Falling in love Center
  • A Farewell to Arms - 1932
    dir. Frank Borzage
  • It Happening One Night - 1934
    dir. Frank Capra
  • Of Human Bondage - 1934
    dir. Jhon Cromwell
  • Sadie Mc Nee - 1934
    dir. Clarence Brown
  • Un amore tutto nuovo (1995)
    Abraham Giorgio
  • Che cos’è l’amore (1989)
    Abraham Giorgio
  • A Natural History of Love (1994)
    Ackerman Diane
  • Stare bene insieme (2003)
    Albisetti Valerio
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I love you - A theory of love CHAPTER ONE

I love you - A theory of love
I love you - A theory of love

Francesco Alberoni


A science of love

There are many kinds of love, like a mother’s, a brother or sister’s, or a friend’s. But here we will be talking about the passionate, erotic kind of love which exists between lovers, between a husband and wife, i.e. the love binding a couple together - the kind of love that makes us say “I love you”. We will be trying to understand how it begins, what forms it takes, how it develops, what problems it may meet, and why it ends or endures. It is the kind of love that can grow slowly out of friendship or explode at first sight. It can be a passing infatuation burning itself out in a few days or months, or it can last for years, even a lifetime. It can be made of torrid sexuality or sweet tenderness, it may never develop beyond unsatisfied passion or it may bloom into marriage. It can turn into an idyll or a conflict, fade away into routine, or carry along with it all the vibrance and freshness of its early stages.

A person who loves and wishes that love to be returned will ponder over innumerable questions, knowing that passion, jealousy, dreams, ideals, eroticism and love can either make life wonderful or turn it into hell. Gestures that make us happy or words that plunge us into despair come from very few human beings indeed, only those to whom we are intensely and inextricably bound. The greatest triumph can be poisoned by a cruel word or lack of attention from the one we love. What can the answer be to such questions? There is as yet no theory, no science of love, non “eros-ology” we can today turn to!

Yet being a couple has acquired great importance in the modern world. Once upon a time there was the extended family, which included a whole circle of relations. Nowadays people marry because “they like each other”, because “they are in love”. They stay together while they continue to find each other attractive, and feel they are still in love. If “they no longer love each other”, however, having children no longer holds as sufficient reason for staying together - so only the bond of love between man and woman remains to hold the union together. It is a bond that unites two individuals who are consequently far freer, richer and maturer. Each has a personal set of connections, a separate job, and autonomous political and religious ideas. The couple is therefore a dynamic unit, a creative melting pot where two personalities come together, form an alliance, talk things over and complement each other, in order to confront a world which has become more and more complicated. Love is the driving force behind this tension and this union.

But what does being in love mean? What is the meaning of “I love you”? Some people say they are always falling in love or never fall out of it. Others hold that falling in love is a fairly rare occurrence in a single lifetime. And then during a moment of confidence a person will happen to confess to having had numerous love affairs but only one great love. Many meanings indeed lie behind the words falling in love, love, caring, affection, tenderness, passion and sexual attraction. Our aim is to put some order into this untidy state of affairs by creating the basis for a real science of love. We intend to set up a survey and to categorize the various forms of love so as to make it easier for readers to recognize their own experiences, understand what processes gave rise to them, and what possible lines of development there may be. We are offering a map, an explanation, a guide.

The bonds of love

Love bonds can be classified as strong, medium or weak. Strong bonds are those that are formed in infancy between a child and its parents, and between brothers and sisters. Strong bonds are exclusive, for nobody can take the place of a mother, a father, or a child. These bonds withstand any alteration in character or appearance. Sons and daughters continue to love their mother even when she is old, ugly or ailing. Mothers and fathers continue to love their children even if they become delinquents, drug addicts, or even if they have been disfigured and marred by illness.

The only force that is capable of establishing a strong bond outside infancy and outside family ties is falling in love. Two people with no previous knowledge of each other fall in love and become mutually indispensable, as in a child/parent relationship. This is indeed a truly fascinating phenomenon!

Medium bonds are those we develop with intimate friends, the people we trust, the people we confide in. Friendship is free and disinterested, without any of the jealousy or envy that can even surface between siblings. Nevertheless, even the closest friendships are vulnerable. If a friend deceives or betrays us something is gone forever, and though we can forgive, the rapport never recovers its former splendour. If we quarrel with mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters, the bond resists the test, and after a while all is forgiven and forgotten. This just does not happen in the case of friendship. A violent argument, insults, threats and affronts leave wounds that are unlikely to heal. We can prefer friends to brothers or sisters, trusting them more than our siblings, but friendship is ultimately a bond in the second category. It is vulnerable to abuse, and when it breaks down it has gone forever.

