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What Love is Not


A common misconception is that dependency is love. When you require another person for your survival, you are a parasite on that person. There is no choice, no freedom involved in your relationship. It is a matter of necessity rather than love. Love is the free exercise of choice.

"Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but choose to live with each other."

Dependency is the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately without being certain of another's care. It is to be distinguished from dependency needs or feelings. Even the strongest, most caring and responsible adult would like to be taken care of for a change. But for most of us, these desires or feelings do not rule our lives. When they do, then we have something more than dependency needs or feelings: we are dependent.

Dependent people are so busy seeking to be loved that they have no energy left to love. They have an inner emptiness crying out to be filled. They can never be completely "full-filled". They tolerate loneliness very poorly. They have no real sense of identity, and they define themselves solely by their relationships.

Rapidly changing partners is a characteristic of dependent people. It does not matter who they are dependent on, so long as it is just someone. Their identity does not matter so long as there is someone to give it them. So their relationships, although seemingly dramatic in their intensity, are actually extremely shallow. Because of the strength of their feeling of inner emptiness and their hunger to fill it, dependent people will accept no delay in gratifying their need for others.

These dependent people are passive in their dependency in the sense that they concern themselves only with what others can do for them, to the exclusion of what they themselves can do. This is not to say that they never do things for others, but that their motive in doing things is to cement the attachment of the others to them so as to assure their own care. When the possibility of care from another is not directly involved, they do have great difficulty in doing things.

In marriage there is normally a differentiation of spouses' roles, a normally efficient division of labour. Healthy couples, however, will instinctively switch roles from time to time in a process which diminishes their mutual dependency.

But, for dependent people, the loss of the other is such a frightening prospect that they cannot face preparing for it or tolerate a process that would diminish their dependency or increase the freedom of the other. Consequently, it is one of their behavioural hallmarks in marriage to rigidly differentiate roles and to seek to increase, rather than diminish, mutual dependency so as to make marriage more rather than less of a trap. By so doing, in the name of what they call love but what is really dependency, they diminish their own and each other's freedom and stature. Occasionally, as part of the process, they will actually forsake skills that they had gained before marriage. Through such behaviour, dependent marriages may be made lasting and secure, but they cannot be considered either healthy or genuinely loving, because the security is purchased at the price of freedom and the relationship retards or destroys the growth of the individual partners.

"A good marriage can only exist between two strong and independent people."

Dependency begins with lack of love. The suffered inner feeling of emptiness is the result of their parents' failure to fulfil their needs for affection, attention and care during their childhood. Children growing up where love and care are lacking, or given inconsistently, enter adulthood with no sense of inner security. They feel the need to scramble for love, care and attention wherever they can find it, and having found it, cling to it desperately, leading them to unloving, manipulative behaviour that destroys the very relationships they seek to preserve.

It is no accident that the most common disturbance that dependent people manifest beyond their relationships to others is dependency on drugs and alcohol.

Cathexis without love

Love is never nurture or cathexis without regard to spiritual growth.

We speak of people loving inanimate objects or activities, e.g. money, power, gardening, golf etc. Certainly, you may extend yourself beyond ordinary personal limits, working long hours to accumulate money and power. Yet, despite the extent of your fortune or influence, all this may not be self-enlarging at all.

Hobbies are self-nurturing activities. In loving ourselves, i.e. nurturing ourselves for the purpose of spiritual growth, we need to provide ourselves with things that are not directly spiritual. To nourish the spirit, the body must also be nurtured. We need food and shelter. No matter how dedicated we are to spiritual development, we need rest, relaxation, exercise and distraction. But, if a hobby becomes an end in itself, then it becomes a substitute for rather than a means to self-development. Sometimes it is precisely for this reason that hobbies are so popular.

Alternatively, power and money may be means to a loving goal. A rare person may suffer a career in politics to use political power for the betterment of humankind. Some people yearn riches, not for their sake, but to send their children to college or to provide themselves with the freedom and time for study and reflection necessary for their own spiritual growth. It is not power or money that such people love; it is humanity.

As long as we continue to use the word "love" to describe our relationship with anything that is important to us, anything we cathect, without regard for the quality of that relationship, we will continue to have difficulty discerning the difference between the wise and foolish, the good and bad, the noble and ignoble.

Using our more specific definition of love, it is clear that we can only love human beings as only they are perceived of as possessing a spirit capable of substantial growth.

Many people are capable of "loving" only pets and incapable of genuinely loving other human beings. The liberated woman is right to beware of the man who affectionately calls her his "pet". His affection may be dependent on her being his pet, without regard for her strength, independence and individuality.

