I read this book a couple months back, but I’ve been letting it simmer and slowly collecting my thoughts. I didn’t want to just be done with it– I wanted to grapple with Fromm’s arguments in the context of my everyday experience. His opinions often seem convincing at first glance, but to what extent do they really hold up? His work has it’s faults (like a bunch of weird homophobic statements in this one…), but I’ve been intrigued by Fromm’s social psychology since I first encountered The Sane Society a few years ago.
Fromm argues that popular, romantic conceptions of love are often very flawed. He critiques the widespread notion that love is an emotion to be felt or an end state to arrive at. For Fromm, love is a creative capacity. It’s built on choices and actions we perform everyday. It is behavior that is characterized by care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. We don’t just find “the right person” and magically end up in a state of love– we must learn how to love.
Fromm points out the dangers of conceptualizing love as something to “fall” into. It takes away the agency we all have to be loving and obscures what loving behavior is comprised of. It makes love into a thing that one either possesses or lacks, an emotion that must be acquired by way of popularity– by having the right personality, clothes, and lifestyle that is attractive to an equally popular mate. What I like best about this critique is Fromm’s attention to the social context. He was, of course, a sociologist and that background allowed him to pay special attention to the influence of social structure and economic relations in individual psychology. Fromm’s critique of love in Western society shows that our most private emotions and intimate relationships are profoundly shaped by modern consumer society. The larger forces that we tend to think of as structural do in fact shape how we see ourselves, others, and how we go about loving one another in our everyday lives. This is such an important point– one that has been developed further by sociologists like Arlie Russell Hochschild (The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling), Miliann Kang (The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work), and Eva Illouz (Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism), to name a few.
Fromm also argues that one must be an independent, whole person in order to love well, to love in a healthy way. In a section on love between parent and child, he slogs through a bunch of Freudian psychology, making some good points and some not so good points. What’s valuable here though is that love can sometimes go awry. Considering the ideal types of motherly and fatherly love for child, we can see how a child often starts off completely connected, undifferentiated from the mother figure. As the child grows, the mother’s unconditional love is contrasted by the father’s conditional love– to receive love from the father, the child must live up to the father’s expectations and wants, they must be good enough. And if they are, only then do they receive father’s love. These motherly and fatherly types of love are limiting when they recur in romantic relationships between adults. To put it simply, we can’t be children if we want to learn the art of loving. Only independent adults can master the skills of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge that are required. This is important and radical– only through independence can we come into contact with each other and bridge that often painful gap between ourselves and others, addressing that very human longing for connection.
Overall, love is a decidedly social phenomenon. It is embedded in the structure of society, in how people are loved as they grow up, and in the options available for fulfilling the need for human connection. This book can be especially valuable today, as we try to navigate through a world where hate seems to be constantly on the rise. Fromm helps us remember that the relationships we tend to see as existing between just two people or within a family are actually part of a much larger social context– this is an important reminder.