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Why Love in the 21st Century Is So Difficult

Toward a greater wisdom instead of a failure to love.

The nature of love in the 21st century has beckoned us to a new cultural and social horizon from which we may be able to learn how to manage our conflicts between love and hate, between dominance and submission, between surrender and self-protection, without creating an enemy. Either we will learn how to grow and develop in this way or our narcissistic longings for a “perfect love” will defeat us. I believe that the contemporary couple relationship has created an urgent and critical challenge to the stability of our families and our lives. I want this challenge to lead to greater wisdom instead of a failure to love.

Before we can learn to love under current conditions, we need to reflect a bit on our past traditions. Marriage moved relatively quickly from being a vow of impersonal loyalty and a commitment “in sickness and in health until death do us part” for the sake of the family and property to a personal and transitory vow “for as long as this meets my needs.” This shift has made everyone a little nervous, and some people now feel almost obliged to break off a relationship if they no longer find their own image and values reflected in the other person in the way they expect: “How can I be with someone like this?”

Charlie Foster_Unsplash
Source: Charlie Foster_Unsplash

Further, because ideas of the hierarchy are eschewed in our contemporary lives, our relationships are based on ideas of equality and reciprocity, as well as personal desire. Equality, mutuality, reciprocity, and desire are destabilizing influences in a partnership or a family because of the ongoing requirements to negotiate needs and conflicts on a day-to-day or even hour-to-hour basis. Frequent and repetitive negotiations require emotional and communication skills that most of us lack. Our ordinary daily conflicts can soon become exhausting and dispiriting because no solutions are arrived at. These conflicts (even the most benign ones, like “what color should we paint the kitchen?”) may threaten to undermine our commitment to our relationships because they quickly lead us to review whether or not we want to “live with someone who is like this.” On top of all this, human beings (Homo sapiens) may, unfortunately, despite their intentions, simply feel more comfortable and at ease in a hierarchy in which one individual seems to be in charge. Then, the power arrangements are clear even if they rest on oppression—and potentially, abuse.

But in today’s world, you most likely believe that you no longer want a hierarchy in your personal life. Instead, you want to be equal with your partner. You want to be respected, you want to be witnessed and held in mind, and you want to be found desirable and cared for. These are the demands of personal love.

This love is different from romance and from biological attachment bonds. Personal love is much more demanding and challenging than a secure attachment or pair bond because it typically requires functioning together with a partner in multiple roles in our daily lives and using psychological insights, and even spiritual skills, that are unfamiliar and may seem burdensome. Attachment bonds and biology play a role in personal love, but only a minor one. Living together over time and solving problems with someone who is meant to be your best friend, your co-parent, your sexual partner, and possibly your business partner, in a reciprocal and mutual relationship, is a radical new endeavor for which the old archetypes and myths, as well as the current neurological and biological models, do not provide adequate guidance.

In today’s marriage—I will use the term “marriage” loosely here to mean a long-term committed bond—you fall in love with a stranger to whom you then commit in a relationship in which you promise not to dominate, control, or break the trust. Furthermore, you must also remain true to yourself—your own needs and values—or the relationship will not thrive. Personal love, as we will see, breaks all the rules that marriage has followed for centuries. Most radical is that this kind of love requires that an emotional and mental space be created in which both partners can grow and develop psychologically and spiritually. And this process begins with disillusionment after the romance has ended.

While disillusionment is the death knell for the initial romance, it is a necessary development for personal love and romance to mature into ongoing intimacy. Here is a radical idea: when you fall in love you have fallen into your own unconsciousness, and you can only step out of that unconsciousness after you begin to see what you have projected—both in idealization and in disillusionment. It is the nature of projection that you see and feel as though the disavowed aspects of yourself (either idealized or devalued) are within another person, not yourself. You will feel this as a fact, as though it were absolutely true. But initial disillusionment is critically important on the path of love because it is the first opportunity to notice your projection—after it has become sour and negative, when your partner begins to seem like someone you don’t like and someone you must defend against.

You then must develop, as the next step, a more complex picture of your partner and yourself that includes your projected anxieties, images, and desires. The truth is that this other person cannot satisfy all (or maybe even most) of your needs or be your friend in all the ways you had hoped. Embracing this truth (again and again) in a way that does not prohibit intimacy and friendship with your partner is an ongoing commitment. The process of taking back our projections never ends. It means you have to maintain a kind of psychological openness that helps you repeatedly get to know your partner anew and to look at yourself with fresh eyes as well.

For personal love to develop into what I call “true love”—a powerful mixture of reality and desire—you must shift from disillusionment into friendship, from antagonism into cooperation, from your partner being your “intimate enemy” into being your intimate friend. As a result, it requires you to discover and embrace a more complex sense of who you are—your history, vulnerabilities, and so on—since this is the basis of both your idealizations and your disillusionments.

The defenses that surround the pain of disillusionment often keep couples from moving into being intimate after feeling like enemies. Partners, and their friends and relatives, also tend to make critical appraisals of a devalued partner such as “he’s an alcoholic” or “she’s needy” or “he has bipolar disorder” or “she’s an airhead.” These appraisals lead to gathering evidence and grievances to illustrate their circumstantial “truths.” And so, disavowed aggressions and feelings of the “moral superiority” of victimhood complicate many daily conflicts with “proof” that a devalued partner is defective or mean-spirited. True love, however, requires walking through disillusionment without losing your faith and hope of finding your best friend again through a fog of confusion, discouragement, and pain. Sadly, it is at the juncture of defensive disillusionment where most committed couples flounder and become discouraged and feel imprisoned. It is at this point where traditional marriages typically lost their way and entered into the War between the Sexes. Learning to navigate the path from disillusionment to true love is what all couples must learn to do in this new age.


From Love between Equals by Polly Young-Eisendrath © 2019 Polly Young-Eisendrath. Shambhala Publications