Love and Detachment

In a comment on my last blog I was asked to revisit the subject of love and detachment. It is an interesting, but difficult area. Consequently this week I have attempted to clarify the issue a little more.

Some years ago someone shared with me a tape of Anthony De Mello running one of his famous workshops. My recollection is a little hazy but part of his presentation went something like this. He asked someone, “Do you love your spouse?” The person replied in the affirmative saying they loved their partner very much. “What would happen if your partner came to you and said, ‘I am sorry but I don’t love you anymore. I can no longer be happy in this marriage. I want you to let me go.’ How would you respond to such a request? Would you be prepared to let them go?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t bear to let them go.”

“Even though staying together would cause your spouse pain and no doubt as a result you would also be unhappy?”

“Oh no, I love my partner too much – I couldn’t possibly contemplate their leaving.”

De Mello turned to the audience and said, “Isn’t that wonderful! Two unhappy people – but long live love!”

What De Mello did was give a great example of attachment. When I believe I can’t be happy without another, that is not love – that is attachment. Underneath I am parasite, believing I can’t be happy without my partner, I have to derive my emotional well-being from them. My concerns are selfish ones. If I love my partner I will do what I can to progress the well-being of my partner, not to pursue my own selfish needs.

Our society depends on the interdependence of its members. We all play a role but rely on others to play different roles that complement our own. I sit here in front of my desk obviously dependent on those that make computers, those that construct furniture, those who write and publish books, those who generate electricity, those who provide telephone services and so on. And all that is well and good. But a mature adult can not afford to be dependent on another for their psychological or emotional well-being. (We know from previous articles that this is a logical error and that our well-being comes from a state of mind not from any possessions or relationships.)

Once I believe another is responsible for my happiness, I am immediately vulnerable. Therefore in my wrong-minded attempt to control my happiness, I will attempt to control that person – I will have expectations about what they need to do to make me happy. By constraining that person and curtailing their freedom I am not exemplifying love at all – but my own fear, fear that I might lose or be deprived of what I erroneously believe my happiness is dependent on.

In a personal exchange Dr Phil Harker pointed out to me that one of the difficulties we have discussing “love” is the paucity of the English language. He explains that the Greeks had three terms for love – Eros, Philia and Agape. In a long-term satisfying relationship with a spouse or partner all three types of love have to be present.

Let me quote a few paragraphs from him. (This is part of the text of a speech he gave at a wedding.)

“[Initially when Eros is dominant] the individual becomes extremely possessive and desiring of this ‘one and only’ who has taken on the characteristics of a ‘God’ of ‘Goddess’ in their emotional driven mind – this is all well and good in fulfilling its purpose. Of course the intensity of the feeling tends to fade reasonably quickly even though the memory of this ‘possessive’ love feeling lasts a long time and becomes associated with his or her concept of love for THIS person – even when it is quite obvious that they pretty much can’t stand each other any more – so what has happened.

Well, they didn’t realise that the great secret to any lasting relationship is not possessive love or even great intimacy, but great friendship – why is friendship so important and yet so alien to many marriages? It is because ‘great friendship’ cannot be associated with any form of possessiveness.

What is it about friendship that we enjoy so much and what keeps it fresh – in fact improving – over time?

Well, the first thing is that good friends have respect for each other’s freedom – and yet still find things in common that allow them to have a common theme in ‘conversation’ with each other.

Secondly, in good friendships we generally express our opinions, but don’t require the other to agree or even accept our opinions – and that is why people often listen more attentively to their friends than they do to their partners. I have heard people talk to their marriage partners in ways that friends would never do – why? Because they assume that ‘marriage’ gives a person the ‘RIGHT’ to take away the rights of the other and bring them under control. This is a disaster in the making!

Thirdly, good friendships are voluntary – even if they have been established over many years – the obligation to the friendship is generated internally and not through external pressure. The motivation for good friendship is intrinsic, not extrinsic, and therefore there tends to be a great deal of mutual respect between friends. And it is this intrinsic motivation that keeps the relationship healthy.

