Love is in the air: Valentine cards, red roses and candlelight dinners. But this is romantic love, which is fleeting at best, says human relations expert Sam Keen. It's not the kind of passionate love that will bring people true fulfillment.
"Romantic and passionate love are opposites," Keen said Saturday during a seminar at UC Irvine. "Romantic love is escapism, fantasy; romance is a relationship of public personas--masks we put on during courtship that have little to do with what we're really like.
"Passionate love, on the other hand, is about delving under the surface of romantic love and into our innermost thoughts and feelings about one another. When you marry someone, it's for better and worse.
"After you're married, all that stuff you kept buried during your romantic courtship comes out--the irritations and injuries. Relationships that are intimate--that are truly passionate--are strengthened by these discoveries because both partners grow; they are able to deal with each other on so many more levels than just the superficial, romantic level."
The quest for love--and its varied forms--was the subject of Keen's talk, "On the Passionate Life: Stages of Loving," which was sponsored by the university's extension program.
"We're programmed to love and to be loving, and we won't be satisfied until we find it," said Keen, a consulting editor for Psychology Today magazine and former professor at the Humanistic Psychology Institute in San Francisco.
Keen, who has a doctorate in philosophy and religion from Princeton and a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School, is the author of such books as "Apology for Wonder," "To a Dancing God," "Beginnings Without End" and "What to Do When You're Bored and Blue." His latest book, "The Passionate Life," was 10 years in preparation and was published in 1983.
"I'm not here to give you answers," Keen told his audience of 60 men and women who were mostly in their 30s and 40s and, according to a show of hands, either presently or formerly married.
"I'm here to share a process: how you find meaning in life as an individual involved in an intimate relationship," said the 53-year- old Keen, whose collar-length brown hair is streaked with gray. He was sitting atop a stool alongside the podium, his legs languidly crossed in stark contrast to his arms, which were in almost constant motion as he made one point after another.
"When you set out to lead the passionate life," he continued, "there is no roadway to follow. It's not something that somebody can tell you. There aren't 10 easy ways. Instead, the whole stuff of life will have to be explored before you find the way which is right for you."
One woman in the audience said she had already discovered that compromise was required to make relationships work. How far, she asked, should you be willing to go to meet your partner's needs without losing your own identity?
"Any intimate relationship requires two things: coming together while allowing your partner to have his or her space," replied Keen. "There is no authentic intimacy without the creation of solitude for each partner.
"Especially if you marry young and have kids right away, there's a good chance that 15 years later, one partner or the other is going to say: 'Hey, I've never been alone.' This partner will try to pull away from this suffocating closeness. The form this takes for most couples is that they'll do one of two things; they'll fight or withdraw from each other, sexually or otherwise."
"My own experience--I'm in my second marriage--is that in my first marriage I never knew what solitude was," said Keen, who divides his time between his home in Sausalito and his ranch in Washington state. "Now I can't conceive of a place that I can't call my own."
This attempt to maintain one's identity in an intimate relationship, Keen said, has led some couples astray.
"We've learned a lot of things from the sexual revolution that began in this country in the '60s," Keen said. "Some people found that their sexual passion was released only through sexual anonymity; they made a career out of one-night stands.
"My own personal observation--prejudice--is that most people are not terribly happy being that way. The only people who are happy with this arrangement are those who are going through a period of exploration and don't want any kind of commitment, like people who are ending long-term marriages."
"Fulfilling relationships require commitment and exclusivity . . . so, where there's a conflict between partners over passions or desires, how do you stay together?" Keen asked. "Sometimes you don't. The risk of self-discovery is this: 'I don't belong with you.'
"Or if you feel like the relationship's worth saving, you can communicate with the other person at the level on which you feel threatened. But if you're in a passionate relationship, and you tell your partner that you need some solitude, the question that's going to pop into your partner's mind is: 'If I give him or her more freedom, will she or he sleep with someone else?'
'Contract of Solitude'
"You can meet the problem head on and work out what I call a 'contract of solitude in intimacy.' You put your feelings in concrete. You agree to take separate vacations or have a room in the house which is off limits to everyone else. This is nourishing and deepens the wells of your own private self. You are not being selfish; until you're happy with yourself--until you love yourself--you can't love someone else."
Keen came to what his 25-year-old son calls his "arrogant" views of love through both academic study and personal experience.
"I've never felt comfortable without having passion in my life," Keen said, explaining that his first recollections of passion revolve around watching birds for hours at a time during long solitary walks in the woods near the small Alabama community where he spent his early childhood. In adolescence, his passion was to become a rancher.
