Maybe it’s because I read this for a course I was crazy about. Maybe it’s because I read it during my first trip to New York. Or maybe it’s because I had a nasty cold, slept at night on my friend’s floor, and wandered the streets by day in a state of sleep-deprived euphoria. But whatever it was, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving was a book that shook me up in all the right ways.

It’s not the latest off the shelf, and there are many psychoanalytic ideas that lead the book to date itself. Sections about masculine and feminine forces, or homosexuality being a confused state rather than something as true and real as anything else, are certainly sides to be ordered with extra salt.

Yet if you consider those sections as descriptions of powerful social narratives instead of true human traits, suddenly things make more sense. Based on his 1950s model, for example, the mother is expected to be unconditionally loving, the father detached and conditional. So if we read it in terms of “how successfully the family as a whole navigates these social pressures in order to remain authentic and open,” things start falling into place.

Ultimately what makes this book so meaningful is Fromm’s core argument: that love is an art that is developed over the years, rather than an uncovered manhole into which we suddenly fall. To Fromm, there is no such thing as falling in love, because in the beginning we simply don’t know enough about the other to truly be loving them.

An unromantic fate?

With countless unhappy couples and rampant divorce rates, sometimes it’s hard not to see aging as an inevitable decline, and love as a social machine that just as inevitably crumples under the weight of its progressive complication. So often we see youth as the asset we carry in us for only so long, like an immense savings account gradually wasted away by inflation.

But if we’re honest, were our first relationships truly better than the ones to follow? Or were they closer to fireworks: beautiful explosions in the sky that fizzle out as quickly as they come.

As unromantic as it seems, this makes decent sense. If we’re deeply engaging ourselves, asking the hard questions and making choices into growth rather than out of fear, then with this added experience and self-knowledge how could we not become better at loving?

Confusion at first sight

Fromm posits that our first relationships so rarely work out because we don’t actually know ourselves, don’t know what we want, or what we need – let alone how to communicate any of it to our lover.

Perhaps then, there’s no love at first sight either. There’s excitement, desire, longing – but these are the same feelings I got as a teenager when Hermione Granger clocked Malfoy in the face.

While I might have called it love at first sight then, this is but one example of how most of what we learn about love comes not through exposure to real relationships but through portrayals of characters in love. This is a problem because real relationships involve whole people, but characters only exist to create a specific feeling in you. The character only exists to communicate something to us and evoke something in us. It doesn’t have a life of its own, doesn’t exist outside of that context. If Hermione punches Malfoy in the woods and no one’s watching, he doesn’t feel a thing – and she isn’t beautiful and righteous.

That’s not to say characters can’t inspire us, excite us, give us ideas that translate beautifully into reality – I mean, what would be the point if they didn’t? But to waltz into a relationship expecting everything to fall into place as seamlessly as a well written screenplay is just setting oneself up for disappointment.

The honeymoon phase

So let’s apply this new idea to a notion that many of us have heard of, or have even experienced first-hand: that the magic of a relationship reaches its peak during its beginning, and then slowly tapers out into oblivion. We also seem to hold this attitude for sex: the beginning years were the most exciting, most passionate, and then this molten joy slowly cooled and set into a routine normalcy. What is it about these first couple months that seem most joyful?

To Fromm, the “honeymoon phase” feels so amazing because it provides the illusion of emotional connectedness without requiring any real intimacy. Rather than experiencing a shared emotional state with one another, each is overwhelmed with his own feeling at the same time.

If Jeff is “falling for” Jerry, Jeff is getting high on Jeff’s feelings and Jerry is getting high on Jerry’s: Jeff doesn’t really feel Jerry nor Jerry Jeff because they haven’t learned how to yet.

Each of them has the opportunity to reinvent themselves through a retelling of their most important experiences, and gets to rediscover his life through telling it to someone else. This initial sharing of ourselves can place us as a character for the other’s enjoyment, where the movie reel runs and we continue entertaining them without sharing our true feelings in the here and now. But eventually the couple hits a point where they’ve shared so much of their past that they’ve caught up to today.

But when you catch up to today, where most people think the passion has died, that’s where the real intimacy begins. That’s when we step out of our roles as characters and start sharing ourselves as full people. We are not selective, flattering symbols of our person, but our whole self: unadulterated, photoshop-free, vulnerable and messy – sometimes even dull.

Consider the ancient myth of Pygmalion. When a sculptor falls in love with a sculpture he’s made, Aphrodite grants his wish to transform it into a human being who loves him back. Emotionally, the experience is the same for new couples. For the first few weeks, we live infatuated with our own feelings – not the other’s. We see what we want to see, what we’re looking for: aspects of him that reflect our image of the fantasy partner. It’s only through time that we come to share enough of ourselves to foster an intimate connection, where we not only feel ourselves, but feel with the other. This is when we start to wake up to this other human inside the rock, when he or she surprises us, presents something we weren’t expecting. In the many inevitable ways in which the partner proves herself different from the ideal, we are being confronted with a reality that challenges us to feel most alive ourselves. So isn’t it sad how, when we feel most insecure in our relationship or in ourselves, we often try and crawl back inside the statue by acting the way our partner expects of us, by hiding from the humanity that made our pairing meaningful? No matter how difficult the situation, it’s crucial that we continue to express, continue to be open in the face of those who’d rather remain statues. Love isn’t a code waiting to be broken, or a single lightening stroke. Love is an awareness we foster by which we come to see others more clearly for who they are, and with that new vision, love is the sharing of a world. So, rather than praying to Aphrodite, perhaps all that’s needed is a gradual peeling away of our presuppositions, expectations, and fantasies, until the form of our lover reveals itself underneath.

Image credit: Random Harvest 1947 – Japanese movie poster