Chapter 4: The Art of Loving

…Mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet it permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity. In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two. Erich Fromm, 1956, p. 20.

My interest in the art of loving began before the occurrence of my “terrifying” life events. Perhaps it was a reaction to religious disillusionment. After I had lost my job teaching at the Catholic school, and had finally finished with student teaching, I was no longer very confident or enthusiastic about “doing God’s will”. I saw that what I took to be “God’s will” was usually someone else’s “will” combined with my own desire to belong to what is “good” and “right” — and socially acceptable. I decided that I needed something more concrete to direct my life, something that would inspire me to live bravely and well, some “alternative to war” that would inspire me to live the “strenuous life” as William James had described it. As I read Erich Fromm’s book, The Art of Loving, I was impressed by his assertion that few humans succeed in the art of loving because few are willing to devote their lives to it in the way that is necessary for the mastery of an art. As Fromm described it, love seemed to me the worthy alternative to war that I was looking for, so I pledged my life to learning the art of loving.

Unfortunately, “love” probably is the most potentially inaccurate response in my verbal repertoire. Even before I came to see the word “love” as a verbal response to an environmental event, I learned that the meaning of love is elusive and deceptive. As I pursued love, attempting to learn the art of it, I ran into one stonewall after another. What I thought was love turned out to be desire, or control, or power, or beauty, or security, etc. Rather than breaking through the walls and finding unity, I crashed into the walls and found myself more separate than before.

Erich Fromm helped me through it. I learned many things from him. Reading Man For Himself got me interested in words — in considering the meaning and paradox inherent in language. Reading Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis expanded that interest to include words as they are applied in different religious traditions. For the first time in my life I was able to distinguish verbally between different meanings of “following God’s will”. In one tradition it meant submitting passively to what was said by authorities to be “the will of God”, whereas in another tradition it meant responding with awareness to the world as it is. Fromm even answered a letter I wrote to him once. In his letter he cited Master Eckart saying “a good person is one who does not deceive anybody, but one who is also not deceived by anybody. To learn both is not easy.” As it turned out, that saying had a great deal to do with what I finally learned about the art of loving.

When I first undertook to learn the art of loving, I thought of love as a bridge between people, uniting them in a joyful process that brought meaning to life and banished despair. The thought probably has some truth in it, but the more manifest truth was that, under the promising potential of an inspiring ideal, I became very attracted to anyone that evoked in me a “joyful process that brought meaning to life and banished despair.” In retrospect, I can see that such a definition of love invites self-deception with its corresponding deceiving of others and permitting of others to deceive.

Such self-deception has a great deal to do with “seeing the world through the eyes of the verbal community” vs. “seeing the world through one’s own eyes” in the sense derived from an analysis of verbal behavior. In my case, the first great unifying, joyful process of my life was with my mother. It was so rewarding that I was content that my thoughts were her thoughts. In those days, “love” for me was seeing myself appreciated in the eyes of my mother. As far as I can tell, that became the model for my adolescent ventures into romantic love. The bliss of “love” coincided with the extent to which I saw myself as beautiful and valued in the eyes of someone that I deemed beautiful and valuable.

Certainly, I valued understanding my loved one, caring for my loved one, and letting my loved one be as he/she truly was; yet at a very basic level I needed that person to “see”, or verbalize about me, in a particular way. I remember noticing that I talked about myself much more than I wanted to as soon as I became romantically interested in another person. Now, it makes sense to me that I would have wanted to control what my loved one was thinking, that I would want to make him think like me so that I would be assured of seeing myself positively in his eyes. Of course, that was an impossible task. I’ve never succeeded in getting someone else to see me positively all, or even most, of the time (except for my grandson when he was a baby.)

