Why We’re All Terrible At Love According to Erich Fromm

This time of the year, when lovers rejoice and cupid’s arrow is drawn, can also be a painful one for those left un-cuffed. Love is a tricky concept; often imagined as some sort of fantastical and mystical state of union with another, something that you will fall into the moment you lock eyes with your soon-to-be other half. It’s this amazing, life-changing thing that is so hard to attain but, paradoxically, so easy to be in. You think to yourself life would be so much easier in love. And, unfortunately, you’re often reminded of how much you’re missing out on by movies, sitcoms, books and gross couples that are a little too into PDA.

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The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm disagrees with this conception of love as easy. Instead he considers love to be the hardest of hard work but, nonetheless, as one of the most worthy aims known to the human race. In “The Art of Loving”, and in spite of the heavily gendered language that might not hold up nowadays, Fromm lays out his theory in detail.

Firstly, he notes that many don’t actually appear to want love in the healthy sense. In fact, he notes three common misconceptions that leads people down the wrong path in pursuing love. When people say they want love what they mean is not that they want to love but rather to be loved. We desire some form of affirmation, some sense that we are right in our nature or meant to exist, and being loved is a state that we believe to satisfy this. Some then pursue certain marks of identity that, in a general sense, attract admiration in their culture. For example, many individuals will pursue success, whether financially or through other means, in order to gain the admiration that they believe will lead to them being loved. Others will rely on physical attraction in the vain sense, believing that appearances is all that is needed in order to gain love.

This misconception is closely tied to the second one, that people treat love as an object rather than a faculty. Many believe that love can be attained, that it is some abstract goal that will allow them to gain membership into an easier and happier existence. However, Fromm argues that love is an activity; it requires effort, discipline and focus. It is an art, something to be practiced.

Thirdly, many are confused between the finite experience of falling love vs the permanent experience of loving. Whereas the former is unbelievably pleasurable and intense in its experience and seemingly easy in its performance, the latter is filled with stinky diapers, hard conversations and compromise; making it an evidently more difficult task. However, as Fromm suggests, Being in love is worth the effort.

Fromm conceives of love as an art. From this emerges three main components of mastering the art of love. Firstly there is mastering the theory of love which to a great degree involves the overcoming of these aforementioned misconceptions. Secondly, one must master the actual practice of love; a far more difficult task to generalize and describe. Finally, in the same sense that the artist places their work above all else, the art of loving requires us to place love as the ultimate aim. He notes that in this day and age, and despite the amount of songs and movies committed to it, very rarely is love prioritized in such a way. People regularly put their careers, vices, and personal grievances over one of the greatest human experiences possible.

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So what does it take to love? Fromm suggests that true love involves 4 basic elements: care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. Regarding care, he writes that “love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love”. We express a genuine interest in those we love. This is perhaps the most fundamental of the elements. If, for example, someone was to tell us that they loved flowers but neglected to water them, we might not believe them.

Secondly, there is the importance of responsibility. This should be distinguished from duty, which is often conceived of being responsibility imposed upon you from the outside. Instead, responsibility is entirely voluntary; the response to your own concern over the needs of the other.

He feels responsible for his fellow men, as he feels responsible for himself. The responsibility, in the case of the mother and her infant, refers mainly to the care for physical needs. In the love between adults it refers mainly to the psychic needs of the other person”.

Of course, responsibility can quickly grow into something far more controlling if it isn’t tampered by respect. Respect as Fromm defines it, is “the ability to see a person as they are, to be aware of their unique individuality…Respect thus implies the absence of exploitation”.

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Respect cannot be achieved without knowing the other person. Hence, knowledge is yet another element of true love. In fact, knowledge is a driving force of love as it relates to the human desire to know the secrets of humanity itself; to know thyself.

The further we reach into the depth of our being, or someone else’s being, the more the goal of knowledge eludes us. Yet we cannot help desiring to penetrate into the secret of man’s soul, into the innermost nucleus which is “he”.

Love, for Fromm, is an activity, and a difficult one at that. It involves a sort of giving that transcends mere material transfer; rather, it is the giving of oneself, one’s entire being and, in doing so, enhancing the being of the other. Through this union, we experience one of the greatest feelings accessible to humans and satisfy the emptiness of isolation that is so constant in our condition. But loving is far more difficult and requires a much greater effort than any movie would lead you to believe. To love is to commit to being a better person.

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