What is love and when is it not enough?

2016-02-10 13:30

During the better part of the last decade I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of people that feel stuck in toxic romantic relationships.  Ultimately this feeling of being powerless leads them to seek professional intervention, as they feel that they have exhausted all of the reasonable options available to them.  As a result they find themselves in a relationship where they are abused (physically or emotionally), disrespected or possibly just disastrously incompatible with their partner.

There are always a number of reasons for why people stay in bad relationships, but one could probably group the most common reasons into three themes: firstly, staying together for their children; secondly, fear of financial loss and regret of wasted time; and thirdly (and the hardest to challenge): staying together because they hadn’t stopped loving their partner.  It seems that the pursuit of love (and the associated fear of being alone) is such a powerful drive that often when we find love we tend to ignore the warning signs, and even when these signs become outright problems we still feel that we need to persist in order to nurture the good feelings we felt when things were going well in the relationship.

There are a number of issues at play here, but it would seem to be important to explore more carefully what we are actually talking about when we refer to this ethereal concept of ‘love’?  Philosophers and writers have been attempting to illuminate the topic for millennia, and science, whilst coming late to the party, has also begun to contribute to our understanding.  Despite this, we still seem to lack a universal definition of what love really is.  The implication of this is that ‘love’ becomes an umbrella under which many different phenomena find shelter.  Love has been described as insanity, a fever, an untamed force, but perhaps these things are what we call being ‘in love’.  Louis de Bernières in Corelli’s Mandolin, explores the difference:  

“Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.”
Love seems to be the heady act of caring for someone to such a degree that we are prepared to risk our own well-being for their well-being, and in this respect it is easy to identify an evolutionary imperative for it.  Love strengthens social bonds and increases the likelihood of young being reared successfully to adulthood.  Herein lies our problem: whilst raising children could be seen as a priority in a modern human’s journey to self-actualization, it is by no means the only objective we have.  Practically this means we are prepared to suffer for our children and in our relationships, but ultimately this has its’ limits.   So when we find ourselves in a relationship in which we are dissatisfied and unfulfilled, we experience a conflict between this unhappiness and the emotional trappings of our evolutionary past.

This is a challenging-enough prospect, however we find despite this it is generally a situation many people can resolve themselves.  Where we begin to observe problems are in people with self-esteem issues or unresolved issues regarding the definition of their self-concept.  This is when the act of loving becomes more than an act of caring and showing affection, it becomes a means for remedying their self-esteem deficiencies.  It is in these situations where we find that people are not staying in a toxic relationship because they still have feelings of affection for their partner (whilst they may have these feelings, this is not the barrier).  

The reason they stay in these relationships is more closely linked to the fact that they had been using their partner’s affections as validations of their worth, and they fear the sense of worthlessness that leaving the relationship would trigger.  A helpful question here would be: ‘do you want to be loved or do you need to be loved?”  Clearly the advantages of being in a loving relationship are great, but can your sense of self-worth survive not being loved?

Love however requires risk.  Lewis Carol acutely dissects the unhealthy defence mechanisms that we can only too easily develop in order to protect ourselves from the dangers of loving:  
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” (The Four Loves).

So to love is to be brave, and to be brave is to position ourselves in such a way as to receive rewards.  Notwithstanding this truth, bravery also means being true to ourselves and knowing when a relationship becomes untenable.  In these cases, it is worth reminding ourselves that as much as love does not have to be a reason for our happiness, it also does not have to be a contributor to our unhappiness.

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