I think I was lucky that I met my husband at a time when I was very disillusioned about love. I just wanted a friend, someone I could hang around with, talk with, and not become painfully involved with. It was my senior year at Aquinas College, 1963, and he was taking courses there, trying to improve his grade-point-average so that he would be accepted in the Jesuit Seminary the following year. It seemed to me a very safe relationship. However, as the time approached for him to leave for the Jesuit College in Providence, Rhode Island, I could see that he was getting cold feet. I warned him not to make the decision because of our relationship because I was sure we would never be anything other than friends.

In any case, he decided to stay at Aquinas and get a teaching degree. In the meantime, I graduated hoping to find a way to pursue my interest in foreign languages. In June, however, my dad had surgery that disclosed advanced pancreatic cancer, so I took a position teaching Spanish at a nearby small-town high school. I had no teacher training, so it was a very challenging undertaking. It also was the first time I had ever lived by myself, so I was very glad to have John to call at night and to talk things over with.

In November, my dad died. A week later, president Kennedy was assassinated. Again, I was very grateful to have John’s companionship and understanding. We had some very meaningful conversations. I don’t really know how it happened, but at some point I decided that I really did love him, and I agreed to marry him. I began to doubt myself almost immediately, but there was no way I would turn back unless he did something really despicable. When I was in high school I had become engaged to a boy and then broke it off because I realized I really didn’t want to get married. I decided then that I would never again do such a thing to anyone. Besides that, John and I were very much alike in our thinking with respect to religion and to family values, an affinity that was very important to both of us. I also enjoyed the way that he became involved in participatory and spectator sports with my younger brothers.

And so it was that I never became really invested in seeing myself through his eyes. I didn’t identify with him; I didn’t need him to make me feel good about myself. I just liked him and saw that he was a good (although imperfect) person. Nevertheless, I tried very hard to learn to love him in the romantic way that I then believed was important.

We’ve shared some very good times, but our life together hasn’t been idyllic. For the first few years, we worked well together because of the similarity of our beliefs and values regarding the aspects of life we both deemed most important. It became more difficult when we both began questioning the religion in which we had been raised, but we both continued to value a close family unit. Our mutual desire to be part of a happy family motivated us to stay close to each other and to maintain our friendship. However, we think and act differently in so many ways that I never could identify myself with him or feel good about myself just because of him. And our big problems arose because neither of us was very good at dealing with important differences in thinking.

“Differences in thinking” means something very different from a behavior-analytical approach than it does from a traditional approach. Traditionally, differences in thinking would be settled by determining which way of thinking was more true, valid, or corresponding to reality. It would be taken for granted that each word (sentence) meant something specific that could be determined by majority or expert agreement. In contrast, a behavior-analytical approach would look to the functional relations of each word (sentence). A behavior-analytical approach would consider the stimuli that were being responded to, the reinforcement history that would affect control by the consequences of the behavior, and the motivative variables that were currently affecting the situation. Because each individual responds from a different locus, two people could appear to be making incompatible statements, yet each statement could be “true” with respect to the integrity of the speaker.

John and I both came from families that were highly verbal and valued being “right” in the traditional sense of the word. In both of our families there was an unspoken scorn for anyone who was “wrong” or who made mistakes. Of course, when two people disagreed, if one person got their view accepted as “right”, then the other had to be “wrong”. In both of our families, one had to present ones position in as unassailable a form as possible. I was more adept than John at using language itself to prove the rightness of my position, whereas John was very adept at using humor, sarcasm, indignation, loudness, etc. to get his position accepted. In a clash, it usually went his way because I was no match for him once I resorted to his methods. I realized that I had to find a way to circumvent his position and get him to listen to mine. Sometimes it worked. But often I went along with what he wanted because it was easier.

In general, our lives revolved more around his way of thinking and his needs than around mine. Because of that, although there was much in our life I enjoyed, I wasn’t highly motivated to continue working at an unsatisfying job in order to have more money to live the lifestyle that he loved. It wasn’t that he insisted on it; rather, it was just the way our life together evolved. He loved watching and participating in sports, socializing, Notre Dame, drinking beer, teaching school, kids, family, movies, TV, acting, etc. Many of my interests – reading, writing, philosophy, tennis, walking, playing the guitar, – existed very well in the shadow of his interests. In any case, I quit teaching to go back to graduate school to pursue a degree in Psychology.

