“We must understand love; we must be able to teach it, to create it, to predict it, or else the world is lost to hostility and to suspicion.” – Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Being
In his article “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person“, the philosopher Alain de Botton noted that “choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for”. There is surely some truth here. Due to the narratives and unrealistic expectations our society holds about romantic love, we enter relationships with ideas that are destined to lead to disappointment and resentment. We believe there is one right person out there for us, and we expect that partner to be our everything— we expect them to satiate our insatiable sex drive, satisfy our need for belonging, and quell our deepest existential feelings of despair. de Botton is quite right that romantic love doesn’t have to be perfect. By forgiving our own foibles as well as accommodating those of our partner, we connect with our common humanity and foster growth in ourselves and our partner.
Even so, certainly we strive for more than choosing how we would most like to suffer in our loving relationships! We strive toward a richer, deeper, more meaningful, and more transcendent experience of love. In Motivation and Personality, the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow has a chapter titled “Love in Self-Actualizing People”, in which he notes that “self-actualizing love shows many of the characteristics of self-actualization in general.” Using that chapter as a spring board, I will draw on the latest scientific findings on love and attachment to outline ten features of what I refer to as whole love. I define whole love as an enduring loving relationship that is continually in a state of growth, health, and development.
Note that this is the template of an ideal. I personally do not know anyone who shows all of these characteristics! Nevertheless, I think this template for whole love offers a realistic— yet still transcendent— north star in which to point the love compass. Also, while the focus here is on romantic relationships (as well as the integration of sex and love), many of these characteristics could apply equally to any loving relationship that one has in their lives. I fully acknowledge that some people have multiple intimate romantic relationships (polyamory), and that some people embrace the single life.
Therefore, I’d like to emphasize that it’s not the status of being in a romantic relationship that signifies whole love, it’s the quality of the connection that is the critical variable. I hope that the principles in this humanistic guide can help you in your journey to have more health, growth, and developing all of your loving relationships in your life.
1. Openness to Love
“It is true of our self-actualizing people that they now love and are loved… they have the power to love and the ability to be loved.” – Abraham Maslow
The most essential aspect of whole love is being open to love.
Whole love is open, receptive, and good-natured. Both giving and receiving love are equally as important in whole love. Of course, being open to love doesn’t guarantee that love will be received, but it does help to create the possibility. As Rollo May notes in his book Love & Will, “We cannot will love, but we can will to open ourselves to the chance, we can conceive of the possibility—which… sets the wheels in motion.”
Two central drivers of openness to love are trust and a lack of cynicism. The opposite of openness to love is avoidance of love. Research shows that those with an avoidant attachment style lack trust, and are extremely cynical about love. Julie Rothbart and Philip Shaver summarize the attachment view by noting that“it would be expected that secure adults view others as trustworthy and dependable… Avoidant adults would be expected to view others as generally untrustworthy and undependable … and relationships as either threatening to one’s sense of control, not worth the effort, or both.”
In one study, securely attached individuals scored highest on trust in loving relationships, whereas avoidants displayed fear of closeness and intimacy. Securely attached lovers were most likely to agree that “in some relationships romantic love never fades”, whereas avoidant lovers were most likely to say that “the kind of head-over-heels romantic love depicted in novels and movies does not exist in real life, romantic love seldom lasts, and it is rare to find a person one can really fall in love with.”
In another study, avoidant participants were found to not only view potential partners as untrustworthy, but were also generally suspicious of human nature and motives in general. Securely attached individuals showed the opposite pattern, and were more likely to view people as generally well-intentioned and good-hearted .
It may very well be that the avoidance of love is an evolutionary strategy, nature’s rational response to the unavailability of trusted others in one’s environment. Indeed, there is evidence that the drive for sex without love emerges in unstable reproductive environments, where there is little assurance that the partner will stick around, or even survive due to environmental instability and/or violence.