Probably the most saddening example of this phenomenon is the large number of women who are only capable of "loving" their children as infants. Once a child begins to assert its own will - to attach itself to other people, to move out into the world on its own - the mother's love ceases.

The "love" of infants, pets and, even dependently obedient spouses, is an instinctual protective pattern of behaviour which we can call "maternal", or more generally, "paternal instinct". We can liken this to the instinctual behaviour of "falling in love":

  • it is not a genuine form of love as it is relatively effortless, and it is not totally an act of will or choice;

  • it encourages the survival of the species, but is not directed towards its improvement or spiritual growth;

  • it is close to love in that is a reaching out for others and serves to start bonds between people from which real love might grow;

Much more is required to develop a healthy, creative marriage, raise a healthy, spiritually growing child or contribute to the evolution of humanity. Nurturing spiritual growth is an infinitely more complicated process than can be directed by any instinct.

Love is judicious giving and judicious withholding as well. It is judicious praising and criticising. It is judicious arguing, struggling, confronting, urging, pushing and pulling in addition to comforting. It is leadership, requiring judgement more than instinct, and thoughtful, often painful decision-making.


Examples of injudicious giving and destructive nurturing are many, e.g. mothers who push food on already overweight children, fathers who give their children roomfuls of toys or clothes, parents who always drive their children places, parents who set no limits and deny no desires. The motivation has a feature in common: The "giver", under the guise of love, is responding to and meeting his or her own needs without regard to the spiritual needs of the receiver.

Whenever we think of ourselves as doing something for another, we are denying our own responsibility. We do what we do because we choose to do it, and we make that choice because it satisfies us most. Whatever we do for someone else, we do because it fulfils a need we have.

Parents who expect gratitude from their children for all they have done are invariably significantly lacking in love. Anyone who genuinely loves knows the pleasure of loving. When we genuinely love, we do so because we want to love.

It is true that love involves a change in the self, but it is an extension of the self, rather than a sacrifice of the self. Genuine love is a self-replenishing activity. Indeed, it is even more: It enlarges rather than diminishes the self; it fills the self, rather than depleting it. In a real sense, love is as selfish as nonlove. Here again is a paradox in that love is selfish and unselfish at the same time. It is not selfishness or unselfishness that distinguishes love from nonlove; it is the aim of the action. In the cases of genuine love, the aim is always spiritual growth. In the case of nonlove, the aim is always something else.

A feeling

Love is an action, an activity. Love is not a feeling. Many people possessing a feeling of love and, even responding to that feeling, act in unloving and destructive ways. On the other hand, a genuinely loving person will often take loving and constructive action towards a person he or she consciously dislikes, actually feeling no love, or even feeling repugnance at the time. Conversely, it is not only possible but necessary for a loving person to sometimes avoid acting on feelings of love.

The feeling of love is the emotion that accompanies the experience of cathexis. Genuine love implies commitment and wisdom. When we are concerned for someone's spiritual growth, we know that a lack of commitment is likely to be harmful and that commitment is necessary for us to manifest concern effectively.

In a constructive marriage, just as in constructive therapy, the partners must regularly, routinely and predictably attend to their relationship no matter how they feel.

When love exists, it does so with or without cathexis and with or without a loving feeling, although it is easier, indeed fun, to love with cathexis and the feeling of love. It is in the fulfilment of love without cathexis or feeling that genuine love transcends simple cathexis. The key word in the definition of love is "will", the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth. This love is volitional rather than emotional.

Our feelings of love may be unbounded but our capacity for loving is limited. We must therefore choose on whom we will focus our capacity to love, and towards whom we will direct our will to love. True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed, it is a committed, thoughtful decision.

The tendency to confuse love with the feeling of love allows us to deceive ourselves. There may be a self-serving tendency here; it is easy and pleasurable to find evidence of love in one's feelings. It may be difficult and painful to search for evidence of love in one's action. But, because true love is an act of will that often transcends feelings of love or cathexis, it is true to say, "Love is as love does".

Exploration and Discussion

1. "We are meant to love people and use things, not love things and use people"
Reinhold Niebuhr.
Consider this statement as it applies in your life. What changes would you like to make to your significant personal relationships?

2. Dependency:

(a) What do you like about depending on others?

(b) What do you dislike about being dependent?

(c) What do you like about having others dependent on you?

(d) What do you dislike about having others dependent on you?

3. What are some legitimate dependency needs and what are some legitimate ways of getting them met?

4. Love is defined as being an extension of the "will". Surely, feelings simply "are". Can love be willed? Can we make a decision to like someone?

5. "Love is as love does." What loving have you done recently?