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Sexual Love as an Ego Need

( Originally Published 1957 )

Freud described a second type of sexual choice, which he called "narcissistic." Thus, ". . . we postulate a primary narcissism in everyone, which may in the long run manifest itself as dominating his object-choice." Among the forms this may take is that in which one seeks a person who resembles one's self, or who resembles the person one would like to be. We tend to love the person who possesses an idealized trait.

The view that falling in love is really an affair of the "ego" was earlier suggested by Weininger, who began with the idea that each of us desires nothing so much as to achieve an ideal of self. "And as he cannot find this true self within himself, he has to seek it without himself. He projects his ideal . . . upon another human being, and this act . . . is . . . love and the significance of love." (44) Sexual love therefore always means an inequality between lover and loved; it endows an individual "with all that one might be and yet never can be . . ." The loved one is simply the means through which the ideal is made real, and we can do this only by overlooking or excluding the traits this person actually possesses. This is because when in love "man is only loving himself . . . not the weaknesses and vulgarities, not the failings and smallnesses which he outwardly exhibits; but all that he wants to be, all that he ought to be ."

This rather unusual conception of amorous emotion has been developed recently by Theodor Reik. "Sexual" love is, he holds, not only to be clearly distinguished from sensual desire, but is, in itself, not really sexual at all. It "belongs to the realm of the ego-drives. What the loved person is actually like is of no great importance. The truly important thing is the emotional condition of a person before the "romantic encounter" takes place. It is the state of the self-esteem. Unless the ego-feelings are ready for it, one does not fall in love. This readiness is a certain kind of need.

The true origin of love between man and woman, and the soil in which it must germinate, is dissatisfaction with the self. There must first of all be a feeling of failure to measure up to the demands one makes upon oneself. Everyone has within him some sort of image of the person he would like to be, an "ego-ideal." This ideal is formed in childhood. The child early builds up, through parents and teachers, and by way of models of "excellence and achievement" seen, heard, and read about, an image of a more admirable person than he feels himself to be. Part of his personality becomes an expression of the difference between the real and the ideal selves, and of his attitude toward this difference.

The basic discontent that prepares the way for sexual love comes from this difference between the actual and the ideal. There is a struggle and a tension directed toward fulfillment of this personal goal. If fulfillment is achieved, the tension is relieved; one becomes complacent, and love is impossible. It is when the tension continues that one is in readiness for the emotion. When, now, the proper person appears, the amorous experience begins as a process whereby he or she is recognized as an embodiment of the traits and qualities of the ideal. An "exchange" takes place, and this person becomes a projection, in the external world, of the much-sought and dreamed-of image. "The beloved is thus . . . a substitute for the unattainable ego-ideal." In brief, one "falls in love" because of one's failure to achieve, in terms of one's own traits and abilities, a goal of personal development. The real personality of the loved one, while of some importance, is secondary to the state of self-dissatisfaction.

The admiration inspired by a person who represents the ideal is not unmixed with other feelings. It is always, Reik believes, accompanied by some degree of envy; it is possessive, "covetous," and begrudging. It is this kind of admiration which leads to loving, and this because the admired person appears to possess all that the lover desires to be and to achieve himself. It is an admiration which has the quality of a craving "to be like this person or to be him." This is the "solid, unconscious basis of loving." " All this is not to say that envious admiration is a conscious part of love itself. It is rather a preliminary phase. Another preliminary is a certain amount of hostility or resentment that is aroused by the envy. These feelings, too, are unconscious. At this point a struggle begins, as the self senses a threat to its emotional independence. It wants to be rid of the person who has aroused these feelings and who threatens domination. This person must either be rejected or he must be accepted and possessed. To love him is the only other refuge from his admired and envied superiorities. Then the hostile impulses recede, and a wave of longing and tenderness follows. The image of the object, now dominating and obsessive, becomes the center of the emotional life.

The power of the sexual emotion tells us, Reik suggests, how strong were the original feelings of personal inadequacy. The self is now "enriched and enlarged." It has achieved, in the possession of another, the ownership of a perfected personality. "It is not necessary any more to be perfect oneself because the love-object appears as the personification of perfection."The romantic experience is thus closely related to ambition; it is rooted in the desire to rise in personal stature. It is "a product of the individual ego-development, especially of the desire for self-improvement and fulfillment."

It is easy to understand, from this, how we make our choice in love. The one we choose must have or appear to have qualities and abilities that the lover feels he lacks. To describe the loved one is to describe the person the lover desires to be. When, as it may happen, the one who attracts us fails, apparently, to resemble the ideal image, it is because we are only partially aware, ourselves, of the features of this image. It is because we do not fully know ourselves, or what it is that we desire. "We know only a part of what attracts and what repels us." It is our whole unfulfilled personality that determines the sexual choice, as much when we are unconscious of our needs as when we know them well.

The seeking of love as an ego-need has been described in different ways by others. (25) The need to esteem one's self is the basic human motive, from this point of view. As soon as we become aware of our shortcomings, we begin the striving to remove them. This striving greatly influences our relation-ships with others. It affects our friendships, and sets the stage for the amorous side of our lives. We will find ourselves attracted to those who help us to feel less inadequate. Sexual courtship amounts, by this logic, to an effort to make another dependent upon us by satisfying his or her feelings of deficiency. It is a fallacy, one writer thinks, to suppose that "attractiveness," that is, sexual charm and beauty, is the basis of choice. What we really do is explore among persons of the opposite sex until we discover one who makes us think better of ourselves, and who, in turn, is affected by us in the same way. The exalted experience of being in love means no more than that "ego anxieties (which are usually based on fears of social non-acceptance) have been relieved."

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