Love Involves Real People

indiana love

I found another arrow for my quiver in the NYTimes this morning in an oped piece on long distance relationships. Daniel Jones in a piece to be published in the upcoming Sunday Review, titled “Romance at Arm’s Length,” discusses the growing numbers of people engaged in computer-based “love affairs.” Starting with quick review of Spike Jonze’s movie, “Her.” Jones paints a realistic, but disillusioning, picture of this practice

Other than the sci-fi wrinkle of the woman’s being a microchip, the couple’s ill-fated romance, which involves zero physical contact and relies on electronic communication for emotional sustenance, isn’t futuristic at all; thousands of people are having relationships like that right now. True, they involve a real human being at the other end of the line instead of an operating system, but otherwise it’s the same deal: The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.

The article is a great example of how technology always stands between us humans and the world, and inherently transforms relationships into transactions. In the process, something always gets lost because the humans become part of the technological, inanimate system and are captured by it. A key line states “The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.” I think Jones has got it very wrong or, at least, has confused what he writes as love with some sort of narcissistic feelings. I am not a psychologist so I have to move very carefully when I get into a discussion like this.

But when Jones continues with this, I feel a lot better about what I am going to write.

We’re always searching for new ways of finding love that don’t involve having to feel insecure and vulnerable, because who wants to feel insecure and vulnerable? That’s the worst part of the whole love game, putting oneself out there to be judged and rejected. So when we get the chance to hide — whether through typed messages we can edit and control, or by saying whatever we’d like over Skype without expecting the relationship to ever turn physical — we’re freed from much of that anxiety, and we’re fooled into thinking this may be a better and truer way of having a relationship.

Emotions are being increasingly understood as states of the brain that act as mediators for the actions that follow. When we are angry, our responses to whatever is going on around us are restricted to some set we have embedded in other similar situation. When we feel empathetic, our actions are similar shaped by our empathy learning. Love, empathy, compassion and so on belong to the family of positive emotions. I could not find a single definition that suited me, but offer this composite. Positive emotions express a sense of connectedness to the world such that the connections will build lasting resources. Conversely, negative emotions arise from a sense of deficiency or the lack of resources to respond immediately.

When Jones speaks about “finding love,” he paints it as a negative emotion whether he intended to or not. Since writing about love is his business (He has been editor of The Times’s Modern Love column for the past decade .), I have to presume he means what he says. Describing love as something ones “seeks” is the epitome of a negative emotion. Love, i this sense, is some thing, which if found, satisfies an immediate need. If love is considered a positive emotion, the whole story changes.

I often quote Maturana’s definition of love. Here’s an approximate try, “Love is the [emotional] domain [of action] in which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstances (unconditional).” Love, here, is an emotional resource to guide a certain kind of lasting relationship (see the definition, above). The idea of legitimate means the “other” has the same existential status. Without that equivalent status, there is no way the loving actor can interact empathetically or in any way that requires understanding what is going on at the other end.

Jones is, unfortunately, reinforcing the current cultural view of love as something to find, have, and keep. That’s one issue I have with the column. The other is with the subject, seeking love via the Internet. Jones notes how many find this an unsatisfactory means. Not surprising. It would be highly difficult, if not impossible to find “love,” in the positive sense I point to above. Love is about relating in the real world, stressing “real.” Hiding behind the Internet to avoid rejection or judgment is doomed from the start. Love has nothing to do with these negative emotions. It is unconditional, unidirectional and always risky. If a loving relationship does not develop to be bi-directional, it is unlikely to be lasting.

Arranged marriages are generally disparaged in the US as lacking love as the initiating agency, and therefore are inferior to those created by falling in love. They are very different, for sure, and do not always work, but then those starting out of passionate “love” have a high frequency of failure. Having returned recently from India where my wife and I celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of Indian friends, I can attest to the emergence from arranged marriages of the kind of love I am described as a lasting and positive relationship.

But back to love via the Internet. Not only does this practice, driven by the reach of the Internet, trivialize one of life’s most critical emotions, it teaches us the wrong meaning of love. So does Facebook with friendship. Social media may allow us to do wondrous thing, but not with important relationships. The behaviors that create flourishing or just the more limited long-term wholeness that love provides occur only between living human beings and only in the context of real interactions. If and when technology can reproduce life fully will anyone find the satisfaction that comes from those emotions that have evolved to make us what we are. Yes, it is risky to love anyone, but avoiding the risk by hiding behind some sort of technological shield may produce some feeling, but it will never be the intended one.

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