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The Anatomy of Love

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One of the great joys of life -- loving another person -- is not easy. Jungian psychologists sometimes describe it as a process of "individuation," with each party becoming a more sophisticated person through the ups and downs. The ancient tale of Amor and Psyche depict love as a rite of passage, full of trials that eventually lead to a productive union.

I have been practicing psychotherapy for 35 years. Much of that time has been devoted to matters of love. Out of that experience, I can distill five basic issues that people face. These can be seen as guidelines for loving:

  1. Love your partner. People struggling in a relationship are often focused more on themselves than on their partners. Or they worry so much about the quality of interactions that they don't see their partners as separate people. Jung once said that people often mistakenly assume that their partners have the same psychological make-up as they do. In this context, I would define love as taking an interest in your partner's life as different from your own. When I do therapy with couples, I sometimes ask one partner to sit aside and observe as I speak about deep matters with the other. I hope that each person will come to appreciate the other's complexity, depth and difference.
  2. Deal with shadow elements. Another person is bound to have ideas, behaviors and emotions that are particularly difficult for you. We are all raised differently and may have different spiritual and religious ideas, and certainly different ways of doing things. These may touch the shadow in a partner, raising issues that are taboo or anxiety-filled. It helps to anticipate these shadow factors and make them part of your philosophy of love. Many people go into a relationship unconsciously and deal minute-by-minute with its challenges. It's better to have thought things through and come up with a working and flexible philosophy that includes dealing with differences.
  3. Diffuse your sexuality. Sex is not only about love-making, but about having pleasure and fun in a broader sense. You can develop a life of pleasure with your partner, doing things that give deep satisfaction. It's not just about partying, but enjoying nature, the arts, yoga or some other spirit and body care. A sensuous life can make love-making less pressured and more enjoyable. Take care of your body. Baths and oils and sensuous clothes don't have to be superficial. It all depends on your attitude. Many people have deep puritanical ideas about the body that carry over into relationships. Often these ideas come from one's family background, or sometimes they're just in the air. Love asks for some indulgence and lightness.
  4. Aim for friendship. Many happily married couples say that what makes their relationship work is that their lover is also a friend. The history of philosophy would support that idea. Many writers of the past have said that friendship is the most important pleasure that life offers. You may be an intense lover and yet are still on the way toward friendship. It is a kind of love that is relatively free of illusions and wild emotions. It tends to be steady and aims at the well-being of the other. But you have to cultivate friendship. It doesn't come into being automatically, and it fades from lack of attention. Intense relationships don't seem to do well in the unrelenting fire of passions. Friendship is cooler, but, of course, not cold. It is a warm way of being together that takes its pleasure from sheer companionship, rather than from the cauldron of needs and desires that usually make romantic love so hot.
  5. Make a life. Some couples are so focused on each other that they get tied up in interpretive knots that choke the relationship. Or it dries out from excessive analysis and attention. Love between two people naturally spills over into a community of friends, renewed contact with family members, making a home, perhaps having children and creating a life that extends beyond the couple. You can cultivate a life together and not just a relationship. Often this means learning about your partner's interests and work and finding common activities in society. Love presses outward, feeding the world from the intensity of its passion. I often imagine world peace growing out of good sex and the interesting lives of couples. Our imagination of a relationship could be larger in scope and more dynamic. We could understand our feelings of love and our struggles to be reaching into a world in need of what we have found in the privacy of our personal lives.

Plato said that love is a mania -- a good kind of madness that drives us crazy and yet makes a world. Ancient philosophers said that the same drive that draws us together keeps the planets in orbit. Our loves are large in scope and definitely deserve creative attention and constant devotion.


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