Romantic Love and Other Delusions

 Some of your friends in the neighborhood get together to play a game of softball. Joey Dambrozio just had his first child. You ask him how that feels. “It’s amazing,” he says. “I’ve loved my parents and I’ve loved my wife. But the way I love my kid is different. It’s the first time I can honestly say that I love someone more than myself.”

You look across a crowded bar and see a young woman with a beautiful face. Suddenly, she is looking at you, smiling. And in that smile you see the completion of your life. Everything that you lack or yearn for is there. You fall in love. It is an overwhelming love. The kind of love that feels like it can lift you up in the air and carry you away.

And, wonder of wonders, your feelings are returned. Everything that heaven can be can be given to you through this one person. You are enthralled by this love. Crushed by it. You treat one another like gods.

Years later, that feeling is gone. You don’t like the way she keeps shutting off the lights. She doesn’t like your habit of leaving the toilet seat up. You are jealous of the lilt in her voice when she talks to her friends on the phone. (You once thought that lilt would be only for you.) And she doesn’t like the jokes you make when you’ve been drinking.

In The Road Less Traveled, one of the most popular and least understood books about personal growth ever written, M. Scott Peck lays out a brilliant challenge to conventional views of love. He argues that there is a big difference between falling in love Hollywood-style (romantic love) and true love.

Romantic love, says Peck, is part animal attraction (cathexis) and part emotional delusion. Romantic love initiates a destructive and futile cycle of dependency, with each partner looking to the other for happiness and completion.

True love, on the other hand, is selfless and spiritual. It can evolve from cathexis, but only after it gets beyond it. True love is not a state of being, but an action. The intention of true love is the betterment of the loved one, not of oneself. If you expect to be fulfilled by the person you love, Peck says, you will be disappointed.

Peck’s argument, in a nutshell, is that romantic love is an unhappy and unhealthy idealization of another individual. Healthy love, in contrast, is the act of working hard to improve the other person’s life experience.

It’s possible to view Peck’s argument in terms of energetic impulses.

Romantic love, it can be said, is a very concentrated impulse. A person in the throes of cathexis feels an intense desire to attract the other person. He will do everything he can to win the loved one’s affection. Every word the lover utters, every gesture she makes is experienced intensely. The prospect of losing the other person is as fearsome as the prospect of losing one’s life.

True love is, as Peck defines it, is the willful effort to resist the desire that cathexis arouses. It requires a relaxation of the ego so that attention can be directed toward the benefit of the loved one, not toward the egoistic pleasure of being loved.

A seldom discussed but very interesting idea presented in Peck’s book concerns the nature of God. He says that God resides in the unconscious mind. Or, more exactly, that the unconscious mind is God. This is getting close to Zen Buddhism. We will get to that later.