Lastly there is the category of weak bonds. These are set up with colleagues, neighbours and holiday friends. Many forms of sexual attraction, even intense ones, go to form weak bonds. We can like a person or be overcome by a great passionate desire, but it only takes a rude word or vulgar gesture to make us stop wanting to be with them. Sometimes, once the sex act is over, all we want to do is to get away.

The fact that a bond is weak does not mean that we forget the relationship. On the contrary, we may remember it with pleasure for the rest of our lives. Certain erotic experiences leave an indelible impression and we remember the intense glances, the desire and the frantic contact between bodies. We remember with a touch of nostalgia something which might have developed into something. Between two people who have made love there remains a rarefied bond of confidence and trust, or even of complicity, which comes close to friendship. A weak bond relationship means only that we do not feel the need to remain with that person, that their presence is not missed. The two of us do not make up a compact unit, an “us” united by faith, love, duty or destiny.

Where to start

Where shall we start our research on the love binding two people together? Since a couple forms a stable relationship which lasts in time, we must begin by looking at strong bonds. If you ask people why they got married they will say “Because I was in love”. We must therefore examine first of all the act of falling in love.

Yet looking through magazines and articles dealing with love and the couple, we see no studies or reports on falling in love. Prevalent is the Freud-based idea that love grows slowly out of erotic attraction satisfied. It all begins with an exchange of glances. If the other person responds in the same way, bodies start to come into contact: hands touch and then clasp. Then comes the first kiss and the first rendezvous. When all goes well, intercourse may follow, with complete physical fusion. A little later will come tenderness, passion and intimacy. Because according to this way of thinking, the better the understanding and the better the mutual satisfaction, the stronger the love. At last the partner will seem indispensable and we feel lost without him or her. At this point we are in love. In other words, falling in love would seem to be a gradual process, born out of reciprocal satisfaction.

This idea of falling in love is, however, contradicted by what really happens since it usually explodes rapidly after a gradual and uncertain beginning. In English and in French, in fact, the expressions fall in love and tomber amoureux are used. It often happens that two people feel love before any sexual encounter, feel desire before getting to know each other well, and the one may go after the other even without there being any reciprocal response. Passionate love does not grow gradually because of mutual sexual satisfaction. It explodes unexpectedly between two strangers and draws them irresistibly towards each other. It is not limited to sexual desire alone, nor to tenderness. It is something different. It is a new state of emotions - unknown, unexpected and inebriating. It is at the beginning of a relationship that love is at its most intense and passionate. If anything, it declines with the passing of time, familiarity and intimacy. The process is the exact opposite of what should happen according to the Freud-based idea of gradual reinforcement.

To understand the love process we should not start from low down the scale with sexual attraction and then gradually move up. We should start at the top, from the explosive moment of falling in love. And falling in love cannot be interpreted only as eroticism or pleasure. It is a unique and unmistakable experience, a radical disturbance of the mind, heart and feelings which brings together two completely different people. Falling in love transforms their whole world. It is a sublime experience, an act of folly but at one and the same moment the revelation of one’s own being and one’s own destiny. It is hunger, longing, but also verve, heroism and selflessness. “I love you” in our tradition does not only mean that “you please me”, “I like you”, “I want you”, “I am fond of you”, “I feel affection for you”, but “for me you are the only face among the countless faces in the world, the only dream, the only desire, the only thing I want above everything else and for ever”. As it says in the Song of Songs: “Let the king have sixty queens, eighty concubines, young women without number! But I love only one, and she is as lovely as a dove”.

If we wish to keep strictly to facts, we must study the process of forming a couple from the moment of falling in love. This means from an event which is erratic, explosive and extraordinary. Let it be clear: this study is not trying to claim that all couples are formed in this way - there are couples based on erotic attraction, the pleasure of being together, habit, mutual aid, economic need and other mechanisms that will be examined later on. But the fundamental mechanism bringing about strong bonds of love in adult life is falling in love.

From falling in love

When we are in love, the person we love cannot be compared with or replaced by anybody else. S/he is unique, the only living being capable of giving us joy. No one else we meet, not even our favourite film star, would satisfy us. If our beloved is not there, the world turns arid and empty. A person in love, toying with a daisy and playing at “S/he loves me, s/he loves me not”, knows that nothing will be strong enough to uproot their love. Yet at the same time the fear exists that the loved one may be seduced and carried away by someone else. For this reason the lover keeps on asking: “Do you love me?”, and never tires of hearing the same reply: “Yes, I do”. This is the one and only landmark in the lover’s world. The whole universe has changed its pivot and now revolves exclusively around the loved one. This love is a precondition for any other desire, any other activity.

