The Psychology of Romantic Love


Stories of passionate love relationships between men and women exist throughout our literature and are a treasured part of our cultural heritage. The great love affairs of Lancelot and Guinevere, Helo’ise and Abelard, Romeo and Juliet live for us as symbols of physical passion and spiritual devotion. But such stories are tragedies —and tragedies of a very revealing kind.

The lovers are impressive not because they typify their societies but because they rebel against them. The lovers are memorable because they are unusual. Their love challenges the moral and social codes of their culture, and their stories are tragic because the lovers are defeated by those codes.

Implicit in the tragic nature of these love stories, implicit in the fact that the lovers’ commitment to each other represented a defiant “no” flung in the face of their culture or society, is the fact that such love was not regarded as a “normal” way of life or an accepted cultural ideal.

The ideal of romantic love stands in opposition to much of our history, as we shall see. First of all, it is individualistic. It rejects the view of human beings as interchangeable units, and it attaches the highest importance to individual differences as well as to individual choice. Romantic love is egoistic, in the philosophical, not in the petty, sense. Egoism as a philosophical doctrine holds that self-realization and personal happiness are the moral goals of life, and romantic love is motivated by the desire for personal happiness. Romantic love is secular.

In its union of physical with spiritual pleasure in sex and love, as well as in its union of romance and daily life, romantic love is a passionate commitment to this earth and to the exalted happiness that life on earth can offer.

The definition of romantic love offered in the Introduction—a passionate spiritual-emotional-sexual attachment between a man and a woman that reflects a high regard for the value of each other’s person contains all of these elements, and their importance will become more and more apparent as we proceed. In particular we shall come to appreciate how intimately related are the themes of individualism and romantic love. In that same context we shall need to reappraise the issue of selfishness, to move beyond conventional ways of thinking and to recognize how indispensable to our life and well-being is rational, intelligent, or enlightened selfishness; an honest respect for self-interest is a necessity of survival and certainly of romantic love.

The music that inspires the souls of lovers exists within themselves and the private universe they occupy. They share it with each other; they do not share it with the tribe or with society. The courage to hear that music and to honor it is one of the prerequisites of romantic love.

The Psychology of Romantic Love (pdf)