Erich Fromm wrote the powerful lines:
“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”
It might seem at first that it is the feeling of falling in love that is the answer to human existence, that makes life feel like it is worthwhile, that gives meaning to life. After all the heady feeling of being smitten by someone motivates people to do all sorts of things that they might not normally do and can fill their life with positive emotions and thoughts of the future.
However Erich Fromm is keen to distinguish between the feeling of being in love and the activity of loving someone in the sense of caring for them. Surprisingly according to Fromm it is not the heady romantic feelings that is the sane and satisfactory answer to human existence.
This strikes me as odd given that in Fromm’s own words he describes the feeling of falling in love as one of “the most exhilarating, most exciting experience in life.” He says “it is all the more wonderful and miraculous for persons who have been shut off, isolated, without love. This miracle of sudden intimacy is often facilitated if it is combined with , or initiated, by sexual attraction and consummation. However, this type of love is by its very nature not lasting.”
Fromm explains why love is not lasting when it is romantic love -the sort of love at first sight that people talk about. He claims that when the two persons become well acquainted, their intimacy loses more and more of its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement. Yet in the beginning they did not know all this: in fact, they take the intensity of the infatuation, this being ‘crazy’ about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.
This attitude that nothing is easier than to love – has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. What is easy is falling in love, what is difficult is sustaining a loving relationship with a person that we know and accept. By focusing on the former idea of love as something that happens to us we lose sight of the importance of developing character that is necessary to sustain loving relationships.
It is clear that with the above analysis in mind we need to distinguish two components of love. There is the automatic part – the falling in love, this is normally seen as something that happens to us, something that is not under our control. Then there is the part that is under our control – acting in a loving way, spending time with someone, choosing to put that person as a priority in our life, listening to what they want.
In making this distinction we learn to distinguish between obsession, infatuation, and actually caring about someone in the sense of giving them our time and attention. It may be that the heady feelings of falling in love are more concerned with our imagination about what the other person may be like and what they will do for us especially in terms of sexual pleasure.
Yet, it is only when we are caring about the other person – as another person with their own interests and needs that we can say that we truly love the other person.
Fromm on Self Love and Loving Another
According to Fromm self love and love of another are very similar. Loving oneself involves caring about oneself, taking responsibility for oneself, respecting oneself, and knowing oneself i.e., being realistic about who we are, our character traits, strengths and weaknesses. In order to love ourselves we need to have an accurate assessment of who we are and take care of those traits.
In order to truly love another we again need to know and understand them, we need to care about what other people are interested in, what is important to them, what sort of person they are. It is only when we have a realistic understanding of who they are can we say that we love them – rather than our fantasy of what they are like.