When love unravels, the lover's idealization of the beloved may give way to a radical de-idealization. Aristotle Onassis's disenchantment with his wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (as reported by Maria Callas's biographer) appears to have followed this pattern: "'Coldhearted and shallow' is how he was now describing Jackie, who had only two years earlier been 'like a diamond, cool and sharp at the edges, fiery and hot beneath the surface.'"
Because romantic love is based on idealization which is by definition an act of imaginative exaggeration, it is believed by all love's skeptics that love will inevitably fade when confronted by the exigencies of daily life. It seems almost preordained that the lover, having idealized at the beginning, will come to de-idealize the beloved, and that the new realistic perception will spell the death of love. According to these analyses, the original idealization of the beloved is a distortion, a projection of the lover's fantasies of perfection onto the beloved. But, in truth, the fate of idealization is variable: it may be preserved, modulated, diminished, or utterly shattered.
Furthermore, the degree of idealization is itself quite variable. Sometimes the lover's idealization of his beloved clearly does represent an extreme overvaluation, sometimes a total misperception, and it is for this reason that love is often called "blind." But while such perceptual distortions are common, they are not ubiquitous. Insofar as the valuation of the beloved is not vastly exaggerated, idealization—hence love— can endure.
During the course of any relationship, there are invariably changes in the content and nature of idealization. Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby gives us a wondrous account of the way not just people but things may be vested differently when lovers finally come together. At one point in the book, Gatsby has just gone to great lengths to arrange a meeting with Daisy, the great love of his life, who had married someone else while he was away in the army. She is now visiting him at the vast estate he had bought solely because its closeness to her home would allow him to gaze across the bay to a space he knew she occupied.
"If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay," said Gatsby. "You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock."
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
This de-investment is in the service of love. But others may diminish love.
Even in the most successful of love relationships, idealization is not static. The lover feels waves of hostility towards the beloved, sometimes entirely irrational, sometimes in response to the most insignificant of transgressions. These usually take the form of fleeting de-idealizations, flashes of negative, possibly even degrading feelings and thoughts about the beloved. In happy love, these thoughts, though momentarily unsettling, are usually quickly dismissed. But what causes such fluctu ations in perception and feeling? In part, de-idealization seems implicit in idealization, awaiting only the first outbreak of anger at the beloved or the introduction of some new piece of knowledge about her. In part it has to do with the latent anger existing in all love, which can perhaps be explained as the lover's defense against the threat to autonomy which is invariably posed by love's thralldom. Or resentment may be the expression of the lover's latent envy of the beloved's good qualities, those very virtues which drew him to her.
In A Sport and a Pastime, Salter catches that sudden feeling of disillusionment and then the equally sudden restitution of admiration. The lover, Dean, is musing about his beloved French girl:
Dean is a little bored. It's an effort to speak French. He's weary of it, and English is no better, hers is so uneven. Her mistakes begin to be irritating, and besides, she seems disposed to talk only of banal things: shoes, her work at the office. When she is silent, he glances at her and smiles. She doesn't respond. She senses it, he thinks. Suddenly, he feels transparent. The eyes that return his somewhat mechanical glance are the eyes of a knowing child, and all the evasions, poses, devices become foolish. The windshield has faint streaks of blue like air. As he looks through, at the road ahead, he is conscious of her calm appraisal. She understands effortlessly. Life is all quite clear to her. She is one with it. She moves in it like a fish, never wondering if it has a bottom, shores, worlds above it...
Such waxings and wanings of idealization are common to all lovers. Within the space of a single evening, how often we may feel a mixture of pride in the beloved, embarrassment, annoyance, boredom, and affection.
Quite different are the radical de-idealizations that signify the end of love. The potential for de-idealization, always present, can be catalyzed by any fundamental shift in the lover's feelings, whether motivated by hurt, disappointment, anger, or an attraction to someone else. Anna Karenina, after meeting the dashing Vronsky, returns to St. Petersburg where she notices that her husband's ears seem much more prominent and his habit of cracking his knuckles more exaggerated. And so it is that our perceptions tend to follow our feelings. (This is no less true of our self-perceptions: Some mornings we look in the mirror and find ourselves ugly and other mornings quite attractive.)
