Jay B. Rohrlich, Robert Solomon

The Nature of Love

VTR Date: February 19, 1982

Guests: Rohrlich, Jay B.; Solomon, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Jay B. Rohrlich, M.D., and Robert Solomon
Title: “The Nature of Love”
AIR: 2/19/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I’m a bit amused by the fact that at the Rutgers University library, where the card catalog lists the titles of non-fiction books dealing with love, at lest those that have “love” in their titles, 80 percent of them were written by men. I would have thought otherwise.

Now, I asked that that little item of research be done, not because I delight in trivia, but because I thought the other day about how interesting it is that my two guests today, who have both written books about love, are men. And I guess I wondered, where are the women?

Dr. Jay Rohrlich, practicing psychiatrist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell Medical College, is the author of Work and Love: The Crucial Balance.

Robert Solomon is a philosopher. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas, and the author of Love, Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor.

And, Professor Solomon, I think I’d like to ask about the way you begin your book with the parenthetical query, “Why are so many books on love written by psychiatrists?” And I wondered, as I read that query of yours, why not, because you seem to see love more in terms of psychic need than in terms of metaphysical ideas.

SOLOMON: I think it’s both. But what the book is about more than anything else is about the myths we build about love. And I think one of those myths is that it is a necessity. That it’s something that everyone must have. Romantic love, we’re talking about. And part of the attack of the book really is trying to say, no, love is a luxury, love is a culturally created phenomenon, and it’s something that can be enjoyed by some people but perhaps not by all. Psychiatrists, on the other hand, and I’m thinking of such best-sellers as Ronald May and Erich Fromm, tend to elevate love, much as Plato did 2,500 years ago, into something akin to a religion. You’re subhuman if you don’t have it.

HEFFNER: Jay Rohrlich, you and I have sat at this table before a few times talking about Work and Love: The Crucial Balance. I wonder how you react to Bob’s notion about psychiatrists and love.

ROHRLICH: I must say my first reaction was defensive. But Bob makes a very persuasive argument about love. And after I got the idea of what he was trying to convey, I don’t think that we disagree. I think that love has been oversold as a necessity. People are made to feel that unless they have it they are living incomplete lives. And there’s a kind of magical expectation that’s been sold. I think that’s really more what’s happened. Not that it isn’t a necessity; but that it’s, that the Beatles’ song, “Love is All You Need”…

SOLOMON: All You Need.

ROHRLICH: …and I think that’s where I would agree with you.

HEFFNER: You write about it as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is that fair?

ROHRLICH: Oh, I think almost everything people write are self-fulfilling prophecies except news.

HEFFNER: Now, I didn’t mean the book. I meant the phenomenon of love. I wrote in the margin here, as I’ve written in Jay’s margin, that you, it’s almost as if you were saying it’s a con job.

SOLOMON: No, it’s not a con job. But I think there’s a political answer to your question as well.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

SOLOMON: When you began, you said that most of the books on love had been written by men. I comment on that, and at one point I hypothesize about it. Men seem, it seems to me and to some social-psychological research that’s been done, are much more enthusiastic about love than women. Women are much more practical about it. And if you think of the politics of it – and any good feminist would, of course, raise this argument right away – there is good reason for that. On the one had, men can say to women, “Love is the most important thing in the world”, because it’s women who are expected to trade careers for love and be satisfied with that alone. I think it’s relatively new that men feel that they are unfulfilled if they don’t love, whereas women have been told to feel that, well, for centuries.

HEFFNER: Jay, do you think that that makes a lot of sense?

ROHRLICH: I do. I agree. One of the things that I was interested in in doing my research was the, kind of the flip side of the work/love magical expectation situation where men have been made to believe that work is everything, and I think women have been told that love is everything. And what I hope that we’re coming to is a more balanced view that we both have an investment in each, and love should not be the, I think it was a French philosopher once said that one of the minor tragedies of life is that women love men and men love work. I think that’s getting changed.

