Love’s executioner and limerence

Irvin Yalom is one of my favourite therapists and authors. He does not shy away from tough issues and writes beautifully about the trials and tribulations of being in love / limerence. He is not afraid to self disclose and talks about an episode of infatuation that took him back into his own therapy.

The following essay is written to budding therapists, I think anyone who has struggled with the joy and pain of deep connection can benefit from the experience of this wise man.

On Being Loves Executioner
by Irvin Yalom
From The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients

I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy—I too crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be loves executioner.

A paradox: though these opening lines of Loves Executioner express my discomfort working with patients in love, they have, nonetheless, prompted many patients in love to consult me.

Of course, love comes in many forms and these lines refer only to one particular type of love experience: the infatuated, obsessed, highly magicalized state of mind that entirely possesses the individual.

Ordinarily such an experience is glorious, but, there are times when the infatuation causes more distress than pleasure. Sometimes fulfillment of the love is forever elusive—for example, when one or both parties are married and unwilling to leave their marriage. Sometimes the love is not reciprocated— one person loves and the other shuns contact or wishes only a sexual relationship. Sometimes the loved one is entirely unobtainable—a teacher, a former therapist, the spouse of a friend. Often one may become so absorbed in love that he/she devotes much time waiting for some brief sight of the beloved to the neglect of all else—work, friends, family. A lover in an extramarital affair may withdraw from his/her spouse, may avoid intimacy in order to conceal the secret, may refuse couples therapy, may deliberately keep the marital relationship unsatisfying in order to diminish guilt and justify the affair.

However varied the circumstances, the experience is the same—the lover idealizes the beloved, is obsessed with her often wishing nothing more than to spend the rest of his life basking in her presence.

To develop an empathic relationship with patients in love, you must not lose sight of the fact that their experience is quite wonderful; the ecstatic, blissful merger; the dissolving of the lonely “I” into the enchanted “we” may be one of the great experiences of the patients life. It is generally advisable to express your appreciation of their state of mind and to refrain from criticism of the golden feeling surrounding the beloved.

No one ever put this dilemma better than Nietzsche, who, shortly after he “came to” from a passionate (but chaste) love affair with Lou Salome, wrote:

One day a sparrow flew past me; and. . . I thought I’d seen an eagle. Now all the world is busy proving to me how wrong I am—and there’s a proper European gossip about it. Well, who is better off? I, “the deluded one,” as they say, who on account of this bird call dwelt for a whole summer in a higher world of hope—or those, whom there is no deceiving?

So one must be delicate with a feeling that permits one to live in a ‘higher world of hope.” Appreciate the patients rapture but also help him prepare for its end. And it always ends. There is one true property of romantic love: it never stays—evanescence is a part of the nature of an infatuated love state. But be careful trying to rush its demise. Don’t try to joust with love any more than you would with powerful religious beliefs—those are duels you cannot win (and there are similarities between being in love and experiencing religious ecstasy: One patient referred to his “Sistine Chapel state,” another described his love as his celestial, imperishable condition). Be patient—leave it for the client to discover and express feelings about the irrationality of his feelings or disillusionment in the beloved. When any such expressions do occur, I remember the patients words carefully. If and when he reenters that state again and re-idealizes the beloved, I may remind him of his comments.

At the same time I explore the experience much as I would any powerful emotional state. I say such things as “How wonderful for you . . its like coming to life again, isnt it? Its easy to understand why you dont want to give this up. Lets look at what permitted you to experience this now? . . . Tell me about your life in the weeks before this came upon you. When did you last feel love like this? What happened to that love?”

There is profit in focusing on the state of being in love rather than the person who is loved. It is the experience, the emotional state of loving—not the other person—that is so compelling. Nietzsche’s phrase “One loves one’s desire, not the desired” has often proved invaluable to me in my work with love-tormented patients.

Since most individuals know (though they try not to know) that the experience will not persist forever, I try gently to introduce some long-range perspective and discourage the patient from making any irreversible decision on the basis of feelings that are likely to be evanescent.

Establish the goals of therapy early in your meetings. What type of help is sought? Obviously there is something dysfunctional about the patients experience or he wouldn’t be consulting you. Is the patient asking for help in removing he himself from the relationship? I often invoke the image of scales and inquire about the balance of pleasure and displeasure (or happiness and unhappiness) provided by the relationship. Sometimes a tally sheet helps illustrate the balance, and I ask patients to keep a log, with several observation points a day, of the number of times they think about the beloved, or even the number of minutes or hours a day given to that pursuit. Patients are sometimes astounded by the tallies, by how much of their life is consumed by circular, repetitive thoughts and, conversely, how little they participate in real-time life.

Sometimes I try to offer the patient perspective by discussing the nature and different forms of love. Erich Fromms timeless monograph, The Art of Loving, is a valuable resource for patient and therapist alike. I often think of mature love as a love of the being and the growth of the other, and most clients will be sympathetic to this view. What, then, is the particular nature of their love? Are they infatuated with someone whom, at bottom, they do not really respect or someone who treats them badly? Unfortunately, of course, there are those whose love is intensified by not being treated well.

If they wish you to help them to get out of the relationship, you might well remind them (and yourself) that release is arduous and slow. Occasionally an individual almost instantaneously emerges from an infatuation, much as the characters of A Midsummer Nights Dream emerge from their enchantment, but for the most part, individuals are tormented by yearnings for the beloved for many months. Sometimes years, even decades, pass before they can meet or even think of the other without twinges of desire or anxiety.

Nor is the dissolution a steady process. Setbacks occur— and nothing is more likely to bring about a setback than another encounter with the beloved. Patients offer many rationalizations for such new contact: they insist that they are over it now and that a cordial talk, a coffee, or lunch with the former beloved will help to clarify things, help them to understand what went wrong, help them establish a lasting adult friendship, or even permit them to say good-bye like a mature person. None of these things is likely to come to pass. Generally the individuals recovery is set back, much as a slip sets back a recovering alcoholic.

Dont get frustrated at setbacks—some infatuations are destined to go on for years. Its not a matter of weak will; there is something in the experience that touches the patient at very deep levels. Try to understand the crucial role played by the obsession in the individuals internal life. I believe that the love obsession often serves as a distraction, keeping the individuals gaze from more painful thoughts. Sooner or later I hope to arrive at the question: What would you be thinking about if you were not obsessed with . . .

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