The Mutual Identifications Between Lovers

However, the aims of love are more complex than simply the gratification of half-buried wishes or the re-finding of a lost object. Lovers by definition participate in a double identity; that is part of the power of their experience. Therefore the lover wants to gratify the beloved as much as he wants to be gratified by her. This is readily apparent in the lover's impassioned desire to provide for the beloved; he wants to please her, care for her, and give her pleasure of the soul and body. In Endless Love, David, speaking of his love for Jade, recalls:

Of course when you love someone it is a tireless passion to experience their pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. Of all the many perversions, the one I found myself most capable of succumbing to was voyeurism— as long as the object of my voyeurism was Jade. I never failed to be moved by her expressions of sexual pleasure.

Reciprocity, above all, distinguishes adult love from the love dialogues of childhood. In realized love, through union with the Other, the lovers energize, indeed create, a new complex set of identifications, new yet echoing the past. The lovers identify imaginatively with each other, each according the Other's subjectivity equal weight with his own.

The lovers in O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi," a couple in reduced circumstances, are appealing because each sells his most precious possession in order to buy a Christmas gift for the other, a gift intimately tied to the other's most treasured possession. Della cuts off her long beautiful hair—hair that would put a Queen to shame—and sells it so as to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim's gold watch. Jim meanwhile has sold the precious watch that was his father's and grandfather's before him in order to buy Della the tortoise shell combs with which she longed to adorn her beautiful hair. Nonetheless, O. Henry regards the two not as foolish children but as Magi, the wisest of men, because their gifts were those of the heart.

The importance to the lover of ministering to the beloved can be viewed in its purest form in those love stories that celebrate love's power by depicting lovers who renounce love's rewards. In such tales, the lover sacrifices his personal gratification to preserve the welfare of the beloved and, sometimes, the social good as well. He may go so far as to renounce his very right to possess the beloved, to be with her. In so doing, he asserts his altruism, his goodness, and his capacity for self-sacrifice on behalf of the beloved. He achieves a kind of moral superiority and one of the "purer" forms of love: the ability to put the beloved first.

Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in the movie Casablanca, reunited with his lost love, Ilsa Laszlo (Ingrid Bergman), renounces her out of his sense of honor, relinquishing her to her husband, one of the leaders of the underground. Ennobled by his love, Rick gives up the glamorous role of the worldly cafe owner, and goes off to fight with the Free French. It is not at all surprising that this role is said to have established Bogart as one of Hollywood's great romantic leads.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton are virtually indistinguishable look-alikes, and both are in love with Lucie Manette. Lucie loves Darnay. Sidney Carton, in many ways an unrealized man, never declares his love for Lucie but goes to the guillotine in place of Darnay for her sake. Every former school child recognizes Carton's ringing declaration, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

For me, the most moving of these tales of renunciation is portrayed in Chaplin's City Lights. The tramp (Chaplin) scrapes together the money for the operation that will restore the sight of the poor little blind girl. Her sight regained, she never knows it is he who is her savior, but she is freed to begin a normal life and to find love. This movie always moves at least part of its audience to tears, no doubt because the audience participates in a double identification, with the self-sacrificing and nurturant little tramp as well as with the beloved little flower girl whom he saves.

The fictional examples of noble renunciation that come to mind most readily are of men. But there are stories of women, too, of whom the prototypical example may well be Camille. The lady of the camellias, Dumas' tragic heroine, was a beautiful courtesan who renounced her one true love so as not to destroy his life and was only reunited with him as she lay dying.

Self-sacrifice, of course, may take one of two different forms: the lover may renounce the beloved for her own good, or for some worthy cause, or he may stay in the relationship, sacrificing his own self-realization in favor of the beloved. To the extent that there is a sex difference, men are more likely to renounce the relationship, women more likely to make self-sacrifices within it.

The magnitude of the capacity for self-sacrifice demonstrates that the lover has moved beyond any wish for purely personal pleasure. In realized love, the lovers' mutual concern, commitment, intimacy, and capacity for self-sacrifice all point to a strong two-way process of identification transpiring between them. Reciprocity and deep intimacy ultimately depend on mutual identification between the lovers. Each has an authentic sense of the subjectivity of the Other, a knowledge of the Other's point of view that assumes equal importance with his own.

While Freud located the origins of the need to be loved in the child's dependence on its parents, he was less explicit in deriving the developmental history of the need to love, to be active in loving. Whence comes the need to minister to the beloved? One can, of course, attempt to view reciprocity merely as a functional agreement between two parties. But the lover's willingness to sacrifice unilaterally testifies to some deeper cause. And for that we must again look to the child's earliest emotional ties and the identifications engendered by them.