HEFFNER: I remember when we were talking about Work and Love, I asked you about that. It seems that that’s a notion referred to in your book that caught the attention of a very great many people, angrily caught their attention. I mean, people don’t really respond to that notion very well. That it’s demeaning that men love work, women love men.

ROHRLICH: I think it’s changing. And I agree that it’s demeaning. I think that it’s been made to be demeaning. That loving another person is different than loving your own products, creating you own things, that women’s success has been a kind of derivative or contributory success. If a woman is a success or has traditionally been a success, she has been successful through the successes of her children, usually male children, or through the success of her husband, but not as a success herself. Love is the vehicle for her success. It attaches her to somebody else’s star, whereas a man can be directly successful, and that’s permitted.

HEFFNER: And when men find that women are more and more in the marketplace, are more and more at work, then what happens to this crucial balance?

ROHRLICH: There was an article in The Wall Street Journal the other day about women commodities traders, that there are more, I think there, nationwide now there are 60 women who are trading at the Chicago Exchange and the New York Exchange, out of four or five thousand people who are licensed there. One woman tells a story of going on to, I think, the coffee exchange one day, and the other men gathered around and says, “We’re going to get you”. They were not welcome as equals in this kind of aggressive environment.

SOLOMON: I think there’s another interesting change that’s happening along with that. When I write about romantic love and about feminism, and I put the two together a great deal in the book, I’m often asked whether feminism doesn’t mean or shouldn’t mean the end of romantic love. That now that women are starting to change their roles, that the traditional feminine role is disappearing and therefore romantic love will disappear with it. The argument I make in the book actually is that love and feminism are not only complementary, they actually presuppose one another. And I think what’s happening is, as more and more women have real identities in the public world of their own, romantic love becomes more rather than less important.

HEFFNER: You know, I, when I mentioned before that it sounded as though, it read to be as though you were saying that notions of love, that this was really a con job. You say no. Not quite so fast. I also felt in reading Love, your book, that you were somehow or other getting off a hook, you were somehow or other saying, “Look without it it’s not so bad, because it doesn’t really have that much meaning, validity, power in our own lives”.

SOLOMON: That’s overstating it. I should add, as Jay knows full well, there are a lot of hooks in this business. I mean, you write about love, you’re almost in trouble every page. Part of what I want to do – and I hate to take the middle of the road, because it’s always the sort of the most boring of alternatives – but I’m trying to somehow steer between the love-is-everything philosophy, it will cure everything, all you need is, and so on, and on the other hand the kind of cynical view which I talk about a great deal in the book, the sort of view that comes to us not just from feminism, although I think the feminists have the best things to say about it, but there’s certainly a strong train of Marxism, that book says that love is a bourgeois phenomenon. There is a strong train of neo-Freudianism that looks at it as simply a kind of sublimation. I’m thinking particular of theorists like Philip Slater, who was widely read some years ago. And what I’m trying to do is say, look, love can be a wonderful emotion, it can do very positive things for people, but it’s not everything. So, in a way, I have a wishy-washy thesis that, look, okay, love is fine. It’s not a con job, although it can be. It’s not simply a phony, empty emotion, although again, it can be. At the same time, don’t make too much of it. It’s not enough to fill a life.

HEFFNER: No, I didn’t feel that you were taking a middle-of-the-road position, because to me you seem to be saying, again in terms of the self-fulfilling prophecy, you seem to be saying, “Take it or leave it”. You seem to be saying it’s not really a necessity. And you were, in that way, you were saying it is not either a subjective or a metaphysical necessity. And that’s a mouthful.

SOLOMON: Well, it can be. I mean, when you say it’s a subjective necessity, then it has to look to the subject. I mean, I think Jay would probably agree with this as a psychiatrist, but I’ll just put it as a question: It seems to me that there’s a lot of damage done to people who have good careers, lots of friends, good family relationships, an adequate sex life, and we could fill out the list considerably, but somehow they feel empty, they feel as if they’re unfulfilled, or they need this other thing. And so they finally fall in love, and it’s a disaster. They start pulling away from their friends, they work a little bit less, sometimes they start losing their interest in life. And it seems to me that for such people a perfectly reasonable conclusion would be romantic love isn’t for them. They have perfectly good lies without it. And there the con job is telling them, “If you don’t have this, then you don’t have anything”.

