The best time to begin thinking about a project is long before the project begins. Foresight is one of the classical hallmarks of the man with practical wisdom, or prudence…. As one cliché puts it, “An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of execution.”
I am not married, and so in an attempt to be prudent (not to say “a prude”) I take each chance that I get to converse with married people, or to read books about love and marriage, in an attempt to learn from them, as from those who have gone before me on a path I too may travel, whether the way is rough or smooth, how to avoid any traps and wild beasts, and how to maintain movement along the narrow way.
My latest literary endeavor into understanding the mystery of marriage was to read Mapping the Terrain of the Heart, a fascinating experiment from the minds of psychologists Stephen Goldbart and David Wallin. Their project is “a comprehensive psychology of love,” an ambitious ideal of which they admittedly fall short, but not without generating some keen insights and demonstrating an impressive philosophy of romantic relationships that is as intuitively compelling as it is intellectually interesting.
The sub-title is “Passion, Tenderness, and the Capacity to Love,” which tips us off to the structure of the book. It asks six questions about relationships, and attempts to provide (and explain) the six answers with a view to one of the six different “capacities” that human beings have to love and be loved. I will summarize and comment on each chapter/capacity in a series of posts.
The six questions are:
1. Is it realistic to expect sexuality to remain satisfying over the course of a long-term relationship?
2. To what extent, in an intimate relationship, can we expect to satisfy our independent needs while also remaining close to our partner?
3. Is it wiser to settle for a love relationship that is merely “good enough” or to search for one closer to our ideal?
4. How much disappointment in or anger toward our partner is too much? How much should we tolerate before deciding that a relationship is not worth preserving?
5. What conclusions can we draw when our current relationship seems to repeat the past?
6. How can we accept the changes in our individual identity — and sometimes the sacrifices required — when we commit ourselves to a long-term relationship?
And their six capacities are: Erotic involvement (the role of the body in love),
Merging (the role of boundaries)
Idealization (the role of the romantic ideal),
Integration (the role of acceptance),
Refinding (the role of the past), and
“Love” typically is something one knows upon experience of it. Philosopher Robert Solomon’s extraordinary work, “Love: Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor” is not only superb contemporary philosophy, but keenly insightful about “romantic love.” I cite it because it utterly destroys what are describe above as “six capacities.”
One of Solomon’s observations is how far from reality the Platonic and Christian conceptions of love are. Instead of “transcendence,” love occurs in the dynamic tension between two people, each of whom discovers more about one’s self through the prism of the other, and, in turn, offers the growth back into the tension of their love and commitment in a constantly reciprocal unfolding of the old in new ways.
In a manner similar to Bultmann in Christianity, Solomon demythologizes romantic love, denies any transcendence, and shows how one of the most elusive of human emotions is concretely experienced without idealization, all of which places “love” in a sphere inaccessible to the individuals themselves. All these idealizations and metaphysical claptraps only serve to undermine romantic love by taking it outside the dynamic of two people “growing” through, in, by, and from each other, which in turn nurtures each’s love for the other in ever anew ways, but ones that are on the level of empirical experience, not sought in outter space.
While Solomon’s thesis is very simple and his examples are wholly accessible, this is a highly interdisciplinary inquiry of both abstraction and physical dimensions. Readers with a vast literary experience will understand his insights instantly and obviously, whereas those with more narrow intellects may feel many of the salient observations are “over their heads.” It is both its singular strength and weakness.
A key observation is that making romantic love into a surreal, transcendent, and mythical ideal — one, which no one can possibly attain — builds defeat into love itself. Unable to attain such mythic states, the couple inevitably (if not always) feels betrayed, undermined, and a failure. That divorce is highest among “born-again” Christians is evidence that this mythic approach is indeed self-defeating, because attainment of the Ideal, doomed to failure, does fail.
Speaking as one incontrovertibly in love for 18+ years, the success of that love occurred because its metaphysical features were never introduced, much less expected, far less attained. Sadly, since the troubadors introduced romantic love in the West in the late Middle Ages, the tendency to idealize genuine love is impossible and undesirable.
Perhaps The Gay Species could go into more detail on in what sense and to what extent each of the six capacities is destroyed by the ideas in Solomon’s book as K.B. posts his summaries of the six capacities.