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Michael Bruce
Michael Bruce

All Your Girlfriends Are the Same: Freud's Conditions for Love

Does having a "type" mean your love life is determined?

The debate between free will and determinism is one of the oldest and most important issues in Western philosophy. Often people accept a version of compatibilism, where some things are determined (laws of nature) while other things are a matter of choice ("What will I have for lunch today?"). This stance is not without its problems, but it seems to capture the way many people resolve the free will/determinism dilemma. A challenge for this position is trying to demarcate which things are free and which ones are not. One of the most interesting and powerful investigations comes from Freud's "Contributions to the Psychology of Love."

Freud draws from neurotic men in psychoanalysis, though observes the same behavior in "ordinary healthy people or even in people of exceptional qualities." Freud theorizes that there are four essential conditions that must be met for love:

1. The "need for an injured third party": one "never chooses as an object of love a woman who is unattached, that is, a girl or an independent woman, but only one whom another man has some right of possession, whether husband, betrothed, or near friend. In some cases...a given woman can be ignored or even treated with contempt so long as she belongs to no other man, but instantly becomes the object of feelings of love as soon as she comes into a relationship of the kind described with another man."

Grandpa Freud is Judging you

2. Loose morals: Freud writes that a "virtuous and reputable" woman is never charming enough to be the object of love. The second condition is that the woman's "fidelity and loyalty admit of some doubt." Freud called this roughly the "love of a harlot."

3. Overvaluing [the woman]: this is a compulsion that they are the "only ones it is possible to love." Passionate attachments of this type of relationship occur repeatedly with one woman replaced by another. The man is consumed by the woman, and she will "absorb the whole of their mental energies, to the exclusion of all other interests."

4. Rescuing the beloved: "The man is convinced that the loved woman has need of him, that without him she would lose all hold on respectability and rapidly sink to a deplorable level." Her fate is in his hands, and he saves or rescues her by "not letting her go." Men of this type know how to "win his ladies by subtlety of his methods of seduction and his skill in argument, spent endless pains during the course of each of these love relationships in composing tracts to induce the loved one to keep in the path of 'love'." If the man was able to actually rescue the woman, he would lose all interest.

Does this describe your relationship or one of your friends? Are they always after someone who is unavailable? Are they severely attracted to risky behavior or unconventional values? Once in a relationship, do they put their mate on a pedestal—just like their last partner? Are they excessively jealous? Do they think she would be lost without him?

This idea that love has a certain structure is a powerful one. Freud's theories have their problems, including sexism, but might these conditions frame many great love affairs in popular culture?

Take Titanic (2007) for example. Rose is engaged to Cal, who Jack despises. It is a traditional class struggle dynamic. Jack's infatuation with Rose would not be the same if this third party (Cal) were not an integral obstacle. Her engagement to Cal triggers Jack and signals that this is a woman of great value, while at the same time her fidelity is called into question. Rose cheats on Cal and considers suicide, thus demonstrating loose morals. Jack becomes obsessed with Rose and the movie plays with the overvaluation theme by pairing the priceless "Heart of the Ocean" necklace on Rose's naked body. In the end, Jack literally tries to rescue Rose by not letting her go, and meets his cold demise.

Can you think of other pop-culture examples? Do you think love and attraction are more or less determined than other aspects of life? If Freud is correct that there are conditions for love, are his categorizations still apt today and would they change over time? If you find yourself falling into Freud's conditions, does it make the experience less meaningful?

All quotations are from Frued's Sexuality and The Psychology of Love, New York: Touchstone, 1997, p. 39-47.

About the Author
Michael Bruce

Michael Bruce works with at-risk youth and is the editor of College Sex - Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers With Benefits (Wiley-Blackwell).