ROHRLICH: I don’t think that you can safely say that they have perfectly good lives without it. I think there’s always a danger in, when you’re trying to make a point that’s a corrective to what is current in the culture, of overstating yourself in order to make a point, and of people misinterpreting what you say. When I was talking about work addiction, people who are addicted to work, we wanted to try to correct a kind of single-mindedness about it. The common response I got was, “What do you have against work?” And I think the trap that you can get into, people saying, “What do you have against love?” When you say that it’s not a necessity, when you say that it’s a choice, when you say that it isn’t everything, people will hear that and think, “What does he have against it?” I think that what you have proposed is a kind of balanced attitude about it. That is, the decision that people make where they can indeed by unhappy without it…

HEFFNER: Now, excuse me. You want to say that again? They can indeed be unhappy without it?

ROHRLICH: Yes. I think they’re, I think…

HEFFNER: Can they be happy without it, I think, is the real question.

ROHRLICH: Sure. Can they be happy without it?


ROHRLICH: I said this to you the last time I was on the show, that…

HEFFNER: (Laughter) I know what you’re going to say.

ROHRLICH: …that I take each case at a time. And I’m very loath to generalize.

HEFFNER: That’s why you’re the psychiatrist and he’s the philosopher.

ROHRLICH: (Laughter) Right. That’s right. But yes, I’ve seen many people who are happy without romance. And I wouldn’t say that those who are unhappy without romance are being sold a bill of goods, and that’s the only reason. I think romance is a very nice thing to have in one’s life. It does complete a lot of experiences. Going to the movies by yourself, I think, is second-rate compared to going to the moves with somebody.

SOLOMON: But with a good friend from work with whom you have an interesting dialogue or whatever, sometimes that’s better than going with someone you love.

HEFFNER: I’d hate to see you in agreement – not because I’m, as a moderator – but I’d hat to see you in agreement without good cause. And I wonder, Jay, really, when we decided to do this program, the three of us, whether you would accept this thesis. It’s rational, it’s reasonable, it’s not way-out. But it does leave something out. It does say, obviously, that within the context of a good life you can leave out this involvement with love that some philosophers, some physicians, have said is absolutely necessary. And many human beings have said there is an absolute, subjective necessity. As a psychiatrist – and I know you’re going to say the same thing, you’re going to go case by case – but you do generalize. You do in work and love. Do you think that, by and large, you would say that without love most people will achieve – not can achieve – but will achieve the kind of balance in life that you would consider healthy?

ROHRLICH: Well, I’ll tell you that way that I answer that. Bob’s argument is about romantic love. And our conceptions about romantic love have to do with, I think, you really are focusing on the sort of early ecstasy in a relationship. People meeting, falling in love. The early phase of the excitement, the thrill, the preoccupation. And I think this is what, when I talk about love and think about love, I think about a much broader psychological state…

SOLOMON: Of course. Of course.

ROHRLICH: …which involves a shared experience, the ability to form unions. People talk and don’t use the term loosely when they say, “I love that sunset”, or “I love my home”, or, “I love to mow the lawn”. They are talking about an experience that love is not misapplied. It’s an appropriately applied concept there. Romantic love, I think one can live without. I think there are a lot of people who don’t experience that kind of ecstasy, who have a much more muted reaction to things, but still are able to love. Love is a spectrum, and romantic love is only one point on that spectrum.

SOLOMON: A wonderful example: In Fiddler on the Roof there is that song, which essentially is, “But Do You Love Me”. And I can’t remember how it goes, and I can’t sing, but most of your viewers probably know it quite well. And husband asks wife, “Do you love me?” And she goes through this catalog of all the things she does and all the things they’ve been together and so on. Well, that’s certainly love, but it’s of course romantic love that they’re asking about. You want to say, in a situation like that, “Perhaps it’s simply irrelevant”. But I want to turn the conversation upside-down, because I think you’ve been pushing whether or not we can do without love.

