Love & Our Two Selves

This post was prompted in part by a post that was reblogged by Todd Loheny from titled “The Reason Love Dies (And How To Get It Back!)” by Shelly Bullard, MFT. This is not a direct response to her post, but I do want to address one of the fundamental underlying reasons why so many love/intimate relationships die, and it’s an important angle that she did not account for in her essay / blog post. . . .


Love has two meanings, depending on whether it is spoken of in the mode of having or in the mode of being.

When love is experienced in the mode of “having” it implies confining, imprisoning, or controlling the object one “loves.” It is strangling, deadening, suffocating, killing, not life-giving.

What people call love is mostly a misuse of the word, in order to hide the reality of their not loving. Loving parents are the exception rather than the rule.

The truth is, there is no such thing or possession as “love.” In reality, there exists only the act of loving. To love is a productive activity. It implies caring for, knowing, responding, affirming, enjoying: the person, the tree, the painting, the idea. It means bringing to life, increasing his/her/its aliveness. It is a process, self-renewing and self-increasing. (Erich Fromm, abridged and adapted from“To Have Or To Be?” pp. 44-45.)

What Fromm is saying here is, or what Fromm seems to be saying here—especially through his use of the phrase “Love is a productive activity”—is that love ultimately is something we do, it ultimately arises or effuses naturally from what we are, if—if—we have grown intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, in a specific direction.

If we have grown in this certain direction morally, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, then we will be able to love, to produce and give love—to care for, respond to, grow in knowledge and understanding of another human being, and human beings in general (even those who oppose us, are unkind to us, et cetera).

And if we haven’t (yet) grown in a certain direction psychologically and emotionally and spiritually and intellectually, then make not mistake about it: we will be utterly unable to love—we will be completely and utterly impotent in terms of producing or yielding love, in terms of behaving consistently in ways that are loving (and real love is a combination of both tenderness and toughness) towards another or other human beings.  And because we are unable to produce love, we will still be self-centered—focused on seeking and trying to attract and gain “love,” or something that resembles love—i.e., attention, romance, validation, ego aggrandizement, and ego trip, infatuation, lust, et cetera.

One of the fundamental keys to understanding the phenomenon of love and our attempts at committed intimate human relationships is recognizing the vast difference between how most of people—most of us—naturally behave when we want something and then how most of us behave once we have something.

And most people / most of us in this regard are still like children. This may sound harsh, but think about it:  Many of us still quite naturally act one way when we want something, another way once we have something; we act one way when something is new, another way once we’ve had it for a while. Children are like this with their toys. And as adults most of us are still like this in regards to life and our relationships—we take life and other people and our relationships with them for granted. We take a high degree of license, of liberty, with each. It’s like we’re two different people, or it’s as if there are (at least) two different versions of ourselves within us—the way we are when we want something or when we’re courting something or someone, or when someone or something is new; and then there’s the way we are once we’ve gotten comfortable and familiar with someone or something and begin taking them for granted (generally, far from our best self; generally, a grumpier, crankier, less focused, and far less appreciative version of ourselves).

Generally speaking, most of us do not show our best self once we have something. Instead, we save that for / show that when we’re trying to gain or attract something or someone. We’re more motivated, more charismatic, more polished, more attentive, more on top of our game, et cetera, not when we’ve had love and a relationship for a long time and it’s old and comfortable and secure and familiar, but rather when we’re trying to attract love. The comedian, Chris Rock, calls this best foot forward version of ourselves—this wooing and trying to win and seduce someone self—our “representative.”  (see min. 2:10-2:40 of the following clip — [caution: strong language!])—


Relationships, easy to get into, hard to maintain. Why are they so hard to maintain? Because it’s hard to keep up the lie! ‘Cause you can’t get nobody being you. You got to lie to get somebody. You can’t get nobody looking like you look, acting like you act, sounding like you sound. When you meet somebody for the first time, you’re not meeting them. You’re meeting their representative!” – Bigger and Blacker (HBO, 1999)

And he’s making the same observation that Erich Fromm made years ago in his book “To Have Or To Be?” (and it’s an observation / distinction that I’m sure countless other wise and attentive men and women have made note of as well).—

The change from “falling in love” to the illusion of “having” love can often be observed in concrete detail in the history of a couple who have “fallen in love.”

During courtship neither person is yet sure of the other, but each tries to win the other. Both are alive, attractive, interesting, even beautiful—inasmuch as aliveness always makes a face beautiful. Neither yet *has* the other; hence each one’s energy is directed to *being,* i.e., to giving to and stimulating the other.

With the act of marriage the situation frequently changes fundamentally. The marriage contract gives each partner the exclusive possession of the other’s body, feelings, and care. Nobody has to be won any more, because love has become something one *has,* a property. The two cease to make the effort to be loveable and to produce love, hence they become boring, and hence their beauty disappears. They are disappointed and puzzled. Are they not the same persons any more? Did they make a mistake in the first place?