Sometimes de-idealization may be precipitated by the discovery of previously unknown shortcomings in the beloved. One shrewd but scrupulous businessman's love was destroyed when his beloved revealed to him that she gave kickbacks to buyers. He was unable to marry her; she, in turn, was startled by his rejection since she assumed that her behavior was consonant with his code of ethics. A homosexual man was shocked to discover that his beloved hated women; this became the fatal flaw around which de-idealization—and then rejection—crystallized. In the case of Onassis, it has been suggested that his fundamental disenchantment with Jacqueline had two immediate causes: ". . . as Jackie spent an estimated $1.5 million in the first year of her marriage, removed his favorite allegorical friezes from the Christina and completely, extravagantly and by no means always to his taste, redecorated the Skor-pios house, Onassis began to feel invaded and used." But "the turning point came . . . when all the letters Jackie had written to her former escort, Roswell Gilpatric, fell into the hands of an autograph dealer and were published around the world before they were returned to Gilpatric under the terms of a court order." Though the letters revealed nothing about Onassis, they suggested a degree of intimacy between Jackie and Gilpat-ric that Onassis apparently found extremely distasteful.
Sometimes de-idealization may be set in motion when changed circumstances show the beloved in a different light. (Lovers prone to over-idealization are particularly vulnerable to such disappointments.) For example, one woman, who had always admired her father for his well-acknowledged contributions to the local community, fell in love for the first time in the 1970s with a successful musician. He seemed to her to have the same kind of vitality and imaginative engagement with the people around him as her adored and idealized father; and thus she pursued her beloved, yearned for him and forgave him his infidelities and indiscretions, experiencing it as a great victory when she finally persuaded him to marry her. But fifteen years later, her opinion of her husband was remarkably changed, admiration and idealization having worn disastrously thin. Was the decline in her feelings, as she experienced it, merely because her husband turned out to be an essentially cold man? Or was it also because musical tastes had apparently changed so much that the current market was not the best showcase for her husband's particular talents and musical idiom? He dined out more on his past successes than on any current ones. In any case, her inner need to idealize someone did not diminish; it simply got redirected to a series of different people. To her friends, the increasing estrangement between husband and wife seemed as much a product of her exaggerated need to attach herself to someone of considerable prominence as it was of her disappointment at her discovery of her husband's emotional limitations.
The common fate of idealization in love—its diminution over time— tells us something in general about the failure of imagination that ultimately affects most lovers. But de-idealization may also tell us something specific about the failings of a particular lover. One divorced man fell in love with a series of remarkable women, each of whom he idealized for her uniqueness and achievements, but each of whom was past the child-bearing age or unwilling to have more children. At the threshold of the altar, he invariably discovered he could not give up the prospect of being a father once again. The first time it happened it seemed entirely plausible that he was genuinely overtaken by a sudden realization of his wish for more children, and that this insight dampened his enthusiasm for his beloved. If this were the whole story, one might have expected that he would, in the future, have looked to younger women. When his pattern continued virtually unchanged, his friends came to suspect either that he harbored some underlying fantasy of revenge against women, or that he feared sustained intimacy—but whatever the cause it was one that invariably spoiled his fabled romances.
Sometimes rapid de-idealization is clearly neurotic. We all know of individuals who are prone to repeated intense infatuations accompanied by exaggerated idealizations. These are subject to radical de-idealization and subsequent withdrawal of love, so sudden that the love has ended long before the lover can have come by any real knowledge of his beloved.
If the idealization is markedly exaggerated, the overvaluation has neurotic determinants, and the subsequent disillusionment is likely to be as exaggerated as the initial idealization. Psychoanalysts are familiar with the kind of extreme underlying ambivalence that gives rise to such oscillations, rendering the idealization of the beloved vulnerable to the massive incursion of rage in response to even slight provocations. The textbook example of overidealization and the problems that follow in its wake found in Thomas Hardy's The Well Beloved has been explored by the psychoanalysts Werman and Jacobs. The protagonist of this novel, as a child, first falls in love with a little blue-eyed girl of about eight or so. Even in the first enraptured stage of his crush he could not help noticing that the girl's flaxen hair, coming down to her shoulders, attempted to curl "but ignominiously failed!" This became the fatal flaw through which he came to de-idealize her. His oscillation of feelings in this early episode was prophetic of the pattern that would characterize his subsequent loves; the girl with the flaxen hair was followed by many other well-beloved ones, all of whom were at first extravagantly admired despite some evident "flaw," and then radically de-idealized.