"That passion lasted a long time," Keen said. "I even worked on ranches in the West when I got out of high school. But somehow that wasn't enough. So I came back east and went to college (at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania)."
Complications Set In
Adult passions proved to be more complicated than he'd expected, Keen said. "I got married, had my 2.4 children (actually three), a dog and a cat. And I had a full professorship (at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, where he taught courses on the philosophy of religion).
"But I was still dissatisfied. As most people discover midway in life, I found this was not the kind of existence I wanted to lead. In mid-life you're supposed to be at the top of your career. But a lot of people find that they've climbed the ladder of success only to discover that the ladder had been propped up against the wrong wall.
"I got divorced and that's when I started to think seriously about passion again. I'd moved to California--and this being the late '60s, I felt it incumbent upon me to 'explore my sexuality'--as we put it then. You 'explored your sexuality' whether you wanted to or not. I confused passion with sexuality. Errol Flynn, who should know about such things, once observed: 'You can be filled with all the passion in the world and still want to die.' "
Yet Keen said it is preferable for people to attempt to attain passionate love and be "passionately wrong" like Flynn than to settle for merely a frail imitation of true love.
"I think a lot of people don't want to risk sexual satisfaction because they don't want to deal with the dissatisfaction which they fear will follow. So some people fall back on romantic love: 'If only I could find Mr. Right or Miss Right, my life would be perfect; all my problems would go away.' "
Dismissing this notion as a "romantic myth," Keen said some people think all it takes is such attributes as looks, money or personality to "catch" an ideal mate.
Rather than looking outward, such people should first look inward, said Keen, who maintained: "I've come to realize that a passionate relationship is impossible without discovering the source of passion within yourself: What is it in yourself that will make you feel whole?"
A Look Back
Having given the group this thumbnail sketch of how he came to discover the passionate life, Keen said, "Today, we're going to journey back to find out where each one of us started our lives of passion--our erotic ecology. If a plant is planted in poor soil, it will do poorly. The sad truth is that many of us were planted in poor soil. It is the story of us all because there are no perfect parents. They exist only in textbooks.
"If a child is abused, he or she, on reaching adulthood, will seek out abusive relationships; as children they were inculcated with the belief by their parents that being beaten was a sign of love. Should it be surprising that abused children in adulthood choose partners who hit--and even kill them?
"I know a woman who discovered--after two marriages where her husbands constantly beat her and several relationships where she was raped three times--that the script called for this. She had been abused as a child, so she always searched--unconsciously--for someone who would hurt her. She finally came around to searching for a good relationship, one where she could tolerate happiness ."
Exploration Is Key
Thus, in Keen's view, the reason so many people are trapped in unfulfilling relationships is that they have known nothing but unhappiness, so this is the kind of existence they feel most comfortable with. Yet, he said, it is possible for people to break out of this bind if they are willing to explore their past to discover how their self-destructive views of love were formed.
To help the members of his audience refresh their memories of how their notions about love were formed in childhood, Keen had each person use crayons to draw on large sheets of paper the layout of the house they'd lived in until they were 10 years old.
Then with a partner, who they either came with or chose at random, the participants--sprawled on the stage, crouched on adjoining steps in the tiered classroom or sitting next to each other in seats--took their partner through a tour of their old homesteads, recounting the house's sights, sounds and smells and discussing whether love was present or absent.
"To recover your history is to recover what you really want out of life," Keen told the participants as they began their drawings. "Our real passions are hidden in shame, not only shame about our bodies but also shame about our real wants. I want you to get beyond your official erotic histories to your unofficial ones.
"I want you to recall how taboos got started in your childhood, which ones you broke and which ones you didn't," Keen continued. "Your decision to comply with a taboo is just as important as your decision to rebel against it.
"Some people don't break taboos because they don't want to risk the guilt they might feel afterwards. But following taboos doesn't let you off the hook. If you're always a 'good girl,' you live with the secret shame of knowing you're a coward for never having taken a risk. It is the unlived life that causes real guilt because you must live every day of your life with the shame of knowing that you have no courage."
While "getting in touch with your unrealized past passions," according to Keen, is important in assessing the quality of one's love life, equally important is having a vision of what you want your future love life to be.
"Going into the future looking through a rear view mirror can be hazardous," Keen said, asking participants to make additional drawings about what they want their lives to be like. "What has not happened that you would like to see happen?"
"To become a good lover, you must move deeper into different levels of reality. It is not enough just to know and love yourself. You must also know and love your mate, your family, your friends, your work and your community. For each impinges on the other.
"Somehow, the exploration of the passionate life means coming to appreciate how these relationships are interconnected. The journey is never done."