“I have no companion but Love, no beginning, no end, no dawn. The soul calls from within me: ‘You, ignorant of the way of Love, set Me free.’” It is with this outburst of the Persian poet, Rumi, that we pose the following question: is it possible to live without love?
Four letters, that’s all it takes to write the word “love”. And from all short words, this is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – the world possesses. If it weren’t, why would everything revolve around love? Books, films, art, “that new TV show”, songs (those are always about love), neurosis and depressions, the immense joys, the deepest sorrows, life – who amongst us has never “lived for someone else”? And death – one can die of love, die for love, kill for love. Just like the great Persian poet, Rumi (XIII century), put it, “love is a world in itself.” The Mexican writer, Octavio Paz (1914-1998), Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, argued, in turn, that “love is one of the answers humankind invented to stare death in the face […] Beyond happiness or unhappiness, although it is both, love is intensity; it doesn’t offer us eternity but liveliness, that minute in which the doors of time and space open: here becomes there, and now is forever. In love, everything is double and it all tens to become one.” Recently, in an interview with the newspaper Público, the writer Salman Rushdie (Bombay, India, 1947), said: “Love is the only subject. In human life everything is about love or its absence.” Someone asked Freud, not long before he passed away, what was the utmost vital thing for people’s lives. He would have answered in a brief, simple way: to love and to work. “A society without love is not possible. It occupies a central position in people’s lives. Love is an integrant part of the reflexive projects of men and women's existence.”, Bernardo Coelho, the sociologist and investigator, clarifies. Rita Fonseca de Castro, a clinical therapist for couples and families, adds that “what seems to be consensual is the need that human beings have to establish connections. Ever since we were born that we depend on our relationships with others, given that our brains develop within a context of interaction with other brains, babies need their caregivers to bond with them so that they are able to survive. Many years of investigation versed on this connection show the impact that precocious experiences have in the establishment of relationships in adulthood.”
To sum up, “without connections, we can’t survive and it’s not possible to survive without the experience of love and feeling of belonging”, and the loss of meaningful links is one of the biggest risk factors to the development of depression and other anxiogenic scenarios. Not having a support system is detrimental, leaving us more vulnerable to the resurgence of health problems and psychopathies. This goes for any one of us. But, according to Bernardo Coelho, love is a women’s conquest, a win for feminism: “The first wave of feminism as a concern – alongside the evident fight for the right to vote – the revindication of the centrality of love and love choices. Up to this point, conjugality and marriage were mostly perceived as a transaction where women were transferred, like objects, from their father’s houses to their husband’s. This is, women were a silent thing, without will or subjectivity, transitioned from the law of their fathers to the one of their husbands. Silenced, objectified women were seen as the insurance policy of their family’s proliferation. In the same manner, women’s sexuality was perceived as reproductive, circumscribed to one partner, and kept away from desire and expression of their will – much like conjugality was also pushed away from the idea of choosing out of love. The revindication of love’s centrality by women alters this scenario: instead of transaction there is choice, instead of the objectification of women, there is their affirmation as individuals with needs that should be respected, instead of a merely reproductive sexuality, it becomes inserted in a context of love and desire. Therefore, the centrality of love is something profoundly emancipatory. Love is a women’s conquest.”, he explains.
But what is love? The idea of love is conceptional. What I understand as “love” might be completely different from what our readers consider it to be. When the Buddhists refer to love, for example, what they mean is that they wish comfort and welfare to all beings. Because yes, it seems consensual that there are many loves and even more ways of loving – as many as the strong links, with emotional relevance, that we establish throughout our lives, whether with family figures, whether for our close friends or others that integrate our emotional support system. “If we consider romantic love, the one that makes us want to build a relationship and share our life with that person, we can also consider how it can take up many different forms, especially when it comes to the course of romantic relationships”, Rita Fonseca de Castro adds, recalling the work of the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who’s been studying romantic relationships for more than 30 years. According to Fisher, different types of love are experienced in distinct ways, given that three cerebral systems originate three different types of love: lust or sexual drive – part of the sexual attraction is restricted by sexual satisfaction, with no consideration of that partner in the future; passion or romantic love – more than an emotion, it is about a movement, one of the most powerful ones human beings possess, that makes us want to establish a relationship with someone; compromise or deep affection – it’s what comes after the “chemical explosion” the two other provoke on the brain, referring to a process that aims to establish the couple’s relationship as a long-term project. We could call it mature love.” The author generated controversy by defending that we can feel all three types of love simultaneously, even if for different people. To Fisher, romantic love is “one of the most powerful feelings on earth”, but it’s also an addiction: “A wonderful addiction when everything goes well, and a horrible vice when things go wrong […] It’s like having someone set camp in our mind.” Romantic love, though, is a basic instinct of copulation. It’s not a sexual drive – sex tells us to look for a diversity of partners out there.