Even so, our patterns, regardless of the triggers, need not define us. We can be more than our evolutionary instincts, and in our loving relationships we can willfully transcend the urge for avoidance. Anyone can gain the riches of whole love by leaning in to love. By opening ourselves to the sorrows and pains of romantic love, we also open ourselves to the joys and opportunities for growth.
2. Love is the Center
“No description, no words can ever communicate the full quality of the love experience to one who has himself never felt it. It consists primarily of a feeling of tenderness and affection with great enjoyment, happiness, satisfaction, elation, and even ecstasy in experiencing this feeling (if all is going well). There is a tendency to want to get closer, to come into more intimacy contact, to touch and embrace the loved person, to yearn for [them]… Quite characteristic is the feeling of generosity, of wanting to give and to please.” – Abraham Maslow
The center of whole love is love.
Without love, whole love disintegrates, for the essential feature of love, is care. In his book Love & Will, Rollo May defines care as a “state in which something does matter; care is the opposite of apathy. Care is the necessary source of eros, the source of human tenderness.”
Likewise, in The Art of Loving, the humanistic psychologist Erich Fromm writes that “genuine love is an expression of productiveness and implies care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge. It is not an ‘affect’ in the sense of being affected by somebody, but an active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one’s own capacity for love.”
With love and care, whole love grows. Love is the center upon which the rest of the elements orbit, and contribute to the growth of the relationship. To be sure, the other elements of romantic love—attachment, caretaking, lust, and romantic passion— often attempt to bend love to its will, for they each have their own biological goals.
However, love is best when free to grow. Insecure attachment, manic romanticism, hyper-lust, and extreme sensitivity to rejection all warp whole love. Whole love is at its best when the rest of the elements help grow love, rather than the other elements desperately clinging to, or avoiding, love.
This central feature of romantic love is also a central feature of humanity. In a study of 37 societies, men and woman ranked love, or mutual attraction, as the first criterion for choosing a spouse. Without this mutuality of caring, without a stance in one direction to the exclusion of a stance in another direction, one cannot grow love, because there is no movement. As Rollo May notes in Love & Will, “[t]end means a tendency, an inclination, a throwing of one’s weight on a given side, a movement; and also to mind, to attend, to await, to show solicitude for. In this sense, it is the source of both love and will.”
3. Greater Taste and Perceptiveness
“The perception of healthy people are more efficient, more acute when in love than when not. Love may make it possible to see qualities in the loved person of which others are completely oblivious.” – Abraham Maslow
When it comes to attraction in romantic relationships, especially in the early stages, the passion and lust systems can lead to all sorts of distortions in perception. Whenever there is a narrowing of attention, it is more difficult to see the totality of a person, and to see the reality of their being. For instance, when the lust system is overactivated, we may focus on superficial aspects of a person, ignoring the whole person.
Whole love is involve a widening of attention, and a greater efficiency in seeing the reality of the partner more clearly. Attraction in whole love is typically based on deeper aspects of the person, such as kindness, courage, honesty, and sincerity, rather than more superficial aspects of the person, such as physical beauty. This does not mean that physical attraction is absent; on the contrary, witnessing the positive qualities of the other person often leads to an increase in physical attraction.
Additionally, diversity is embraced in whole love. Strangeness is not threatening, and there is a greater openness to being attracted to those who are very different. This may include different income, social status, education, religion, appearance, etc. Maslow writes,
“Thus physical imperfections, as well as economic, educational, and social shortcomings, are far less important to healthy people than are character defects. As a consequence, it is easily possible for self-actualizing people to fall deeply in love with homely partners. This is called blindness by others, but it might much better be called good taste or perceptiveness.”