Each usually seeks the cause of the change in the other and feels defrauded. What they do not see is that they themselves no longer are the same people they were when they were in love with each other; that the error that one can *have* love has led them to cease loving. Now, instead of loving each other, they settle for owning together what they have: money, social standing, a home, children. . . .

When a couple cannot get over the yearning for the renewal of the previous feeling of loving, one or the other of the pair may have the illusion that a new partner (or partners) will satisfy their longing. They feel that all they want to have is love. But love to them is not an expression of their being; it is a goddess to whom they want to submit. They necessarily fail . . . because . . . a worshiper of the goddess of love eventually becomes so passive as to be boring and loses whatever is left of his or her former attractiveness. (“To Have Or To Be,” pp. 45-46)

And so one of the fundamental problems with love is this basic gulf or chasm between the two people who meet and first present (or represent, or perhaps more accurately, misrepresent) themselves to each other, and the two people who those same two people ultimately show themselves to be 2 or 3 or 5 years down the road once they have committed themselves to each other.

In other words, there are always four people—not two—in every love relationships. There are the two shiny curb appeal people who first meet and are interested in each other (in everything about each other!), who are trying to win and woo each other, and who can talk between themselves for hours (because the conversation and the material is new, and largely safe subjects are being covered, and an underlying lust and infatuation fueled by hormones and projection [the other person is an unknown, and thus we largely project onto that person and preemptively attribute to him or her the amalgamation of good and desired qualities we are hoping to find in a significant other]). And then there are the other two people—the two people who, two or three or five years later “have” each other, know each other too well, have seen the “real” person, have been disappointed again and again in this way or that by the other, have grown bored by this other person, take license and liberty with this other person, do not handle the other person with nearly as much care and good-naturedness as when they first met.

Between the person we are initially when we’re meeting someone and the person we are once we get comfortable around this other person, there is usually for most of us a difference that is tantamount to night and day. Consider this example. Think of a child on the first day of school at a new school—new teacher, new classmates, new surroundings. And see how shy and clingy and quiet that child likely is—and how on his or her best behavior that child is as well! And now flash forward four weeks or three months and see how all of that shyness and much of that quietness and well-behavedness has relaxed and the “truer” side of the child’s personality—the “real” person, the comfortable self—is running the show.

This basic schism in us does not change much for most of us as we get older. We all have these two tendencies, these two versions of ourselves within us.

And our best possible self seems to contain many aspects / qualities that appear in our “representative.” And our worst self—what’s worst in us—seems to have some overlap with some of the less desirable qualities of our comfortable self (our comfort zone self). We rarely show up to a new relationship as lazy, needy, self-centered, high maintenance, emotionally unstable and volatile, greedy, et cetera. Most of us have enough commonsense to do a little proactive impression management—to do a little figurative and literal house cleaning and polishing, to stash our negatives away and put our best foot forward, to spruce ourselves up and put a shine to ourselves and have a little curb appeal. The person who on a first date talks endlessly about him or herself, or reveals all of his or her heartbreak and “issues” and crazy past relationships, usually doesn’t get many second dates.

The laziness, self-centeredness, demandingness, fickleness, unreasonableness, irresponsibility, moodiness, crankiness, bitchiness, neediness, spoiledness, emotional volatility and erraticness, and other vices, usually appear only after we have gotten comfortable around the other person and have won him or her—have extracted a commitment from the other person or have a ring on our finger. It’s then that two people really start meeting for the first time.

And it’s then that the real work of love begins.—

The essence of the phenomenon of falling in love is a sudden collapse of a section of an individual’s ego boundaries, permitting one to merge his or her identity with that of another person. The sudden release of oneself from oneself, the explosive outpouring of oneself into the beloved, and the dramatic surcease of loneliness that accompanies this collapse of ego boundaries is experienced by the vast majority of people as ecstatic. We and the beloved are one! Loneliness is no more! . . . All things seem possible! United with our beloved we feel we can conquer all obstacles. . . . All problems will be overcome. The future will be all light. The unreality of these feelings when we have fallen in love is essentially the same as the unreality of the two-year old who feels himself to be king of the family and the world with unlimited power.

Just as reality intrudes upon the two-year-old’s fantasy of omnipotence so does reality intrude upon the fantastic unity of the couple who have fallen in love. Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reasserts itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn’t. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t. He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher. She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his. She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers. So both of them, in the privacy of their hearts, begin to come to the sickening realization that they are not one with the beloved, that the beloved has and will continue to have his or her own desires, tastes, prejudices and timing different from their own. One by one, gradually or suddenly, the ego boundaries snap back into place; gradually or suddenly, they fall out of love. Once again they are two separate individuals. At this point they begin either to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving. (M. Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled,” pg. 88.)

