Deirdre Johnson explores love as both a form of bondage and liberation

Love: Bondage or Liberation? The Meaning, Values, and Dangers of Falling in Love

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In the history of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy as we know, falling in love was first examined as an important event within the context of the therapeutic work. Freud and his contemporaries found that their analysands often developed passionate attachments to them. This formed the basis for Freud’s idea of the transference.

The difficulties that those early doctors encountered led to an understanding of counter transference. At first this phenomenon was seen as an obstacle to the progress of the work, later as an important means of the resolution of complexes and much has been written about the ‘erotic transference’ and counter transference as it can play such a crucial role in the therapeutic endeavour. 

However, it is important to keep sight of the fact that falling in love is an extremely common experience (indeed in the book I argue for it being a near universal one) and as such it clearly has a meaning beyond simply the therapeutic one. When patients in analysis or psychotherapy fall in love with someone other than their analyst or therapist it is not necessarily ‘acting out’ – Freud’s term originally coined specifically for the flight from the erotic transference. An exploration of the meaning of falling in love from many different disciplines can give us an important perspective from which to view this phenomenon. In this book I aim to do for falling in love something of what Winnicott succeeded in doing for play – to put a phenomenon, first explored in depth psychology within the framework of pathology, into the context of an ordinary, healthy experience and thus to broaden our understanding of how we can make the most of this experience both in the therapeutic work and in our ordinary lives. 

For this reason the book explores a whole variety of different approaches to the subject of falling in love. These are deployed to further an understanding of what might be its meaning and also to highlight what are the particular dangers and benefits inherent in the experience. The book begins with insights from Freud’s psycho-analytic narrative and continues with others from object relations school to the relational psychologies, looking at some extremely helpful insights from Melanie Klein, Jung, WinnicottBowlby, and others. But these developmental narratives do not tell the whole story and insights from social historians, social anthropologists, and neuroscientific research add a great deal to our understanding of the role passion plays in the formation of companionate love. Then there are those approaches that include teleological or purposive perspectives: Jung’s theory of individuation, for example, and philosophical and religious approaches. 

922-text-mes_articleThese explorations throw up some very interesting themes: in what sense can love tokens or other treasured love objects be understood as transitional objects? When someone, especially a young person, falls in love these days one of the first expressions of this is by use of the text on their mobile phone. Do such texts or the phone itself become transitional objects? Certainly the sending of a text in this fashion holds a great symbolic relevance in the situation. What kinds of thing are being symbolised here? 

A second theme which provides a rich vein of material is that of idealisation. We are familiar with idealisation as a primary defence – a protection against ambivalence – and perhaps nowhere else is idealisation as manifest as in passionate love. Yet there are other important and different functions which idealisation can have. It can serve a process of realisation where qualities felt to be only present in another can be fleshed out in detail and then integrated into the conscious ego; of normalisation, where experiences for the person bereft of an attuned, holding early environment that are felt to be too good to be true can be experienced and over time taken for granted in the positive sense. In each of these different versions of idealisation the process that is required to make good use of the experience differs and is specific to each form. There is a fourth form of idealization, one which perhaps deserves a different term but which is to do with a clear-sighted form of love which, through imagination, can help bring into being the positive potential of the loved one. This relates to the purposive nature of the transference: Jung saw that in the process of analysis, when the main projections had been analysed and integrated sufficiently there remained elements of the transference that were not dissolved. He described this as an instinct related to the need for the human connection: That, he saw, as the core of the whole transference phenomenon which is impossible to argue away because relationship to the self is at one and the same time relationship to our fellow human beings. No-one can be related to the self until they are also related to others and no one can be related to others until they are also related to their self. 

Bliss is a third topic which yields rich insights. The intoxicating quality of bliss seems to underlie much of the intensity of passion in falling in love. Freud often uses the terms ‘pleasure’ and ‘unpleasure’; he sees, to my mind rightly, these two as a pair of opposites which drive a great deal of conscious and unconscious behaviour. The seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are two motivations which characterize all animals (perhaps, in some form, all living things). But it is interesting to note that our language gives us other words as well which connote different qualities of experience: we do not have the term ‘pleasure’ alone for goods we might seek, but also happiness, joy and so on. Pleasure might be understood as the more basic i.e. animal or mammalian aim, happiness as a more human, more evolved one, such things as joy or fulfilment maybe even more so. Yet we also have another term on this pleasure spectrum: ‘bliss’, Bliss would seem to have a different quality altogether, one that seems to cut across the distinction between more primitive needs and more evolved ones. Again in the book bliss is explored using the various narratives of psychodynamic theory, neuroscientific research and an understanding of what might be termed the religious instinct. 

How can all of this be put together? When we have done justice to these different explanations regarding passionate love what are we left with overall? This is explored and some conclusions drawn. There is a final chapter on what are the psychotherapeutic implications of this study and some practical suggestions as to how we can work with this phenomenon. 

Deirdre Johnson
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