4. Love as End Experience
“There is too much talk in the psychological literature of rewards and purposes, of reinforcement and gratifications, and not nearly enough of what we may call the end experience (as contrasted with the means experience) or awe before the beautiful that is its own reward.” – Abraham Maslow
“Love seeks no cause beyond itself and no limit; it is its own fruit, its own enjoyment. I love because I love; I love in order that I may love…” – St. Bernard of Clairvaux
A key characteristic of whole love is a lack of striving, a “spontaneous admiration”. As Maslow notes, “admiration asks for nothing and gets nothing. It is purposeless and useless.”
Nevertheless, admiration frequently leads to pleasure, naturally and spontaneously. Maslow compared this experience to the “eager passivity with which we allow ourselves to be tumbled by waves just for the fun that is in it; or perhaps better, to the impersonal interest and awed, unprojecting appreciation of the slowly changing sunset. There is little we can inject into a sunset.”
Maslow was clearly influenced by Eastern philosophy. In a brief, unpublished essay written in July, 1954, Maslow explicitly notes his reading of the Hindu philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, and applies the Buddhist notion of “choiceness awareness” to acceptance of the beloved, “without desiring to change or manipulate the person”.
This idea also dovetails nicely with Carl Rogers’ notion of unconditional positive regard, in which a person does not attempt to change another person, but instead beholds that person in their totality. Continuing the sun metaphor (which apparently was a popular one among humanistic psychologists), Carl Rogers notes,
“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.’ I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”
A key to unconditional positive regard is listening. Rogers offered his clients an “active-listening approach”, which involves creating a climate of listening that involves equality, freedom, permissiveness, understanding, acceptance, and warmth. As Maslow notes, “You can’t really perceive the truth and be aware of reality as it is unless you put aside all your hopes, ideals, and standards—and just listen wholeheartedly… [The] thing to do is to let both things and people happen.”
5. Admiration of Virtue
The sort of admiration and acceptance the humanistic psychologists were discussing is related to Aristotle’s third type of friendship— virtue. In his seminal book, Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between three different types of friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue.
In their book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, Suzann Pawelski and James Pawelski– a married couple who are both experts and leaders on the methods and techniques of positive psychology– extended Aristotle’s ideas to the realm of romantic relationships. Consistent with love as an end experience, they argue that the highest, most transcendent loving relationships are those that are “not motivated by what each person can get from the relationship, but rather by the goodness each person sees in the other.” In other words, instead of expecting a relationship to make you whole, you engage in a romantic relationship so that each partner can help each other grow in a healthy direction.
Drawing on Jonathan Haidt’s work on the emotion of “elevation”, the Pawelskis’ argue that “when we are uplifted or elevated, our hearts are open and our thoughts are more focused on others than on ourselves. We seek ways to make positive changes to enhance our relationships and we experience moral growth and heightened positive relations like hope, and ultimately love.” According to the Pawelski’s, “Aristotelian love” is characterized by three interrelated elements:
- Partners love the good they see in each other. This does not mean that we expect our partner(s) to always be perfect, or that we turn a blind eye to our partners’ flaws. Instead, this involves an active, willful attempt to spot the strengths of the partner, and see potential that they don’t even see themselves.
- All partners are committed to supporting each other’s growth and health precisely because they see the positive potentialities in the other person. This doesn’t mean forcing or expecting the other person to be a particular way, but merely providing the secure base and support to help the partner “do their own growing”.
- A wonderful side effect of helping another person grow is typically inspiring yourself to become a better person. By watching the process of development and growth unfold, you realize that change is possible, but also that change requires effort and patience. Being loving, admiring, and patient with others often has the effect of making us more loving, admiring, and patient with ourselves, creating an upward spiral of growth, health, and development.
If we can cultivate more gratitude, character strengths, and virtue in our loving relationships, we can have more whole love in our lives.