A person in love is in an extraordinary condition, living on a high, in a state of ecstasy. Plato considered falling in love a delirium inspired by the gods, a divine madness, like artistic inspiration and the gift of prophecy. A person in love sees everything transfigured - nature, the air, rivers, lights, colours are all brighter and more intense. Lovers feel drawn by a cosmic force towards their goal and destiny, and the contradictions of everyday life lose meaning. They feel like slaves or prisoners, yet happy and free at the same time. They suffer and are tormented, but would never want to stop loving.

Falling in love acts on psyches like heat on metals. It makes them fluid and incandescent so they can mix and flow into each other and take on new shapes which then solidify. Love makes people malleable, it moulds them, modifies them and welds them together. In this way it produces strong bonds that can withstand trauma, conflicts and disappointments.

We can fight against love, reject it and make every effort to stay away from the people we love in an attempt to forget them. We can deem them bad, wicked and cruel, and we can even hate them. We can see love as an illness and torment ourselves with doubt and jealousy. Yet love ticks on just the same. It takes us over and masters us. It is something that goes against our better judgment or succeeds in swaying it. Even when we are treated badly by our loved ones, we are always ready to find excuses. We think that, if we were able to touch certain strings in their hearts, changes would take place. When we are in love we are convinced we know our loved ones better than they know themselves. And we think that they could not fail to love us back if they really knew themselves.

Even if falling in love is a short-lived experience, it makes us think we will be in love forever, come what may. It brings the words of the marriage vows spontaneously to our lips: “I take you... for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part”.

Falling in love makes us love our loved ones for what they are, so that even defects, failings or illnesses are bearable. When we fall in love, it is like opening our eyes. We see a wonderful world and our beloved appears to us as marvellous. Every being is perfect, unique, unmistakable. So we are grateful to our loved ones for existing, because their existence enriches not only us but the whole world. Propertius writes: “Tu mihi sola domus, tu Cynthia solo parentes omnia tu nostrae tempora laetitia”. He does not merely say “I like you and desire you”, but “You alone are my home, you alone my parents, you are my every moment of happiness”.

It is in this way that a mother sees her child and a child its mother. Yet the bond of falling in love is formed suddenly between two people who have never met before. Falling in love makes two strangers feel a strong affinity, a common essence which goes beyond their conscious selves. For this they can say: “I am you and you are me”. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes explains this kind of experience and says that human beings were once an indivisible unity which Zeus tore apart, and they have been searching for their other half ever since.

Nevertheless, in contrast to a blood bond that “exists” and is “taken for granted”, this kind of bond needs to be worked on and strengthened. Lovers feel the fulfilment of their love as a sacred duty, like a summons to the service of their country or their faith. A person in love feels duty bound to make a commitment, establish a pact and take a vow. Love is therefore not only pleasure, desire, feeling and passion, but also commitment, vow and promise. Lovers are not only obliged to think “forever” but also to commit themselves “forever”. Love is a project for building something that is meant to last in time.

The couple in love

Has the process of falling in love always existed or has it only appeared in the modern world? The answer is that it has always been there. The Bible tells us about Abraham’s love for Sarah, Jacob’s for Rachel, Potiphar’s wife for Joseph, of David falling in love with Bathsheba, and Samson with Delilah. Plato deals with falling in love in Phaedo, Symposium and Lysis. In the last Hyppotalis falls head over heels in love with Lysis and repeats his name over and over again, calling him in his sleep, singing praises to his beauty both in prose and verse. In Phaedo, Socrates jokes about it at length before turning serious and saying that he has sinned against the god Eros and must go back on what he has said. Love must never be treated as a profane jest, as it is a gift from the gods. Like soothsaying and artistic creativity, it is divine madness. Such madness is a gift, a revelation, a contact with the supreme world of ideas. Those who love are raised out of the ordinary world and glimpse absolute beauty. Lovers reflect the god’s eternal perfection. In the Symposium Diotima even explains to Socrates that love is a desire for immortality, because its aim is to create and generate good. It is therefore an act of creation soaring high, towards the Absolute.