HEFFNER: You’re going to ask whether we can do with it?

SOLOMON: Oh, I know we can do with it. But the book itself, I think, my book and Jay’s book too, is to a very large extent a kind of celebration of love. And it’s not an unqualified celebration. In fact, both books, I think, are qualifications. But I want to emphasize the positive. When you talk about love as a necessity, I think it’s important to say, for example, what kind of necessity it turns out to be insofar as it’s a necessity at all. It’s not a biological necessity, it’s not an instinctual necessity, and we’re not here talking about mother love or anything of that sort. Romantic love is, quite straightforwardly, a cultural invention. I think one can pinpoint the kind of invention it is, the kinds of needs it serves. It’s not that each of us sort of decides, “Well, gee, I live in this kind of society, so I’d better fall in love”. But you might say the society collectively makes decisions about the kinds of emotions which are going to suit its own members. And within that context, I would say romantic love is extremely important to us. I think the way I’d summarize it would be, in a society that’s so bound up with individuality and mobility and work, what you really need to hold society together is a way of forming intimate bonds between people who may even be complete strangers. Once you’ve already systematically broken family bonds and the like. That’s what romantic love does. So if you ask, “Well, why does it seem that so many people want it, need it, so on?” It’s because of the kind of society we are. Then the other side of the coin is, but a lot of people can get all that from friends, they can get it from family, there’s no need for it in the strong sense that some people would like to urge, certainly nothing like the old philosophical concept that you’re somehow in human without it.

HEFFNER: You mean it’s a kind of support system, in a…

SOLOMON: You might say it’s a, I mean, the simple way of putting it would be it’s a support system created out of desperation. When you have people leaving their families and the communities in which they were raised and going off to New York City to make a career for themselves, what do they do there? I mean, they’re not going to be satisfied with just work relationships and the people they bump into on the subway. Love seems to me to be an ideal way of forming these sorts of bonds in an artificial and very sudden way.

HEFFNER: So I talk about subjective necessity and metaphysical necessity; you’re really talking about cultural necessity. In our times, in our lives, in which perhaps work looms so large, romantic love or love is more important, is more necessary. Is that a fair…

SOLOMON: Yes, I think…

HEFFNER: It’s invented in a society such as this.

SOLOMON: …it’s more important, than for example, in a tribal society where all of your intimacy relationships are already spelled out for you in advance. There is such a thing as romantic love as a kind of peculiarity in such circumstances, but it’s usually an adolescent phenomenon which is treated as a deviation from the norm.

HEFFNER: Jay, I gather you accept the sociological approach.

ROHRLICH: Well, not completely.

HEFFNER: Where don’t you?

ROHRLICH: Well, when you use the word “invention”. I think that’s misleading. Because most people will get the idea that when their palms get sweaty, when their heart starts beating, when they are excited, that they’re just sort of talking themselves into something, that they’re inventing a state of mind. I don’t think that kind of chemical reaction when you fall in love – I know you don’t like that phrase – but there is something that happens, and some kind of instinctual pleasure that one experiences there is not an invention, it’s a reaction. I think we elaborate around that central experience into calling it a necessity, saying if you haven’t experienced it you haven’t lived. But it’s a very real thing. It’s not just a kind of fabrication or an invention. I think that that experience, which is part of romantic love, it’s not necessarily part of love. Marriages, I think there are a lot of very good marriages and good relationships break up because the partners feel that, have an expectation that that kind of excitement which they did experience ought to continue throughout the relationship if it’s love. And I think this is where people go wrong. They get divorced. They say, “You don’t turn me on anymore. It’s not as exciting as it used to be”. A lot of unhappy people are created by fantasies about what, how romantic love ought to continue throughout their lives. And I think, you know, one of the by-products is, with our obsession with romantic love, is pornography. I think that the kick part of the romantic love is something that they want to keep on experiencing. And…

SOLOMON: I guess I would distinguish those two rather sharply. I think pornography is more about power than it is about love. And I think love requires a kind of equality. As a matter of fact, there’s something very odd, I find, even looking at a photograph of a person you love. And here we’re obviously not talking about the kind of photographs you’re talking about, but even so, there is this bizarre distance, because I think so much of love is some kind of reciprocity. And I think pornography is power. I mean, I think it’s a quite different phenomenon.