“One important aspect of a good love relationship is what may be called need identification, or the pooling of the hierarchies of basic needs in two persons into a single hierarchy. The effect of this is that one person feels another’s needs as if they were [their] own and for that matter also feels [their] own needs to some extent as if they belonged to the other. An ego now expands to cover two people, and to some extent the two people have become for psychological purposes a single unit, a single person, a single ego.” – Abraham Maslow
In whole love, the needs of one person are the needs of the other. This is grounded in a basic loving orientation toward others, as well as recognition of our common humanity. In Love & Will, Rollo May takes up this notion of caring:
“It is a state composed of the recognition of another, a fellow human being like one’s self; of identification of one’s self with the pain or joy of the other; of guilt, pity, and the awareness that we all stand on the base of a common humanity from which we all stem.”
Psychological studies support the notion that this “pooling of needs” (as Maslow put it) is a central feature of mature, healthy relationships. According to the self-expansion theory of love put forward by Arthur and Elaine Aron, a fundamental motivation in humans is self-expansion. One way (out of many ways) we fulfill this fundamental motivation is through romantic relationships, in which each partner incorporates aspects of the loved one’s self into one’s own self.
The self-expansion that occurs in romantic relationships often results in personal growth, since including a romantic partner in one’s self offers the opportunity to gain greater support, resources, perspectives, skills, and knowledge, and this all increases the capacity to reach one’s highest goals more easily. As Arthur Aron and his colleagues put it, “close relationships constantly and deeply shape, create, and recreate the self.”
Since self-expansion is pleasurable, engagement in self-expansion creates an upward spiral in which even more self-expansion is sought in the relationship. Self-expansion typically accelerates at a fast pace in the beginning stages of relationships, when partners know little about each other, and the joy of self-expansion typically slows down as the relationship continues, and couples become more familiar with each other.
Nevertheless, this need not be the case, as couples can continue finding new ways of experiencing the joys of self-expansion. For instance, research shows that couples can overcome boredom and stagnancy of passion in relationships by engaging in joint participation of self-expanding activities that are novel, arousing, and exciting, and that provide new information and experiences.
Another way of continually expanding the self in relationships is through self-disclosure, in which both partners feel that their innermost self is validated, understood, and cared for by the other. As Maslow notes, “Very common is the desire for a fuller knowledge of one another, a yearning for a kind of psychological intimacy and psychological proximity and of being fully known to each other. Special delight in sharing secrets is common.” Maslow believed that self-actualizing relationships involved a dropping of defenses, and an increase in spontaneity and honesty. Indeed, it is through the act of mutual self-disclosure, we can connect to our common humanity.
In a classic study, Arthur Aron and colleagues sought out to test whether this process of accelerating self-disclosure could have an effect on feelings of closeness among strangers in only a very brief amount of time. They brought pairs of strangers into the laboratory and gave them a series of personal questions to ask each other, which required increasing vulnerability and self-disclosure.
The questions, which were divided into three sets, ranged from “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” (Set I), to “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life”? (Set II), to “Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life” (Set III), to “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them? (Set III)”
After only a 45-minute period, the relationship of the strangers was rated as highly as the average relationship in their lives, and many participants even sought out the stranger after the experiment. In fact, after the 45 minutes of interaction, the relationship was rated as closer than the closest, deepest, most involved, and most intimate relationship of 30% of similar college students at the same university!
It may be that pooling of needs, self-expansion, and mutual self-disclosure is the greatest protection humans have from the profound emptiness and anxiety that can arise from the awareness of our inevitable existential isolation. After all, at the end of the day, we remain isolated from each other, separated by the physical boundaries of our bodies, and we can never truly know another person as well as we know ourselves.
As Maslow notes, “of all such efforts that we know anything about, the healthy love relationship is the most effective way of bridging the unbridgeable gap between two separate human beings.” Likewise, in The Art of Loving, Fromm notes that “love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”
7. Harmonious Integration
Through self-expansion, we certainly change, but that doesn’t mean we have to neglect other areas of our “old self” that also gave us resources, meaning and support. The key is how one integrates the loving relationship into the core of their identity. As we saw earlier, Robert Vallerand argues that not all forms of passion are equally as growth-enhancing.
