The conundrum of love in societies that continue to celebrate manhood as tough, entitled and dominant.
Behind closed doors men and women, untutored in the art of relationship, struggle with what is right and wrong – how they are supposed to act as a couple; trying to reconcile the contradictions of their upbringing and the effects of societal pressures. Behind closed doors people are confronted with the realities of life-changing commitment and the realisation of the need to adjust for their new roles in relationship. The qualities of love, care, respect and so on, run the gauntlet of tensions from those who are unable or unwilling to make changes. ‘Behind closed doors’ is a secret place where dynamics play out for better or worse. Unfortunately coercive controlling behaviours and psychological abuse often live here and spawn dysfunctional relationships and the rise of the domestic violence epidemic.
SO YOU ARE A COUPLE …
You’ve moved in together, you are married to the person of your dreams.
As humans we have deep emotional needs for connection.
We all have different ideas of love but not all our ideas of love are equal. Some are rooted in romantic love and other forms grow from dependency, possessiveness, and fear.
Some people crave to be loved, but there’s quite a difference between craving to be loved, being loved, and actually being loving.
Men I interviewed for my research had varying ideas about what love meant in an intimate relationship. The men had been violent and coercively controlling towards female partners. Some of the men had Domestic Violence Orders against them, either existing or in their past. Some had criminal histories and some had been in jail for domestic violence offences.
Nevertheless many of these men admitted to wanting a loving relationship with a female partner.
So many forms of love …
What Does Love Mean To You?
Most of the men’s answers to my question about what love meant to them were full of hesitancy, with long gaps filled with silence and tensions. You could say they were dumbfounded.
Chris thought I’d asked a hard question that was too difficult to answer. Bob also didn’t know how to describe what love was. Peter said ‘Jeez, isn’t that one of those philosophical type questions? Christ I don’t know!’ And Anthony believed the average man on the street hasn’t got a clue. Ultimately several of the men said that a lot of men mistake physical intimacy for love.
It’s not that men don’t have the language or desire to express themselves, but the contemporary, collective social messages about ‘manhood’ and toughness is an influence so powerful that it inhibits lots of men from expressing the language and actions of love.
Yet Max thought that although sometimes men might be ‘rough’ at showing love, he believed that a lot of men do know how to be loving.
Chris said he associated love with comfort, being nurtured and enjoying when his partner sits on the lounge and gives him a cuddle. He valued companionship with his partner, he valued being two people together who have kids and a family. His idea of love meant everyone lives “happily ever after”. But he said the fairy story doesn’t tell you HOW to have a relationship. Ultimately he perceived a fairy tale form of love was not totally real, rather that love meant a lot of hard work. He saw love as:
“Buy a big castle and lots of kids and big cars and happily ever after and that’s it.”
Chris did not think he set out to argue with his partner all the time, but although it did happen, he believed it was how you deal with it that was important.
Love Means Respect
Anthony also associated love with respect. Respect for the differences, for the person they are, and respect for their own choices.
Love Means Trust And Being Best Friends
Several men believed that love meant their partner was “your best friend”. Max said he married for love, which meant:
“Understanding each other, hold each other, give each other a hug, perhaps a kiss, doesn’t always have to be sexual. Sharing time, go for walks, being there for each other, listening, understanding each other and trust. Trust is a big key. Once you wreck your trust it’s really hard to rebuild your relationship. Very hard.”
The pattern in relationships that are based on friendship tend to entail both partners cherishing and caring for each other, and also caring for their wider family and community. Those who engage in this form of love tend to be down to earth and it is this form of love that is likely to lead to long term relationships. Love can be there at the beginning or can grow out of an already existing friendship and common interests.
Love Means Having The Courage To Be Vulnerable
Peter knew that he was in love because he was prepared to open himself wide open to his wife, which he had never done with anyone else. He believed love entailed the ability to let all your defences down and be who you really are, which meant loving with no fear of hurt, or it being used against you, to open yourself up totally. And Geni cried and wiped his tears from his eyes when he said:
“Love is caring and gentle. If anything happened to my wife I wouldn’t know what I’d do.”
Love Means Safety And Commitment To Change
Rick’s view of love meant feeling safe, content, connected, and everything feels right. James believed that love meant unconditional acceptance, a willingness to accept bad things as long as there’s some commitment to change, or to try and find some middle ground between the opposing view of you and your partner.
Our ideas of love are not equal
The Shaky Foundations Of Romantic Love
The common social myth is that romantic love will meet all our emotional needs, but many people secretly fear that love will disappear.
Some of the men I interviewed were motivated to have power, be popular, and craved for some form of social status. They were influenced by social messages that having power and being popular would lead to a love match — or the ability to get sex — which they linked to the idea of love.
Some men jump into relationship believing that one person will fill the love tank so they can avoid the feelings of loneliness. But there is no solid ground to build a secure loving relationship. It does not take much for the relationship to crumble.
Pretending Everything’s Lovey Dovey
“I’m married therefore I’m desired, therefore I’m loved, therefore I’m everything.”
I Want A Normal Life: Love And Marriage With The Trappings
Couple culture is so dominant in Western societies that remaining single, for whatever reason, can feel like a failure. Some see the wedding, or moving in with an intimate partner, as a right of passage to adulthood. Many people are motivated by the mass hypnotic suggestion that you should find a lover, become a couple and settle down, without really knowing how to have a loving relationship.
