“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.” (French philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Omega Point,” 1950)
If you ask ten different people to define love, you will get ten very different definitions. Surely, this is what makes us all unique as individuals, but this is also what makes dating such a disaster nowadays, despite all the technological innovations, social freedoms, accessibility, and mobility. It is also what makes sustaining relationships extremely hard work.
Most people are embarrassed to address the issue of love, let alone understand what is happening both at the cultural and individual level in terms of our understanding and practices of love. In fact, most people would rather not ever think about, certainly not talk about, and preferably not be confronted with it. Our life-styles of over-consumption, narcissism, arrested development, and instant gratification make it easier not to deal with it. Yet, somehow it never really goes away. After all, “the longing for love and the movement of love is underneath all of our activities” (Jack Kornfield).
Over the last decade, the feminist cultural critic, bell hooks, conducted very thorough research on love, covering all areas of the topic, starting from the need of a shared definition, to providing clarity on confusions about love in all our relationships, going back to our families of origin, and outlining the misconceptions and oppressions upheld by patriarchal structures and ideology. Her books change the way we view love as a society, and call for a more mindful love ethic.
From her cultural critique, it becomes apparent that most of our commonly-accepted definitions and representations of love, especially as presented by the media, and consumed by uncritical consumers (both male and female) are actually NOT love!
Think of all the romance films, melodramas, tragedies, and comedies that misrepresent love. Think how long we’ve been consuming this unhealthy diet of fake sustenance and how much fear it has instilled in us. The history of literature is full of stories of missed connections, bad timings, narcissism, emotional unavailability, emotional dysfunctionality and pure suffering. Traditionally we call them “love stories.” However, they have nothing to do with love!
Love most commonly is confused with care, with cathexis, with comfort, with romance, with fantasy, with attachment, and dependency, and even with abuse. The misconstrued representations are then passed down by generations, without ever stopping to think about it critically, because even thinking about it is traditionally considered a luxury most of us cannot afford in our busy schedules. The results are frustration, unhappiness, and abuse as we all know it.
Perhaps the most vital point that most scholars agree on is that love carries a large component of responsibility in it (along with care, respect, knowledge, recognition, honesty, commitment, trust, etc.). Love is being present (Thich Nhat Hanh). Love is being mindful. And love is taking responsibility for one’s own and others’ well-being and spiritual growth. So, perhaps the next time we try to define love, make assumptions about it based on our or our parents’ definitions of it, not to mention make a film, write a song, or write a story about it, we should rephrase the question, and instead of narcissistically asking how would WE define it, ask how would we explain or show it to a 5-year-old whose sole frame of reference and understanding of the universe is tied to our explanations and demonstrations.
Here are some helpful insights that most of us don’t know about, but ought to:
All About Love (2001)
“Our confusion about what we mean when we use the word “love” is the source of our difficulty in loving. If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying. […] Imagine how much easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition.” (pp.3-4)
“Echoing the work of Erich Fromm, M. Scott Peck [in The Road Less Traveled] defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth.” Explaining further, he continues, “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Since the choice must be made to nurture growth, this definition counters the more widely accepted assumption that we love instinctually.” (p.4)
“Affection is only one ingredient of love. To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication. […] When we feel deeply drawn to someone, we cathect with them; that is, we invest feelings or emotions in them. That process of investment wherein a loved one becomes important to us is called “cathexis.” […] Many of us choose relationships of affection and care that will never become loving because they feel safer.” (p.5)
Had I been given a clear definition of love earlier in my life it would not have taken me so long to become a more loving person. Had I shared with others a common understanding of what it means to love it would have been easier to create love. It is particularly distressing that […] many authors suggest love should mean something different to men than it does to women – that the sexes should respect and adapt to our inability to communicate since we do not share the same language. This type of literature [such as Men are fro Mars, Women are from Venus] is popular because it does not demand a change in fixed ways of thinking about gender roles, culture, or love.” (p.11)
“We learn about love in childhood. Whether our homes are happy or troubled, our families functional or dysfunctional, it’s the original school of love. [Most people learn] to think about love primarily in relation to good feelings, in the context of reward and punishment. […] As children grow they associate love more with acts of attention, affection, and caring.” (pp. 17-18)
“The men I have loved have always lied to avoid confrontation or take responsibility for inappropriate behaviour. In Dorothy Dinnerstein’s groundbreaking book The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise, she shares the insight that when a little boy learns that his powerful mother, who controls his life, really has no power within a patriarchy, it confuses him and causes rage. Lying becomes one of the strategic ways he can “act out” and render his mother powerless. Lying enables him to manipulate the mother even as he exposes her lack of power. This makes him feel more powerful. […] Males learn to lie as a way of obtaining power, and females not only do the same but they also lie to pretend powerlessness.” (pp.36-37)
