By Douglas Anele
There are certain misconceptions about love, particularly erotic love, that we would dispel at this point. First, that true love is the outcome of a spontaneous emotional response, of being swept off one’s feet so to speak, by an irresistible feeling in the presence of the Other, usually described as chemistry between man and woman. When people proclaim that love is blind, they have in mind this kind of spontaneous attraction that does not notice or reckon with the shortcomings of the beloved. There is no doubt that an overwhelming number of teenagers and adults have felt the adrenalin rush when they encounter certain members of the opposite sex.
But it is easy to confuse mere sexual desire or lust with love, when people claim that they fell in love at first sight. Now, if love were just ordinary feeling without any atom of will, decision or commitment, then every promise to love someone from a certain moment onwards, even till death as in marriage, is doomed to fail because feelings, no matter how intense, come and go. Therefore, for love to be meaningful and worth all the ups and downs associated with committed loving relationship, love must involve an act of will plus the appropriate emotions associated it.
Second, some people confuse sex with love, based on the erroneous belief that sexual intercourse is an indicator of love. Again and again men and women have had sex with people towards whom they have little or no tender feelings. Besides, assuming that sex is a reliable index of genuine love, commercial sex workers would have been the most loved people in the world. Of course, we know that that is not the case. Sex is not love. Anyone who thinks that it is needs tutorials in sexology 101.
For sex to be really meaningful and fulfilling in erotic love, the emotional corollaries of care, patience, respect and delight in the presence of the loved one must be present. Finally, moral puritans and religious bigots claim that genuine love never dies, that if one feels true love for someone, the feeling will not be affected by the vicissitudes of the relationship.
It would be imprudent to argue that no man and woman can love each other especially in a committed relationship like marriage to the extent that their love would last till one of them dies, especially if they remained together for decades. But the idea that true love never dies ignores the existential paradox that although all human beings are one because they belong to the same taxonomical category, homo sapiens, each human being is a unique entity that cannot be duplicated. Even identical twins, triplets and so on are not hundred percent identical.
Consequently, there is a uniqueness about love such that no two amative relations are exactly the same. For some people, lifelong loving relationship suits their personalities better; others are more comfortable with episodic love affairs. In my opinion, being too rigid over a nuanced and subtle emotional disposition like love is unrealistic. Those sermonising about “loss of chastity” and condemning sex outside marriage tend to be those whose healthy development of their natural sexual impulses have been thwarted by superstitious taboo morality imbibed in early childhood.
They hide or, more aptly, sublimate, their sexual frustrations in prudish moral condemnation of those who still retain the capacity for sexual enjoyment outside the strictures of monogamous marriage imposed by Christianity. To be clear, no reasonable person would support promiscuity in the name of freedom to love. As in most things, moderation in love is a virtue.
There is innumerable literature purporting to teach people how to love. But as the noted psychoanalyst philosopher, Erich Fromm correctly observed, loving is a personal experience which everyone can only have by and for himself. As a result, to be a good lover is what each and every one of us must learn by ourselves through personal experience.
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Perhaps, there is hardly anybody who has not had the experience pf love, not necessarily erotic love, as a child, adolescent or adult. But in order to enhance one’s practice of love, certain dispositions must be cultivated. The first one discussed by Fromm is discipline. Of the various meanings of ‘discipline’ that can be found in a dictionary, the one that is relevant to our discussion is “the quality of always behaving or working in a controlled way.”
The kind of discipline required for it to blossom is not the authoritarian type imposed by someone else. Rather, it is the type one imposes on himself. The wise lover must know that it requires self-control. Another factor is concentration. Real love requires giving one’s whole attention to it. Moreover, it entails being interested in whatever concerns the loved one, and being sensitive to him or her.
Most people who profess it are encouraged by so-called relationship experts to see the people they love from the lens of emotion or, more precisely, of satisfying one’s fantasies, not objectively as they really are. We go back again to the cliché that love is blind. Now, anything done blindly tends to engender disappointment in the long run. Therefore, it is narcissistic childishness to ignore the flaws of the ones we love.
Concentration in it also involves listening to the other person and being fully present in the company of that person. Oftentimes lovers engage in conversation without really listening to each other. The situation has worsened because of smartphones. Nowadays, it is common to see a couple sitting at a table, one of them busy pressing the device when the other person is trying to sustain a conversation. Meaningful conversation cannot go on in such a situation since it requires reciprocal attention.
A third factor is patience, the ability to endure and forge ahead when things are not working as expected. Impatience poisons it; it does not make room for the inevitable uncertainties of life despite one’s best efforts. Human beings are not static beings. As a result, although the fundamental attitudes and dispositions of a person do not easily change over time, a true lover should be willing to accommodate some degree of disappointment in a relationship.
Since love is a matter of choice based on freedom, it is better to end a relationship if the people involved no longer believe that being together is emotionally satisfying. Given the frantic pace at which contemporary humans live and work on a daily basis, patience is becoming rare, coupled with the tendency to think that one loses time if he does not do something quickly. Paradoxically, many people do not know what to do with the time they have gained by doing things quickly except to kill it by indulging in some useless, sometimes health-destroying, activity.
It is a mistake to think that it is a guarantee of happiness. People expect too much from fellow human beings to the extent of depending on their lovers for happiness, forgetting that all said and done each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own happiness. Depending on others for happiness is a recipe for disappointment. Of course, we need others because human beings are necessarily social beings.
Nevertheless, we cannot leave the responsibility for our own happiness to others. A loved one can enrich the quality of our happiness, but the foundation must be within ourselves. It is important to recognise that it involves activity which, according to Fromm, is not merely doing something. Instead it means being in a constant state of active concern with the loved person. It equally involves a state of awareness, of alertness in other spheres of one’s life.
Thus, it has a connection with the social realm. If it is a character trait or disposition, it must necessarily manifest not only in one’s relationship with his beloved, close family members and friends; mutatis mutandis, it must also be extended to those one is in contact through work or business.
Unfortunately, because of the social situation in many places worldwide, even in the institution of marriage has become increasingly transactional – the positive emotional content that makes it fulfilling is lacking. Cases of wives weaponising sex to extort money from their husbands, and the latter intimidating their spouses with material things, are rampant. So, there is an urgent need for rethinking the practice of love because love is intimately connected with the good life. A lot of things going on now in its name is an aberration, a mere caricature of what it ought to be.