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May a Love Affair Be a Neurosis?

( Originally Published 1957 )

A number of scientific writers have regarded sexual love as a symptom of nervous disorder. Some eminent psychologists have been among them. A person who falls intensely in love is nearly always nerve-sick, in the opinion of Pierre Janet. (39) Amorous longing is a malady of youth, which sometimes recurs, like measles or scarlatina, at later ages. Many have only slightly experienced this youthful seizure, perhaps owing to good health. There are others, the neuropathics, who are liable to nervous illnesses; among these are the amorous. They are not suspectible at all times, however, and we cannot say that as soon as one of them encounters an attractive person he will become ill. There are times of relative immunity, but during periods of depression or following excessive physical or mental labor, shocks, disappointments, and so on such susceptibility is increased. At these times, a trivial incident, which ordinarily would have no lasting effect, may furnish the germ of the disturbance.

The sight of a particular face, at moments of abnormal sensitivity, Janet thinks, can be the beginning of prolonged amorous sickness. The first impression may be followed by a period of "incubation"; the image of this face moves, in vague reveries, through the enfeebled mind; it may at times vanish, but in fact becomes only subterranean in its activity. Later, the victim may be surprised to find that his steps have carried him, as of their own accord, to the dwelling of the one who has quite unknowingly brought about his affliction, or to find, in the midst of his labors, that his lips are repeatedly forming a name. If we remove the veil of poetry with which this condition has been masked, we shall see, Janet tells us, that falling in love exhibits that form of mental disturbance known as an "obsession," meaning that the thought of the love object is constantly present, and is not subject to normal control by the will.

Sexual attraction which is sudden and strong is often seen in persons suffering from nervous ailments, according to Charles Fere. He observes that tremors, muscle spasms, feelings of shock and dizziness often accompany these incidents; such seizures of attraction, he thought, may be manifestations of epilepsy. Whatever the underlying cause, attractions of sudden intensity are not to be regarded as normal sexual experiences. They are "far removed from the laws of natural sexual selection." Instead of finding romantic meaning then, such as the hand of destiny, we should rather see in them symptoms of abnormal sensitivity, and possible signs of emotional disorder.

More recently, Harry Stack Sullivan, in his lectures on psychiatry, describes in a somewhat sardonic vein the amorous behavior of a young schizophrenic boy. Beginning suddenly, the experience is portrayed as including much fantasy, as emotionally warming and animating, and as becoming to a high degree absorbing and all-important. The affair then moves toward what is termed the "schizophrenic denouement": an unhappy ending brings on mental illness. Whether Sullivan intended it or not, an impression is conveyed that the love affair, described in terms familiar enough, is somehow essentially morbid. Though labeled "extreme," it is indicated as "of a piece" with all amorous experience.

Freud's comment on the "short step" between being in love and the mental state of hypnosis, and on the several resemblances between them, has often been quoted. Popular observations on the strongly enamoured person as "entranced," captivated, or "under a spell" are familiar to everyone.

Jessie Bernard thinks that the amorous state, while not itself abnormal, "does share a number of common characteristics with certain abnormal forms of behavior." Among these are delusions, compulsions, obsessions, "trances," etc. She re-marks further that people who feel violent and obsessive amorous attractions "are perhaps explainable in terms of a defect in personality development which makes the independence of maturity impossible." Professor Waller believes that sudden attraction does not deserve the romantic treatment it usually receives. Amorous emotion that is aroused quickly and without previous association may be a symptom of profound disorder, he thinks. Most societies, according to Dr. Linton, regard exceptional attractions of this type as unfortunate, and "point out the victims as horrible examples." He inclines to the view that they are abnormalities to which our society has given an extraordinary value. "The hero of the modem American movie is always a romantic lover just as the hero of the old Arab epic is always an epileptic. A cynic might suspect that in any ordinary population the percentage of individuals with a capacity for romantic love of the Hollywood type was about as large as that of persons able to throw genuine epileptic fits."

In the "more pathological" instances of amorous enslavement, we encounter, Waller suggests, behavior not unlike that of narcotic addiction. There may be a struggle against the de-sire, rather than a welcome absorption in it. "They may know that their suit is hopeless, and that the thing within them grows stronger with every contact, and yet they continue to seek those contacts, to degrade themselves, if need be, in order to have a feeble and shadowy claim upon the attention of the other person. They plead piteously for just one more engagement; they spend all they can borrow for the entertainment of a person who receives this attention most unwillingly; they stand for hours watching the light in a certain window with tortured suspense . . ."