Harmonious passion, according to Vallerand, stems from a sense of freedom, and a healthy integration of a loved activity into a person’s identity. The passion is in harmony with other areas of the person’s life. In contrast, obsessive passion stems from a sense of an uncontrollable urge to engage in a loved activity. With the obsessive passion, the activity takes up a very large space in one’s life and can lead to neglecting other loved activities, creating inner and outer conflict and discord in one’s life.
Applying these two forms of passion to romantic relationships, Vallerand and colleagues found that self-expansion can certainly lead to personal growth, but it can also come at a cost. Across a number of studies, the researchers found that harmonious passion in a relationship promoted personal growth and also allowed the person to remain engaged in other areas of one’s life, such as maintaining relationships with friends and family, as well as maintaining interests and activities outside the relationship. In contrast, those who were obsessively passionate in their romantic relationships did not display as much personal growth, and often disengaged with other areas of their life.
This often has the consequence of limiting growth, considering that distancing oneself from close family and friends can increase loneliness and decrease support in one’s life. As the researchers note, “individuals who withdraw from their friends and relatives when they are in a romantic relationship would appear to cut themselves off from people who could help them maintain a strong and thriving romantic relationship.”
What can be done to increase one’s harmonious passion in a romantic relationship? Vallerand suggests that one way to increase your harmonious passion in a relationship would be to consciously reflect on the ways in which this romantic relationship is personally meaningful to you, and to remind yourself (or at least reflect on whether) your decision to stay committed to the growth of the relationship was freely chosen, and is in harmony with your most cherished values. If upon reflection you realize that this relationship is too obsessive, and too far from being enhancing and growth-oriented, you might want to rethink your choice of current partner!
8. Love and Eros
“Sex and love can be and most often are more perfectly fused with each other in [self-actualizing] people.” – Abraham Maslow
A critical distinction, which has been made many times throughout human history, is between eros and sexuality. The mere physical act of sexual intercourse can be driven by many potential needs, whereas eros has a very specific function: to grow and express the depths of one’s love. Sexuality is about stimulation and release, whereas eros is about imagination and possibility. As Rollo May notes in Love & Will, “the essence of eros is that it draws us from ahead, whereas sex pushes us from behind.” Similarly, Maslow noted that sexuality among self-actualizing lovers is “used as a foundation stone upon which higher things are built.”
It is noteworthy that Maslow never defined sex as a need, especially considering that in the strict evolutionary sense, sex is very much a need, being a main mechanism for propagating the genes into the next generation. However, in terms of the whole self, we don’t need sex as much as we need love. When we go through a dry spell sexually, it may not be pleasant, but it rarely reaches the level of catastrophic depression we feel if we go through a long enough period deprived of love and affection. Nevertheless, since sex is such a powerful propagator of our species, it would make sense that the need would be powerfully attached to a wide variety of psychological needs to encourage us to have more sex. As self-help writer Mark Manson insightfully puts it, “Sex is a strategy we use to meet our psychological needs and not a need itself.”
Indeed, research shows that while there are many reasons why we have sex, they can be mapped onto to various. human needs. Cindy Meston and David Buss identified 237 distinct reasons why humans have sex, from the drive for simple stress reduction and increase in pleasure, to the motivation to increase power and social status, to the drive to increase self-esteem, to the drive for obtaining secure resources, to enacting revenge, to the exploratory drive of seeking a varied experiences, to the expression of love and commitment.
Not all sexual motives are equally conducive to sexual satisfaction, however, and our attachment system can interfere substantially with our sexual satisfaction. Those with the lowest levels of attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance (i.e., those who are most securely attached in their relationships) report the highest levels of sexual satisfaction.