Many different commentators on romantic love have noted the exaggerated idealization of the beloved that is an invariable prerequisite for passionate love. But it is not just the physical or spiritual person per se who is idealized; it is the potential ability of the beloved, as imagined by the lover, to gratify him. After all, the original model for his image of the beloved is, in part, that of either the actual or the imagined good mother, the all-giving ever-bountiful person of one's dreams. Such an image is ultimately based on her real (or hoped for) ministration to the child's needs, not on any of her other virtues. Very early in life the child internalizes the image of the good loving person and begins to identify with it. The child plays with dolls, cares for pets, learns to cuddle others as he wishes to be cuddled. Such an identification with the internalized image of a giving person insures that the lover will have the capacity— and desire—to take the active role, and not just the passive one, in love. Just as the child is imaginatively involved in identifying with his mother (or with the longed-for "nurturer"), so, too, does the lover identify with the beloved.

I am at pains to emphasize that such an identification with a bountiful, nurturing figure is not necessarily predicated on having had such a parent (or any such person) in one's real life. In fact, some of the most nurturant lovers are making up for what they did not have. One might say that the wishful fantasy of a loving figure may be all the stronger for having had to be imagined. And, in fact, it may be precisely because each and every one of us was frustrated in reality that we imaginatively conjured up fantasies of the all-giving mother, fantasies that subsequently become incorporated into our own conceptions of who we aspire to be, and sometimes become.

So it is that a woman (Bette Davis) in Now, Voyager can do for her lover's child what her own mother never did for her. Now, Voyager is a wonderful story of self-transformation first through psychotherapy and then through love, and finally a tale of noble renunciation. Despite its campy aspects, the movie retains a certain power and has a cult following, perhaps because it condenses many of the themes central to love. Bette Davis's character is first introduced as an extremely unattractive woman, past her first youth, dominated by a very social, rich, unloving, and selfish mother. In a flashback we are led to understand that the mother had crushed her daughter's first experience of love and systematically put down all her efforts to be attractive. About to suffer a mental breakdown, the daughter is sent to Cascades, a sanitarium where a psychiatrist (Claude Rains) helps her to achieve freedom from her mother's dictatorial and destructive demands, and to pursue her own goals. His therapeutic endeavor issues forth in a miraculous change in the woman's appearance. Discharged from Cascades, she goes on a cruise to South America. There, she has a transcendent love affair with an attractive man (Paul Henreid), who unhappily is married. Neither can sanction his leaving his wife and thus they are parted. However, there's an ingenious resolution to this authentic tearjerker: the beloved man's daughter, like the Bette Davis character, is an unwanted child, and displays many of the same problems. Finally, she, too is sent to Cascades as a patient. The Bette Davis character, who has gone back briefly, meets the girl and dedicates herself to nurturing and rescuing this child of her beloved. Through her action she and her beloved are able to preserve their transcendent connection, though they are destined never to be together.

In becoming the ministering, nurturant one, the lover is able to transcend raw infantile need; he becomes the full rich giver and (through his identification with his beloved) he shares vicariously in the pleasure of being ministered to. Ultimately, it is not just the beloved who is idealized, but the love relationship itself and the reciprocity inherent in it. The lover combines two profound pleasures: his own gratification (supplied by the magical person of the beloved), and the assurance that he is a magical person himself because of his ability to gratify.

To gratify and be gratified simultaneously is a heady combination. The lover can be cared for without feeling infantile because he is also a caretaker. His caretaking impulses are heightened by his intuition that his own gratification is guaranteed by his ability to continue to satisfy the beloved. The result is a kind of perpetual dynamic. Once set in motion, this dynamic generates rewards aplenty to keep itself going, though the system does break down often enough.

Insofar as love mobilizes the individual to act for another rather than directly for the self, it serves as an agent of individual change. The lover is enabled to move out of the solipsism of his own consciousness and to embrace another consciousness as a separate and equal center to the universe. One lover bestows on the other an importance commensurate with his own. He thereby achieves a sort of shift in the center of personal gravity. Many people can do for others what they cannot do for themselves, and what they can thus do often represents a "higher" moral value, as in self-sacrifice, generosity of various kinds, thoughtful-ness, and so on. Love, being directed outward, toward an Other, gives one, quite literally, a sense of direction, hence, a purpose and value which are lacking in isolated individuality. This sense of direction and meaning further alters the sense of self, enabling one to feel capable of becoming something even more.

Having transcended the boundaries of self by identifying with the Other, the lover is empowered beyond the usual, and no longer bound by old patterns, habits, and other rigidities of character. This is one of the reasons that falling in love and achieving mutual love are often accompanied by spurts of energy, growth, and change and by a sense of richness and abundance.

In mutual love, the lover is impelled by opposite but not necessarily conflicting or exclusive motives: to love and be loved. However, one or the other impulse may predominate, in which case, one sees, at one extreme, tales of noble renunciation such as those just recounted, or, at the other extreme, heart-chilling stories of a pre-emptory insistence on personal gratification at any cost (for example, when a husband insists on a child even though bearing one may kill his wife). In idyllic love, the lovers achieve an oscillating balance between giving and receiving, active and passive roles, pleasing and being pleased, enacting the role now of the child, now of the parent. In moving back and forth between these two roles, the lover experiences the vital interests of the beloved as his own, and he values her pleasure and happiness as much as his own. His identification with her is so complete that she assumes an importance commensurate with his own.

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