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Love and Psychoanalysis

A fundamental polarity in psychoanalysis is that between unity and agency.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Love has been at the heart of psychoanalysis since its conception. What distinguishes the psychoanalytic approach to love from the classical psychological approach is, as Bergmann puts it,"the awareness of the link between adult love and love in infancy" (Bergmann, 1988: 668-669). Most contemporary psychoanalytic approaches are expansions of Freud’s theories of love.

Freud developed two psychoanalytic theories of love (Bergmann, 1988). One is the theory that love and sexuality are initially combined when the "child is sucking at his mother’s breast. The finding of the love object is in fact a refinding" (Freud, 1905: 222). This phase is also known as the ‘oral phase’ of the child’s psychosexual development (0-1 years of age). This phase is followed by the anal phase (1-3 years of age) and the phallic or oedipal phase (3 to 6 years). During latency (6-12 years of age) the child learns to repress the sexual component of his or her love for his parents. During adolescence (or the genital phase; 12+ years of age), the sexual impulses reemerge, and if the other stages have been resolved successfully, he or she can enter a loving sexual relationship with a partner. The individual’s capacity to love (also known as ‘genital love’) and engage in a healthy love relationship depends on his or her ability to recombine the capacity for tender love with the re-emerging sexuality. This, however, requires that the individual has fully separated from the parents. Otherwise, the individual will experience the beloved merely as a corrected version of a parent (Bergmann, 1988).

Freud’s second theory followed his discovery of narcissism. On this later theory, the separation from the parent is required for us to be able to experience love but it is not sufficient. We fall in love with people that are mirror images of our ideal self. Love completes our deficient narcissist selves. When the love is reciprocated, the tension between self and other is eliminated, and the lover experiences a relief from the freedom from envy of the other person’s qualities and abilities. This leads to the characteristic feeling of reward in the presence of the beloved as well as an idealization of the beloved. This second theory shares core elements in common with Aron & Aron’s (1986) self-expansion theory, which also predicts that we fall in love with people who complement us and who can trigger a feeling of our own self being expanded.

More recent psychoanalytic approaches to love have become increasingly desexualized (Green 1995), bringing the field closer to attachment theory. The sexual phrases inherent to psychoanalytic theory are now primarily thought of as metaphors for the dynamic between the individual and her parents or later a partner. Like attachment theory, modern psychoanalysis also predicts two fundamental ways of being insecurely attached to others.

A fundamental polarity in psychoanalytic theory is that between unity and agency, or relatedness and self-sufficiency. The anxiously attached individual seeks to preserve unity and prevent loneliness and alienation, whereas the avoidantly attached person seeks to preserve agency, individuality and personal autonomy. Healthy love requires that one maintains a healthy balance between unity and agency, or relatedness and self-sufficiency.

In the beginning obsessive stages of love relationships in which the love is mutual, the lovers seek an unhealthy level of unity and relatedness. Only when the love matures and neurochemicals and hormones return to normal can lovers hope to retrieve a balance between unity and agency. This, however, is also the point at which lovers may go too far in the other direction and seek to be self-sufficient and express their own agency without concern for the other.

Many mistake the shift in hormones and neurochemicals that are natural in healthy, long-lasting love relationships for a sudden absence of love. If a person is used to the obsessive feelings of being in love and then suddenly feels nothing but occasional closeness and sexual attraction, he or she is bound to think that something is wrong with the relationship. A natural reaction to that feeling is to seek self-expansion elsewhere, be it through a new lover, a new self-expanding activity or a renewed dedication to work. This type of behavior is, in fact, predictable in avoidant individuals, who are more likely to never fall in love or to experience only low intensity love.

When attachment grows too insecure especially in childhood, it can lead to psychopathology (Widiger & Frances, 1985). An anxious attachment style in early childhood is a predictor of dramatic personality disorders such as histrionic, borderline and dependent personality disorder later in life, whereas an avoidant attachment style in early childhood is a predictor of schizotypal, schizoid, narcissistic, antisocial and avoidant personality disorder later in life (West, et al. 1994; Blatt & Levy, 2003). But being insecurely attached to one or more partners in adulthood can also give rise to markers of pathopsychology. Being abandoned by several consecutive partners may push an individual toward a more insecure attachment style, which together with genetic dispositions is a predictor of psychopathology (West, et al. 1994).

Securely attached lovers, who manage to find the right balance between relatedness and self-sufficiency, have the capacity to establish mature and mutually satisfying interpersonal relationships within which they can explore new activities and develop their own sense of self. The securely attached lover respects the other person’s need for alone time while setting aside time to connect with him and her, thereby giving both parties the opportunity to experience both independence and bonding.



Aron, A & Aron, EN. (1986). Love and the Expansion of Self: Understanding Attraction and Satisfaction, New York, NY, US: Hemisphere Publishing Corp/Harper & Row.

Bergmann, MS. (1988). “Freud’s Three Theories of Love in the Light of Later Developments,” J Am Psychoanal Assoc 36, 3: 653-672.

Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Standard Edition 7, pp. 136-243.

Green, A.(1995). “Has Sexuality Anything to Do With Psychoanalysis?” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 76:871–883.

West, M, Rose, M., Sheldon-Keller, A. (1994). “Assessment of Patterns of Insecure Attachment in Adults and Application to Dependent and Schizoid Personality Disorders,” Journal of Personality Disorders 8(3): 249-256.

Widiger. T. A.. & Frances. A. (1985). “The DSM-III personality disorders: Perspectives from psychology,” Archives of General Psychiatry 42: 615-623.

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