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Is the Ego-Theory True?

( Originally Published 1957 )



To win the love of a person one values highly must certainly have some effect on the "ego." Doubtless much of what hap-pens, emotionally, in the course of sexual courtship, could be described in terms of the "ups and downs" of ego-feelings. The need to support one's morale and to secure tokens and assurances of personal worth enters into so great a variety of human relationships that there can be no occasion for surprise at its large place in amorous affairs. To seek to interest and to inspire affection and perhaps admiration in an admired and respected person must necessarily affect the self-esteem: to exalt it when one succeeds, and to depress it when one fails. Sexual desirability is so closely linked with the whole personality, with its assets and defects, that courtship can hardly fail to involve the feelings bound up with a person's appraisal of himself.

A large question may be raised, despite all this, of whether the attempt to consign sexual love to the realm of ego frustrations does not commit the common error of mistaking a part for the whole.

In making this radical "upset" of the universal supposition that sexual love has something to do with sex, one would expect, among other things, a plausible attempt to explain why it occurs so often between males and females. On this crucial point, how-ever, Reik confesses uncertainty, admitting that "The phenomenon . . . is far from being entirely understood." He proposes, without much apparent confidence, the idea that each of us has imagined having an other-self of opposite sex, and that this is the meaning of attraction. For example, a boy's fantasy of himself as a girl becomes the ideal figure of a girl to be loved. "The desire to be like a person of the opposite sex gives place to the wish to have that other person as one's own." The shift between "to be" and "to have" is apparently an easy one, in Reik's thinking.

Let us consider the statement that admiration, in sexual love, is "envious." This emotion has long been associated, as we have seen, especially from the male point of view, with aesthetic attraction. But the boy's admiration of the girl's beauty is envious, according to Reik. On her side the girl's admiration of the boy's strength and courage is described as "loving-jealous." To suppose this is, of course, quite contrary to the fact that the standards of attractiveness differ for the sexes, and that what is admirable for males may not be equally so for females. It seems fair to ask, therefore, how attraction to the girl's physical charm can be understood as a fulfillment of the boy's striving toward a personal ideal, or how admiration of strength and agility can be seen as satisfying the ego-needs of the girl.

There are other traits, it is true, for which standards are more uniform. There is a kind of courage, let us say, which is admirable in either sex. But while we may grant that the lover seeks, in a sense, to "possess" the personality of the beloved, it does not seem necessary to believe that this is always because he is trying to "make up" for his own shortcomings. May not a courageous person find himself attracted to someone with like courage simply because he admires and respects this trait? Admiration of any virtue in a world in which there is hardly a surplus need not be less, it would seem, because one who finds it in another does not lack it himself.

In any case we could not, within the setting of the ego theory, admit traits, however admirable, which may be common to both sexes. A satisfactory psychology of sexual love must surely tell before all else why it develops, typically, between people of opposite sex. Bringing in the genital impulse does not, of course, help here, since, as earlier noted, Reik regards "sex and love" as belonging to distinct realms, as "different in origin and nature."

Reik's treatment, for the most part, leads us to suppose that sexual love is a desire to possess a person regarded as the ideal self. It is no accident, he thinks, that "passionate love" and "burning ambition" are often characterized in similar terms, for it is the "same flame" that animates both. One who loves has simply changed his ambition; he has renounced the desire to achieve the ideal itself, and seeks only a replacement for it. It is because ambition is commonly stronger in men than in women, he suggests, that they love more violently.

Elsewhere, apparently unwilling to make amorous desire identical with ambitious striving, Reik speaks of sexual love, not as, essentially, a desire for self-improvement, but as the "product" of this desire. The nature of romance is not the same as ambition, but is "akin" to it, or "based upon it." Again, the emphasis shifts to the feelings of envy and hostility, and the amorous emotion is defined as a "reaction-formation" to these feelings; it is a "counter-reaction" in which we escape from hostility by way of tenderness.

Such waverings may be seen as evidence of the difficulty of regarding amorous emotion as nonsexual. These verbal maneuvers do not enlighten, and may leave one inclined to agree that love is, in this account, as Reik himself says early in his study, "the yet unknown substance." His effort might be seen as an illustration of De Rougemont's remark that ". . . to seek to connect this love with anything alien to sex must have very queer results . . ."

Discussions of love that stress the merging of selves, so that the beloved person is "included within one's own ego boundaries," and becomes intimately a part of one's self, may seem on the surface to offer support for the view that what the lover wants is a fulfillment and enlargement of his own personality by "taking in" that of another. (41) But there is a large difference between a bond in which each person shares the pleasures and pains of the other and one based on the "lift" in self-esteem that comes from possessing and identifying one's self with a highly valued and admired personality. That this kind of union of egos may be an important feature of many attachments may be freely conceded, moreover, far short of granting that it makes the whole of sexual love.

A final point may be mentioned. According to the "frustration theory," as it might be called, one must reach a certain maturity to be capable of amorous emotion. It "can develop only after a phase is reached in which . . . personal differences ... are not only recognized, but are . . . evaluated. This evaluation presupposes a developed mental state." For a similar reason, Weininger held that a child could not fall in love, while Reik thinks it means unusual giftedness when a child shows this emotion. We would have to assume, then, for the childish love affair, a precocious appreciation of individuality, plus envy and a feeling of inadequacy.

We can also search for another and different source and meaning of the amorous emotion.



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