Article of the Week

The Experience of Love and the Limitations of Psychological Explanation

This daily feature is the introduction to a full article by Brent D. Slife that was published in our newest issue, 56:3. To read the full text of this article, follow the link below.

The blessing I want to dwell on today is the love I feel for my wife. But discussing such a personal experience may seem a bit strange for a psychologist. Psychologists are supposed to deal with objective data. Unfortunately, love isn't objective, so psychology's knowledge of love has been meager over the years.

My purpose today is not to romanticize this love. Instead, my desire is to understand it, at least to some degree. As I interface the sacred and the secular, I am struck by how little my experience of this love is explainable in conventional psychological terms, or, indeed, in any secular terms. And I am not merely intellectually curious about this issue. As a marital therapist, an understanding of love would help me to address the problem marriages I hope to heal. Why is my marriage thriving while other marriages are dying?

My presentation today will first attempt to describe why I believe several aspects of psychological explanation make little sense of what I experience in my love for Karen. The presentation will then turn to philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, who seems to think outside the explanatory box on this particular topic. As I will describe, Marion agrees with me that the ideas underlying our current ways of thinking about love don't inform us about what it is. Indeed, he is clear that these current ideas serve instead to drain away any meaning that could resemble what most of us experience as love.

So what are the practical implications of Marion's understanding of love for our everyday lives? What lessons can we draw? I ask you to consider ten such lessons.

1. Love is to some degree ungraspable, so don't get upset when your spouse's description of his or her love is inadequate.

2. Love isn't deserved; it's a gift. We don't deserve true gifts; otherwise it's not a gift at all—it's a business transaction. We don't ask true givers to justify their gifts. We accept them humbly, enjoy them, respond with gratefulness, and then give gifts to others who don't deserve them, like us.

3. Avoid "calculator relationships," in which we keep track of units of love given to one another. If we're keeping track of them, they aren't units of love at all.

4. You don't love someone so they can be happy. Love isn't the means to something else; it's the end. The quality of your relationship is the main thing, not the emotional satisfaction of the individuals in the relationships.

5. Love is widely recognized as crucial to mental health, but psychologists typically interpret it as an instrument of individual happiness rather than a crucial pathway out of our egoistic world.

6. Unlike egoistic theories of the social sciences, we are completely capable of unselfishness, whether it is love of a country or love of a person. And, perhaps surprisingly, true unselfishness isn't necessarily experienced as sacrificial, because the other who is loved is literally part of us.

7. Otherness is not the enemy or disrupter of relationships. Loving someone who is different can make us vulnerable, but this vulnerability is part of us giving up control and getting in touch with the real world.

8. When otherness is not the enemy, marital conflicts are less threatening and more productive.

9. The otherness of gracious love is pivotal to our initial and continuing development as persons.

10. Otherness ultimately becomes the spice of our relationships; loving similarities solely is akin to loving a mirror image of ourselves, which is just another kind of selfishness.

These, I believe, are some of the lessons of Marion. I hope they bless your lives as they have mine.