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Toward a More Permanent Love




Excerpted from
Permanent Love; Practical Steps to a Lasting Relationship
By Edward E. Ford, Steve Englund

Perhaps the strongest, most definitive drive of the human species is the drive toward love. It may also be the most multifaceted, the most talked and written about, and the least understood or fulfilled. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink, runs the old saw, and the same could be said for love. We live in a society that chokes from overuse of the word love. We hear it applied to every situation, from the most primitive instinctual urges ("I love apple pie." "He made love to the call girl.") to the crassest excesses of commercial advertising in a society gone mad on consumerism ("Love" bath and beauty products; Chevrolet's "Luv" truck). Yet the possibility of even understanding what love is, let alone of practicing it enduringly, seems steadily to recede from our collective grasp. In place of love we have concocted many culturally hallowed substitutes-caricatures, placebos, distortions. But the measure of our desperation in clinging to them is the measure of their fundamental insufficiency and our dissatisfaction.

I am a father, a husband, a friend, a counselor, and a therapist. In my private and public lives, I am called upon to deal in-to earn and to spend-the love currency all day long. I am fifty-two years old, and it has taken me the greater part of that half century to fight my way clear of the external and internal forces silently prodding me to seek and worship the love substitutes. People come to me every day-both friends and clients-voicing what seems at first glance to be a confusing myriad of problems: "We don't enjoy going out anymore"; "Our sex life isn't what it used to be"; "All we do are the same old things together"; "I can't seem to find anyone who loves me"; "I'm getting tired of the singles or couples or gay bars"; "Marriage is a bore." Gradually I have come to realize that such complaints and laments are not problems but symptoms, symptoms of an underlying sociocultural weakness now so common as to be perhaps the issue of our time: the need to learn how to love.

As the motivations of survival and scarcity have given way in our history to those of security and affluence, virtually every aspect of human life has been affected. For a long time we congratulated ourselves on the boons of our industrial civilization; now (in fact for the past decade or more) we have been obliged to fill up the liability column of the ledger. The wonderland of enlarged capacities and acquisitions has been offset by a corresponding set of awesome risks and drawbacks. Affluence may have vanquished the psychology and economy of scarcity, but the victory has brought us the curse of wanton materialism, not to mention pollution, the energy crisis, overpopulation, declining education and health standards, rising crime, drug addiction, and more.

Freedom from survival needs has permitted us the unprecedented luxury of unbounded self-consciousness and self-concern, which has, over the past quarter century, burgeoned into a maze of centers, institutions, therapies, techniques, psychologies, and practices intended to explore, expand, and develop the individual self and its capabilities. But the paradoxical result seems stubbornly to be a steady weakening and diminishment of the self - of its executor, the will; its spirituality, the soul; its corporeality, the body; and its capacity for relationships, the art of loving.

Perhaps this result was to have been expected from so self-interested a quest. Long before Alex Haley's Roots, Simone Weil, the French philosopher, signaled mankind's fundamental need for rootedness in community. In the absence of community, very likely no amount of strenuous individual effort can supply what the group gave with natural and unconscious ease. As with so many other things worth having in life, apparently a healthy, rooted love relationship can be achieved only as a by-product of a larger process that does not focus on the relationship directly. (How many doors, we find, open only after we have stopped pounding on them.)

In the area of what has come to be called "interpersonal relations," therefore, times have changed for the better and for the worse, but mainly for the worse. Where economic scarcity obliged us to work together, the arrival of security has left us unsuccessfully working at being together. Many of the most glorious achievements of the consumer economy-the automobile, the television set, the computer, the fantastic array of audiovisual technology - have extensively eroded our ability to converse meaningfully in groups. And the "science of communications" and the pervasiveness of the media have not managed to repair the damage. They have, on the contrary, contributed to it by perfecting the systems of transmission of words while neglecting the people transmitting the message as well as the content of what is being transmitted.

Turning to the art of loving itself, we confront an interesting set of developments. On the one hand, the range of what psychologists call object choices-whom to love, whom not to love-has been immeasurably expanded so that we of the twentieth century are able to fuss and fidget over the question of who is the recipient of our romantic love to a far, far greater degree than people of any other historical era. For it is useful to recall that during most of the three thousand years of Western civilization, human beings did not choose their spouses; instead we learned to love the person whom fate and socioeconomic forces threw out to be our conjugal mate. Moreover, even in the considerably loosened constraints of contemporary society, we still do not literally choose ninety percent of the objects of our loving-for example, parents, relatives, children, God.

On the other hand, as is so often the case in human history, the seeming expansion of social freedom has led to a greater, subtler form of psychological restriction, even enslavement. Significant increases in a person's capacity to choose romantic love objects are only good and advantageous if he or she has the maturity and strength of mind-in a word, the will-to make rational, progressive use of the freedom. In the absence of strong will, freedom risks becoming mere license. And that, sadly, is what has happened to us. The strengthening of the individual will has not taken place. On the contrary, for a wide variety of reasons-from the loosening of traditional social constraints to misguided forms of state intervention in people's lives to the consumer psychology and culture created by Madison Avenue through the media-the very concept of individual responsibility, autonomy, and potency has been disparaged and ignored.

In these circumstances, the enlarged range of object choice in romantic loving has become a poison, not an antidote. Choice has become caprice; it has become the carte blanche of our emotions, appetites, and psychological fantasy. In the absence of strong and wise will, enlarged choice has only permitted romantic love to become manipulative, fickle, victimizing, emotionalized, and freedom-reducing. Caprice and license have given Eros (romantic love) the ability to monopolize our love energy and, thereby, Eros, itself infected, infects all the rest of loving as well. The unending parade of unhappy worshippers of romantic love who wend their way into consulting rooms, encounter groups, and law courts around the nation is the living proof of the abject failure of our version (or vision) of romantic love to create healthy, lasting relationships. Most people show no inclination toward understanding or changing their mode of loving, and the consequence is the rapidly increasing number of divorces, separations, and short-lived romantic relationships.



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