Romantic love concentrates all energy towards copulating and to do it with that one partner. “Different loves fulfill different functions and feed into different human needs. They’re not mutually exclusive, nor do they replace each other. Romantic love often is idealized upon beliefs such as the existence of ‘soulmates’, when there are people that go all their lives without finding them, whatever the reason. In these cases, there might be other ways to show a type of love that also creates accomplishment, such as the love for your children or your parents. Frequently, the unconditionality, stability, and fulfillment that these secondary sources of love represent, can help us to live a better life in the absence of romantic love”, Rita Fonseca de Castro recalls. She also goes on to explain that there are people that find a way to restore the absence of romantic love with the ability to “give love” to others that might find themselves in a vulnerable and/ or needy state. The absence of maternal love is also possible to be repaired, depending on how other significative emotional experiences were lived. “Due to deep social transformations, people have a bigger sense of autonomy when it comes to institutions. This translates into a bigger margin for individual action. Meaning, love, loving relationships, and sexuality are now able to be experienced in many different ways, with enormous flexibility and variability. This is, love doesn’t necessarily mean marriage. Sexuality doesn’t always happen within the reach of a romantic relationship. People are finding multiple ways to live love and life with someone else. And throughout their life, people can experience love in different manners: get married, divorced, go back to life with another person or carry out a living apart but together”, Bernardo Coelho adds.
Is there anyone incapable of love altogether, like a psychopath, for example? That’s the question I pose to Rita Fonseca de Castro. “Someone who suffers from a psychopathy can feel love, however, they express their emotions and establish relationships in a different way than what we would consider as ‘normal’, functional or healthy. If we consider that love is a sentiment that is focused on others, that tries to correspond to the necessities of another party, we wouldn’t be able to say someone with underlying psychopathy – especially if severe – feels it, as they don’t really ‘open up to the relationship or to others’, they have a hard time establishing strong links and creating intimacy, as they are unable to feel and demonstrate empathy, which leads to the incapability to understand how other people feel. […] The predominant trend is to maintain short-term relationships, once they act compulsively, they’re emotionally unavailable, and they focus on the satisfaction of their own needs. A person that has, for example, a narcissistic personality disorder, will look for love as a vehicle to satisfy their own needs, being that the experience of love revolves around themselves, stripped from selflessness. Given this context, there’s no space for what we call love. Some people also have some difficulty in feeling loved when it comes to giving themselves to others, exposing fragilities/ vulnerabilities, because they consider love, within a romantic context, as a threatening situation. This perception of a threat can come around for various reasons, the most frequent of them being the occurrence of traumatic experiences at a young age.” Bernardo Coelho, in turn, recalls that whatever the circumstance, love will always prevail: “Love isn’t losing relevance in today’s society. On the contrary, it is becoming more and more important. On the edge of the situation, people get divorced, they break up, they terminate relationships, but it’s not because they stopped believing in love. They break up precisely because they believe in love, they believe that the love they deserve still needs to be built.” In the aftermath, we realize it’s not possible to live without love or without experiencing some kind of connection that is worthy of this taxonomy: “It is surely a flawed existence. We might consider how we’re lacking fulfillment in some part of our lives, in which we exercise many skills that aren’t put to the test any other way, in any other type of human connection. Besides the singularity of what is received, and the needs it attends to, in a corresponded loving relationship”, Rita Fonseca de Castro ends. Yes, love is important. And yes, to love is fundamental. But it requires a certain boldness. Or, as Stendhal (1783-1842) suggested, “Love is a beautiful flower, but we must be brave enough to pick her up from the edge of a precipice.”
To love, to pour your heart out on a silver platter to another human being, is, in fact, no job for the faint of heart. To love is to be completely naked: heart, body, and soul. It’s baring all that we are as a person – whether we like what we’ll find out or not. A while ago I was talking to a friend and commenting on something: years and years of therapy can’t often do what a loving relationship – and all that comes with it – can. I argued how, at least in my case, therapy had always been like a theoretical lecture on life, while my relationship was the workshop. It can put us face to face with our deepest form of “self”, looking into the person that lives within us and to all the issues that might not be that much of a piece of cake to deal with (most times they aren’t). For many years I defended how I thought I would be better alone, and that the difficulty in giving myself away was a reality (without realizing it, of course). Today, I understand that one of the best, most important reasons why someone gives all of themselves to another person (besides the obvious love and passion -when they match for real) is, also, the ability this shared experience (for better and for worse, in sickness and in health) has to make us grow and evolve as human beings – no matter how much it hurts. And that is one of the difficulties with which love gifts us, the same one that prevents us from giving up (or better yet, running away) on relationships – no one wants to face the tiny beast that might also be living inside you. Nonetheless, that’s life, that’s love and that’s all that is unique and singular in this complex universe. Nobody said it was easy, only that it would be worth it. Because that comfort zone, that might as well be our solitary well-being, is, therefore, free of confrontation, and it can be a very beautiful place (placid and pacific, even), but nothing that great can come from there – at least when it comes to our most obscure, and often hard to reach, self.
Translated from the original article from Vogue Portugal's Love issue, published in December 2020.