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What Love Is and Isn’t


Love is one of the mysteries of the ages. It’s a term bandied about so much that most of us have lost sight of what it means and, more important, what it doesn’t mean. We also assume that when a person says they love us, their actions will automatically align with this message. Unless we fully understand what love means, we’re bound to fall into trouble in our interpersonal relationships. 

To consider its meaning, let’s go back to 1956 and the publication of psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s seminal work, The Art of Loving (which I highly recommend reading). He says that “What matters is that we know what kind of union we are talking about when we speak of love. Do we refer to love as the mature answer to the problem of existence, or do we speak of those immature forms of love which may be called symbiotic union?” 

“Infantile love follows the principle: “I love because I am loved. Mature love follows the principle: I am loved because I love.” Fromm focuses on the mature love which he says “is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality . . . In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.” 

He continues:” Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a ‘standing in,’ not a ‘falling for’ . . . In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving . . . In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power.” How many of us are on the giving or receiving end of such love when we usually associate giving with deprivation, surrender or vulnerability?

Fromm goes on to advise: “If I love a person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be an object for my use.” (apologies for Fromm’s use of “he”) This means what is done by us or to us is for the needs of the other person, not a selfish manipulation of our or their needs. Fromm believes that “Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself [sic] from the center of his [sic] existence.”

The good news is that we don’t have to love everybody or be loved by them, even our parents once we become adults. More good news is we have a prescription for examining if we are truly loved: Do we receive “communication from the center of our beloved’s existence,” is our beloved even able to communicate from there, and does their strength and power come from giving to us not to themselves. Fromm’s model might seem a bit lofty and ideal, but it also has a simplicity that can help us figure out this thing called love.