Why is this the case? It has to do with the motives for having sex. Research shows that those high in attachment avoidance tend have sex for reasons others than expressing love, such as avoiding negative relational consequences, or increasing one’s status and prestige among friends— for instance, by impressing them with dramatic sexual exploits. In turn, these motives for having sex, along with their lower sensitivity to their partner’s needs in times of distress, are associated with lower sexual satisfaction.
Those high in attachment anxiety tend to have sex in order to please their partner(s) and reduce their uncomfortable feelings of relationship insecurity. While those high in attachment anxiety tend to report that they are more sensitive to their partner’s needs, in actuality they tend to show less sensitivity toward their partner’s real needs, are more controlling of the direction of the relationship, and are less likely to use sexuality as a way to value their partner. These behaviors, in turn, are associated with lower levels of sexual satisfaction. As one pair of researchers put it,
“These [anxiously attached] individuals appear to be lacking in their ability to recognize the actual needs and cues of distress in their partners, possibly because of being preoccupied with their own self-centered worries and internal self-doubts. Such chronic worries would tax their internal resources and prevent them from fully and genuinely attending to their partner’s own emotional experiences and needs… and this would perhaps explain their lower tendency to use sex to value their partner.”
Along these lines, research shows that people with elevated levels of social anxiety report less satisfying sexual experiences—reporting experiencing less pleasure and feelings of connectedness when sexually intimate compared those who are not socially anxious. When you are preoccupied by self-evaluation or relationship insecurity, it’s difficult to fully enjoy sexual activity.
The antidote? Add more love into the sex. Since eros involves a focus on growth rather than outcome, it is better suited for actually enjoying the experience. Anik Debrot and colleagues found across multiple studies that affection explained the link between sex and well-being. Tender moments during sex included “moments of love and security” and “affectionate or thoughtful signs from my partner.”
The more of these moments during sexual intercourse, the greater the levels of life satisfaction and positive emotions during the day, even having effects on the person’s positive mood the next morning. What’s more, drawing positive emotions from sexual intercourse was a protective factor for relationship decline, leading to greater relationship satisfaction over time. Consistent with Maslow’s notion of pooling of needs discussed earlier, the greater one partner’s positive emotions from sex, the greater the other partner’s relationship satisfaction over time.
Another study conducted by Todd Kashdan and colleagues found that higher reported sexual pleasure and intimacy leads to not only boosts in positive mood, but also to increases in a sense of meaning in life. The closer the sexual partner, the more pronounced the effects on mood and meaning, even lasting the next day. The reverse was not the case, however: increases in happiness and meaning did not lead to next-day sexual activity, pleasure, or intimacy.
Of course, whole love does not require a single partner, as alternative sexual arrangements, such as polygamy, are becoming increasingly popular. The key is that all of the sexual activities in one’s life are integrated and harmonious with each other, creating minimal conflict with other areas of the relationship and with other activities in one’s life.
Regardless of one’s erotic appetites or consensual arrangements, the more that one’s sexual relationship(s) can afford time, imagination, caring, and trust, the more satisfying the experience is likely to become. As Rollo May notes, “The untamed eros fights against all concept and confines of time…. Love grows in depth by virtue of the lovers experiencing encounter with each other, conflict and growth, all over a period of time.”
Just like life, growth often takes time, and eros can be an important path to growth.
9. Security vs. Exploration
“It seems quite clear that even the strictly sensual and physical satisfactions can be improved by familiarity with the partner rather than by novelty in healthy people. Of course, there is little doubt that love in the sexual partner is very exciting and attractive for many people, but our data make it very unwise to make any generalization about this, and certainly not for self-actualizing people.” – Abraham Maslow
When it comes to romantic love, we often think of passion and excitement as being at odds with security and comfort. To be sure, when it comes to romantic relationships, the human drive for exploration does often conflict with our drive for stability and security. In her insightful book, Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel notes,
“We seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner. Yet at the same time we expect love to offer a transcendent experience that will allow us to soar beyond our ordinary lives. The challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring.”
