In the second poem of the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes that “Home is where one starts from.” Our earliest psychological memories—indeed our earliest formulations about who we are and how the world works—hinge on a sense of home. We arrive as infants with a nervous system that senses our place in the world and forms judgments about its safety. In the mind of an infant, home is all about safety and security, and these early stirrings form some of the most basic truths about ourselves and the world around us.
Infants are already experts at detecting and expressing emotions, and such expertise turns out to be crucial in establishing a psychological sense of safety. Babies are drawn to faces—facial expressions, in particular—and are keen on detecting the affective states of caregivers. Through the mutual gaze between infant and mother, a child begins to assimilate emotional knowledge. Babies learn to regulate their emotions (as well as other physiological activities like sleep) by looking to their caregivers for affective knowledge. The mother functions initially as a kind of surrogate limbic system, as the child's own emotional brain begins to develop. Over time, children begin to experience limbic resonance with people around them. All of this serves us well as we develop, offering measures of protection and early learnings about love.
Children eventually learn that home is not enough. Gratification is soon coupled with frustration as they sense the separation between themselves and the world around them. They sense their mother's other preoccupations, leading to what Melanie Klein calls "the depressive position." Young children begin to crave adventure themselves and seek to venture forth from their secure base. They leave the garden. Where there was once only satiation and security, there is now frustration—but also a sense of possibility and adventure. All of this serves us as we develop a sense of desire.
Echoes of these early affective experiences continue with us as adults and reverberate in how we love and desire other people. In a brief paper written in 1912 ("On the Universal Tendency Toward Debasement in the Sphere of Love"), Freud questioned whether people could experience love and desire at the same time. "Where they love, they have no desire...where they desire, they cannot love." Freud proposed a theory of "psychical impotence, " suggesting an inability to sustain desire in the face of a secure, loving relationship. He was attempting to account for the observation that monogamous relationships are inherently unstable. One thinks of the long-married couple—where love and respect are commonplace but passion is nonexistent. One might also think of the passionate love affair, devoid of any commitments. Love and desire may be present, but perhaps not at the same time. The late psychoanalyst, Stephen Mitchell, has suggested that romance (or a romantic relationships) is found in the tension between desire and love.
Discussions about present-day love and romance are inevitably discussions about childhood desires and experiences. They are discussions about our psychological sense of home and our conflicts about staying safe or venturing forth. When we attempt to understand sexual excesses and illicit love affairs, we typically resort to explanations that are cartoonish versions of psychoanalysis: re-creations of oedipal longings and the expression of forbidden desires. Yet, the truly scandalous relationships are the ones where safety and security are presumed by both parties. A couple may have what Mitchell has called a "collusive contrivance"—a kind of security conspiracy. Both parties maintain the illusion that the relationship is safe, secure, and permanent.
The danger of such an illusion is that relationships are constantly in flux. Our relationships are in motion because we are in motion. Our illusions about permanence—grounded perhaps in our longing for home—set us up for frustration. We crave both security and novelty; safety as well as adventure. As T.S. Eliot also says, “The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated.”
Bruce Poulsen, Ph.D., teaches at both the University of Utah School of Medicine and Department of Educational Psychology.