There are several problems, most often interrelated, that make some lovers vulnerable to sharp devaluations of their love objects. The lover may be impelled by the reactivation of anger connected to former love objects (a chronic ambivalence) or by a lack of self-esteem which is projected onto the beloved with whom he identifies.
Projection of the lover's own self-devaluation onto the beloved is one of the most common of all factors in the disequilibration of a love relationship. Perhaps the easiest of all mechanisms to understand, it is best summed up in Groucho Marx's famous dictum: "I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member." Translated to the realm of love, this simply means that if the lover has sufficiently low self-esteem, he regards anyone who truly loves him as by definition deficient, wanting in taste. I know a woman who describes the surface manifestation of this kind of dilemma in her own life, though without fully understanding its implications. She makes a joke of her disregard of her current lover: "I don't know why I don't love him. He's completely devoted and he'll spend three hours on oral sex. I need somebody to make trouble, give me a hard time. He's too easy." To prove his worth, he would have to be reticent, hard to get, hard to please, and less eager to please her. This same mechanism, of course, accounts for the romantic allure of those who appear somewhat unapproachable or reserved, who possess what one might call the attractiveness of narcissistic distancing.
One man, kind to a fault, found himself excessively critical only of his wife and, before her, of his first wife. He came to understand that he aimed his harsh judgment only at himself and those few intimates whom he regarded as part of himself. (It's always hard to live with someone who has a harsh superego; such people seldom can restrain their punitive impulses towards themselves or their loved ones.) The self-hate and judg-mentalism that characterize those ruled by a primitive, harsh superego have led many theorists of love, most notably Erich Fromm, to the conclusion that healthy self-love is a prerequisite for on-going mutual love. Serious fluctuations in self-esteem and self-evaluation have the potential to destabilize the healthy idealization of the beloved that is a prerequisite of ongoing love.
There are other root causes of de-idealization. Sometimes when idealization comes to grief, it is in response to real changes, but change within the lover's psyche rather than any change in the beloved. For example, with the advent of the women's movement, some women who had previously admired their take-charge husbands came to resent their husbands' inability to share the decision making. A problem may also emerge if the lover manifestly values one accurately perceived quality but, in fact, unbeknownst to himself, needs another, as is the case, for example, with the lover who idealizes the beloved for her independence but is fundamentally threatened by it.
De-idealization may affect not only the beloved, but also the "we," the joint identity that the couple has created. This joint identity is sometimes so concordant with the aspirations of each lover's ego ideal that it provides the matrix for a lasting mutual love, but the pride and pleasure invested in the "we" may also give way to sharp devaluation and de-idealization. When married lovers encounter the emergence of psychological problems in one of their children this may prove the destabilizing event that precipitates a break. Very often parents attribute their children's difficulties to a negative dynamic between them, one they believe is implicit in the "we," or they may reject the internalized concept of the "we" altogether and project all blame onto the partner. Either scenario can result in the complete erosion of the pride previously invested in the union.
Illness can be the disruptive factor between previously stable, happy lovers. It can lead to an altered perception not just of the afflicted lover, but of the relationship itself. This is a frequent occurrence, for example, when a militantly self-sufficient man has a heart attack. While many couples readily adjust, some pairs are pulled asunder by the necessary restructuring of the "we" during that period of time when the husband is incapacitated and the wife must care for him (or vice versa).
Sometimes, too, lovers have specific aspirations for themselves as a couple. These aspirations often find their proving ground on the social plane, where the couple's joint popularity and social mobility confirm their value as a unit. Thus the social world is the field in which the couple, the "we," can sustain positive reinforcement, or, alternatively, insults, slights, and disparagement. A negative evaluation by their peer couples can create a profoundly negative effect on the lovers' evaluation of themselves as a couple. The blame for the deficiencies (real or imagined) may be projected solely onto the partner, at the expense of the lover's idealization of both the beloved and the relationship, the "we."
