Love is not a feeling by M. Scott Peck
Love is an action, an activity. This leads to the final major misconception of love which needs to be addressed — love is not a feeling. Many, many people possessing a feeling of love and even acting in response to that feeling act in all manner of unloving and destructive ways. On the other hand, a genuine loving individual will often take loving and constructive action toward a person he or she consciously dislikes, actually feeling no love toward the person at the time and perhaps even finding the person repugnant in some way.
The feeling of love is the emotion that accompanies the experience of cathecting. Cathecting is the process by which an object becomes important to us. Once cathected, the object, commonly referred to as a “love object” is invested with our energy as if it were a part of ourselves, and this relationship between us and the investment object is called a cathexis. The process of withdrawing our energy from a love object so that it loses its sense of importance for us is known as decathecting.
The misconception that love is a feeling exists because we confuse cathecting with loving. This confusion is understandable since they are similar processes, but there are striking differences
First of all, we may cathect any object, animate or inanimate, with or without a spirit. Thus, a person may cathect the stock market or a piece of jewelry and may feel love for these things.
Secondly, the fact that we have cathected another human being does not mean that we care a whit for that person’s spiritual development. The dependent person, in fact, usually fears the spiritual development of a cathected spouse. The mother who insisted upon driving her adolescent son to and fro school clearly cathected the boy. He was important to her — but his spiritual growth is not.
Third, the intensity of our cathexes frequently has nothing to do with wisdom or commitment. Two strangers may meet in a bar and cathect each other in such a way that nothing — not previously scheduled appointments, promises made, or family stability — is more important for the moment than their sexual consummation.
Finally, our cathexes may be fleeting and momentary. Immediately following their sexual consummation, the just-mentioned couple may find each other unattractive and undesirable. We may decathect something almost as soon as we have cathected it.
Genuine love, on the other hand, implies commitment and the exercise of 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 to that person is probably necessary for us to manifest our concern effectively.
It is for this reason that commitment is the cornerstone of the psychotherapeutic relationship. It is almost impossible for a patient to experience significant personality growth without a “therapeutic alliance” with the therapist. In other words, before the patient can risk major change, he or she must feel the strength that come from believing that the therapist is the patient’s constant and stable ally.
For this alliance to occur, the therapist must demonstrate to the patient, usually over a considerable length of time, the consistent and steadfast caring that can arise only from a capacity for commitment. This doesn’t mean that the therapist always feels like listening to the patient. Commitment means that the therapist listens to the patient, like it or not.
It is no difference in a marriage.
In a constructive marriage, just as in constructive therapy, the partners must regularly, routinely and predictably, attend to each other and their relationship no matter how they feel. As has been mentioned, couples sooner or later always fall out of love, and it is at the moment when the mating instinct has run its course that the opportunity for genuine love begins. It is when the spouses no longer feel like being in each other’s company always, when they would rather be elsewhere some of the time, that their love begins to be tested and will be found to be present or absent.
This is not to say that the partners in a stable, constructive relationship such as intensive psychotherapy or marriage do not cathect each other and the relationship itself in various ways; they do.
What it does say is that, genuine love transcends the matter of cathexes.
When love exists, it does so with or without cathexis and with or without a loving feeling. It is easier — indeed, it is fun — to love with cathexis and the feeling of love.
But it is possible to love without cathexis and without loving feelings, and it is in the fulfillment of this possibility that genuine and transcendent love is distinguished from simple cathexis.
The key word in this distinction is “will.”
I have defined love as the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth.
Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present. If it is, so much the better, but if it isn’t, the commitment to love, the will to love, still stands and is still exercised.
Conversely, it is not only possible but necessary for a loving person to avoid acting on feelings of love.
I may meet a woman who strongly attracts me, whom I feel like loving, but because it would be destructive to my marriage to have an affair at that time, I will say vocally or in the silence of my heart, “I feel like loving you, but I am not going to.”
Similarly, I may refuse to take on a new patient who is most attractive and likely to succeed in therapy because my time is already committed to other patients, some of whom may be considerably less attractive and more difficult. My feelings of love may be unbounded, but my capacity to be loving is limited. I therefore must choose the person on whom to focus my capacity to love, toward whom to direct my will to love.
True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed — It is a committed, thoughtful decision.
The common tendency to confuse love with the feeling of love allows people all manner of self-deception. An alcoholic, whose wife and children are desperately in need of his attention at that very moment, may be sitting in a bar with tears in his eyes, telling the bartender, “I really love my family.”
People who neglect their children in the grossest of ways more often than not will consider themselves the most loving of parents. It is clear that there may be a self-serving quality in this tendency to confuse love with the feeling of love; it is easy and not at all unpleasant to find evidence of love in one’s feelings.
It may be difficult and painful to search for evidence of love in one’s actions.
But because true love is an act of will, that often transcends ephemeral feelings of love or cathexis, it is correct to say, “Love is as love does.”
Love and nonlove, as good and evil, are objective and not purely subjective phenomena.