He was supportive, but very soon he became involved as the co-director of a dinner theater, an involvement that again put his needs in front of mine. He was also teaching full time, and the stress he endured was so great that it often dissuaded me from talking about any difficulties that I was experiencing. Our differences began to seem much greater, and definitely harder for either of us to accept. Too often it seemed like we came to an impasse where each of us felt that his/her view was right and the other was wrong. Although we were both disappointed about the growing distance between us, we were both glad when the time came for me to do my pre-doctoral internship in Reno, Nevada. It would mean that we would be living apart for a year without being officially separated. It would give us each a chance to step outside of the demands of relationship and to see what we thought about life from an individual perspective.

The year apart was good for us. We were able to break free of habitual, unhelpful ways of relating to each other. We both decided that we wanted to continue our commitment to each other in a marriage relationship. We began our new life hopefully, but soon we realized that we still had no good way of breaking through the impasse of opposing strongly held convictions. (Over the course of our life together, we had tried, and continued to try, respected psychological methods of breaking through the impasse.) In some ways it was even more painful than before because each of us had come to appreciate more our own point of view, yet our new commitment made the acceptance and understanding of the other more important than before. To me, it seemed that at some point John would no longer listen or stick to the subject we were talking about. Instead he would become angry and accusing. I could see that we were getting caught in a “right vs. wrong” struggle in which neither of us was willing to be controlled by the other.

By that time in my life, I had already learned to respond verbally to problematic aspects of my life in a way consistent with my interest in Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. That different way of responding (thinking) had already made a great difference to me, but I thought that a really convincing test for it would be to see if I could use it to break through our impasse. I thought carefully about what I wanted to say. John already knew how much I had been affected by a Skinnerian approach, and he certainly was open to anything that might help us (as long as I didn’t force it on him.) We picked a time to talk when both of us were calm and good-natured, then we met in a quiet neighborhood tavern. Following is the gist of what I tried to communicate to him that day.

I think that we get stuck in arguments because we think that one of us has to be right and one of us has to be wrong. From a Skinnerian theory of language, that doesn’t have to be the case. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior may provide a way to communicate about life and love that will help us through important impasses with each other and within ourselves. Impasses with each other usually involve angry emotional responding when we try to talk about important differences. We have both learned from our upbringing that there is a “right” way of thinking and a “wrong” way. In other words, we’ve learned that some talk is “true” and some is “false”. So it’s very important to each of us to get our point across and demonstrate the truth of our position. Because of that, in so far as we are convinced of our own “rightness”, it’s very difficult to pay attention to the opposing view – except to look for falseness and error.

It has been to our benefit not to see the truth of the other’s position. After all, when two people are on opposing sides, if one is right then the other must be wrong, and neither one of us wants to be wrong on an issue that seems vital to one’s integrity. Unfortunately, some people are much better at debate than others; i.e., some people are much better than others at arguing from a right/wrong, win/lose approach to language interaction. Such people can control others verbally as effectively as some people can control others physically. The big difference is that control of others by verbal dominance is often not recognized as such. Instead, it is often taken as proof of the “truth” of the controller’s position.

Skinner’s account of verbal behavior provides a different approach. A person’s verbal behavior isn’t “right” or “wrong”, “true” or “false”. Rather, verbal behavior reflects the verbal responding one has learned as a result of one’s history of reinforcement. A verbal response may be a response to “what is” or it may be a response to “what one wants” or it may be a response to another verbal stimulus, but all of that is a matter of “knowing oneself” not of the truth or falsity of what is said.