Sometimes idealization is at risk because it was so weak to start with; in those instances, "love" is more related to the wish to be tended to, looked after, adored, than to any adoration of the beloved. Then one might say that romantic love never took firm hold in the first place. H.G. Wells describes a kind of love unrelated to idealization of the Other: "With me the Lover-Shadow never became, as it becomes in many cases, a sought-after saint or divinity. My innate self conceit and the rapid envelopment and penetration of my egotism by socialistic and politically creative ideas was too powerful ever to admit the thought of subordinating my persona to the Lover-Shadow. This fair and lovely person, who was to be my protagonist, was to be friendly and understanding____I do not recall that...I had any dream or thoughts of my finding something perplexing in her and studying to understand her." Moreover he claimed to recognize the same impulse in Rebecca West when she urged him to leave his wife and marry her. " 'Jane is a wife,' I argued,
'but you could never be a wife, you want a wife yourself—you want sanity and care and courage and patience behind you just as much as I do.' " (Despite his intransigent insistence on his due as a man and genius, it is remarkable that, in attributing a desire for a "wife" to Rebecca West, he anticipates one of the slogans of the woman's movement— "I want a wife"—by forty years.)
Insofar as relationships resemble those Wells describes, they are based predominantly on a one-sided longing for admiration and tender nurturance. They often prove extremely vulnerable because the idealization of the beloved is so fragile, the estimation of her worth so trifling, that the value of her admiration is itself severely compromised. Insofar as a man believes his beloved to be inferior, her esteem cannot warm him.
To the degree that the lover's fantasies are of being loved and catered to, not of mutual love, he might be considered narcissistic. Sometimes such narcissism appears to be the product not of personal pathology, but of gender socialization. Men have been socialized to expect their lover to be nurse, mother, wife, mistress, and muse; everything, that is, except a subject, a transcendent person in her own right. But this is clearly not mutual or passionate love as it is generally understood. Although relationships involving marked degrees of domination or subservience may sometimes be extremely intense, the inequality of the lovers makes the idealization one-sided (if it exists at all) and diminishes the possibility of the kind of mutuality that is an integral part of ongoing passionate love. There may be another kind of mutuality, in which one lover "services" the Other and both, presumably, obtain some kind of satisfaction from the transaction. But by and large, relationships based on a power differential of any magnitude are conventional and tepid, at least on the part of the dominant partner. Here the problem is not lack of mutuality, but lack of exhilaration, a failure to be absorbed in the other, hence the impossibility of feeling liberated from the self into another, superior, identity (either that of the Other or the couple).
Men are not the only ones who sometimes overlook certain "limitations" in the beloved in favor of other priorities and thus fail to achieve full idealization of their beloved, at the expense of passion. The following excerpts from actress Evelyn Keyes's autobiography detail some of her ambivalence about Mike Todd at the inception of their romance.
This Mike Todd was most entertaining during my Hollywood stay, but nothing more than that. Who could take him for a steady diet?
He talked of marriage immediately. "I got love," he would say, "what else can I do." Though I admired his whirling dervish ways and jumping joie de vivre, he wasn't really the "artist" type I was inclined toward, the creator of things rather than the hirer. And that eternal cigar. The atrocious grammar. "Anyways," he would say. The repetition of certain phrases. "Walk around money." "He's around 49th Street" (somebody's age)
But none of that was the real reason why I got caught in his web. For a daddy-prone person like me, Mike the planner, the organizer, the doer, was made to order. It was too easy to let this dynamo make all the arrangements; he was doing it anyway: where to go, when, how, tickets, reservations, cars. In no time at all he had taken the place of the studio I had relied on, and was missing terribly. Big Daddy had returned.
So she got herself a daddy, and seemed to think him a good bargain. When Todd later rejected her in favor of Elizabeth Taylor, she claimed to take it hard. "When I wasn't looking, I had been delivered a knockout punch. I felt jilted." Nonetheless, she did seem able to look at the positive side: she announced that she felt relieved never to have to hear his colorful but crude language again.
