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Romantic Love: a review of Robert Johnson's book WE

By Lynne Foote MA, LPC

I just finished reading Robert Johnson’s book, WE: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, which is a study of romantic love based on the myth of Tristan and Iseult, seen through the eyes of a Jungian analyst. This myth, which came out of the King Arthur tales of the 12th century, was the beginning of the Courtly Love tradition and formed our ideal of romantic love. This ideal, with its historic roots in the Middle Ages, took form through the love poems and songs of the troubadours. Coined as “courtly love,” this was the love of a brave knight who worshiped his fair lady from afar. She became his inspiration to be noble, spiritual, refined, and high-minded. This love was not meant to be consummated and lived on the earthly plane, rather it was an idealized, spiritual relationship, destined to enflame the passion of this young man and inspire him as he found his way in the world and made the journey to become a moral and honored knight. Johnson claims that our modern era psychologically begins at this time. He also states that our Western society is the only culture in history that has experienced romantic love as a mass phenomenon, and is the only culture that makes romance the basis of our marriages.

Romantic love is what we know as “falling in love,” or when we feel that we are “in love” with another person. It is that ecstatic feeling sometimes at the start of a relationship when we have transcended our egoic self and have joined with this Other in an intensity that lifts us out of the ordinary plain of existence. In this state we believe that we have found the ultimate meaning in life, revealed in another human being. Fueled by Hollywood and the media, and fed by desires for more, we assume that this notion of love must be the best or “real” love. Johnson also believes that “Romantic Love is the single greatest energy system in the western psyche. In our culture, it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy.”(Introduction, p. xi)

Carl Jung wrote that the human psyche strives towards wholeness, it strives to complete itself and become more conscious. The unconscious is the Source, the primal matter from which our conscious minds and ego personalities have evolved. Our ego, or conscious mind, is like an island in a vast ocean of psyche. The Self is the sum of all the divergent forces that make us unique individuals. Jung believes that the call to awaken to the unity of this Self is the great goal of our psychic evolution, and is the object of our greatest Longings. It results in the Inner Marriage of our masculine and feminine. The Feminine archetype, known as the Anima in men, is based in Eros, or relatedness. From this archetypal energy comes the ability to soften power with love, and gives us an awareness of our inner feelings and values. It is our feeling and intuitive side, the power to develop a sense of values and to affirm what is good and true. It is our Heart energy. The Masculine archetype, known as the Animus in women, is based in Logos, or discrimination. From this archetypal energy comes the discriminating intellect which can cut through problems and ideas to come to a new understanding. It is our logical and analytic side, the ability to take action and manage a situation. It is our Mind energy. To live a whole and harmonious life, we all need to develop both our masculine and our feminine qualities. Jung claims that when one side of human nature grows out of balance with the other, it becomes a “tyranny in the Soul.” We know the negative masculine as brutality or the power drive gone mad; and it is the negative feminine which devours matter in such experiences as eating disorders and addictions.

Johnson’s premise is that we need to learn the difference between a human love as a basis for relationship and romantic love as an inner ideal, a path to our inner world and the Inner Marriage. He says that we have mixed our spiritual aspiration, our urge toward the Divine, with our human relationships. He claims that romantic love is an “unholy muddle of two holy loves” and says that “by some trick of psychological evolution our culture has muddled the two loves in a potion of romantic love and has nearly lost them both.” We have tried to find a Divine Love, the Soul’s love of God, in a human being. We have mixed up our inner quest for wholeness with our outer experience.

The root of the word Passion comes from the Latin Passio and means “to suffer.” Romantic Love springs forth from passion. Rather than a love for another human being, it is being “in love with love.” We find ourselves possessed as if we have drunk a magic potion or been stung by Cupid’s dart. This romance does not necessarily translate into an enduring love based on relatedness and commitment. (For further distinctions on passion, intimacy and commitment, go to my article KINDS OF LOVE at www.LynneFoote.com). The problem is that our passion for discovering our inner being has been superimposed over an external partner. Johnson writes:

We might expect that a cult of love that specifically opposes marriage, that encourages passionate relationships outside marriage, that seeks to spiritualize relationship into a perpetual and superhuman intensity, would be a very poor basis for marriage and a very risky approach to human relationships. Yet these are the ideals that underlie our patterns of courtship and marriage to this day! Taken on the wrong level, these inherited ideals cause us to seek passion and intensity for their own sake; they plant a perpetual discontent that can never find the perfection it seeks. This discontent grays over every modern relationship, holds an unattainable ideal before our eyes that blinds us perpetually to the delight and beauty of the here-and-now world. (P.47)

To love in the human way, we must withdraw our idealized image for perfection which we have projected onto our partner, and direct our love to a flesh-and-blood partner. To become whole, we need to make a clear distinction between our search for Self or wholeness, which must be lived inwardly, and our commitment to relationship with our partner, which must be lived outwardly. Human beings have to be able to depend upon each other and a commitment to passion is not a commitment to a human being. In time, we begin to recognize that our projections are parts of ourselves. They are potentialities that we have never touched, because we tried to live them through our partner, but now need to own. There is a radical shift when we begin to withdraw our projections and start to recognize and honor the images and feelings that flow out of us in dreams, fantasies, and imagination, when we know that these symbols call us from the Divine realm and beckon us towards a transformative healing journey. We need an inner practice that can discern the difference between inner and outer, between what must be lived symbolically or lived physically. We learn, as Johnson so poetically says, to be a “mortal man/woman with an immortal soul.”

Johnson says that “ultimately, the only enduring relationships will be between couples who consent to see each other as ordinary, imperfect people and who love each other without illusion and without inflated expectations.” This is a culmination of earthly love. And paradoxically, this love deepens when we do the inner work of individuating and healing into our wholeness, and it is through our human love that we discover the nature of our projections, those parts of ourselves that we have not been willing or able to own. This mutuality is relationship as a Sacred Path. I highly recommend this book. The unfolding of the myth of Tristan and Iseult will take you on your own inner journey and will shed light upon your own relationship to passion and to love.

Your feedback and ideas are welcome.


Contact Lynne Foote

Phone: 303-447-2987

Email: Lynne@LynneFoote.com


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