Ethel Person

The Power of Love

VTR Date: March 20, 1988

Guest: Person, Ethel


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ethel Person
Title: “The Power of Love”
VTR: 3-20-88

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. You know, you really have to sit up and take notice when one very distinguished past president of the American Psychoanalytical Association, Dr. Arnold Cooper, says about a wonderfully readable new book on love that it is “simultaneously passionate and scientific, romantic and scholarly; a unique exploration of the most complex of the human emotions”. And another past president, Dr. Richard Simon says “This is not just a book for scholars, scientists, and mental health professionals, this is a book for lovers everywhere”. And hopefully that includes all of us. And Lord knows in a world given quite so much to hate and to envy, a particularly to a denigration of love itself, the author of such a splendid volume must, indeed, be welcome here to THE OPEN MIND. Dr. Ethel Person, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, the Director of Columbia’s Psychoanalytic Center for Training and Research and fortunately, a private practitioner.

Well, it’s good to find a distinguished clinician who rises above the strictly clinical “what’s wrong” approach to love, for my guest is poetic, romantic, humanistic in her approach. And good to find in one and the same person, no pun intended, so much more than hearts and flowers; rather a rigorous, realistic understanding of what happens to couples and triangles, and families, and friends in love; and what love is.

Of course there is a lot to titles, and Dr. Person calls her intriguing new W.W. Norton volume “Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters”. No disparaging fatal attractions here, though for her, too, the paths of love can be appropriately troublesome, with the perils and pitfalls as well as the peaks of love well defined. Dr. Person writes about what threats arise from reaching one’s heights and renewing its intensity in love. But mostly her realism is a welcomed antidote to these dispassionate days. And I want to begin our program by asking Dr. Person why ours is, or at least has been such an age of dispassion, almost a hostility toward love. Is it disillusionment or fall from grace? After all, in “Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters” you write so tellingly: “What is unique about our century is the extent that love is no longer even deemed worthy of intellectual analysis. Discourses on love have virtually disappeared from our major intellectual enterprises”. Why so?

PERSON: Well, love has disappeared from our intellectual enterprises, but fortunately it never disappeared from our lives. It’s disappeared from our intellectual enterprises because it’s a very hard subject to talk about. You want to write about love and you say, “My God, if I’m writing about love and make love boring it’s the end”. But part of the reason is that we live in an age when people only want to talk about something if they can do it by the numbers or quantify it; if it’s science in a certain way. So we try to rationalize the emotions and make intelligent choices and pretend that the passions don’t exist.

HEFFNER: Well, you don’t do it by the numbers, but you make sense of love. How can we balance the fact of this concern, as you suggest? You can’t do it by the numbers, but you do do it rationally, reasonably…I mean, this is, for me at least, one of the intelligent books I’ve ever read, and one of the most reasonable and rational ones.

PERSON: I’m surely pleased to hear you say that, because I’m a great admirer of yours. I do it because I think psychiatrists and psychoanalysts may be uniquely equipped to make sense out of the passions. I mean, what psychoanalysts do with their passions, and their patients’ passions in their offices…understanding them, trying to know where they came from, what they mean…and what motivates behavior. Analysts know, as you know and I know, passions are the great moving forces in peoples’ lives, not rationality.

HEFFNER: You know, I want to go back for a moment to this matter of “our age”.


HEFFNER: An age of dispassion. Can you link that cultural phenomenon to what is happening to us personally as individuals? Is it an age of dispassion because we are backing away from the disillusions that come from love?

PERSON: Well, that’s a hard question for me. I think that love now is as marvelous an experience as it ever was, but there is a bad rep about love in the popular press. It’s a rep that says that love is a terrible trap for women. It’s a trap that men recognize and want to run away from. So there is at one and the same time, advice that it’s a terrible thing, but as I say, people have always fallen in love, all the nay-sayers to the contrary. So it’s only intellectually a dispassionate age. It’s as passionate an age, as far as I’m concerned, as it ever was. You see it in what people read when they are reading for pleasure. You see it in popular music. So it’s only in the intellectual sense, in the intellectual disciplines that it’s a dispassionate age. In the real world outside academia love is going strong.

HEFFNER: What’s been the impact upon love, or you call it passion…of feminism, of women’s, the women’s movement, in our times?

PERSON: Well, I see that people really, in order to be happy and fulfill themselves go on two different tracks, and sometimes those tracks are in conflict. On the one hand people have a need to self-actualize, I guess, is what the women’s movement has called it; a need to test the boundaries of autonomy and achievement, and the self-esteem that comes from defining the boundaries of the self. But it’s also always been true that people have a simultaneous need, which is to get out of the boundaries of the self and to take part in those pleasures that are based on communion; the pleasures of sex, or intimacy, or love, or shared moments. And so in one or another epoch, people go for one or the other of those two major kinds of pleasure. You might call then agency on the one hand and communion on the other hand. And there’s a kind of pendulum that swings back and forth.