It is the nature of all valuations, including idealization, to change over the course of time. But this does not necessarily mean that idealization must diminish. In many relationships it does; but in many others the idealization evolves, changes, and ripens. One may be disappointed, but one may also become more deeply appreciative of the beloved as gratifications and shared pleasures accrue. Even the course of a downward spiraling relationship can be reversed when, in crisis, one partner puts aside his accumulated resentments and rises to the occasion, thus evoking the other's admiration.
The course of the relationship, and the degree to which each partner is able to idealize the other, depends on many factors that may change over the years. The outcome depends not only on the individual health or neurosis of the lover, but on the external events that impinge upon the lovers separately and together, and, most important, on the "fit" between them, the question of whether over the long haul their wishes, needs, and values (both conscious and unconscious) continue to prove more compatible and mutually reinforcing than conflictual. As an example, we might take the following hypothetical case and write three different denouements. We start with a sublimely happy struggling couple. The wife is quite fulfilled as a kind of earth mother, scrimping and saving, making do, never complaining, and sponsoring her husband's creative potential. The husband, of course, is extremely grateful, holding her up as a paragon to all their friends. They truly idealize and idolize one another.
In the first case, their great happiness is finally ruined by the husband's success, preeminence, and affluence. On the conscious level, the wife comes to deplore his growing materialism and defection from the pure life; but subconsciously, she is succumbing to envy of her husband's realization of his creative potential and dismay over the obsolescence of her accustomed role as sole support of and believer in her husband. Moreover, with the new freedom from the duties of her previous role, she may now be forced into an entirely unwelcome questioning of her own purpose in life. The marriage ends. In her next marriage she is careful (unconsciously) to pick someone whose creative struggle is ultimately limited by his potential; she and her new husband live contentedly on the fringes of the artistic, literary world where she is once again doted on as the good wife and she dotes (in turn) upon her new husband as an unrecognized, uncorrupted creative genius.
In the second denouement, the couple's happiness is also ruined but for a different reason. The wife is extremely happy at her husband's success and rejoices both for him and for the new opportunities that his success affords them both. But the husband, now less needy, reevaluates his wife negatively. Retroactively he feels humbled, infantilized by her nur-turance, and therefore angry at her. He wants no one around to remind him of leaner, needier days. Now he finds her limited and second best and longs for someone more worthy of his newfound stature.
But in the third denouement, both wife and husband rejoice at their great good fortune. He is authentically grateful for her help and she genuinely fulfilled. Now that it is no longer necessary for her to spend so much time stretching so little so far, her creative energies find a new outlet in some worthwhile community project, and he admires her even more for her authentic selflessness. For them, their mutual appreciation grows, and their initial idealization of one another evolves into an even richer more accurate perception of each other's real strengths and virtues.
There is, of course, an enormous range in the nature and fate of idealizations in love. At one extreme are the unrealistic and primitive idealizations, at the other the more differentiated and realistic kind. To the degree that idealizations are unrealistic or neurotic, they are more likely to break down over time, and to generate a good deal of rage as they do so. But, as in the example of the good wife and her creatively limited second husband, a neurotic fit may have viability over the long haul and insure the continuation of mutual idealization.
While "mature" idealizations tend to endure, they, too, can waver, if two "healthy" lovers happen into a crisis that tests their values and disturbs their arrangements. For my grandfather, who passionately loved his second wife (though not his first), whom he married when he was sixty-five (lying about his age and claiming to be only sixty), there was no decline in his feeling for her until some thirty-four years later. When he was ninety-nine and still running his second-hand bookstore, his by then ailing eighty-year-old wife wanted to stop cooking and keeping kosher and move to an old-age home. His unflagging admiration for her womanly virtues was almost shattered. (No more apple strudel!) Thirty-four years of idyllic love gave way to recriminations and accusations of bad faith. The crisis was only resolved by a marriage counselor. My grandparents moved to the home, where they continued to keep kosher with massive assistance from my grandmother's daughters, and my grandfather got a driver to take him to work every day. Most important, their love was restored. My grandfather died a year later, and his truly beloved quickly declined into senility.
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