Do We Want to Get Rid of Love?

The panic felt at any threat to love is a good clue to its political significance.

"A Romance" by Santiago Rusiñol, 1894. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya / Wikimedia

Love, perhaps even more than childbearing, is the pivot of women’s oppression today. I realize this has frightening implications: Do we want to get rid of love?

The panic felt at any threat to love is a good clue to its political significance. Another sign that love is central to any analysis of women or sex psychology is its omission from culture itself, its relegation to “personal life.” (And whoever heard of logic in the bedroom?) Yes, it is portrayed in novels, even metaphysics, but in them it is described, or better, recreated, not analyzed. Love has never been understood, though it may have been fully experienced, and that experience communicated.

There is reason for this absence of analysis: Women and Love are underpinnings. Examine them and you threaten the very structure of culture.

The tired question “What were women doing while men created masterpieces?” deserves more than the obvious reply: Women were barred from culture, exploited in their role of mother. Or its reverse: Women had no need for paintings since they created children. Love is tied to culture in much deeper ways than that.

That women live for love and men for work is a truism. Freud was the first to attempt to ground this dichotomy in the individual psyche: the male child displaces his need for love into a need for recognition. This process does not occur as much in the female: most women never stop seeking direct warmth and approval.

There is also much truth in the clichés that “behind every man there is a woman” and that “women are the power behind [read: voltage in] the throne.” (Male) culture was built on the love of women, and at their expense. Women provided the substance of those male masterpieces; and for millennia they have done the work, and suffered the costs, of one-way emotional relationships the benefits of which went to men and to the work of men. So if women are a parasitical class living off, and at the margins of, the male economy, the reverse too is true: (Male) culture was (and is) parasitical, feeding on the emotional strength of women without reciprocity.

Moreover, we tend to forget that this culture is not universal, but rather sectarian, presenting only half the spectrum. The very structure of culture itself, as we shall see, is saturated with the sexual polarity, as well as being in every degree run by, for, and in the interests of male society. But while the male half is termed all of culture, men have not forgotten there is a female “emotional” half: They live it on the sly. As the result of their battle to reject the female in themselves (the Oedipus Complex as we have explained it) there are unable to take love seriously as a cultural matter; but they can’t do without it altogether.

Love is the underbelly of (male) culture just as love is the weak spot of every man, bent on proving his virility in that large male world of “travel and adventure.” Women have always known how men need love, and how they deny this need. Perhaps this explains the peculiar contempt women so universally feel for men (“men are so dumb”), for they can see their men are posturing in the outside world.

How does this phenomenon “love” operate? Contrary to popular opinion, love is not altruistic. The initial attraction is based on curious admiration (more often today, envy and resentment) for the self-possession, the integrated unity, of the other and a wish to become part of this Self in some way (today, read: intrude or take over), to become important to that psychic balance. The self-containment of the other creates desire (read: a challenge); admiration (envy) of the other becomes a wish to incorporate (possess) its qualities. A clash of selves follows in which the individual attempts to fight off the growing hold over him of the other.

Love is the final opening up to (or, surrender to the domination of) the other. The lover demonstrates to the beloved how he himself would like to be treated. (“I tried so hard to make him fall in love with me that I fell in love with him myself.”) Thus love is the height of selfishness: the self attempts to enrich itself through the absorption of another being. Love is being psychically wide-open to another. It is a situation of total emotional vulnerability. Therefore it must be not only the incorporation of the other, but an exchange of selves. Anything short of a mutual exchange will hurt one or the other party.

There is nothing inherently destructive about this process. A little healthy selfishness would be a refreshing change. Love between two equals would be an enrichment, each enlarging himself through the other: instead of being one, locked in the cell of himself with only his own experience and view, he could participate in the existence of another — an extra window on the world. This accounts for the bliss that successful lovers experience: Lovers are temporarily freed from the burden of isolation that every individual bears.

But bliss in love is seldom the case: For every successful contemporary love experience, for every short period of enrichment, there are ten destructive love experiences, post-love “downs” of much longer duration — often resulting in the destruction of the individual, or at least an emotional cynicism that makes it difficult or impossible ever to love again. Why should this be so, if it is not actually inherent in the love process itself?

Let’s talk about love in its destructive guise — and why it gets that way, referring to the work of Theodor Reik. Reik’s concrete observation brings him closer than many better minds to understanding the process of “falling in love,” but he is off insofar as he confuses love as it exists in our present society with love itself. In Reik’s view, love wears down just as it wound up: Dissatisfaction with oneself (whoever heard of falling in love the week one is leaving for Europe?) leads to astonishment at the other person’s self-containment; to envy; to hostility; to possessive love; and back again through exactly the same process. This is the love process today. But why must it be this way?

I submit that love is essentially a much simpler phenomenon — it becomes complicated, corrupted, or obstructed by an unequal balance of power. We have seen that love demands a mutual vulnerability or it turns destructive: the destructive effects of love occur only in a context of inequality. But because sexual inequality has remained a constant — however its degree may have varied — the corruption “romantic” love became characteristic of love between the sexes.

How does the sex class system based on the unequal power distribution of the biological family affect love between the sexes?

Romantic idealization is partially responsible, at least on the part of men, for a peculiar characteristic of “falling” in love: the change takes place in the lover almost independently of the character of the love object. Occasionally the lover, though beside himself, sees with another rational part of his faculties that, objectively speaking, the one he loves isn’t worth all this blind devotion; but he is helpless to act on this, “a slave to love.” More, often he fools himself entirely. But others can see what is happening (“How on earth he could love her is beyond me!”). A man must idealize one woman over the rest in order to justify his descent to a lower caste.

Women have no such reason to idealize men — in fact, when one’s life depends on one’s ability to “psych” men out, such idealization may actually be dangerous — though a fear of male power in general may carry over into relationships with individual men, appearing to be the same phenomenon. But though women know to be inauthentic this male “falling in love,” all women, in one way or another, require proof of it from men before they can allow themselves to love (genuinely, in their case) in return. For this idealization process acts to artificially equalize the two parties, a minimum precondition for the development of an uncorrupted love — we have seen that love requires a mutual vulnerability that is impossible to achieve in an unequal power situation. Thus “falling in love” is no more than the process of alteration of male vision — through idealization, mystification, glorification — that renders void the woman’s class inferiority.

However, the woman knows that this idealization, which she works so hard to produce, is a lie, and that it is only a matter of time before he “sees through her.” Her life is a hell, vacillating between an all-consuming need for male love and approval to raise her from her class subjection, to persistent feelings of inauthenticity when she does achieve his love. Thus her whole identity hangs in the balance of her love life. She is allowed to love herself only if a man finds her worthy of love.

But if we could eliminate the political context of love between the sexes, would we not have some degree of idealization remaining in the love process itself? I think so. For the process occurs in the same manner whoever the love choice: the lover “opens up” to the other. Because of this fusion of egos, in which each sees and cares about the other as a new self, the beauty/character of the beloved, perhaps hidden to outsiders under layers of defenses, is revealed.

Increased sensitivity to the real, if hidden, values in the other, however, is not “blindness” or “idealization” but is, in fact, deeper vision. It is only the false idealization we have described above that is responsible for the destruction. Thus it is not the process of love itself that is at fault, but its political, i.e., unequal power context: the who, why, when, and where of it.

Adapted from “Love,” in The Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution originally published in 1970.

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Shulamith Firestone, who died in 2012, was the author of The Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.

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