“John Stoltenberg’s book The End of Manhood: A Book for Men of Conscience analyzes the extent to which the masculine identity offered men as the ideal in patriarchal culture is one that requires all makes to invent and invest in a false self. From the moment little boys are taught they should not cry or express hurt, feelings of loneliness, or pain, that they must be tough, they are learning how to mask true feelings. In worst-case scenarios they are learning how to not feel anything ever.” (p.38)
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung insightfully emphasized the truism “there the will to power is paramount love will be lacking.” (p.40)
“While much cultural attention is given to domestic violence and practically everyone agrees it is wrong for men to hit women as a way of subordinating us, most men use psychological terrorism as a way to subordinate women. This is a socially acceptable for of coercion. And lying is one of the most powerful weapons in this arsenal. When men lie to women, presenting a false self, the terrible price they pay to maintain “power over” us is the loss of their capacity to give and receive love.” (p.41)
“Learning to live as a man of conscience means deciding that your loyalty to the people whom you love is always more important than whatever lingering loyalty you may sometimes feel to other men’s judgment on your manhood.” (John Stoltenberg, The End of Manhood)
“Love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination. […] Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions. […] Living by a love ethic we learn to value loyalty and a commitment to sustained bonds over material advancement.” (pp.87-88)
“Patriarchy, like any system of domination (for example, racism), relies on socializing everyone to believe that in all human relations there is an inferior and a superior party, one person is strong, the other weak, and that it is therefore natural for the powerful to rule over the powerless. […] Domination cannot exist in any social institution where a love ethic prevails. Jung’s insight, that if the will to power is paramount love will be lacking, is important to remember. When love is present the desire to dominate and exercise power cannot rule the day. All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic.” (pp.97-98)
“Materialism creates a world of narcissism in which the focus of life is solely on acquisition and consumption. A culture of narcissism is not a place where love can flourish.” (p.105)
“Many people want love to function like a drug, giving them an immediate and sustained high. They want to do nothing, just passively receive the good feeling. In patriarchal culture men are especially inclined to see love as something they should receive without expending effort. More often than not they do not want to do the work that love demands. […] This is the outcome of living in a culture where the politics of greed are normalized. The message we get is that everybody wants to have more money to buy more things so it is not problematic if we lie and cheat a bit to get ahead. Unlike love, desires for material objects can be satisfied instantly if we have the cash or the credit card handy, or even if we are just willing to sign the papers that make it so we can get what we want now and pay more later. […] When greedy consumption is the order of the day, dehumanization becomes acceptable. Then, treating people like objects is not only acceptable but is required behaviour. It’s the culture of exchange, the tyranny of marketplace values. Those values inform attitudes about love. (pp.114-15)
“Relationships are treated like Dixie cups. They are the same. They are disposable. If it does not work, drop it, throw it away, get another. Committed bonds (including marriage) cannot last when this is the prevailing logic. And friendships or loving community cannot be valued and sustained. […] Healthy narcissism (the self-acceptance, self-worth, that is the cornerstone of self-love) is replaced by a pathological narcissism (wherein only the self matters) that justifies any action that enables the satisfying of desires.” (pp.116-17)
Robert Sternberg confirms: “If I were asked the single most frequent cause of the destruction of relationships… I would say it is selfishness. We live in an age of narcissism and many people have never learned to have forgotten how to listen to the needs of others. The truth is, if you want to make just one change in yourself that will improve your relationship – literally, overnight – it would be to put your partner’s interests on an equal footing with your own.” (pp.162-63)
“This is why it is useful to see love as a practice. When we act, we need not feel inadequate or powerless; we can trust there are concrete steps to take on love’s path. We learn to communicate, to be still and listen to the needs of our hearts, and we learn to listen to others. We learn compassion by being willing to hear the pain, as well as the joy, of those we love.” (p.165)
“Few of us enter romantic relationships able to receive love. We fall into romantic attachments doomed to replay familiar family patterns.” (p.169)
In The Art of Loving, Fromm repeatedly talks about love as action,” essentially an act of will.” He writes: “To love somebody is not just a strong feeling – it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go.” Peck builds upon Fromm’s definition when he describes love as the will to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, adding: “The desire to love is not itself love. Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” (p.171-72)
