Love and Projection
There are two important things in life. One is health and the other is love. Love is an immense subject, so I’ll discuss just one aspect, namely the difference between loving and being in love.
The two are not at all the same thing; they are quite different. No confusion about human feelings is more universal or has caused more heartbreak than the difference between ‘being in love’ (ie loving romantically head over heels) and ‘loving’.
What is the difference? When you are in love you want the other person. When you love, you want the other person’s good.
When you fall in love at first sight you don’t know the other person at all. To fall in love, especially to fall in love at first sight, is a classic example of projection. It means that you are responding to your inner image, an ideal image, and that you are not responding to the person themselves.
Projection is a psychological phenomenon. It occurs when you see something that is in your own mind as if it were out in the external world, and hence do not see reality. The less you know the other person, the easier it is to think that they are the incarnation of your ideal, which exists only in your imagination. When we project we are not relating to another person but to aspects of our own psyche evoked by them.
Love without knowledge — which is projection — is blind indeed. Hence falling in love cannot predict a successful relationship, and is a poor basis for marriage.
Naturally when one falls in love, some projection has occurred; otherwise the individual singled out as the source of our enchantment would not stand out from all the rest. When we see this happen to one of our friends we say, ‘I wonder what he sees in her.’ When it happens to us, we are quite sure the object of our love has special qualities others do not possess.
When we are in love we experience passionate love, the kind of love that is accompanied by butterflies in the stomach, loss of appetite, sleeplessness and a quickening of the heart-beat. The symptoms of falling in love are similar to those of manic-depressive disorder: violent mood swings and distortions of reality. However, passionate love only lasts for between three and twelve months.
What is the experience of ‘falling in love’? Fromm describes it as “the explosive collapse of barriers between two strangers”. Thus the ecstasy accompanying the experience results from a temporary pseudo-union. ‘Pseudo’ because it is the inter-locking of two projections, not the fusion of two people. By contrast, falling out of love is the process of the ego-boundaries snapping back: we realize that we and our beloved have different expectations, wishes, needs and timing. After sufficient contact with reality the projection has dissolved. At this point we have the opportunity to begin loving in a real sense.
During the ‘in love’ stage we put no demands on the other person, allowing them to be autonomous. We accept and appreciate the differences between us. Afterwards, as we begin to merge our lives, we become demanding, wanting them to fit in with us. The very differences that attracted us become problematic under the stress of normal living. At this point, ego, the villain of the drama of relationship, enters.
Asked if he would remarry, a divorced man answered, “Nah, I’ll just find someone I hate and give them a house.”
Hollywood and romantic novels have fostered the false myth of ‘true love’ — that if only the ideal partner is found then love will magically solve all relationship problems, and that we will happily ever after. This is obviously a fantasy.
Needless to say, no person can live up to the image of a god or goddess that their lover projects onto them. When the lover realizes that the other person is imperfect, just as they are, disillusionment results and the period of “being in love” ends. With luck, the experience of being in love may transform into the experience of loving. This is is to appreciate the other person for what they are, not for what we would like them to be.
Alternatively, it may lead the disappointed projectionist to seek another person to fall in love with. So the cycle starts again. This is a sad story.
After sufficient contact with reality the projection dissolves, and now an authentic relationship is possible. The good news is that at this point we can begin to love in a true sense. To create a lasting relationship we need to work on it. We need to withdraw the things that we have projected onto the other person, in order to see them and accept them as they truly are.
The great challenge of creating a lasting loving relationship is to make the transition from “being in love” to loving in the true sense.