HEFFNER: You know, you use this phrase “self-actualization”. And here on page 14 of your book…I was so impressed with your…you refer to William James and you say, “It is precisely the lovers’ leap out of objectivity and into subjectivity that signals the liberation of love. If it is true that the greatest breech in nature is between two minds, as William James suggested, then we must acknowledge the magnitude of the mind that allows us to bridge such as chasm.” Now, how does self-actualization fit into, or does it, in making that bridge, bridging that chasm between the two minds that is love?

PERSON: People have to have enough self-actualization to take the chance to take the leap. Strong personalities can take the leap because they know that they’re not going to shatter, they can surrender and become part of someone else. So in the best of circumstances, I think someone has achieved in both areas, from the self-actualization that comes from the autonomous work achievements, and at the same time, is then enabled in a sense, to make that other kind of commitment to love, which involves a leap. And implicit to that is surrender.

HEFFNER: Isn’t the drive towards self-actualization, in a sense, a burden for most of us normal, ordinary people, when we are also asked to be able, in a sense, to make that bridge that will bridge that chasm between two people?

PERSON: Well, in a sense you’re right and in a sense you’re wrong. When you fall in love and you really bridge that chasm and you almost merge with somebody else, there is ultimately an enstrengthment, an enlargement, an enrichment that comes out of it. Not to do that, I think, is to forfeit one of the greatest pleasures of life. On the other hand, I do believe that the stronger the personality, the more safely that, perhaps, we can be made. So I don’t see the two as necessarily in conflict, though at any one moment they may be.

HEFFNER: Okay, suppose we take that “not necessarily in conflict” in terms of any two people or at any one moment. But generally, socially, I guess the question that I’m asking is whether in a society that puts so much emphasis on self-actualization or in a lesser sense, upon “me”…whether that isn’t a society that, by definition, can’t put as much emphasis upon “us”, upon “we”.

PERSON: Well, you know, the attitudes surrounding love change more than the phenomenon of love changes.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

PERSON: The rhetoric about love, what people think about it changes…from the sixties to the seventies to the eighties…but love remains pretty much the same. So the paradox is that although you may say one thing about love, love is an internal thing, and it comes when it does. So you may be a great rationalist and off building your career, but you may find that you fall in love despite yourself. So I’m not as convinced as you may be that what people say in an epoch about love determines whether or not people are going to fall in love. I think if I were going to pick out one thing from our epoch that made it difficult to sustain love, I would say that, in a paradoxical sense again, the ease in divorce keeps people from having to face their problems in relationships, so sometimes it’s easier to turn in one than to work it through. I would probably pick that as the significant factor that’s changed the face of love, but not the falling in love.

HEFFNER: It is so interesting that you are quite pronounced in your opinion right at the beginning, that you are unequivocal totally about any sexual differentiation concerning love, the ability to love. You say, “Love is a uniquely human experience, and it does not discriminate between the sexes.” You say, “I also want to address a common misperception: the belief that women are more liable, more able to fall in love and are more influenced by it than men; that they pursue their lives more in the accordance of dictates of what we think of as reason”. You say, “The power of love, by nature, does not affect one sex more than the other”. And yet, toward the end of “Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters”, and I was puzzled – perhaps there’s no contradiction here – I can’t imagine that there would be, so you’ll have to explain it to me – you say, “Because of their different socializations, men and women are pre-disposed to different passion quests.”, a lovely phrase, “The passion quest for us in the West, is that which constitutes the central theme of our lives. One might say that men prefer power over love, and women achieve power through love”. Isn’t that a difference?

PERSON: Oh, there are differences in how you get there. There’s no difference once you get there. Once you have the experience, the experience of love with its exaltation and its ability to change the self, its ability to make the world feel fresh, or to make it feel like time has stopped; all of that is the same for the two sexes. There are differences in how you get there sometimes.

HEFFNER: And whether you can get there?

PERSON: No, I think both sexes can get there. I think they both get there pretty much at the same time, men being more sensitive, perhaps, to rejection – having a bad love affair – may retire from the field for a couple of decades until they try again. But once they get there I think they’re having the same experience with all its wonderful potential.

HEFFNER: Would you…as a psychoanalyst, you’re also a historian…


HEFFNER: Oh, yes, by definition…

PERSON: …Yes, yes, all right…Fair enough. Fair enough.

