For Freud, all love relations are “the finding of an object” that “is in fact a refinding of it” (Freud, 1953, p. 222), roughly analogous to the emotional experience of symbiotic togetherness with the mother or caregiver (Moore & Fine, 1990 p. 113). Moreover, the quest for the Oedipal object is an enduring embedded quality of all love relationships. While the frequently used term “object” in analytic writings is replete with a “myriad” of “ambiguities and confusions” (Akhtar, 2009, p. 192), and has an alienating if not dehumanizing “feel” to it, it can be serviceably defined as “that towards which action or desire is directed; that which the subject [the person] requires in order to achieve instinctual satisfaction; that to which the subject relates himself,” most often a person, parts of a person or a symbolic equivalence of one or the other (Rycroft, 1995, p. 113). What this “finding/refinding” notion means in terms of establishing love relations is that to some extent the choice of our significant other repeats or calls to mind aspects of our childhood caregivers. Love, says Freud, “consists of new editions of old traits and it repeats infantile reactions,” this being “the essential character of every state of being in love” (Freud, 1958, p. 168).That is, all love is based on infantile templates, is fundamentally a fixation on the parents, what Freud calls transference love. According to Reuben Fine, transference love and ordinary love only differ in terms of degree (Fine, 1979, p. 48).8 The problem with this, of course, is that if we refind that which is
“bad” from our childhood experiences, it usually leads to impoverished and/or destructive intimate relationships.The “trick” then is to refind in the significant other that which is consciously and unconsciously “good” from our childhood caregivers, so that we have a better chance of being relatively happy in our love relation. Most often, this “refmding” involves a subtle “refining” of earlier caregiver experiences, suggesting that the significant other is apprehended as a corrective emotional experience of a sort. For example, a man who refinds his “good” mother in a woman who has the best maternal qualities but is also capable of being a focus of passionate desire on the sexual level, has engaged in a refinding and refining (e.g., the fantasy that happily blends the “mother and whore” in the significant other).To attempt to refind the “impossible” significant other who will recreate the imagined perfection associated with the parent/child symbiosis is a doomed effort from the onset (Bergmann, 1987).
Freuds view of love is driven, if not limited, by his guiding assumption that man is fundamentally egotistical and pleasure-seeking. For Freud, all forms of love are seen as derivatives of instinct, and their function is to give instinctual gratification. In a sense, all love is love of a need-satisfying object.9 Mature object love, in contrast to infantile, dependent, need-satisfying love, is love that recognizes the reality of the other, his otherness, and that he is a separate person with needs and wishes requiring and deserving gratification. Perhaps most importantly for Freud, the capacity for mature love requires object constancy, the capability to maintain an enduring relationship with a specific, single, separate other. This, in turn, presupposes the development of both a stable, structurally sound, coherent self and secure internalized object relations. “Normal” love, says Freud, thus results from the blending of caring, affectionate, and sexual feelings toward a person of the opposite sex. Its accomplishment is characterized by genital primacy in sexuality and by object love in relationships with others (Freuds heterosexual bias is exemplified.The term “significant other” could be used as a replacement for “opposite sex”).
Thus, for Freud, love relations are conceptualized essentially as hedonistic and utilitarian, with the other viewed as a need-satisfying object: how can the other pleasure me, what can the other do for me? Freud’s view of love tended to embrace such an outlook. In an improved variation on this conceptualization, in the “relational” psychoanalytic work of say Benjamin (1995, p. 29), Rubin (1996, p. 49) and Mitchell (2002), love relations are viewed largely in terms of a mutual instrumental calculus of two equal subjects who appreciate the uniqueness of each other, and give each other satisfaction. This surely goes further than the strict hedonistic-utilitarian view in that it acknowledges the other as unique in terms of desires, goals, values, and needs, and it makes satisfying those needs as important: “I am for you, you are for me,” as Levinas put it (Robbins, 2001, p. 193).This is the love relation as symmetrically conceived. For Levinas (though less so and differently for Buber and Marcel), such a relational ethic is serviceable but does not go far enough, for it mistakenly treats entering the ethical realm (i.e., of moral principles) with becoming “good”
(i.e., responsible for the other).The latter way of being-in-the-world, responsible subjectivity, points to transcendence. As Levinas pointed out, the love commandment (“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”) “still assumes the prototype of love to be love of oneself,” that is, “self-love is accepted as the very definition of a person.” However, Levinas’s conception of the ethical subject also asserts, “Be responsible for the other as you are responsible for yourself” (Levinas, 1987, p. 225).10
