No column I have ever written has generated as many reprint requests from readers as the one I did for Valentine’s Day, 1987. I said that the powerful and subjective feeling of love is not the same as having a love relationship and not enough in itself to make for a love relationship.
In 1989, let’s re-examine what people mean when they say, “I love you.” Most of the time it reflects feelings of caring, pleasure and closeness, but not always.
Two years ago I gave these examples:
--"John Hinckley shoots President Reagan and shatters the life of press secretary James Brady with a bullet in his head. Why? Because Hinckley says he ‘loves’ actress Jodie Foster.”
--"Prep-school headmistress Jean Harris murders Dr. Herman Tarnower (the Scarsdale Diet doctor). Why? Because she loved him.”
--"A 32-year-old schoolteacher endures repeated criticism, humiliation and verbal abuse from her boyfriend. Even though they live together in her apartment, he has locked her out on a few occasions. She is miserable but stays with him. When asked why, she says, ‘because I love him.’ ”
Recently, we saw and heard on our TV screens an account of a terrifying and abusive relationship that seems to overshadow all my earlier examples. For most of us, the battered face of Hedda Nussbaum will be forever etched in our memories. We heard her explain repeatedly that the reason she stayed in that living nightmare with Joel Steinberg, and endured such brutal treatment, was because she was in love with him.
It is disturbing to hear the word love used to connote feelings and describe actions that are not at all loving. In the past I argued with people who used the word love when they discussed destructive, frustrating or futile relationships. Love is not supposed to be a miserable feeling. Then I thought, “Who am I to argue with someone who says he is in love? How can I deny what he experiences?” If people say they feel love, they feel love. I cannot say, “What you feel is not love.” Instead, I may want to point out other related factors such as obsession, dependence, possessiveness or addiction.
However, I make a clear distinction between a love relationship and love as a subjective feeling. A romantic love relationship requires many elements that a love feeling by itself does not. The feeling of being in love requires only one person; a love relationship requires two. A love relationship requires high levels of availability, mutual passion and a desire to be together. It also requires that both parties be committed to struggle to make their bond as tight as possible.