In his book “The Art of Loving” (1956) the psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm (1900-1980) discusses how love is often wrongly perceived as the passive “falling in love.” For Fromm, love is mainly a decision to love, to become a loving person. Through examination of the concepts of father’s love, mother’s love, God’s love and erotic love, Fromm argues that we need to change the way we see love in order to reach happier and more fulfilling relationships with others.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
Is love an art?
Erich Fromm found his biggest popular success with a book about love. In “The Art of Loving,” he makes the case that love is often misunderstood as this romantic notion, often seen in movies, of people “falling in love,” of love being something that happens to us without us being able to resist or control the experience. Rather, Fromm says, love is an art. Like any other art, it is something that we have to learn to do: we have to learn and practice love just like we have to learn and practice drawing or playing the piano.
Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” has been a classic in the philosophy and psychology of love since it was first published in 1956. It’s a highly readable, provocative and insightful book that might just change the way you look at love.
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You can hear the echoes of Aristotle in this. For Aristotle, our whole life is an “art,”
in the sense that we constantly have to practice and refine our virtues and our phronesis in order to achieve success and happiness.
Love and responsibility
So just like Aristotle would say that happiness is not just something that “happens,” Fromm would maintain that the same is true of love. If we see love as something that randomly happens to us, we lose the feeling of being responsible for our loves. We could then fall “out of love” as easily as we “fell in love”.
For Fromm, this is a total misunderstanding of what love is about, in the same way as saying that happiness is nothing but the enjoyment of pleasures is a misunderstanding of what happiness is really about.
For Fromm, love is a particular way of relating to others, and my ways of relating to others are in my control, at least potentially. In our (modern, Western) culture, Fromm says, we often think that love is outside of our control, and our languages seem to support this view. We talk of the arrows of Cupid, or love hitting us like…
Here I googled “love hit me like” and this is what Google gave back as suggestions: like a train, like a freight train, like a ten-pound hammer, like a hurricane. Violent metaphors: the lover is powerless, a victim, hit by forces far too powerful to even contemplate resisting.
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How to Live an Aristotelian Life
Aristotle’s theory of happiness rests on three concepts: (1) the virtues, which are good properties of one’s character that benefit oneself and others; (2) phronesis, which is the ability to employ the virtues to the right amount in any particular situation; and (3) eudaimonia, which is a life that is happy, successful and morally good, all at the same time. This month, we discuss how to actually go about living a life like that.
But this view also has an opposite side: when our love does not feel like a freight train hitting us, is it therefore less of a love? Do we need to have loves that are like hurricanes and ten-pound hammers, and are we wasting our time with the wrong person if love doesn’t hit us like a truck?
But this view also has an opposite side: when our love does not feel like a freight train hitting us, is it therefore less of a love?
Fromm cautions against both views. Giving up the responsibility that we have for the success of our relationships to others is not a good idea, he says. Grown-up, psychologically well-adjusted persons are those who are in control of their relationships, who understand that human relations need effort and work and that they don’t “just happen”.
In fact, it’s a childish, infantile expectation to be given unconditional love for no good reason and without one’s own contribution. It is what happens to us when we are small and when we experience the love of our mothers: a love that is indeed unconditional and accepting, and for which we don’t need to do anything to deserve it.
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Erich Fromm (1900-1980)
Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a German social psychologist and philosopher who had enormous popular success from the 1950s all the way to the end of his life in 1980. We discuss his work and his relation to Marxism and Freud.
But for Fromm, the psychologist, it is obvious that staying in that infantile stage regarding our emotions is wrong. As we grow up we realise that we do have to take responsibility for our relations to others – and that we have to earn our friendships and loves with our own behaviour towards those we befriend and love.
Father’s, mother’s and God’s love
According to Fromm, this is a process that begins with the father, whose love is not unconditional (like that of the mother) but dependent on good manners, good grades in school, helpfulness, intelligence and many other contingent properties of our character and behaviour. It is also, Fromm thinks, no accident that our Christian God is thought of as God the Father, rather than God the Mother.
As feminists have often pointed out, the Christian God is asexual and we should therefore be equally justified in seeing Him/Her as a mother as much as a father. But, Fromm says, there is indeed something specifically “fatherly” about God and that is the conditional character of God’s love. Like with any father’s love, we have to earn God’s love with our behaviour: by abstaining from sin, by obeying His commands, by having the right thoughts and motivations, by being good members of His church.
As feminists have often pointed out, the Christian God is asexual and we should therefore be equally justified in seeing Him/Her as a mother as much as a father.
The Bible contains ample evidence for what we can expect to happen if we don’t prove to be good children to God the father: from being turned into a pillar of salt, or being drowned in a world-wide flood, to being burned alive as fire rains from the heavens, destroying whole cities. The wrathful God, the God of vengeance: this is a father figure, according to Fromm, and the reason that we perceive God as male. The motherly character of God, the unconditionally loving and forgiving, is more often associated with the Virgin Mary (The Art of Loving, Harper Perennial Classics Edition, 2000, pp.60-63)
Erich Fromm on How to Be Happy. Inspiration and Workbook.
In this book, philosophy professor, founder and editor of the Daily Philosophy web magazine, Dr Andreas Matthias takes the reader on a tour, looking at how society influences our happiness. Following Erich Fromm, the Frankfurt School, Aldous Huxley and other thinkers, we go in search of wisdom and guidance on how we can live better, happier and more satisfying lives today.