In the Roman world we find falling in love in the poetry of Catullus and Propertius. We also find it in the Indian Mahãbhãrata, in the Arabic-Islamic Thousand and One Nights and throughout the history of Western literature from Dante’s Vita Nova to Nabokov’s Lolita. Everywhere we run into this violent, passionate love which explodes between two people, overwhelming them and sweeping them up to a higher sphere. True, unifying love turns out to be an extraordinary experience, a revelation, a passion.

Anthropological research reinforces this idea. As Helen Fisher writes: “Even peoples who deny having concept of “Love” or “being in love” act otherwise. Mangaians of Polynesia are casual in their sex affairs, but occasionally a desperate young man who is not allowed to marry his girlfriend (...) kills himself. Love stories, myths, legends, poems, songs, instruction manuals, love potions, love charms, lovers’ quarrels, trysts, elopements, and suicides are part of life in traditional societies around the world.” In research conducted on 168 cultures, anthropologists William Jankoviak and Edward Fischer managed to discover direct proof of the existence of romantic love in 87% of extremely diversified peoples.

There is only one possible conclusion to be drawn. Falling in love occurs in most societies and has been an especially powerful force in creating couples in Western history. It is one of the spontaneous roots of monogamy. Its relationship with marriage, however, depends on the historical period. For thousands of years marriages were arranged between families, and love was thought to follow on as a result of the two being together, helping each other and having children. The cult of falling in love develops as a product of bourgeois society, when individuals begin to emerge as characterized by their own personal choices. We see it appearing in 13th century Florence in the poetry of Dante, as well as in troubadour lyrics, in medieval romances, and in the love story of Heloise and Abelard. Despite this, medieval marriage was not yet based on falling in love, for the emerging middle class was still deeply influenced by the cultural models provided by the nobility and the clergy.

The theme of love as a basis of marriage explodes in the popular literature of the 18th century, though it took much longer to enter the intellectual world. George Sand saw marriage as an act of prevarication, a limit, a prison, and therefore as something to be rejected. Stendhal delved deeply into various kinds of love but allowed no space for a love marriage or conjugal life. It was later, during the 19th century, that marriages based on falling in love became common in all social classes in Western countries, and they have spread throughout the world in this century, mainly thanks to Hollywood.

Recent youth movements tended to promote promiscuity and communal living, but now with the return of the individual, falling in love, forming a couple and getting married have made a comeback. And today, with longer lifespans, women’s lib and falling birth-rates, this type of love is proving the only force capable of uniting and bonding two adult individuals, and turning them into a loving couple.

Other points of view

Most sociologists and psychologists have failed to appreciate the importance of falling in love. Ortega, for example, considers it a moment of imbecility, a kind of psychic angina. For De Rougemont it is an obscure survival of a world-rejecting, death-wishing medieval heresy. Fromm sees true love as being born out of will power and is amazed that it may sometimes spring from the fiery and irrational territory of falling in love. Bellah considers it a danger. Other American psychologists and sociologists hold it to be a recent cultural product. They are mistaken for, as we have seen, people have always fallen in love.

According to psychoanalysts falling in love is the product of thwarted sexual desire, aim-inhibited, while fusion between lover and loved one is the product of a regression back to earliest infancy, where the only object is the mother. The entire behaviour of a couple in love is regressive. See how they talk in baby language, fondle and nuzzle each other’s bodies like babies at their mother’s breasts. In other words, the loved one simply takes over the mother’s role during the first few months of life.

This is another untenable thesis. Falling in love sharpens the mind and imagination, enabling us to tackle problems in an adult way. People in love may certainly tend to bond physically and psychically as they did in infancy, but in no way are they babies. The term regression should be used with caution, for Freud introduced it to explain neuroses and psychoses, which are painful, pathological conditions weakening the critical capacity and making the subject live in the past. Falling in love is, on the contrary, pure joie de vivre, sweeping us forwards and making us eager to project the future. Unlike the neurotic, enslaving effect of regression, love heals and liberates the mind.

Two young people who have always lived at home and relied on their parents, can use their love to find the strength to leave home, set up on their own and create a new family. Falling in love enables two people belonging to different nations, races or religions to find the energy and courage to break away from their own social group and make up a new entity in which old hatreds and prejudices have been overcome. In this way their love breaks with the past and creates a social and cultural entity which previously did not exist.

This is our launching pad. If we want to understand a phenomenon we must get through to its deepest meaning and its effect on society. The basic mistake made by all traditional studies on falling in love is that they view it in terms of an individual, psychological fact, as a positive or negative change in the heart and mind, as a neurosis or psychosis, as a normal or pathological emotional state. It is as if we were observing an individual taking part in a war, shooting down other humans or blowing up buildings and bridges. In order to understand his action, there is no need for us to rack our brains over his emotions. We need to try and understand the phenomenon of war, its dynamics and how it affects single individuals.