HEFFNER: Let me ask, if you had written this book 20 years ago, a quarter of a century ago…you would have written the same about the different ways in which men and women get to love? You say there’s no difference when they get there.

PERSON: Uh uh.

HEFFNER: What about the different ways, and the impact of those possibly different ways? Would you have written the same then as now?

PERSON: Probably. When I talk about the differences between the sexes I’m trying to emphasize that love is wonderful yet love has a bad rep because sometimes it goes bad. The ways it goes bad in terms of the internal distortions may be weighted differently for men and women. Women sometimes have a tendency to lose themselves in love, men, a tendency to try to dominate the one they love. I would consider those mirror images reflecting the same underlying fear about losing love, but different ways of trying to stabilize it.

HEFFNER: But if men are a product of their emasculinity of their early drives to achieve and demonstrate their masculinity – in our society they have done that increasingly, or have done that in our century through material achievement – and women today now function in that material world more and more – what is the impact now upon love generally, the capacity to love in a culture, with women marching more or less to the same drummer?

PERSON: Well, if you were asking me what was the difference in the 13th century and the 20th century maybe I could answer it.

HEFFNER: No, I’d say the 19th and the near-21st.

PERSON: Or if you were asking me the difference between the Far East and the West, maybe I could answer you. I can’t do it in terms of decades, because I really think that the capacity to fall in love romantically inheres in our development. I do think that both sexes, because both sexes partake in human development which in a sense supersedes gender development, important though that may be…because we share this human development – we both have this capacity to fall in love and we both do it with amazing regularity, both sexes. I think they did it 20 years ago, I think they’ll do it 20 years from now and longer. It’s the nature of the human creature.

HEFFNER: Birds do it, bees do it? And so forth and so on…

PERSON: And humans do it with a little more transcendence, and idealization and transformation.

HEFFNER: Transformation…you say…you use the concept of transformation of the individual experiencing love, and of the society as a product of the changes that love brings. You know…I made note of the fact that…You say: “It is my central thesis that love serves an important function not only for the individual, but also for the culture”. And for a moment I wondered whether you feel it had to, to be that important. That it had to be an important, positive element for our culture, as you believe, to justify itself.

PERSON: No. I think the justification is in the internal release and growth that occurs to the lover, not in terms of what it does to society. Though I think that society’s co-opted it, in the sense that we now marry for love. We didn’t always marry for love. We always had the experience of love. But I justify love, if it needs any justification – as I say, people fall in love with amazing regularity – I justify it in terms of those inner feelings and the changes that it brings. I see love as a change agent for the individual. The easiest time you can see it is in first love, but you can see it whenever you fall in love, at whatever age. First love is easy because you give up your old allegiances. You make a new allegiance. You pick a new set of values, and you set out on a new path with somebody. So it’s very clear in that instance that it’s an agent for change. But I think it changes one in many, many complex and subtle ways, aside from that change in role and commitment.

HEFFNER: You know, I have to ask you, of course…There must be people sitting out there saying “Ask her, ask her for God’s sakes” – What it is.

PERSON: What is passionate love?

HEFFNER: No. What is love? Yah. What is it?

PERSON: Oh dear. We’ll start assuming that we all know what love is, and we’ll talk about what is passionate love and what is romantic love…and what you distinguish it from? I distinguish it from affectionate bonding, carnal passion, and love in which you’re bonded from some external reason, some advantage. Now, affectionate bonding, which is mostly what mental health professionals tout, you could describe as “Ma and Pa Kettle”. It’s many wonderful things. It’s the affection and the commitment and the sexuality. You don’t hit the high notes in it, but it’s not anything to be sneered at, surely. Carnal passion, “Last Tango in Paris”…that’s the name of it, right? “Swept Away”…it’s a carnal passion – it’s a physical, sexual passion, but it exhausts itself when you feel you know somebody completely, sexually. The other, the advantageous kind of bonding is when you think that you have a relationship of a certain magnitude, but you’re probably motivated by some advantage, such as career, or money. Now, I would say that if I added a few things to affectionate bonding I would come up with what I call passionate love.

HEFFNER: But you know, in a sense, maybe, maybe the people out there think that’s what I meant. I didn’t. I was thinking of, again, “Love and Dreams of Fateful Encounters”, you write, “It has been said that the three great languages of contemporary Western culture, Christian, Psychoanalytic, and Marxist, all conspire to devalue love. A more recent view, that of neuroscience, contributes to the negative valuation by reducing love to no more than a biochemical excitation”. And you know, I wondered…suppose you changed those last words – “contributes to a valuation by elevating love to a chemical phenomenon”. And when I say “What is love?”, I’m really asking, yeah, this phenomenon – you might say someone is in love. What is it? What’s done it? Some chemical reaction? You don’t like that.