Verbal communication is possible because people who share the same language share fairly similar reinforcement histories. Many of their verbal responses will occur under similar conditions. But particularly with respect to private stimuli, verbal responses may vary greatly from person to person. One cannot understand the other if one insists that the stimuli controlling the other’s verbal responses are the same stimuli that control one’s own similar verbal responses. For example, I won’t understand my husband if I insist that when he says he’s depressed he is responding to the same thoughts, feelings, etc. that I would be if I say I am depressed.

That’s part of it. Language doesn’t have to demand a right/wrong, true/false dichotomy. That doesn’t mean that right or truth doesn’t exist, it just means that language is very inefficient at determining it. And even more important – for communicating with a loved one anyway – is to see that “right” and “truth” extend much further than the limits of traditional language. In a sense, every individual can be “right” at the same time even though they may appear to be saying very different things.

When each individual is seen as a locus of responding to the environment, i.e., as “seeing ‘seeing’ from a perspective”, then every perspective is valid. Each individual is responding according to his or her unique place in the world and unique conditioning history. (Of course, some ways of responding create problems for others in the community, but that’s a problem to discuss elsewhere). I can attempt to understand another person’s perspective (i.e., to become aware of the stimuli to which s/he is responding) without it in any way invalidating my own way of responding. Considered in this way, in so far as each one of us sees the world from a somewhat different place/point, each one of us knows a different truth. Each one of us has a different truth to share with others. That’s what is referred to I think, in the saying “When you love someone, you love him as he is.”

In any case, John and I agreed to try to talk about our differences using this approach. It was very helpful. It made it possible for us to really try to understand the other without becoming defensive about statements that appeared to conflict with our own beliefs. It made it possible for us to accept that we could think very differently about a particular subject and not have to believe that the other was “wrong”.

In a very concrete way, it made it possible for us to “love each other as we are”.

A similar approach helped me relate better, also, with each of my children. Besides becoming able to accept the differences between us, I became better able to understand their anger toward me regarding certain issues. I was able to see that when they were children I mistakenly believed that loving one’s children meant teaching them to think the right (my) way. It was helpful to have a way to talk to them about it without putting myself down. When they no longer had to feel guilty about disagreeing with me, their anger diminished. With them also it became possible to “love each other as we are”.

But, who am I to speak of love? Certainly, I have been no great success at loving – at least, with respect to romantic love. In other ways, also, evidence of success at love is lacking. Yet I did make a commitment long ago — before the terrifying events of my life and before my most soul-wrenching romantic involvements — to learning the “art of loving”. It was that search for love that created much of my suffering, and it was the reality of love that sustained me through it all. Countless others, I’m sure, have learned the same lessons about love that I have learned. Nevertheless, I think the different way of talking about it that I have learned from my appreciation of Skinner has contributed to my understanding of love in a way that nothing else has. For that reason, I do presume to speak of love.

In the past, “love”, for me, was a response to a very pleasant emotional experience. Now I would call that experience “identification” or “captivation” and define it as someone or something that elicited my attention in a compelling and pleasant way. Now, I reserve the word “love” as a verbal response to a committed, involved relationship that I have chosen because of my own deep seated values. Of course, that implies verbal behavior, but I believe that “love”, as I am speaking about it, extends beyond verbal behavior and that verbal behavior is inadequate to communicate about it. In so far as one can communicate about it, it involves increasing each other’s “reality” by sharing one’s own perspective (reality) with the other. For me, the difference between “love” and “identification” is that love is relationship that is responding to “what is” whereas “identification” is relationship that is responding to “what one wants”.

In the years since I graduated from WMU, I haven’t been employed much outside of my home. I like to think that it’s because “love” has been the compelling issue in my life since then. That would justify the time and money spent on my education, because I question what would be the value of all I learned in Psychology if it didn’t function to improve my own life. Nevertheless, my lack of gainful employment has frequently been disappointing to me. Whatever love is to me, it’s not the equivalent of work. For me, “love” is about my relationship with other people, whereas “work” is about my relationship with myself and with the world in general. With that in mind, work will be the subject of my next chapter.