Harriet Lerner, Life Preservers: “Few of us evaluate prospective partner with the same objectivity and clarity that we might use to select a household appliance or a car.” To be capable of critically evaluating a partner we would need to be able to stand back and look critically at ourselves, at our needs, desires, and longings. It was difficult for me to really take out a piece of paper and evaluate myself to see if I was able to give the love I wanted to receive. And even more difficult to make a list of the qualities I wanted to find in a mate. I listed ten items. And then when I applied the list to men I had chosen as potential partners, it was painful to face the discrepancy between what I wanted ad what I had chosen to accept. We fear that evaluating our needs and then carefully choosing partners will reveal that there is no one for us to love. (p.172-73)
“By taking the time to communicate with a potential mate we are no longer trapped by the fear and anxiety underlying romantic interactions that take place without discussion or the sharing of intent and desire. (p.173)
“Erotic attraction often serves as the catalyst for an intimate connection between two people, but it is not a sign of love. […] The intensity of sexual intimacy does not serve as a catalyst for respect, care, trust, understanding, and commitment.” (pp.174-75)
“Enlightened women want fulfilling erotic encounters as much as men, but we ultimately prefer erotic satisfaction within the context where there is loving, intimate connection.” (p.176)
“We fail at romantic love when we have not learned the art of loving. It’s as simple as that.” (p.178)
“When we love by intention and will, by showing care, respect, knowledge, and responsibility, our love satisfies. Individuals who want to believe that there is no fulfillment in love, that true love does not exist, cling to these assumptions because this despair is actually easier to face than the reality that love is a real fact of life but is absent from their lives.” (p.179)
“Not only do I believe wholeheartedly that true love exists, I embrace the idea that its occurrence is a mystery – that it happens without any effort of human will. And if that’s the case, then it will happen whether we look for it or not. But we do not lose love by looking for it. Indeed, those among us who have been hurt, disappointed, disillusioned must open our hearts if we want love to enter.” (p.180)
“Love is letting go of fear.” (p.186)
“Wounded hearts turn away from love because they do not want to do the work of healing necessary to sustain and nurture love. Many men, especially, often turn away from true love and choose relationships in which they can be emotionally withholding when they feel like it but still receive love from someone else. Ultimately they choose power over love. To know and keep true love we have to be willing to surrender the will to power. […] Writing about choosing solitude over company that does not nurture one’s soul, Maya Angelou reminds us that “it is never lonesome in Babylon.” Fear of facing true love may actually lead some individuals to remain in situations of lack und unfulfillment. There they are not alone, they are not at risk.” (p.187)
“Love heals. When we are wounded in the place where we would know love, it is difficult to imagine that love really has the power to change everything. No matter what has happened in our past, when we open our hearts to love we can live as if born again, not forgetting the past but seeing it in a new way, letting it live inside us in a new way.” (p.209)
To exist in a state of communion is to be aware of the nature of existence. (Susan Griffin)
“Raised with competitive, fault-finding mothers and fathers whom we can never really please or in a world where we are the “perfect” Daddy’s girl who fears losing his approval to the point where we stop eating, stop growing up because we see Daddy losing interest, because we see he does not love women, we are uncertain about love. To keep his love we must cling to girlhood at all costs. All girls continue to be taught when they are young, if not by their parents then by the culture around them, that they must earn the right to be loved – that “femaleness” is not good enough. […] This is a female’s first lesson in the school of patriarchal thinking and values. She must earn love. She is not entitled. She must be good to be loved. And good is always defined by someone else, someone on the outside. […] How can any girl sustain the belief that she is loved, truly loved, when all around her she sees that femaleness is despised? Unable to change the fact of femaleness, she strives to make herself over, to become someone worthy of love.” (pp.xi-xii)
“While contemporary feminist movement critiqued the devaluation of the female that begins in girlhood, it did not change it. Today’s girls grow up in a world where they will learn from many quarters that women are the equals of men, but there is still no place for feminist thinking and practice in girlhood. […] Given our early obsessions with seducing and pleasing others to affirm our worth, we lose ourselves in the search to be accepted, included, desired. Our talk about love has therefore primarily been a talk about desire.” (pp.xiv-xv)
“The time has come for female elders to rescue girls and young women, to offer them a vision of love that will sustain them on their journey. To seek love as a quest for the true self liberates. All females who dare to follow our hearts to find such love are entering a cultural revolution that restores our souls and allows us to see clearly the value and meaning of love in our lives. While romantic love is a crucial part of this journey, it is no longer deemed all that matters; rather, it is an aspect of our overall work to create loving bonds, circles of love that nurture and sustain collective female well-being.” (p.xviii)
“Feminist critiques of love made it difficult for progressive, powerful women to speak about the place of love in our lives. While feminist thinkers and activists were right to rip apart and throw away outmoded, patriarchal ways of thinking about love and romance, girls and women still need to fill the gap with new liberatory visions of hope and promise. […] Women, along with the culture as a whole, need constructive visions of redemptive love.” (p.15)
“I decided very young that if marriage was to be this power struggle with one person on top and another on the bottom, I wanted no part of it. I lost interest in marriage at an early age, but this loss merely intensified my desire to search for and find a love that would be more vital than the will to power.” (p.18)
