a person stays that way for many years, and this is rare, is not an antidote for divorce.

Case History II

Ten years and three children later, Linda, in tears, depressed, and demoralized was seeking a separation. They both agreed to seek the help of a marriage counselor. Linda complained that her husband was "not there for her" at sensitive moments such as the death of her mother, her recuperation after an auto accident and other events. Moreover, she saw Robert as selfish, said that he didn't respect her work or interests, didn't help with the children, and that the reason they got along until now was that she always let him have his way. Now Linda's frustration level had reached a breaking point, and she refused to live this way any longer.

Robert complained that his wife denigrated his job, that she controlled the money and didn't spend it wisely, that she refused him sex, interrupted him, was sarcastic, fell short on mothering, didn't support him on in-law problems, etc. He averred that she exaggerated his faults, that he was in truth a good husband, and that he still loved her. He further reported that whereas their communication had been "fantastic" when they first met, now it was "a shouting match."

In view of their previous marriages, experience in life, maturity in years, and original reciprocal being in love as well as truly loving each other, a la Erich Fromm in his "The Art of Loving" wherein he describes different faces of love e.g. of a spouse, child. etc all of which include rational understanding as well as emotional empathy, and caring for the happiness of the other... why was Robert and Linda's marriage on the rocks?

The names and some facts were disguised to protect the privacy of this couple. Robert and Linda, both unhappy in their respective marriages, got to know each other because their professional lives overlapped. As time elapsed, they began to talk to each other more and more and developed a friendly relationship. After both were divorced, their relationship flourished into a full-fledged romance and continued for a few years during which time they planned for a life together and marriage. Both were very much in love and convinced that they had found their true partner for life.

What Happens to the Romantic Love?

Romantic Love Goes First

(1) In virtually all situations, romantic love reaches a peak early in the relationship and declines as other feelings take over including commitment and real love. In the best of cases, true love remains after the romantic love is gone and remains the basis of the relationship.

What Happens to True Love?

True Love Has Its Limits Too

(2) However, although true love is stronger, it can be whittled away and not be strong enough to save a deteriorating marriage. One wife told me "I still love him but I have put up with too much and refuse to put up with anymore. " Her love was not strong enough to endure the negative behavior that she has sustained all these years. She claimed to still love him but it wasn't enough to sustain the relationship; she wanted to leave him.

What do all of these scenarios have in common? All of these marriages began in an initial blaze of romance and later true love. Over time, the romance evaporated, and the true love faded. What little true love or caring remained was not enough to sustain the relationship. Immature, selfish, and inconsiderate behaviors can wear away even true love and ruin a relationship.

What Is The Case For Love?

And now, let's open the subject for discussion. On the one hand, even if we accept that romantic love may be instrumental in beginning a relationship, but it is ephemeral and not enough to maintain a relationship, can we accept that it is nevertheless a crucial ingredient for marital happiness? Or perhaps, it isn't. In fact, let's go further. Admittedly, romantic love greatly enhances a relationship but is it a necessary ingredient for a sustained happy marital relationship?

And what about the role of non-romantic love? Will it stay put in spite of lack of reciprocity and in the face of selfishness etc, and will it continue indefinitely to overcome continuous negative behavior from the object of this love?

What role do the different types of love play in the permanency of a marital relationship? What role have these two different types of love played in your relationship? What role does they play today?

Now, it would be valuable for you to discuss these questions with your partner and come up with your own formulations. Assuming that romantic or real love is an important ingredient in your relationship, what other crucial or necessary ingredients does your relationship require? Does the love go both ways? Discussions of this nature will force you and your partner to explore your respective philosophies and clarify your needs and value system. Hopefully, self-discovery, and the sharing that will take place, will result in greater mutual understanding and more bonding.

So, is there a case for love? I think so. But admittedly romantic love fades and even true love does not conquer all; it will not sustain a relationship under all challenges. On the other hand, love can be a powerfully motivating force to initiate a committed relationship, and an incentive to do everything you can to explore it, remedy it, nurture it, and preserve it.

End of Article 2. "Love Conquers All?"

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