This is an edited and expanded version of the articles published on tis site.
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Love as conscious effort
[Erotic love] is often confused with the explosive experience of “falling” in love, the sudden collapse of the barriers which existed until that moment between two strangers. But, as was pointed out before, this experience of sudden intimacy is by its very nature short-lived. After the stranger has become an intimately known person there are no more barriers to be overcome, there is no more sudden closeness to be achieved. The “loved” person becomes as well known as oneself. (p.49)
But for Fromm, the will is crucial for true love:
To love somebody is not just a strong feeling – it is a decision, it is a judgement, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go (…) (p.52)
Perhaps surprisingly, therefore, Fromm sees more potential for true love in arranged marriages than in relationships that are based on the spontaneous feeling of “falling” in love. In contrast to “romantic” love, an arranged relationship already begins without the assumption that there needs to be something that hits one like a freight train – and therefore, the absence of such a feeling is not perceived as a deficit. Rather, the partners in an arranged relationship are fully conscious of the need to actively begin loving each other, since otherwise they will probably have to lead unhappy lives together. In this way, love becomes, from the very beginning, a clear-headed commitment, a judgement, a promise (as Fromm says in the quote above). And this is the reason why such marriages often end up being surprisingly successful.
Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love
Robert Sternberg thinks that we can best describe love as composed of three “primary” components that combine to produce all the kinds of love that we observe around us: intimacy, passion and decision or commitment.
Are arranged marriages happier?
Indeed, research seems to suggest that Fromm is right. An article by Applbaum (1995; references at the end of this post) describes arranged marriage in modern, metropolitan Japan. According to that article, 25-30 percent of all marriages in Japan are arranged marriages. In an arranged marriage, the social status of the partners is more similar than in love marriages. Also, the families have a much stronger involvement in the process of finding a suitable partner. (Applbaum, p.39)
Myers et al 2005 quotes research by Yelsma and Athappilly (1988), who studied marriage satisfaction of 28 Indian couples in arranged marriages, 25 Indian couples in “love” marriages (marriages of choice), and 31 American couples in companionate marriages (“companionate marriage” is a marriage where the partners agree to not have children and to divorce if both want to.)
They found that persons in arranged marriages had higher marital satisfaction scores than either the love-married persons in India or the companionate-married persons in the United States. Husbands and wives in arranged marriages were more satisfied with their marital relationships than were the husbands and wives in the U.S. sample.
“Thus, the present findings suggest that contrary to Western beliefs, it is possible that men and women in arranged marriages can be happy and satisfied.” (Myers, p.187)
Leza Kazemi Mohammadi (2019) quotes research by Pryor (2014), who highlighted how arranged marriages experienced a lower level of divorce. Allendorf and Ghimire (2013) found that arranged marriages are typically more stable than love marriages. And wives in love marriages experience a higher level of dissatisfaction in their relationships than that of their arranged marriage counterparts. (Ng, Loy, Gudmunson, and Cheong, 2009).
In our own lives…
This weekend, let’s look at our relationships from the perspective of Fromm’s theory of love. Many of us, particularly those who are of a more advanced age, will have made the experience that one cannot stay in the state of “falling in love” forever. There is a point in every relationship, after the initial excitement is gone, where one must consciously decide to have a relationship with that particular person and to work towards creating and deepening this relationship.
But we don’t always recognise that the conscious control we have over love extends not only to whom we love but also to whom we choose to resist. Falling inappropriately in love with one’s student, colleague or babysitter makes for interesting novels, but Fromm would not let this spontaneous lust serve as an excuse to endanger a long-term relationship.
And for the young, who have not yet found a suitable partner, Fromm’s view of love provides a better option than just waiting around for the freight train to hit. One must realise that our relationships, Fromm maintains, are the consequence of our choices and actions – and that therefore, instead of passively waiting for love to hit, one can go out and make the commitment to become a loving person. As with the modes of having and being
, the switch from being the passive recipient of love (as we are initially as infants) to being the active giver of love is a fundamental change in the way we view life, a stage in a life-long process of growing up towards personal integrity, freedom and responsibility as adults who have the means to consciously work towards securing their happiness in life.
Return to The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
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Thanks for reading! Cover photo by Ryan Quintal on Unsplash. Here are the papers mentioned in the text. They are all freely available through Google Scholar on the Internet.
Applbaum, K. D. (1995). Marriage with the proper stranger: Arranged marriage in metropolitan Japan. Ethnology, 34(1), 37-51.
Leza Kazemi Mohammadi (2019). THE LEVELS OF SATISFACTION BETWEEN LOVE
AND ARRANGED MARRIAGES: A COMPARATIVE STUDY. Dissertation. Texas Women’s University. Available online.
Madathil, J., & Benshoff, J. M. (2008). Importance of marital characteristics and marital satisfaction: A comparison of Asian Indians in arranged marriages and Americans in marriages of choice. The Family Journal, 16(3), 222-230.
Myers, J. E., Madathil, J., & Tingle, L. R. (2005). Marriage satisfaction and wellness in India and the United States: A preliminary comparison of arranged marriages and marriages of choice. Journal of Counseling & Development, 83(2), 183-190.