Opinion: Philosophy of Love

Steven Ing, MFT

In the unforgettably great film "Moonstruck," the incomparable Olympia Dukakis in her role as Rose Castorini checks in on her daughter Loretta (played by the iconic Cher) and how she's doing with her confusing love life.

Rose: “Do you love him, Loretta?”
Loretta Castorini: “Ma, I love him awful.”
Rose: “Oh, God, that's too bad.”

The problem? Loretta (Cher) isn't in love with her fiancé, Johnny Cammareri; now, she's in love with his brother, Ronny (in maybe Nick Cage's last true acting role). This problem doesn't get any help from Loretta's mother Rose because, for her, it all comes down to love.

But IRL, does it? Should it? Is making our decisions about real romantic relationships all about love? Is that really the smart way to live our lives? Here's where you might start wishing your mom (or at least your therapist) had a bit more background in philosophy. Yeah, philosophy… you know, Socrates, Plato, and all the rest. No, it's not so much that philosophy teaches us about love, it’s that it can teach us about how to think about anything—including love. And when we're talking about thinking in this context, we're not talking about simply obsessing on love. The world has far too many people who mistake racing thoughts for reasoning. Philosophers don't play like that—at least, not when they're on the job.

Philosophers have a thoughtful response to the lyrics from 1975's Hair of the Dog album (Track 9, vinyl lovers!), where the group Nazareth croons, "Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and marks." The thoughtful philosophical response? "No, love doesn't." The German philosophers were a little more hard core about it when they said, "No, you idiot, love doesn't hurt, it's your idiotic way of thinking about love that is hurting you, and besides that, 'Love Hurts' was an Everly Brothers tune."

What all good philosophers want lovers and would-be lovers to know has to do with a little human software app that they refer to as "a necessary and sufficient condition." Applying this app to love would go something like this: "Love is a necessary but insufficient condition for a successful relationship."

This philosophical truth is an eminently handy little device and here's how you can make it work for you as you go about interviewing prospective applicants for a leading role in your life's epic love story. Let's start with what is probably obvious to most of us but is a truth we might be a little embarrassed to acknowledge: we fall in love easily. And no, I'm not talking about lust here. I’m talking about straight up, in your face love. For a phenomenon that we give so much weight to in our decision making, it seems like we should be a little more, shall we say, selective? But, for many of the people reading this, it's really quite possible that their next 24-hours will turn up someone they start loving, at least in a heart-felt way, at first sight. Most people who have experienced this might feel a bit sheepish about it because to some, it seems rather superficial.

Photo by Steven Ing

But on the contrary, the ability to see something lovable about another and to respond to that something with loving feelings is about the most natural, most human thing anyone can do. BTW, there are people who unfortunately cannot do this.

But becoming OK with having feelings of love, a great power for a member of a social species, comes with great responsibility. In this case, the responsibility is to bring our head along with our heart. Here's how a philosopher might do it: she falls in love with someone and she enjoys the pleasant feeling for a moment before thinking to herself, "So I should check this out to see if there might be more than just love." She, a single mother of an asthmatic (but truly beloved) young boy, discovers the adult object of her romantic attention is an inveterate smoker and has no desire whatsoever to give up his cool habit for anyone. "That was easy," she thinks, "because although I love him, living with someone who smokes is impossible and so I had love, yes, but love by itself is insufficient to make for a successful relationship...for me. I need a nonsmoker."

Easy example but let's press on. What about fundamental incompatibility in sex? The next man our wonderfully wise (and sex positive!) philosopher falls for is, fortuitously, a nonsmoker. But she also finds out that he only wants to have sex a few times a year because his parents convinced him (with the help of the parish priest) that sex was dirty and to be avoided by the people of God. But does how he came to be that way matter? Our philosopher was looking to be his girlfriend, maybe his life partner—but definitely not his therapist. Sigh, back to the drawing board.

As our philosopher makes her pilgrimage through this vale of tears and frustration, she keeps her wits about her because she has the self-awareness to keep her neediness in check, and she simply wants someone to love and to love her. In actuality, she wants a successful relationship and is determined not to engage in the sort of magical thinking of her less philosophical friends who've settled for someone they love, yes, but whose partners are woefully and implacably not compatible with them. One is a neat freak, while the other is so very not that way. One believes in democracy while her partner worships at the altar of the popular despot. One is tolerant of religious differences, while the other fears for her eternal soul's burning in the afterlife set-up by a loving God.

With political correctness and our avoidance of conflict because of emotional neediness, even reading about our heroine is cringe-worthy, isn't it? But imagine how cringy actually getting into such a relationship might feel. Hint: it's a lot worse.

So, love is a necessary but insufficient condition for a successful relationship. So you, you nascent philosophers out there, might have some pondering to do about what exactly you need just to make a relationship work.

I have been a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for over 30 years.

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I had a seriously messed up childhood. Like, mobster-father-shot-to-death-by-police messed up. Out of this beginning came a lifelong fascination with two questions: “Why do people do what they do?” and “How can all of us figure out how to move to what healthier families enjoy and how they get their needs for love met?” As a Marriage and Family Therapist for over 30 years, I work to help people figure out how they too can have healthy sexuality and intimacy by Managing Sexuality Intelligently™. I have literally written the book on human sexual needs, "We’re All Like This” (Second Edition 2020, Giant Publishing), with portions appearing in the 2nd edition of the McGraw-Hill textbook "Human Sexuality: Self, Society, and Culture," used in university-level human sexuality classes. My books, articles, and public presentations create conversations about human sexuality that are safe...but not too safe. My insights have led to a humane take on our beautiful human sexuality and how all the rest of us can have ridiculously happy lives (yes, and sex lives too!).

Reno, NV

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