When you think of psychoanalysis and love, what comes to mind? It has become a normative narrative to put psychoanalysis, Oedipus complex and sex all in the same sentence but is it all there is? Let’s look at what psychoanalysis does have to say about love.
I won’t give you a thorough explanation of psychoanalytic theory on sexuality and love here because frankly, this is a highly complicated issue to write about, let alone synthesize in a blog post. Instead, let’s touch on a few basic concepts about the psychology of love that we learn from psychoanalytic theory and practice, that will hopefully introduce a different image of psychoanalysis for you.
Different kinds of love
First off, psychoanalysis accounts for all kinds of love – sexual love, sensual love between partners, parental love, sibling love, grandparent love, love between friends, being in love versus loving, imaginary love, impossible love, transference love, love between humans and animals, love for religion and/or ideology, love of oneself, adult love, childhood love, adolescent love… Of course not all of these are formally defined but you get my point.
What a few psychoanalysts say about love
“…one of the forms in which love manifests itself – sexual love – has given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure.” Sigmund Freud
“When you are in love, you are in love with the image you think the other has for you, the image reflected by the other. “When you are in love, you have found someone to reinforce the good image of yourself… when the image is broken … and you encounter the real other, sometimes there is divorce.” Lucie Cantin (a psychiatrist and teaching psychoanalysts at the Freudian School of Psychoanalysis in Quebec)
“It is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.” Sigmund Freud
“To be in love is to get lost in a labyrinth. Love is labyrinthine. Through the paths of love you lose your way, you lose yourself.” Jacques-Alain Miller (psychoanalyst, writer and editor of the Seminars of Jacques Lacan)
Our first “love object”
When we speak about love in psychoanalysis we often speak about “love object” and “object choice.” The first love object that both sexes have in common is their primary care giver, usually the mother. Very simply put, the relationship that we have with this first “love object” lays the foundation of our capacity for love and affection later in life. Just like in John Mayer’s song “Daughters”:
“Fathers, be good to your daughters,
Daughters will love like you do.
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers,
So mothers, be good to your daughters too.”
There is much truth to that chorus not just for daughters but for sons too. We learn what love is from our relationship to our parents and from their relationship to each other. They are the first people to reflect back to us how worthy of love we are, how safe it is to love and what it means to love and be loved.
Do we choose who to fall in love with?
From a psychoanalytic point of view, we do. But not in the intentional, controlled and rational way that we make all other choices in life. Rather, in an unconscious, somewhat mysterious, “labyrinthine” kind of way. That is why it is not unusual for people to come to psychoanalytic psychotherapy to work on understanding and improving their love relationships.
To be specific, in his article “On narcissism: An introduction,” Freud speaks about two kinds of “love object choice”:
1) a narcissistic type object choice: when a person loves someone who is like themselves, or like what they were in the past or like what they would ideally like to be
2) an attachment type object choice: when a person loves “the woman who feeds him” or “the man who protects him and the succession of substitutes who take their place.”
Simply put, when we fall in love, we fall in love with an image of the other person that reflects something about ourselves or that reminds us of someone else we love(d) or admire. Sometimes, we fall in love with what we never had but longed for; with an idealized version of ourselves or a complimentary one (“opposites attract”); with someone, who makes us feel special and cared for.
And ideally, the feeling of being in love is a feeling of being like one with another human being, with whom words are not always necessary to feel understood, accepted, and cared for. In reality, of course, it is a lot more complicated than that.