However, even friendships break down – because sometimes they have not grasped that there is an even deeper form of love that also needs to be involved and this is the love that we need to have towards ALL people. It is a love that arrises out of a clear understanding of what it means to be human – that we are connected to all in a common spirit and need to forgive everyone everything. And to do this we need to start with ourselves!

To get along with all people we need AGAPE – Unconditional love – Freedom from blame and no desire to control.

To have lasting friendships we need AGAPE and PHILIA – Freedom from blame and no desire to control & Common conversation/common interests.

To have a lasting marriage [or a long term intimate relationship] we need AGAPE – PHILIA and EROS – Freedom from blame and no desire to control & Common conversation/common interests and a desire to make this person special in the intimate sense!”

You might then compare attachment with love as defined by Phil.

Attachment results in:
• A tendency to blame the other when my needs aren’t met.
• A likelihood that I will try and control the other to try to compel them to meet my needs.
• Less chance that we can find common ground because I am putting my needs before my partner’s.

Thus in a loving relationship we give unconditionally to the other. As Phil says, “Give without a balance sheet to get ‘fairness’ – give wastefully!”

You might ask, “But what about me – what you are talking about here seems to be a one-way street where I have to do all the giving and don’t benefit from any of the receiving?” Well, if you truly love someone else, don’t you want to give to them? If you only give with the expectation of something in return that’s not love but a form of barter! And if I give with no expectation of something in return I truly appreciate what I get in return. And guess what? This sets up an environment where the other is much more likely to want to give.

Quoting from Phil again:
“There is nothing wrong with seeking your own happiness and joy in a marriage relationship – selfishness is good so long as it is enlightened selfishness. Most people practice unenlightened self-interest by thinking that others can make them happy or unhappy – this is simply unenlightened…..”

So there you are. Loving relationships can contribute substantially to our sense of well-being but only if we don’t believe our happiness depends on them. As I have mentioned before, the literature on happiness brings with it the caution that happiness can not be pursued directly. In relationships it seems that as soon as I believe my happiness is dependant on my partner and I need to have my partner to be happy, the outcomes for both of us are compromised. When I enter into a truly loving relationship where my concern is to advance the welfare of my partner, paradoxically we both are better off! Obviously if all the elements of Agape, Philia and Eros are embedded in the relationship, I have the best chance of an enduring, satisfying relationship.

6 Replies to “Love and Detachment”

  1. Ted, I enjoy reading your blog immensely, thank you. As well as the presence of the three elements you identify, experiencing love requires letting go of the ego, a killer attachment.

  2. Thanks Ted for the clarity you bring to this far from simple topic. I have heard you and Phil speak on it before and have always understood it at the time but found it very hard to pass on the message to others. Now I will pass on your blog.

    Just an observation… I see Love being traded in some relationships as a tool to consciously or subconsciously manipulate a partner. I have been guilty of this I am sure. It now seems clear that only a very small part of what is truly Love is being traded the other more important aspects of Love are already absent.

    Thanks again Ted, a very enlightening blog.

  3. If I am I because I am I, and You are You because You are You,
    I am I, and You are You.
    If i am i because you are you, and you are you because i am i
    i am not I and you are not You.
    Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 19th Century Rabbi

  4. Thank you Anne and Greg – I am pleased you found it useful.

    And Father Robin, I am pleased you have found the text-box at last!

  5. ‘The Greeks had different words for Love’s different manifestations.

    They spoke of ‘agape’, altruistic Love [in Latin caritas] which gives us – but with a cold ring- our word ‘charity’’

    They spoke of ‘ludos’, the playful affection of children and of casual lovers, and ‘pragma’, the understanding that exists between long-established married couples.

    They spoke of ‘storge’, the Love that grows between siblings or comrades-in arms who have been through much together, and of ‘mania’ which is obsession.

    And they allied that with ‘eros’ or sexual passion.

    The best and strongest emotional bonds are those of friendship between equals.

    And that is what the feast of St Valentine is about: the dream of Love. Life would be bitter indeed if the dream never became Reality, or if the main experiences of Love in our lives – storge, pragma, ludus, agape – were not enduring and stabilising enough to save us when the storms of eros and mania sweep over us – bringing bliss, and leaving havoc in their wake’

    ‘The Meaning of Things’ A.C Grayling.

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