While this is a common given dilemma of existence, Maslow argues that “in self-actualizing people the quality of the love satisfactions and the sex satisfactions may both improve with the length of the relationship.” How do self-actualizing lovers maintain the excitement, mystery, and unpredictability of the relationship while still maintaining great affection and closeness? I asked Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Love, what she thought, and she told me the following:
“Obviously, romantic relationships are extremely complex, but from a meditative point of view, it’s also interesting just to look at the simple role of attention. How often do we stop paying attention to our partner? You know, any amount of complacency, or taking someone for granted, mystery doesn’t necessarily only come from that sense of excitement, it doesn’t only come from the unknown, it also comes from discovery sometimes, as we discover each other.”
I love this answer, and it reminds me of the important distinction between wanting and liking. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is getting what one wants, and other is not getting it.” Can we ever want what we already have? As Ester Perel points out, we can too easily operate under the false illusion that we ever have our partner, as if they are a possession of ours in the sense that we own a new smart phone, or shiny, new car. With material possessions, we often obsess over a product and all the possibilities of how we will use it, only to find us not caring or wanting it anymore after we finally purchase the item.
However, this reasoning makes no sense when it comes to human beings, who are constantly growing and developing. The moment we take our partner(s) for granted, and assume that we have them forever, is the moment we stop discovering and admiring the depths of their full humanity. It’s no wonder that a common cause of eros declining in a relationship is the taking of each other’s existence for granted.
Another route to resolving the security/exploration dilemma in relationships is by unlocking what Perel refers to as “erotic intelligence”—willfully and deliberately creating conditions in a relationship for moments of mystery, playfulness, distance, and erotic excitement. Precisely because love and caring is the center of whole love, a fuller exploration of one’s sexuality and eroticism can be expressed.
Maslow noted that among self-actualizing lovers, there is a freer, more open discussions about sex, and even a greater interest in unconventional sexual practices. With trust and intimacy at its base, one can explore many expressions of sexuality, including those that may satisfy our other needs, such as power and curiosity.
Maslow notes that self-actualizing lovers can be both active and passive lovers, exchanging and experimenting with power dynamics, and are comfortable teasing and being teased. He goes on to note that this
“can go pretty far, almost to the point of reminding us of sadism and masochism. There can be a joy in being used, in subjection and passivity, even in accepting pain, in being exploited. Also, there can be an active and positive pleasure in squeezing and hugging and biting and in being violent and even in inflicting and receiving pain, so long as this does not go beyond a certain point.”
The eros of whole love– with care and consensuality at its root– affords many possibilities to drive excitement, novelty, and mystery. The sustainability of eros in a relationship is only limited by the imagination of the partners, and the commitment to creating safe spaces for the full exploration and growth of each other’s sexuality, and the many needs that can be fulfilled through sexual intercourse. This is why enduring, whole love relationships are so conducive to eros. As Rollo May noted, “Eros takes time: time for the significance of the event to sink in, time for the imagination to work, and if not ‘time to think,’ at least time to experience and to anticipate.”
10. Detachment and Individuality
“The fact is that self-actualizing people are simultaneously the most individualistic and the most altruistic and social and loving of all human beings. The fact that we have in our culture put these qualities at opposite ends of a single continuum is apparently a mistake that must now be corrected. These qualities go together and the dichotomy is resolved in self-actualizing people.” – Abraham Maslow
Maslow points out yet another paradox, noting that “self-actualizing people maintain a degree of individuality, of detachment, and autonomy that seems at first glance to be incompatible with the kind of identification and love that I have been describing.”
Indeed, most of us fear that by becoming too close to another person, we will lose our individuality and sense of self, and there is an entire literature on the potential for “role engulfment” when entering a relationship, in which a person’s identity becomes based on the role as a good relationship partner, causing detachment from other roles, goals, and priorities in life (“role abandonment”).