As Levinas further notes, while such a reciprocal approach moves in the direction of relating to the other as other, this view still subtly retains the wish to make the other the same, to totalize the other, and thus to open him or her to disrespect, disregard, de-individuation, and other forms of intersubjective violence. Such an ontologically based approach seeks to comprehend the otherness of the other by including him under a notion “that is thought within me, and thus is in some sense the same as me” (Atterton & Calarco, 2005, p. 10). To the extent that the other is construed in terms of his or her being and is comprehended and thematized on the basis of what he or she has in common with other beings, the other becomes conceptually the same as others, and therefore loses his uniqueness and individuality. According to Levinas, to comprehend the other in this way is roughly equivalent “to predicting, manipulating, controlling, even dominating the Other” (ibid., pp. 15,16). Such a monological, non-I-Thou orientation can easily morph into something wretched and appalling: “I’ll affirm you and allow you to exist if you become like me, think like me, do as I do, are my mental-spiritual clone” (Cain, 1996, p. 136). As we shall see, Buber and Marcel do not agree with Levinas’s wholesale criticism of the mutuality/symmetrical approach, and I believe they are more plausible in terms of how “real-life” love relationships are enacted (e.g., via the testimonials of people in loving marriages or partnered monogamous relationships).11 To love our significant other more than we love ourselves, to put their needs and desires before our own, especially in a sustained manner, seems like an impossible challenge for most people. In fact, the philosopher John D. Caputo, himself an admiring scholar of Levinas, claims that Levinas “weaves a fabulous, poetic story about absolute alterity” (otherness), which ultimately is not credible (Poole, 1998, p. 71).That is, Levinas’s position is “inapplicable, unlivable, and utopian ... there is a disconnect between his philosophy and our life” (Treanor, 2006, p. 123). Certainly, most of us can remember times when we acted altruistically, but such moments tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Still, Levinas’s point, and I believe Buber and Marcel’s, is that like the unreachable ideal of “free association,” one should strive to be for the other before oneself, or as much as oneself, as much as possible, in part because this is the most promising basis for a love relationship that will endure and flourish.
For Freud, however, accomplishing hedonistic/utilitarian love is not simple; it requires resolving at a higher level of personality integration at least three aspects of love: “narcissistic versus object love, infantile versus mature love, and love versus hate” (Moore & Fine, 1990, p. 113). To the extent that love is dominated by inordinate, unhealthy, and pathological narcissism (e.g., self-centeredness and selfishness), infantile and dependent wishes and behavior (e.g., the other exists mainly to gratify our needs and wishes on demand) and hate (e.g., heightened ambivalence), one’s love relation is doomed to failure, or at least much suffering. To the extent that it is animated by altruistic concerns (e.g., enhancing the other), is mature (e.g., recognizes that the separate other has needs and wishes worthy of gratifying), and is mainly affectionate (e.g., not corrupted by aggression), it is likely to succeed. For Freud, while all relationships are ambivalent, the ultimate pre-condition for maintaining a stable, healthy, mature love relation is that affectionate sentiments toward one’s significant other be much stronger and more pervasive than the aggressive ones.
It is crucial to briefly contextualize Freud’s views on love in terms of his broader version of the human condition and a flourishing life. As Wallwork (2005, p. 287) points out, for Freud the supreme moral criterion, what he took to be the “good” that reflected what humans strive for, was “happiness.”
[W]hat [do] men themselves show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives? What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.
(Freud, 1930, p. 76)
Wallwork further notes that for Freud, as was the case with Aristotle and other great humanist moral philosophers, happiness was in part conceptualized as “eudaimonia.” However, eudaimonia is not simply a moment or experience of pleasure alone, but a “veritable form of life, a flourishing form of life capable of realizing the full range of possibilities for rational beings” (Robinson, 1997, p. 17).12 As Wallwork succinctly puts it,
Happiness for Freud is rather a matter of functioning well than feeling good. The mentally healthy person’s happiness consists in the well-being that comes with certain forms of sublimation: loving and being loved, creative work, the pursuit of knowledge, freedom and aesthetic appreciation. These goods of life that make happiness possible are not instrumental to functioning well, but constituent aspects of happiness.
(Wallwork, 2005, p. 287)
For Freud, love was perhaps the most important way of obtaining happiness— giving and receiving love. The “union of mental and bodily satisfaction in the enjoyment of love is one of its [life’s] culminating peaks. Apart from a few queer fanatics, all the world knows this and conducts its life accordingly” (Freud, 1958, pp. 169-170). According to Freud,love is also crucial because it underpins other extremely important aspects of life and civilization. For instance, it libidinally binds and animates one’s ties to family, friends, community and to the world at large. Without the force of Eros, Freuds poetic metaphor for the life-force and sexual instincts, civilization is doomed to be overwhelmed by the inherent aggressiveness and destructiveness that constitutes Thanatos, the Death Instinct.