19 Dec 2018

Part poetry and part science -- love in the 21st Century

In today's world, love is a bit of a dream, a bit of a product and a bit of a curse -- an interview with a Polish psychologist 

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Part poetry and part science -- love in the 21st Century - NewsMavens
Art, PixaBay

The following fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with Dr. Bartłomiej Dobroczyński first appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in October 2018.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: What is love?

Dr. Bartłomiej Dobroczyński: I must confess that when I found out that you wanted to talk about love, I shrank with fear. And I came to the conclusion that my fear stemmed from the fact that love has become a token, a common phrase we happily use to explain or justify certain situations. 

AJ: I would like to focus on the romantic kind of love.

You’re not making it any easier. My main problem with this subject is the fact that we -- western people -- function within two different traditions. The old tradition asks us to talk about love with reference to our own experience and the experiences and reflections of other people. We could call it a first-person, introspective tradition. It comprises poets, writers, philosophers and theologians, but there’s also room for “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles or for Beyonce’s “Lemonade” treating about betrayal and desire for vengeance. In this tradition, when we talk about love, we talk about emotions, dreams and passion.

The second tradition -- equally strong despite its young age -- looks at all matters from the third-person perspective and treats them as objects that can be impartially examined and described. It’s an empirical, scientific tradition. Although it takes into account individual experiences, it persistently tries to classify them into categories. It includes Sternberg’s “triangular theory of love” with its three components: passion, intimacy and commitment, but it also incorporates the evolutionary perspective, according to which love serves only reproductive purposes for the passing on of genetic material.

Stories about love being a “chemical process” or a state of insanity also belong here. In reality nowadays, we’re partly poets and partly evolutionists; theologists and Darwinists and we cannot separate ourselves from this dual perspective in everyday conversations. Let’s not forget that our perception of love is also heavily affected by our social and cultural circumstances.

Eva Illouz, a famous Israeli sociologist, claims that love today is regulated by the same law of supply and demand as a market economy.

Basically, we could say that someone might make a good deal by entering certain relationship while somebody else is over-investing. 

AJ: Is this how you see it?

In my opinion, today’s love has been liberated from the economic, health and social constraints it had to abide by 50, 100, 150 years ago. 

I’m not saying that in the past people didn’t love each other but the differences are pretty evident. What is more, in the old days love was often perceived as on obstacle, a complication that could lead to trouble and misfortune.  Most of the reasons which made a relationship necessary in the past, are already gone. And today we have the privilege of choosing our partner single-handedly. 

AJ: It sounds perfect, yet the reality doesn’t look so bright... 

That’s because this situation only seems perfect. From a psychological perspective, having too many choices is not as beneficial as one might think. People are not entirely sure what’s good for them and they tend to pick partners or enter situations which in the long run make them incredibly unhappy. Luckily -- as opposed to animals -- we still have the capacity to live the way we want.

You see, love doesn’t just happen to us. It’s not something we passively experience in our emotional sphere.

AJ: Isn’t it?

Emotions are fuel. They are an essential ingredient of love -- if we find someone repulsive, we probably won’t end up loving them. And sure, we must feel a spark, but our feelings are not enough to create a solid, meaningful relationship. It’s said that the infatuation phase lasts from 2 to 4 years... 

AJ:…and then it makes way for other feelings, such as: intimacy, loyalty and  attachment.

Correct, but to make these feelings appear, we need to do some work first. For me infatuation, just like any other fascination or inspiration, is an opportunity to build something solid. Infatuation is not love. It’s an invitation to love. 

In psychology, all the processes taking place in our mind can be divided into “happenings” -- situations that happen to us and “doings” -- our actions. If we use this perspective, infatuation is the time we’re given to learn each other and to develop the skills necessary to move from “happenings” to “doings”.

If we don’t make use of this precious time before it runs out, we might be painfully disappointed. In a way, we’re the victims of our infatuation.

AJ: Because it controls us?

Precisely. It incapacitates us and changes our perception. But if we understand how it works and if we use it to build a relationship based not on emotional fuel, but on conscious commitments, we might have a chance to create something deep and long-lasting.

AJ: How do we “work” on love?

Love equals care. It’s like a garden we should be tending. It might seem like a weird example, but let’s say that you love your cat and you want to prove it to someone. What would be its best evidence? Probably the cat itself -- if the other person could see that it’s well-kept, fed and content, they would believe you. 

True love concentrates on the well-being of another person (or animal). If this well-being means that our beloved one must walk away, our love will allow us to let them go.

If our partner’s welfare entails you working your fingers to the bone, then you might have to work your fingers to the bone. We live in pretty mad times where love is a little bit of a dream, a bit of a product and a tiny bit of a curse. It’s a little bit of everything. 

AJ: But why do we fall in love only with certain people? Why are we drawn to that one particular person and not to somebody else?

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that. But it fascinates me that suddenly we feel attracted to one, specific human and that we want to be with them. How come some relations last for life, although we expected them to end after a month? Why do some people stay in our hearts and we can’t chuck them out, even though they’re no longer around?

We can be certain of one thing -- we’re all unique and so are all our relationships.

By building a relationship between us and our partner, we create a new, distinctive, inner journey. We use such words as “love”, “friendship” or “sex” to describe this process only because it helps us communicate. I’ve read that a cat has a different kind of meow for every person in the house and that dolphins send various sets of vibrations to different recipients. Perhaps it’s the same with love?


Dr. Bartłomiej Dobroczyński is the Head of the Department of General Psychology at the Institute of Psychology of  the Jagiellonian University. He studies, among other things, the history of psychology, psychopathology and alternative cultural movements. He has authored several books in Polish, including "The Trouble with Spirituality" and the recently published "Whose Life is Ours?" (2017, with Olga Drenda).

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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