"Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part." Captain Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres
To fall in love is to enter into a vulnerable, giddy, preoccupied state of mind. We take the person we love unbridled into our dreams and fantasies and feel a loss of control as our mind wanders mischievously away from mundane aspects of the everyday onto a fantasied exciting future with our new love. Work and friendships suffer temporary neglect as our psychological resources are poured into reducing the distance between ourselves and the object of our affection. It feels hard to restrain the wandering mind in love. We feel we have been taken over. It is delicious yet maddening.
Drawing on the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Deborah Luepnitz tells us that it is only in recognising that we are lacking, that we are capable of loving. What we lack in ourselves, we find in the other. The other person seems to renew hope that we have finally found what we didn’t know we were missing. An imagined ideal coupling is created and given credence in our mind. Two separate individuals become one couple, one whole. Our startlingly ideal ‘other,’ who we might refer to as The One, seems to promise completeness. So great is the sudden urgency to grasp what we realize we have been missing all along, it makes us feel crazy, a feeling so enigmatic, and yet so well-known, we have struggled to make sense of it through poetry, art, music and literature over centuries. Beyonce famously encompasses it in the title of her single: ‘Crazy in Love.’
When two people fall in love, they become under unconscious pressure to diminish separateness and reduce the feverishness of longing. Yet is the mystery, the separateness, the distance from this other person, that makes the illusion of the ideal ‘other’ possible. It can feel easy to lose oneself in this heady state and sometimes one person begins to feel overwhelmed and needs to step back, to check their edges, to know that they haven’t completely abandoned themselves. The root of ‘passion’ is the Latin ‘passio’ which means ‘to suffer.’ “Despite all the lightness and butterflies in the stomach associated with it, being in love is a rather heavy condition and leaves little space for anything else,” Belgian psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe reminds us.
If this maddening, chubby love is to uncurl into mature love, there needs to be a gradual disillusionment and an acceptance of the reality of the loved one as who they really are, and not simply as we wish them to be. ‘Falling in love’ can only be temporary. We can’t fall forever. We must be able to reach out and touch someone real, someone outside ourselves, to feel the ground steady beneath our feet. We must find a way to anchor ourselves in the world not only as a couple but also as two unique individuals.
Yet if the immature seedlings of ‘falling in love’ are to flower into a deep, mature love, one with the individual colours of two personalities, and resilience against life’s challenges, this requires the capacity to tolerate feelings of frustration, hatred and aggression. Freud taught us that part of the normal experience of human relations is to experience ambivalent feelings of love and hate towards the same person. This may seem counterintuitive. Surely hate destroys love? But any parent of an under-five, and the later adolescent, will have heard the familiar cry, “I hate you!” in moments of despair. When these feelings cannot be tolerated, trouble brews.
In a pithy, candid paper, written in the 1940s, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott lists eighteen reasons why a mother hates her baby. Many mothers (and fathers too) can appreciate the following experience of being with baby: “After an awful morning with [baby] she goes out, and he smiles at a stranger, who says: Isn’t he sweet.” The mother has to find a way to tolerate these feelings of love and frustration, hate and aggression, in herself, and in her baby too. Adult relationships that cannot tolerate this mix of love and aggression will struggle to find a safe distance where love straddles desire and the space between two people invites healthy communication and play.
A common problem in relationships occurs when the growth of love and friendship is accompanied by a dwindling of passion and desire. “When intimacy collapses into fusion,” writes Esther Perel, “it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire.” If the space between two people collapses, there is no-one to reach. The flames of desire need oxygen to stay ignited. If you stand too close together for too long, you throw a damp blanket over the flames.
In her book entitled ‘Schopenhauer’s Porcupines,’ Deborah Luepnitz illuminates this common problem using the fable of the porcupines told by Arthur Schopenhauer. A troop of porcupines are at risk of freezing to death. In response, they move together to find warmth, however, in such close contact their quills cause them pain and discomfort and they are compelled to move apart. However, once again they begin to freeze and their need for warmth draws them back together. This porcupine dilemma symbolises the everyday human dilemma of being in relationship with others. We seek closeness, but too much closeness feels uncomfortable and overbearing. If we become too close, for too long, we lack the space we need to be ourselves. Yet too much absence leaves us cold and yearning. The dilemma is in finding a comfortable distance between being with the other and being one’s separate self.
For some people, the other person’s separateness feels too threatening. They fear abandonment and pull their partner closer, but in doing so they risk suffocating the flames of desire. Understanding that this closeness causes your porcupine partner discomfort may help you to allow a greater degree of separation without fearing you will freeze to death. Others may fear being too close and keep so much distance that love grows cold and connection wanes. Understanding that, in finding this safe distance, you leave your porcupine partner frozen, may help you reestablish safer boundaries, so that love has enough closeness to strengthen and grow.
As psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg explains, passionate encounters do continue into long-term, healthy mature love relationships. If you love without desire, it is not necessarily a problem of ‘falling out of love,’ but may be that real, deep love is not being given the freedom to exist alongside other muddled, mixed-up feelings. Unconscious conflicts between love and aggression may be blocking true expression of desire towards the one you love.
Perhaps it is not ‘love’ that is temporary madness, but the intoxicating, all-encompassing ‘falling in’ state that we abandon ourselves to, before deep, steady love settles in the spaces between us. If falling in love is a temporary madness, staying in love may be a healthy liberation.
Otto F. Kernberg (2011) ‘Limitations to the capacity to love.’ The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 92:6, 1501-1515
Deborah Luepnitz (2002) ‘Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and its Dilemmas.’ Basic Books, New York.
Esther Perel (2007) ‘Mating in Captivity: Sex, Lies and Domestic Bliss.’ Hodder and Stoughton, London.
Paul Verhaeghe (2011) ‘Love in a Time of Loneliness.’ Karnac, London.
Donald Winnicott (1949) ‘Hate in the Countertransference.’ International Journal of Psychoanalysis 30:69-74