PERSON: Oh, I don’t dislike that. Everything is mediated physically. One of the great questions is “Why does someone fall in love when they fall in love?” The other one is “Who do you fall in love with?” Now those, to some extent, are mysteries. People have said that you fall in love when you experience some need in yourself; a need to move out, to enlarge, to touch someone else. I think that’s right. It’s some need, but it doesn’t mean that you’re impoverished necessarily. You can feel it at the fullness of your life. It can be many, many, many different things. But it’s prompted by an internal psychological state. I don’t think the chemicals are in there just rising and falling at random. I think they’re responding to physical…I’m not talking about sexual hormones. I see the puzzled look on your face…

HEFFNER: No, no, I didn’t think you were.

PERSON: I’m talking about that which is passionate, romantic love which is defined by the yearning to really be with somebody else; to really know somebody else subjectively, and to have them count as much in your own life as you count in your life.

HEFFNER: Someone walks into that crowded room.

PERSON: That’s right.

HEFFNER: You look at her.


HEFFNER: Or you look at him.

PERSON: Yes. Sometimes it’s across a crowded room.

HEFFNER: And you know you love that person. What are we talking about?

PERSON: Well, I’ll give you, I’ll give you a metaphor that someone uses, H.G. Wells. He says that we grow up with a lover’s shadow which is as important to us as our concept of our self. And it’s made up of many, many different things: memories, sensations, wishful fantasies; that’s probably true. If you fall in love at first sight it means that you’ve seen someone who you think fits your image of the lover’s shadow. So you can say that the process of falling in love is bringing someone into alignment with the concept of the lover’s shadow, hopefully bringing the lover’s shadow into some kind of alignment with the real person at the same time. So it’s that internal process. That’s the period of time you would describe as falling in love.

HEFFNER: And the lover’s shadow…how do you get at it? Is it necessary…


HEFFNER: …for you as a therapist to get at it?

PERSON: No, I don’t think so. I think some things are unchangeable. The lover’s shadow is…ah…if the lover’s shadow is a pretty good representation, leave it alone. You only worry if someone can only fall in love with somebody who is a sadist, or who can only fall in love with someone who is a disaster. Otherwise…I mean, one of the interesting things is that the lover’s shadow, the person who you’re going to fall in love with, is so different for each of us. Represent…

HEFFNER: For each of us…

PERSON: Each of us, yes.

HEFFNER: The shadow is cast by what? Relationship with mother, relationship with father?

PERSON: Many things in your developmental history. All of that. All of that, plus the imagination. The thing that people leave out when they talk about development, is that even when we are very young we start fantasizing about what might be, about what might have been, and all of that becomes part of what we want. A friend of mine said jokingly that I titled this book “Dreams of Love” – that the dreams were fine, it was reality that was the problem. So that’s why I put the two things together in the title. “Dreams of Love” is ideas that we carry around with us. They come from many, many different sources, including our development.

HEFFNER: Does that mean it’s realization of idealization? Is that what love is?

PERSON: In part. I have in no way assumed that I have gotten to the bottom of what love is. I think I’ve described many of the things that it is. And I think I’ve left what I think must always be there. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a large mystery. That’s what makes it one of the great glories, that one cannot reduce it so easily to its antecedent parts.

HEFFNER: You put a good deal of emphasis, in “Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters”, on creativity. I was interested in that. Why do you do that?

PERSON: I do that because…I start with the phenomenon that people in love feel more creative than they do than any other time. You’ll find that somebody that has no poetic abilities whatsoever, who writes a marvelous poem when he’s in love…And so you know that love releases some of that creativity. When you think about it, the very act of falling in love brings together so many different wishes and fantasies and longings, and realizes them, achieves them in some way. I think for most people it’s the most important creative experience of their lives. And I think that that’s what part of the exaltation’s about.

HEFFNER: In the 30 seconds that we have remaining, I’ll come back to the other question…which I know…I’m beating a horse, here – maybe it’s dead, and maybe it’s not – is whether the phenomenon of love is as alive and as well now as when you began practice, which wasn’t that many years ago, but was a period ago.

PERSON: Oh, love is certainly alive. I’ve written this book, not to revive it because I never thought it died, but so people can look into themselves to understand it better. Not to do what they’re so often counseled to do, which is to manipulate themselves in order to get the response from the beloved. I think it’s much more important that one has the enormous release and internal pleasure of loving full out.

HEFFNER: Dr. Ethel Person, “Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters” is a wonderful book. In it love does not get a bad rep, as you said it so often does. Indeed, it is just the opposite, the power of romantic passion. Thank you for joining me today.

PERSON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next week. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our today’s program, today’s topic, today’s guest, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.