It would not be easy to overlook likenesses between the more extreme cases of amorous fixation and the neurotic afflictions called obsessions and compulsions. The strongly attracted youth is much preoccupied with thoughts of the beloved, and experiences a compelling desire for physical and emotional possession of her. Binet's theory of amorous "fetishism," later to be discussed in some detail, was in large part based on these features of the behavior in fixation. Max Dessoir, also, saw the resemblance to abnormal mental conditions. No pathological obsession, he admits, holds the mind with greater tyranny than that seen in the preoccupied lover. It would be hasty, however, he thinks, to conclude that love is a neurosis. We cannot say, because of the surface similarities, that the underlying processes are the same. He points out that the obsessive state in sexual love brings an animation, a heightening of vitality, rather than a decline. Far from being a sign of nervous disorder, the intense love affair represents only the most highly developed form of the sexual relationship.

Danville pointed out that there are other mental states, whose normality is not questioned, which at times show features of obsessive behavior.For example, a scientist may be quite literally "obsessed" with an intriguing problem which holds his mind in an absorption excluding almost all other interests. Sexual love, Danville admits, may resemble neurotic disturbances. It differs from them, he suggests, because of the value of its effects, to the individual and to society. The mental process by which we fall in love he does not regard as abnormal. Ribot thinks that while love "is inseparable from obsession and impulsion," in thus approaching, at times, the boundaries of the abnormal it does not differ from most other emotions. In the same setting Edward Sapir writes: "It is useless to argue that this is madness, for in a sense it is, but we have yet to learn of a value or an ideal that is not potential madness."

The effect of a strong and unaccountable attraction upon personal stability, and the extraordinary meaning that may be given it in the absence of an adequate psychology of sexual choice, is well illustrated in a case reported by Norman Cameron.

The patient was an unmarried graduate student, at a men's university, who had been trained by a scholarly father to take great pride in developing reason and strength of character. He suddenly found himself falling irresistibly in love with a domestic employee of little education or personal charm. This situation, in the light of his own background and his well-laid plans for a career, was completely inexplicable to him. For it not only contradicted his most unshakable principles, but violated his conception of himself as strong-willed and superior. He confided his discovery to no one, but pondered over it constantly when he was alone.

After several weeks of solitary struggle and perplexity during which, however, he continued the clandestine affair he had begun, the patient decided that the girl must be using some special technique to break down his strength of mind so that she could prevail over him. His first hypothesis was that she might be practicing hypnotism or telepathy, and he read up on these topics in the college library. But even with the closest observation of her behavior when they were together he could find nothing to support this view. The patient next suspected that the girl was drugging him with aphrodisiacs to arouse him and with opiates to weaken his will and make him, as an habitue, dependent upon her. Since she certainly had easy access to the kitchen from which he was served, he stopped eating at his club and took his meals at a restaurant.

When the patient found that the girl seemed rather to gain than to lose in power over him under these circumstances, he finally concluded that he was being overwhelmed by a supernatural influence. With the help of some readings he had once done in mythology, he constructed the hypothesis in his fantasy that she was in reality a goddess in disguise, the daughter of the moon, who was irresistible by virtue of her origin. To her he now considered himself dedicated and mystically married; she was henceforth, he told her, to go by his name and he by hers. This solution enabled the patient to pre-serve the fiction of his own strength of character and superior reason, since he had been vanquished only by a superhuman power.

Doubtless there are some who would see proof enough, in an overpowering attraction of this character, of a major instability or nervous disorder. They would find support in the fact that the subject of this account did finally become psychotic. It seems equally fitting to suggest that such a climax proves only that an amorous attraction may reach an intensity that places it, along with other powerful emotions, among the factors that induce mental illness when they conflict with other strongly organized sectors of the personality.

No one, to the writer's knowledge, has yet questioned the normality of sexual preferences. People differ in attractiveness and some are regarded, generally, as more attractive than others. We know, however, that this agreement will not be complete, and that the attractiveness of a particular person will vary from one judge to another. Exceptional fixations may be no more than the extremes of normal differences in strength of preference. That some of these exceptional fixations may occur in neurotics does not demonstrate that all of them do. Some data on the frequency of "love affairs" were cited in an earlier chapter. If many or most of these attractions represent some degree of "fixation," their numbers would suggest that they are, fundamentally, normal emotional and sexual phenomena.

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