We Don't Fall in Love

Treat Thompson



Geraniums by Felicia Chiao

Love is so natural and so foreign at the same time.

Everybody wants it; we’re starving for it, but we’re our own deprivers of it.

Erich Fromm explains the problem is that we approach it wrong—we mistakenly think we invite love by making ourselves more lovable.

Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable.

In pursuit of this aim they follow several paths. One, which is especially used by men, is to be successful, to be as powerful and rich as the social margin of one’s position permits. Another, used especially by women, is to make oneself attractive, by cultivating one’s body, dress, etc.

Other ways of making oneself attractive, used both by men and women, are to develop pleasant manners, interesting conversation, to be helpful, modest, inoffensive. Many of the ways to make oneself lovable are the same as those used to make oneself successful, “to win friends and influence people.” As a matter of fact, what most people in our culture mean by being lovable is essentially a mixture between being popular and having sex appeal.

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

This mindset comes from our Western culture of not taking an active role in love.

We approach every part of our lives with intention and skill, but not love. We see love as something out of our hands—it’s not up to us.

We act like Cupid is running the show, and it’s just our job to be patient. And we’re okay with that. The illusion that it’s mostly magic takes the pressure away.

But that’s not how it works.

Love should be essentially an act of will, of decision to commit my life completely to that of one other person. This is, indeed, the rationale behind the idea of the insolubility of marriage, as it is behind the many forms of traditional marriage in which the two partners never choose each other, but are chosen for each other—and yet are expected to love each other.

In contemporary Western culture this idea appears altogether false. Love is supposed to be the outcome of a spontaneous, emotional reaction, of suddenly being gripped by an irresistible feeling. In this view, one sees only the peculiarities of the two individuals involved—and not the fact that all men are part of Adam, and all women part of Eve. One neglects to see an important factor in erotic love, that of will.

To love somebody is not just a strong feeling—it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

We don’t fall in love; we stand in love.

Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for.”

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

The active part of love is giving. And this is hard for most people because we see losing something as a requirement of giving.

But really, giving is an expression of abundance, which, in this case, is our abundance of aliveness.

In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

What is giving? Simple as the answer to this question seems to be, it is actually full of ambiguities and complexities. The most widespread misunderstanding is that which assumes that, giving is “giving up” something, being deprived of, sacrificing. The person whose character has not developed beyond the stage of the receptive, exploitative, or hoarding orientation, experiences the act of giving in this way. The marketing character is willing to give, but only in exchange for receiving; giving without receiving for him is being cheated.

People whose main orientation is a non-productive one feel giving as an impoverishment. Most individuals of this type therefore refuse to give. Some make a virtue out of giving in the sense of a sacrifice. They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation than to experience joy.

For the productive character, giving has an entirely different meaning. Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous.

Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

Giving ourselves is how we create love. Giving enriches others’ lives, and as an unintentional by-product, it enriches ours.

Love produces love; Love can’t exist without love.

The most important sphere of giving, however, is not that of material things, but lies in the specifically human realm. What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other—but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness—of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him.

In thus giving of his life, he enriches the other person, he enhances the other’s sense of aliveness by enhancing his own sense of aliveness. He does not give in order to receive; giving is in itself exquisite joy. But in giving he cannot help bringing something to life in the other person, and this which is brought to life reflects back to him; in truly giving, he cannot help receiving that which is given back to him. Giving implies to make the other person a giver also and they both share in the joy of what they have brought to life.

In the act of giving something is born, and both persons involved are grateful for the life that is born for both of them. Specifically with regard to love this means: love is a power which produces love; impotence is the inability to produce love.

This thought has been beautifully expressed by Marx: “Assume,” he says, “man as man, and his relation to the world as a human one, and you can exchange love only for love, confidence for confidence, etc. If you wish to enjoy art, you must be an artistically trained person; if you wish to have influence on other people, you must be a person who has a really stimulating and furthering influence on other people. Every one of your relationships to man and to nature must be a definite expression of your real, individual life corresponding to the object of your will. If you love without calling forth love, that is, if your love as such does not produce love, if by means of an expression of life as a loving person you do not make of yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent, a misfortune.”

But not only in love does giving mean receiving. The teacher is taught by his students, the actor is stimulated by his audience, the psychoanalyst is cured by his patient—provided they do not treat each other as objects, but are related to each other genuinely and productively.

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

Mature love is unselfish.

As kids, we love those who meet our needs—if you kept me alive, I loved you.

But eventually, we mature, and the needs of the people we love become as important as our own. Putting smiles on faces becomes better than smiling ourselves.

For the first time, the child thinks of giving something to mother (or to father), of producing something—a poem, a drawing, or whatever it may be.

For the first time in the child’s life the idea of love is transformed from being loved into loving; into creating love.

Eventually the child, who may now be an adolescent, has overcome his egocentricity; the other person is not any more primarily a means to the satisfaction of his own needs. The needs of the other person are as important as his own—in fact, they have become more important. To give has become more satisfactory, more joyous, than to receive; to love, more important even than being loved.

By loving, he has left the prison cell of aloneness and isolation which was constituted by the state of narcissism and self-centeredness. He feels a sense of new union, of sharing, of oneness. More than that, he feels the potency of producing love by loving—rather than the dependence of receiving by being loved—and for that reason having to be small, helpless, sick—or “good.”

Infantile love follows the principle: “I love because I am loved.” Mature love follows the principle: “I am loved because I love.”

Immature love says: “I love you because I need you.” Mature love says: “I need you because I love you.”

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

True love is a finger painting on the fridge.