If we observe individuals in love, and try to understand the social significance of their way of being and acting, we then realize that the love and emotions they are experiencing break social bonds and establish new ones. The final result is not the two individuals of before but two new people, in a new collectivity formed by the couple. The correct way to analyse this is not by resorting to individual psychology but to sociology, especially the sociology of collective movements.

Only in this way can we understand why these particular emotions exist, why individuals experience such a profound transformation in their essence. It is because in this moment they are the creators and protagonists of a new birth, of the sudden emergence, and rise of a new society.

Human beings are born physically from their mothers and they form part of a mother-child couple while the child is completely dependent. In everyday language, we refer to them by saying “I saw a woman with a baby in her arms”. That with indicates that the baby is an object, not a subject, that it is the extension of the mother, without whom it would not survive. It has been a serious mistake for psychoanalysis to take this relationship as a paradigm for all others. The mother-child story is the exact opposite of what happens between lovers. With the passing of time and the coming of maturity, the child becomes independent and breaks free from the mother. Not so with falling in love - in this case two independent adult individuals unite and merge to form a new social entity.

This new society is not born in the same way as a child from its mother. It is born through two adult individuals coming together, bringing with them their own backgrounds and traditions, and putting together personal histories and cultural heritages. By fusing these two patrimonies they create something completely new, a social mutant.

During the sex act a man and a woman embrace, join genitals and fuse souls for a few moments of orgasmic ecstasy. That is all that is needed to inseminate an egg and produce an embryo. But in falling in love this process of fusion involves the whole personalities and past histories of the two. They emerge from their union transformed, linked by a deep and lasting bond that causes them to change and adapt, clash and come together, as well as restructure all their social relationships. Falling in love is the prototype and paradigm for this social rebirth, this big bang, the appearance of a new collective entity which will go on to create its own ecological niche and its own world.

It is not one single birth or one single infancy that goes to make up a human life, for various births and various infancies are involved . When we break away from the family and move into a group of friends during adolescence, when we fall in love and form a new couple, when we begin a new and exciting job, when we emigrate, when we take part in any social, political or religious transformation, then a rebirth occurs which affects both the individual and the collectivity at the same time. No community can be born if the individuals within it are not in turn reborn. The extraordinary experience which is the divine madness of falling in love cannot be considered a regression or neurosis, for it is an awakening experience, a beginning of a new life, when everything appears possible, as on the first day of creation. Falling in love is the intimate, subjective experience of birth, the creation of a new world.

Falling in love brings about the birth of the smallest possible community, that formed by only two people. But it is, at the same time, the rebirth of the individual, because there can be no individual without a collectivity. It is the birth, emergence, and exuberant affirmation of the new individual and collective subject, the triumphant cry of a new being that comes into its own by building a new self with its own biography, history and very special, personal life.

New life, birth is central to falling in love - the birth of the individual and his society in the moment in which each, in order to face existence, aims towards joy and perfection. We do not know what a baby feels at birth. Freud imagines that the birth trauma produces anxiety, the paradigm of all later forms of neurotic fears. But can this really be true? We only know for sure what an adult individual feels when renewed and reborn in such experiences as religious conversion, discovery, falling in love or being part of a new social group that is emerging. And this is not anxiety. He breaks out of an imprisoning, constrictive cocoon, a mistaken mode of existence that has been dragging on too long. What he experiences is an awakening, a stupendous vision. And the world ahead looks extraordinarily beautiful and perfect, made especially for him to live and exist in.

Individuation, birth, is not a painful separation from the great silent peace of amniotic happiness. It is no tearing apart, “being thrown into the world”, Geworfen, as Heidegger writes. It is an awakening, liberation, facing something which is not a wilderness but the promised land. The reborn person takes a look around and recognizes the value and goodness of all that is. Maslow has described this experience of ecstatic joy as Peak-Experience, the Experience of Being. Being is in itself beautiful, in itself good. And it is in this wonderful universe that the nascent individual feels that a place has been created just for him - a place which is a goal and a destiny.

The birth of an adult individual is not only that of the individual himself but of his collectivity asserting itself in the world. It is not, therefore, an act of regression but of individual and social maturity. The love between Heloise and Abelard, Dante and Beatrice, together with all the love stories told by poets, playwrights and novelists from Shakespeare, to Goethe, to Manzoni, all play their part in the progress of civilization.

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