Nevertheless, Maslow notes that this is only an “apparent paradox”, and that detachment and need identification can coexist harmoniously. As we saw earlier, role engulfment is most likely to exist among those who are obsessively passionate about their relationship. Those who are harmoniously passionate about their relationships show greater personal growth, and maintain friendships, interests, and activities outside the romantic relationship.
Another way that individuality and self-expansion can coexist is by maintaining a certain degree of “healthy selfishness” in a relationship, which Maslow describes as “a great self-respect, a disinclination to make sacrifices without good reason.” Maslow notes that self-actualizing lovers demonstrate “a fusion of great ability to love and at the same time great respect for the other and great respect for oneself.” The notion of healthy selfishness is also an essential feature of Erich Fromm’s notion of a “productive orientation” towards life. Becoming a whole person requires setting appropriate boundaries, and balancing one’s own needs with the needs of others.
But perhaps the clearest way this paradox is resolved is by acknowledging that both partners can be interested in helping each other grow in their own direction. As Maslow notes, this requires not needing each other:
“They can be extremely close together and yet go apart when necessary without collapsing. They do not cling to each other or have hooks or anchors of any kind… Throughout the most intense and ecstatic love affairs, these people remain themselves and remain ultimately masters of themselves as well, living by their own standards even though enjoying each other intensely.”
As we’ve already seen, anxiously attached individuals have a desperate need to merge with the other, whereas avoidant individuals have a desperate need to maintain their individuality. The loving person does not cling or push away, but witnesses, admires, and helps the other person grow. There is nothing incompatible between that and keeping your own sense of self.
This has hints of the Buddhist notion of “nonattachment”. On first blush, it may seem as though this is at odds with attachment theory. However, as Baljinder Sahdra and Phillip Shaver point out, both attachment theory and Buddhist psychology “highlight the importance of giving and receiving love and of minimizing anxious clinging or avoidant aloofness and suppression of unwanted mental experiences.”
They developed a scale to measure Buddhist notions of nonattachment, which included items such as “I can accept the flow of events in my life without hanging onto them or pushing them away”, and “I have a hard time appreciating others’ successes when they outperform me”, and “I can enjoy pleasant experiences without needing them to last forever.”. They found that nonattachment was associated with lower levels of both anxious and avoidant attachment, with the negative relationship with anxious attachment being particularly pronounced.
While the Buddhist notion of nonattachment is not the same as secure attachment (nonattachment in the Buddhist sense is broader than attachment to a caregiver), they are clearly related. The more we can be present in our relationships, and not try to make the moment meet our prior expectations, the more we can help our partner grow as an individual. As Maslow notes,
“To be fully aware—as close to complete awareness as possible—means to focus wholly on the experience: to concentrate utterly, to pour one’s whole self into it, and to be unaware of everything else in the entire world and in all of time. This state necessarily includes a nonawareness of one’s own ego. Just as one knows that one has really listened to music because self-awareness disappeared (which also occurs during true creating and absorbed reading), so also is complete love marked by forgetting the self.”
Temporarily forgetting the self, however, does not mean that we lose our individuality. On the contrary, as Maslow notes:
“[W]e have customarily defined [falling in love] in terms of a complete merging of egos and a loss of separateness, a giving up of individuality rather than a strengthening of it. While this is true, the fact appears to be at this moment that the individuality is strengthened, that the ego is in one sense merged with another, but yet in another sense remains separate and strong as always. The two tendencies, to transcend individuality and to sharpen and strengthen it, must be seen as partners and not as contradictories. Furthermore, it is implied that the best way to transcend the ego is via having a strong identity.”
This observation is backed up by our research: we’ve found over and over again that both a genuinely loving orientation toward others and a quieting of the ego is strongly correlated with having a strong, not weak, sense of self. In whole love, this apparent paradox fades away as two self-actualizing individuals find a love that is in a state of constant growth and development.
For more on how to become a whole person, see Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization
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