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What’s love got to do with it?

‘The deepest need of man is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.’ (Fromm, E. 1957)

The time of year approaches that has gaggles of teenage girls quivering anxiously in school corridors: outwardly bemoaning the late arrival of the postman, while inwardly breathing a huge sigh of relief. At the other end of the spectrum, jaded 75-year-old-long-marrieds dust off last year’s card, re-presenting it safe in the knowledge that (a) it won’t be remembered and (b) he won’t care that much either way. It’s a day that hints at the arrival of Spring, when a question mark can create a frisson of excitement in a recipient or a knowing smile from a long-suffering spouse.

Saint Valentine’s Day, where millions of British pounds are spent on grand, kitsch, or anonymous romantic gestures (chocolate, flowers, lacy underwear, and dinner reservations, not necessarily in that order). It’s become a British industry. It celebrates love or as Samuel Johnson put it, the ‘triumph of hope over experience’.

Valentine’s Day juxtaposes our desire for romance at its best. At its worst, it exemplifies another defining contemporary human characteristic: consumerism. This Western tradition can be tenuously traced back to Valentine of Terni, martyred circa AD 197, for his Christianity. Another possible origin, Valentine of Rome, circa AD 289, was imprisoned for continuing to wed soldiers after Claudius had outlawed marriage, decreeing armies of single men fought better than those distracted by conjugal delights. Awaiting execution, Valentine is reported to have cured the jailer’s daughter of blindness and fallen in love, his final letter to her signed, ‘from your Valentine’.

Historian Noel Lenski, classics professor at the University of Colorado, has unearthed evidence to suggest an ancient pagan fertility festival on 14th February. Lupercalia, a celebration of love, which saw young Roman men strip naked and use goat skins to brush the backsides of young women and crop fields to improve fertility, followed by a matchmaking lottery where men drew women’s names from a jar. Little wonder card manufacturers have chosen to shift their focus from death, sadism, imprisonment, and swinging, from whence Valentine’s Day tradition is suggested to have sprung.

From a partisan standpoint, as a couple psychotherapist, the idealised romance of Valentine’s Day with its fantasy-laden, unconscious projection onto a ‘love object’ is not necessarily good news. The lover’s notion, that the strength of his emotion will ensure a yearned for relationship metamorphoses into a-glorious-sunset-happy-ending, doesn’t predict a stable, long-lasting, and fulfilling relationship. Come to that, neither does love at first sight or your partner resembling one of your parents. And yet romantic gesture, prolific at a relationship’s birth, is the bedrock of most unions and forms part of their narrative. Just ask a couple how they met.

The romantic notion of reality (two individuals from similar socio-economic backgrounds, attracted by their differences/irritating and lovable idiosyncrasies) becoming fantasy (thinking as one, able to read each other’s mind and anticipate each other’s needs) can be traced back to the Bible, ‘Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Matthew, 19.6).

For the Victorians, love was a periphery consideration. A relationship between a man and a woman was a business contract between two families, with the woman as product and land as prize. Choice in love is a new Western trend. Forced by female emancipation and latterly such freedoms as same-sex relationships, emphasis has shifted away from acreage and towards how to attract a partner, how to fashion yourself as the prize.

Erich Fromm in his seminal work The Art of Loving, advocates love as a skill, to be honed and worked at, requiring knowledge and effort, rather than ‘something one falls into if one’s lucky’. From a consulting room vantage point, the idea of a relationship created between a couple that takes work and attention can come as something of a revelation. There is often real confusion between a falling in love state for couples and the permanent state of being in love. ‘I don’t feel the same about her as when we met and it’s making me depressed,’ is not an unfamiliar complaint.

Falling in love is an exhilarating, almost psychotic experience for everyone that is fortunate enough to feel it. The tragedy is that this new and precious intimacy, triggered by sexual attraction, is impossible to sustain. The infatuation stage, where everything else falls away, is commonly described as a ‘coming home feeling’, where a sense of familiarity nestles amongst the thrill. The bad news is it burns itself out. Nothing except the most dangerous attraction can sustain that undiluted intensity. Who would do the work? Captains of Industry would just stay in bed. Reality must test each new relationship. Can it survive meeting the in-laws? When do the stains on her teeth come into focus – and hopefully not matter. When do the stresses of work and mundane domesticity creep back into consciousness?

Many couples seeking help with their relationship are burdened with the expectation that their love should feel natural; fulfilment of sexual desire, rather like the Holy Spirit, should be around at all times, despite inhabiting a time-pinched world of Internet dating, Viagra, and plastic surgery. They feel that loving should be accompanied by an ease and constant lightness, and so feel cheated or deficient, even deviant in some way when it doesn’t feel like that. Their internal echo of why isn’t every day like Valentine’s Day infuses their relationship with an uncomfortable and unspoken ennui.

So where is the relationship advice at this most quixotic of times? As Valentine’s Day dawns, perhaps Honore de Balzac’s suggestion in ‘La physiologie du marriage’ will resonate: ‘No man should marry until he has studied anatomy and dissected at least one woman.’ Permit a translation. Take it slow, have some fun, keep past relationships in mind, especially that of your parents, and remember, ‘Love is, above all, the gift of oneself.’ (Anouilh, J. 1948)

Headline image credit: Heart. CC0 via Pixabay.

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