The Psychology of Romantic Love

Could romantic love be little more than an ego defence?

Posted Oct 14, 2017

Source: Pixabay

The eponymous hero—or antihero—of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616) idealizes his ‘princess’ to such an extent that it becomes comical. To emulate the knights-errant of old who fought battles to earn the affections of their true love, Don Quixote identifies a simple peasant girl called Aldonza Lorenzo, changes her name to the much more romantic and aristocratic sounding ‘Dulcinea del Toboso’, and paints her in the most flattering terms possible—even though he has only ever seen her fleetingly and never spoken to her. Dulcinea barely exists outside his imagination, but the idea of her nonetheless keeps Don Quixote alive on his quest: 

...her name is Dulcinea, her country El Toboso, a village of La Mancha, her rank must be at least that of a princess, since she is my queen and lady, and her beauty superhuman, since all the impossible and fanciful attributes of beauty which the poets apply to their ladies are verified in her; for her hairs are gold, her forehead Elysian fields, her eyebrows rainbows, her eyes suns, her cheeks roses, her lips coral, her teeth pearls, her neck alabaster, her bosom marble, her hands ivory, her fairness snow, and what modesty conceals from sight such, I think and imagine, as rational reflection can only extol, not compare. 

The ego defence of idealization involves overestimating the positive attributes of a person, object, or idea, while underestimating or overlooking the negative ones: but more fundamentally, it involves the projection of our needs and desires onto that person, object, or idea. The classic example of idealization is that of being infatuated, when love is confused with a need to love, and the idealized person’s negative attributes are not only minimized but turned into positive attributes and thought of as endearing. Although this can make for a rude awakening, there are few better ways of relieving our existential anxiety than by manufacturing something that is ‘perfect’ for us, be it a piece of equipment, a place, country, person, or god.

But even a god is not enough. According to St Augustine, man is prone to a curious feeling of dissatisfaction accompanied by a subtle sense of longing for something undefined. This uneasy state arises from his fallen condition: although he has an innate potential to relate to God or the absolute, this potential can never be fully realized, and so he yearns for other things to fill its place. Yet these other things do not satisfy, and he is left with an insatiable feeling of longing—longing for something that cannot be defined. 

In Surprised by Joy (1955), the writer CS Lewis calls this feeling of longing ‘joy’, which he describes as ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’, and which I sometimes think of—in the broadest sense—as a sort of aesthetic and creative reservoir. The paradox of ‘joy’ arises from the self-defeating nature of human desire, which might be thought of as nothing other than a desire for desire, a longing for longing.

In the Weight of Glory, Lewis illustrates this from the age-old quest for beauty: 

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited. 

See my related article: A Short History of Love