HEFFNER: What do you think the consequences are culturally, politically, of the kind of analysis of love you’ve offered?

SOLOMON: Well, let me sort of work up. On an individual basis, what I would like to get people to do is not take romantic love for granted, to look at it a bit more critically and carefully, and hopefully to understand, insofar as I’m right or perhaps even insofar as I’m wrong, a bit more about what’s going on. Culturally, I’m not sure that books on love have ever had that much effect except a deleterious one. But what I hope is to provide some sort of anec…antidote – anecdote too – to the sorts of books by Fromm and May and Plato which essentially say, “Look, love’s divine. Once you’ve got that, you’ve got everything”. I want to say, look, there are a lot of myths here that need exploding. There are metaphors that need a kind of understanding. Once you’ve got that then you’ll see that there’s not as much divinity there as you may once have thought.

HEFFNER: Do they really say, “Once you have love, you have everything?” Or do they say, “Unless you have love you don’t have everything?”

SOLOMON: Well, someone, some the other. But certainly, let me take Rollo May who is the most recent and in some ways the most sober of the three. Certainly what he says about love is not just that if you don‘t have it you don’t have everything. But what he then spells out as love is something so ethereal and so special that very few people that I know or have ever met could conceivably think about it. Now, if love is an essential part of life, as he seems to think it is, then give us something that’s also possible in everyday life; not something that’s such an abstract ideal that no one can come close to it.

Now, politically – perhaps the third part of your question – politically what I hope is to get some sort of reconciliation going between romantic love and feminism and say, listen, these old ideas about masculine and feminine roles have to go. But that’s not a way of getting rid of romantic love. Quite the contrary. Understand love as perhaps the primary relationship of equality. And then, I think, a lot else changes too.

HEFFNER: Betty Friedan just did a program with me, and of course it’s fascinating that there seems to me, maybe because I do two programs in a row on subjects related to love, feminism, work hasn’t come into it until now, but it seems to me an awful lot of work is done trying to understand the relationship between feminism and love. Jay, it’s been a long time since you were here talking initially about Work and Love. Have you observed any changes – and I know you’re going to say again you talk only in the specifics rather than in the cosmic – any change that you see in our concepts of love and of work? I mean, do you find something in our society changing at this point?

ROHRLICH: One of the points that Bob made, and I think very nicely, in his book, is that love ideally is not a gender-related phenomenon, that it is a fundamental emotion that doesn’t distinguish a man from a woman. And I think that I have seen gradually a change to a kind of genderless state where work and love, it is not the sole dominion of either, love is not what women have exclusively, nor is work what men have exclusively. And I think a more balanced, we are reaching more of a balance. And I think Betty Friedan is a wonderful example of the kind of maturity that I think is coming into the dialogue now. I mean, even in her own development…

HEFFNER: You think unisex is balance or imbalance?

ROHRLICH: Unisex is an obliteration of distinctions. What Bob discusses in his book is that you can have, balance is a state of tension, that there is a dynamic tension, that we all have a little female in us and all a little male in us. We’re different combinations. We all can work, and we all can love. And I think there is always going to be tension between them which lends life a kind of vitality and excitement. I don’t think we should obliterate those differences. There’s also a kind of individual choice in roles too.

HEFFNER: In ten seconds.

SOLOMON: Okay. On the one hand I think the idea of equality is essential. At the same time, it seems to me it’s wrong to, across the board, condemn masculine and feminine roles. There are people who like to take masculine roles, there are people who like to take feminine roles; they get along very well together, and it happens that they’re not all men and women.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Robert Solomon, the author of Love, Emotion, Myth and Metaphor; and psychiatrist Dr. Jay Rohrlich, author of Work and Love: The Crucial Balance.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.