Can We Love Too Much?
The answer depends on how you define love.
Posted Jan 30, 2020
"I love you much too much, but yet my love is such, I can’t control my heart." —Dean Martin
The goodness of profound love, which involves caring and personal flourishing, seems hard to argue with. Nevertheless, people do criticize lovers. Can one tell her beloved that she loves him too much?
Can we be too happy?
"You may be hurt if you love too much, but you will live in misery if you love too little.” —Napoleon Hill
Like love, happiness is good for us. Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2005) showed that in the important areas of health, work, and love, happy people did better on average than unhappy people. Too much happiness, however, can indeed be harmful. Shigehiro Oishi and colleagues (2009) found that one’s ideal level of happiness depends on various personal and contextual factors. Thus, people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships, but those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income and education. Moreover, whereas wanting more may be an important motivation for income and education, in romantic relationships, wanting more might be damaging because it pushes us to search for different partners.
Can profound love be too much?
“Where love is concerned, too much is not even enough.” —Pierre De Beaumarchais
In my recent book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time, I argue that romantic love and happiness overlap in important ways. Like happiness, love is usually good for us – but there are types of love and circumstances in which love can be too much of a good thing. Taking a cue from the above-mentioned study on happiness, we can say that profound love is conducive to a thriving life, as it involves personal development that promotes our capacities and flourishing. Since profound love is an engine of human flourishing, its benefits run deep. Just as we would not fault an author for writing a book that is too profound, we would be unlikely to criticize a lover for loving too profoundly.
Continuing with the parallel to happiness, profound love may be harmful when love and life clash, and love may reduce our ability to pay attention to how we are living. An example of this is when living circumstances do not permit the lovers’ personal flourishing, or when profound love gets in the way of other valuable activities. If the profundity of our love leads us to neglect such activities, then we can say that this love is “overly” profound.
Unlike romantic profundity, romantic intensity, which is associated with intense passionate (mainly sexual) desire, can be excessive. As the old love song goes, “When your heart is on fire, you must realize smoke gets in your eyes.” In other words, the lover’s intense passion may stop her from seeing that her partner’s attitude toward her is humiliating or that their relationship is unlikely to survive in the long run. In contrast, profound love prompts personal flourishing, and it is hard to imagine an excess of flourishing. Still, translating one’s profound love into concrete deeds can be damaging if we have trouble knowing what is good for our beloved or for ourselves.
Love and addiction
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful." —Mae West
Profound romantic behavior on the one hand, and “love addiction/sex addiction” on the other, are completely different animals. Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky, in their classic book, Love and Addiction (1988), write that the distinguishing feature of an addictive attitude is not the intensity of passion, but rather its shallowness. People who are profoundly in love pursue a wide range of flourishing activities with their beloved; being a sex addict confines your world to a narrow band of repetitive activities. The repetitive and superficial attitude that marks a sex addict’s interactions makes personal development and flourishing extraordinarily difficult. In profound love, the wish to be with the lover is worlds away from the obsessive need that drives addiction.
Something good can cross the line into too much when it doesn’t add to one’s overall flourishing, and perhaps even takes away from it – mainly by preventing the pursuit of less enjoyable, but more meaningful, activities that would advance flourishing. Thus, “the more the merrier” holds true up to a point, after which “one can have too much of a good thing.” Sex can be a wonderful experience, but sex addiction is negative and needs to be treated, like any addiction. Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, had a collection of 3,000 shoes. A documentary on Fidel Castro puts the number of his sexual partners at 35,000—two a day (one at lunch, one at dinner) for the entirety of his four-decade rule.
Owning thousands of pairs of shoes or having a different sexual partner at every meal is too much of a good thing. That is particularly true when those things are superficial experiences or commodities, and when preoccupation with them robs us of the resources to pursue more profound activities and thereby flourish. So, if a couple’s time together interferes with each partner’s personal flourishing, this can be considered “too much” couples time.
Love that is too intense
“In this world of extremes, we can only love too little.” —Rich Cannarella
When people talk about loving too much, they are usually referring to the intensity that overwhelms lovers and makes them blind to their partner’s faults or their own obsessive behavior. How appropriate, then, that Cupid, the Roman god of love, is pictured as a blindfolded boy—showing graphically that lovers, especially young ones, can be blind to the imperfections or the unsuitability of someone they love. Comments like, “I couldn’t help it; I was so in love with her,” indicate excessive love, which is missing the restraint that facilitates personal growth, and, in extreme cases, can lead to possessiveness and domination.
Intense and profound love is good, as long as we remember that love is not all we need in life.
This post is part of my new book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time.
Facebook image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855.
Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (2009). The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346-360.