And much of the real work of love is the work we each *need* to do within ourselves *on* ourselves. And a large part of that is trying to reconcile the two versions of ourselves that we all have—our representative, on the one hand, and our comfort zone self / take-life-&-others-for-granted-self, on the other hand.

—And not only do we need to do this in regards to our intimate relationships (and perhaps our friendships and perhaps even in regards to our work as well)—we also each need to do this (or would likely significantly benefit from doing this) in regards to life in general and not taking it for granted.

“Cradle to Breathe Deep” (a poem of mine that I wrote about 20 yrs)

O Life that now encompasses me
with all the bitterest sweet of splendid irony
for you have afforded me life
and privileged me to breathe
yet I am lulled to dance with you
so carefree;
with freckled eyes
and dalliant strides
the contentest of roots
doth now tether me
for a day . . . a week . . .
a month may pass
still you are here
and still I laugh. . . .

But oh wretched Life,
you have beguiled me;
you smite my face indiscriminately
with a glimpse of ravaged plumes
snatched from palisades of sky
and the frenzy of wings that beg now to fly
—or a stricken fawn burning from Diana’s bow
that gasp for now sterling life
in midst of teeming meadow.

Ah, for all the herds of the earth
and all the droves of the air
it is when there is a struggle to breathe
that breath fountains a care
thus it will be when life is least secure
and preparing to fleet
that the ignorant mass will cradle to breath deep
for it is in that dismal plunge
that we all must take
that the life within us
is foredoomed to wake.

This is the real essence of carpe diem—not waiting for the heart attack or cancer scare or some other brush with death to give us clarity—the clarity that we will likely find after an near-death-experience,* but rather developing that clarity, perspective, resilience, and basic sense of gratefulness now, while there’s still time.

(* — Because not all people find clarity when they have a brush with death; some people find an even greater urgency to leave their mark in any way possible, meaning far less than noble ways [read: Lance Armstrong. His brush with death via testicular cancer didn’t bring him “clarity”; instead if anything it removed whatever moral inhibitions he had remaining and left him bent on attaining immortality via fame and being a champion irrespective of how those aims were achieved. And now that he’s been put in a corner and stripped of his record 7 Tour de France titles, he’s trying to gain his fame and notoriety and stay in the public eye another way. That’s his way of trying to deal with his own mortality and his realization of how small and brief and infinitesimal his life is in the grand scheme of things]).


. Related and recommended articles:

About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in "To Have or To Be?", Erich Fromm, M. Scott Peck, Martin Luther King Jr., Real Love, The Examined Life, The Road Less Traveled, Truth, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Love & Our Two Selves

  1. janeadamsart says:

    Thank you John, and that is a beautiful and deeply felt poem. I feel that real true love begins – matures – with a sense of service and care through the beloved – as focused – to the wider community. But it takes A LOT OF PRACTICE!! Because first there is the old habit to desire our own pleasure, self-definition and romance – the phase of being-in-love-best-behaviour.

    Yet, Love is a cosmic gift, and our natural state, deep down, like gravity. Turn inward to see it.

    It is not a noun – fixed – it is a verb: moving and doing and being. Whenever we can, we move and do and be, and every circumstance teaches us love … sometimes after a long while of the turning wheel!

    • John says:

      You are welcome, Jane. And thank you for the kind words and for commenting. Love is indeed a verb, and something we owe it to the world and ourselves to give and offer. The debate is as old likely as human life on earth itself–be or become, our best self or our mail-it-in C average level self. So many people fight tooth and nail for their C level self and for “self-acceptance.” Self-love and self-compassion and self-kindness are much better concepts and ideals to strive for. Grow or die – G O D –Change is inevitable, growth is not; it’s optional. Love is optional, something we have to learn and practice and grow better at. Otherwise we’re just going along with gravity, the crowd, the flow, living mindlessly and alseep. Zzzzzzzz. . . .

      Yes, practice, practice, practice. And attention, attention, attention, as in pay attention and do one’s best. That’s so important in becoming a more genuinely loving human being. — And reading some really good books as well. That, too, seems essential!

      Kindest regards as always, Jane, and thank you for reading and commenting!


  2. Hi John—thanks for the recommendation! I’m glad to be part of the circle—great article. Growth is something that fuels romantic relationships—when we become stagnant in who we are and no longer challenge ourselves by asking the tough questions, changing and adapting, and seeing ourselves anew, it’s difficult to be happy for the long-term in any romantic relationship. It’s tough to be in the present moment all the time, but if we forgive ourselves too and think of ourselves as works in progress, then it’s easier to make those changes and grow together.

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