In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Loving You Is Breaking My Heart

As soon as forever is through, I'll be over you

"Why do I keep on loving you when it's clear that you don't feel the same way to me? It seems that just as I can't force you to love me, I can't force myself to stop loving you."  Unknown

"I never knew until that moment how bad it could hurt to lose something you never really had."  From the television show The Wonder Years

"As soon as forever is through, I'll be over you." Toto

 Love, Frank Sinatra argues, is "a many splendored thing"; but love also involves a lot of suffering-especially in the case of unrequited love. Love can feel like being in paradise as well as being in hell. In both cases, the best suggestion (following Winston Churchill's advice ) is to keep on going. Why is it that love is so ambivalent, and why do we keep on loving even when it leads to heartbreak?

The concept of ideal romantic love is saturated with positive rhetoric. Thus, for instance, the central features that love is believed to comprise are trust, honesty, and respect, and the actual feeling of love is believed to elicit warmth, happiness, good communication, and shared experiences. The most prototypical features of love are equated with selflessness and bliss, while the most non-prototypical features of romantic love are perceived to involve possessiveness, submission, controlling, selfishness, and negative emotional experiences. The equation of love with personal happiness denies not only pain but even the merest shred of any negative implication. In idealized love, love can do no evil.

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In the face of rejection, however, the rhetoric of love is utterly transformed. Both the rejecter and the rejected use romantic vocabulary to account for coercion, stalking, and even violence. Love is no longer a selfless, all-giving, and well-intended emotion; instead, it becomes an evil, selfish emotion that legitimizes whatever is done in its name. When love becomes one-sided, the extremely non-prototypical features of love such as selfishness, negative emotions, and abusive behaviors are presented as the very essence of true love.

This ambivalent nature of love is due to some essential dissonances that are inherent in love. Here are a few such examples.

  • Love has been described as involving genuine and disinterested care for the beloved-that is, care which is not determined by any benefit that the lover might receive in return. However, if the beloved seeks happiness with another person, most lovers quickly abandon this definition of care and do all they can to prevent the fulfillment of this wish. Pablo Picasso gave extreme expression to this fact when he said: "I would prefer to see a woman dead than see her happy with another man."
  • Romantic love is perceived as the fusing of two individuals into a single, united entity. Such a fusion implies not merely a loss of freedom but also the loss of one's identity. Yet neither loss can be typical of love, which is supposed to provide the optimal circumstances for personal development and freedom. In this sense, such a perception of love contradicts the value of individualism.
  • Love is perceived to be a highly moral emotion, which has become a symbol for peace and nonviolence. Yet love has been used as a viable causal explanation for atrocious behavior, such as killing one's spouse "out of love."
  • Love is perceived to be irrational and uncontrollable, but the idea of finding the "right one" implies a nonromantic, rational, and controlled choice.

The above (and other related) ambivalent features stem from the problematic subject-object relationship in love. Love is central to the lovers' happiness; hence, the lovers' own attitudes are profoundly affected by love. However, such happiness also depends on the beloved's happiness in general, and on the beloved's attitudes toward the lover in particular.

Given love's huge positive significance, rejection is experienced as extremely painful. The greatest romantic heartache is the lack of reciprocity-that is, the awareness that you are not loved by your beloved. Such awareness usually leads to a decrease in the intensity of love and ultimately to humiliation. This decrease does not necessarily occur immediately; the unrequited lover might persist in trying to win the other's heart. Indeed, many books and movies feature aspiring lovers doggedly persisting in their efforts to win the hearts of their beloved. In some cases, love can even briefly intensify while the rejected lover tries to win the beloved's heart.

Accepting a lack of reciprocity (or at least the lack of a similar measure of reciprocity) involves a significant romantic compromise that can deal a humiliating blow to our self-esteem, as it entails a significant negative evaluation of our worth. We deeply want someone, but this person does not care for us. Someone whom we believe is good and suitable for us does not think that we are good enough for her. If you love someone from the depths of your heart and that person does not love you, this can indeed break your heart. As Mignon McLaughlin said, "In the arithmetic of love, one plus one equals everything, and two minus one equals nothing."

To sum up, we keep on loving although it breaks our hearts, as love gives profound meaning to our lives, and when we lose or are rejected by someone we love, it is no small matter. Nevertheless, it is valuable to remain hopeful and to maintain our belief in the value of (this or another) love. Even when the sun is not shining, some stars can still be seen in the dark night.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement (from the famous song) that a lover might express: "Darling, smile and maybe tomorrow you'll see the sun come shining through for you."

Adapted from In the Name of Love

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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