“Countless biographies by women reveal that girl children witnessing a mother’s suffering at the hands of male tyrants – fathers, brothers, and/or husbands – are deeply, traumatically affected. Not only do we want to rescue our mothers but also we want to change our destiny so we will never suffer the way they did or do. Determined to invent my fate, I turned away from acceptable female roles.” (p.20)
“Ideas about love handed down to us by patriarchal narratives had told us again and again that it was the woman’s place to be the nurturer and the caregiver. […] Liberated women did not “fall in love,” we chose to love – that was different from falling in love. Choosing meant that we exercised will, power, and agency. Falling implied a loss of power, the possibility of victimhood.” (p.37)
“In the eighties, to the dismay of feminists everywhere, it soon became evident that women were doing what sociologist Arlie Hochschild called in her book of the same title “the second shift,” which is to say that, increasingly, most women were working outside the home but still performing almost all the labour inside the home (child care, cooking, cleaning, and so on). Ultimately, it had been easier to create a revolution outside the home than inside it.” (p.47)
“Females coming to womanhood in the wake of contemporary feminist movement are among that group who are the most cynical about love and the most fascinated by power. […] We can all speak of our longing for power. Our longing for love must be kept secret. To give voice to such longing is to be counted among the weak, the soft.” (p.72)
“We have created a culture in which women can be equals of patriarchal men, where power in all its forms is shared among the sexes, however, inequitably. But we have not created a culture of gender equality that encourages women and men to search for love with the same zeal and passion that inspires our quest for success and power.” (p.74)
“Sex could take precedence over love because it was like work, a domain where one could engage in power plays. […] Ideas about love that emphasized a soul mate, reciprocal care and devotion, were supplanted by an emphasis on sacrificial care and nurturance. Love became solely woman’s work.” (p.77)
“Until our culture can break through myth and accept that women are not innately capable of nurturing others, the assumption that women are better able to love than men will prevail. […] In actuality, nurturance – the ability to care for another in a manner that enhances well-being – is a learned behaviour. Men learn it as well as women. Patriarchal culture is reinforced when males are not taught ways to nurture and care for others. […] Males who take primary care of infants from birth forward are as bonded with the children they nurture as females.” (p.84)
“An overemphasis on female capacity for caregiving had led many people to make nurturing synonymous with love. In fact, the ability to nurture, to give care, is only one aspect of love. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s ground-breaking book The Art of Loving defined love as an action informed by care, respect, knowledge, and responsibility.” (p.85)
“Since most of us have been raised to think care is the primary, if not the sole, ingredient of love, we are easily able to convince ourselves that we are “in love.” So many women have never been nurtured in any way by a male, and as a consequence it can be quite enthralling to receive care, especially from a male partner.” (p.95)
“We do not learn merely by what parents say; we learn by what they do.” (p.106)
“Finding a man is not the same as finding love. To find love with a male partner, women have to be clear that this is our desire.” (p.159)
“Every female who has been in a relationship with a male who is emotionally withholding, who tries to connect with him, knows that when she communicates her desire, conflict ensues more often than not. Frequently, men are not particularly negative when asked to speak about their feelings. They simply respond by saying, “I don’t know the answer.” This is a passive form of control, for it closes down all discussion.” (p.173)
“When any woman first meets a man, she quickly decides, either consciously or subconsciously, whether he constitutes a threat. […] Perhaps women suspend careful judgment because deep down they know that to exercise it might mean doing without male partnership for long periods of time. […] Looking for a man who can love is a search that can take ages. Most men are still clinging to the rewards and forms of power patriarchy extends to them for not being loving.” (pp.174-75)
Finding a man to be with is a lot easier than finding a man who can be a loving partner. In Barbara De Angeli’s insightful self-help book Are You the One for Me? She lists traits we should look for in a partner. They are “commitment to personal growth, emotional openness, integrity, maturity and responsibility, high self-esteem, and a positive attitude towards life.” (pp.210-11)
“Many progressive, liberated, loving women never imagined that we would one day turn away men as partners because we would see so clearly that they are not ready for healthy, mature relationships and may never be ready. Enlightened therapy and all manner of self-help literature has created an awareness of dysfunction in families and relationships. Not wanting to repeat past mistakes, many women have been religiously seeking guidance so that we can create lives rooted in peace, compassion, and love.” (p.212)
“Just as pathological patriarchy has for generations encouraged men to remain emotionally crippled adolescents, there is a new breed of young women (the Ally McBeal, Sex and the City kind of women) who are also being encouraged to remain in a state of arrested development, to be emotionally underdeveloped, adolescent girls forever.” (p.219)
bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions. New York: Harper Perenial, 2001.
bell hooks, Communion: The Female Search for Love. New York: Perennial, 2002.
Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, New York: Harper Perennial, 2006 (1956).
M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth. New York: A Touchstone Book, 1978.