Game Playing Love
The desperation some people have in needing to appear socially acceptable and “normal” gets in the way of negotiating a well thought out value system to base an intimate relationship on. This desperation makes men and women susceptible to ‘falling in love’ without listening to their intuition that the person is not right for them.
Erich Fromm suggests that rather than “fall in love”, the ideal is to stand grounded in love while allowing the wall between them to open up.
Over the years many female survivors of coercive control have shared stories with me about destructive games their partners have played including flirting, teasing and having affairs, and lying about it. The person who plays games is shallow, stays aloof, keeps secrets and is enticed by the ‘hunt and the conquest’. This person is self centred – determined to win as many partners as possible and backs off from real commitment. You would never quite know where you’re placed in such a relationship. But what is certain, is that the game playing relationship will be short-lived because the aim is to just have fun in the moment. Meanwhile, trust is trashed.
Ownership – Obsessive Possessive Jealous Love
Many of the men I spoke to linked love with ownership of women and had expectations of women’s subservience. David said he married for love and that love meant:
“The man loves his wife to do everything that she’s told to do, and be obedient” and Alex said he used to think, “love was an ownership type of thing, you love someone you’re with them 24 hours a day.”
After attending a men’s Stopping Abuse Program, Sam developed a more caring side, so that now he felt that love meant more than anything in the world. Whereas in the past he considered men were the masters and women were to be used as slaves.
However the way Sam spoke about love and care towards female partners still had strong tastes of ‘selfish patriarchal entitlement’. That she had to be the one caring for him, as opposed to mutual love. He said love meant:
“Showing me, nice, calm, peacefully, ‘How was your day?’ ‘Oh, I’m in a bastard of a mood.’ ‘Okay love, do you want a cup of coffee?’ ‘Okay, talk about it when you’ve finished your coffee darls if you want to’… or ‘Darls, here’s a beer, go sit out the back”.
Love requires us to develop our whole selves. The first task is dropping the daily insensitive self-absorption that is evident in men who coercively control their partners. Then to begin the task of learning what a healthy form of love is.
Love With Its Roots In Fear
Possessive, obsessive, jealous love has its roots in fear and anxiety, low self-esteem, and an attitude that the perpetrator is entitled to their partner’s attention 24/7.
“if you haven’t got someone special that you love, then you’re just going to end up broke and boozed and lonely, not fulfilled”.
Lazarus considered love to mean loyalty and trust, which he believed were a big part of love because without either of them there can’t be too much love. If there’s loyalty and trust, the rest will work itself out, he said.
But at the same time Lazarus thought love played a part in controlling female partners. He said it was “a different type of love, not a normal kind of love, I don’t think, it’s not quite normal it’s not a real love I don’t think. It’s more like a fear, I think.”
He said the fears for men would be that:
“they’ll be alone. They’ll have no one. Realize how bad they got it and how much better it could be, so they won’t have anyone.”
Lazarus said one of the ways men care about their partner was that she had to look good so the boys would be jealous. When Alex’s wife spent time on the computer he felt inadequate and jealous. Bill and Joe mentioned issues of jealousy in their younger years when they were at the pub with mates and girlfriends and the pecking order amongst the men there would lead to jealousy- fuelled fights over girlfriends.
The person who engages in this type of love is heavily dependent on their partner for constant attention and reassurance. They need their partner to stroke and sooth their ego constantly without ever feeling the need to reciprocate.
Love With Its Roots In Jealousy
Sam said his jealousy of other men was definitely rooted in fear. Men absorbed in this form of ‘love’ are selfish and cannot stand their partner having friends, or family’ or colleagues, or even a new born baby in their life because that takes all the attention away from the obsessive jealous partner.
If the jealous partner doesn’t get the reassurance and attention they crave, they can become at minimum, ever increasingly annoying, selfish and emotionally manipulative. At their worst, if their worn-out partner threatens to leave, or she does leave, the possessive person can become suicidal or homicidal. They cannot stand the loss of attention and control they have acquired over their partner.
These men often have conditions attached. They are only willing to give if they know they’ll get something in return.
Game playing and possessive, jealous love are the most likely forms of love that lead to coercive control and psychological abuse. Intimacy and love in these cases are used as weapons to snare the victim in a strangulating web of entrapment, which can take the suffering party a long time to recognise and to break free from.
Not all relationships begin with love, but the social pressure is there for love and intimacy to be the driving forces in deciding to marry or move in together.
Possessive, jealous, selfish people do not have the capacity to love others, nor do they love themselves. They profoundly lack interest in what their partner needs and wants.
Love is an Action
Love is primarily giving – not receiving.
Love requires us to develop our whole selves.
Years ago I read Erich Fromm’s book The Art Of Loving, which he published in 1956. He argued that “love is an action” and “love is primarily giving – not receiving”.
He believed that care, responsibility, respect and knowledge are the common ingredients across all healthy forms of love.
But while society continues to applaud the he-man, “suck-it-up” toughness, and the ‘always in control’ mythical version of manhood, men will be encouraged – or shamed – to suppress their innate feminine side.
So long as a man continues to buy into the notion that he is entitled to have unfettered power and control over others, his ability to show love, display compassion and do caring, considerate things with a sense of empathy, will be retarded.
His coercive controlling behaviours and psychological abuses will continually erode the relationship and remain entrenched as one of the many root causes of the family domestic violence epidemic.
Love is not just a feeling. Feelings of love come and go.
But when your intention is an action grounded in caring, respect and compassion – loving relationships can flourish.