The extent to which middle-class Americans who have come of age since the ’60s presume that uniform harmony must prevail in romantic partnerships is truly astounding. Such naiveté exerts tremendous pressure on the conflicted human soul and the ties that bind us in love. And the dashing of such high expectations has surely had something to do with this country’s high post-war divorce rates. Blame it on the loosening of family bonds, feminism, what have you — for some reason boomers and their successors tend to assume the best. And when utopia fails, many either bail or live in sad, stoically resigned romanceless partnerships.
How refreshing, then, to read psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell on the subject of love: " The momentary aggressive fantasies I harbor toward strangers are nothing compared with the intensity of the homicidal fantasies I harbor toward those I live with and love most deeply. " A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but he means it. And yet this is a man who believes fervently that love can last, and love of great reach and depth, too.
Drawing on his work in clinical practice and as a teacher and theorist, Mitchell (who died in 2000, at the age of 54) yokes " classical psychoanalysis " with post-Freudian psychology and critical social theory to produce what he calls " relational " psychoanalysis. The self, in his view, is more fluid than the standard Freudian model — a " relational matrix " consisting of interplay between our internalized ideals and infantile fantasies and our ever-shifting relationships with others.
Unpacking all this theory is necessary — and Mitchell’s comfortable, earnest prose is worth reading on the history of psychoanalysis alone — if you’re to grasp just how he thinks romance can be sustained both in " love " and in other parts of life. In his view, children should develop an active imagination, an ability to " romance " the world and to see possibilities in themselves, in others, in ideas, and in their cultural and political inheritance. As children grow up, they must come to terms with how difficult, yet necessary to their own well-being, was their parents’ ability to surround them with the illusion of ordered security, a protected space in which to grow, when in fact parents are embroiled in their own worries and secret lives.
But where Freud placed great emphasis on this recognition, the " reality principle, " Mitchell views our " fantasies " as themselves important " sites " for apprehending reality and shaping lively meaning out of our days. Here, he inverts received wisdom: settling into a life of ordered habit with one’s mate is not necessarily a mark of developmental maturity but all too often the result of regressive longings for childhood security. He argues further that choosing such a path is actually far more dangerous to love — and ultimately to long-term commitment — than is tangling with love’s inherent vulnerability and instability.
For Mitchell, love enhances our self-ideals, but it menaces them, too, since to love is to be known, and we all have much to hide — even from ourselves. Sexual love, for example, is a lightning rod to knowing oneself and one’s beloved, which is why orgasm can be experienced as utterly self-shattering (and thus something to avoid), triumphant mastery, or transcendent bliss. Likewise, dependency on another invariably arouses feelings of aggression, for such need threatens our autonomy. And then there’s the dance of guilt and self-pity that stands in for taking responsibility for our actions. We ignore these truths, in all their infinite variety, at our peril, says Mitchell, and at the risk of extinguishing the " adventure " of romantic love. " Paradoxically, " he reminds us, " the survival of romance depends not on skill in avoiding aggression but on the capacity to contain it alongside love. " The same is true of the exaggerated shape often assumed by our sexual caprice and moral identity.
Those seeking a how-to manual should not look here. Can Love Last? belongs in the tradition of the extended moral essay, for Mitchell weaves into his clinical and theoretical reflections the insights of great Western literature, Greek mythology, the Bible, modern science, and popular culture. What’s missing is a critical historical eye, a context for assessing whether the postmodern " relational " self is even capable of passion in a world beset by mass consumer culture, celebrity worship, mind-numbingly uncreative work, and corporate dominance — whether it may in fact reflect these fallow conditions. Still, Mitchell’s effort to rescue the postmodern self from the clutches of both ironic detachment and simple-minded visions of harmony, and to show why personal romance is larger than itself, hard won, and worth it, offers ground for hope.
Catherine Tumber is the author of American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality: Searching for the Higher Self, 1875-1915, to be published by Rowman and Littlefield in the fall.