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The Meaning of Infatuation

( Originally Published 1957 )

It is now clear that sexual choice may be made in two different ways, or with the emphasis on either of two different kinds of attraction. To choose mainly for socially desirable traits of personality is "rational," because such assets are recognized as favorable to a happy and enduring marriage, as well as aids to enjoyable human relationships generally. To choose, on the other hand, for the aesthetic pleasure of fetish-traits is "irrational," because it expresses highly individual preferences, and because we may not know why one type of facial feature, or timbre of voice, or style of expression, appeals more than an-other.

The distinction between these two kinds of choice may be seen as closely related to what is usually called "infatuation," and to a familiar contrast between the "true" love attachment and another variety which, though supposedly lacking in the real substance of the emotion, yet resembles it by way of a peculiar fascination which is heavily overweighted with the irrational factor, whatever else it contains.

Albert Ellis, in his study of the love experiences of 500 American college girls, found several differences between love attachments and "infatuations," The latter were reported to be of shorter duration than love relationships, and to be experienced earlier. Before puberty and during adolescence the girls had more infatuations than love affairs. They tended, once an attraction had ended, to develop a new infatuation in less time than a new love affair. Ellis comments that it would be "tempting" to conclude from these findings that an infatuation is a "relatively brief, light, and varietist" type of attraction as compared with a love attachment. He notes, however, that in American society we place a higher value upon attachments with depth, duration, and exclusiveness than upon shallow and promiscuous ones, and that, therefore, the girls of his study may have unconsciously regarded their lighter and briefer attractions as "infatuations," and their deeper and more enduring ones as "loves." He found a tendency to characterize the most recent attractions as loves rather than infatuations, and suggests as a possible interpretation that girls in our society "tend to view their past loves as infatuations and their present infatuations as loves."

That amorous attractions may vary greatly in strength need not, of course, be doubted. Nevertheless, a different meaning may be given to Ellis' findings by way of the distinction between surface traits and "depth" traits. A good statement of the matter is given by Muller-Freienfels in his discussion of verliebtheit, which seems to correspond fairly well with what is here called infatuation. The mark of this type of amorous fascination, he believes, is its concern with surface attractions. We may recognize it by a relative shallowness, and by a tendency to spring up quickly and to subside rapidly, even though in intensity it may mount to a high passion and lead to extreme behavior. "Real" love includes the entire personality; in verliebtheit one is in love with or fascinated by, not the whole person, but only some alluring feature or features. Such attraction may, nonetheless, at times spread to embrace the whole person and a person is thus deceived into believing that he is really "in love." The original detail may seem trivial, yet this is no criterion; a small spark can start a wild flame; it needs no cosmic lightning to release a conflagration. Mature men will therefore be distrustful of sudden attractions. Only verliebtheit occurs "at first sight," but not genuine love, for this requires deepening. Only verliebtheit is blind, but love can see clearly.

We may take this to mean that infatuation is an attraction of the individual aesthetic sense, of the "fetish" that stimulates peculiar susceptibilities, while "real" love includes the prizing of traits that are socially defined and approved, and "deeper" in that they are qualities of personality and temperament as distinguished from traits of physical surface. Long in the tradition of amorous experience is this opposition between a "higher" form of love embracing the "soul and spirit" of the beloved, and a somehow degenerate species having more of the character of a seduction by allurements which, however potent, are under suspicion of being counterfeit in quality.' If now, we think of the "depth" traits, which are vital to the continued growth of attachment, as character elements universally valued, and the "surface" traits as including the aesthetic fetish, much of Muller-Freienfels' view agrees with that previously outlined. Infatuation is simply a name for attachments in which surface features exercise their "irrational" attraction despite the effects of unfavorable traits of character or incompatibilities of temperament, or perhaps despite unfortunate circumstances.

What is it, exactly, that is meant by "true" love, then? We have suggested that there is an attraction between man and woman that is sexual, but is not the same as sensual desire. The emotion aroused by this attraction has been called "amorous." If this emotion is acknowledged as real, we then suggest that it, alone, is "true" sexual love, whether it is weak or strong, and regardless of whether or not it is reinforced by the attraction of traits of personality which, however favorable, are common to both sexes. We may fully recognize that such traits as generosity and courage and kindliness may strengthen attraction and make it more lasting, but insist, nonetheless, that this is no more than the addition, to the amorous emotion, of appeals that have nothing to do with sex. These appeals may strengthen the emotional bonds of attachment, but they do not increase sexual love, nor are they a part of it. Whatever grounds there may be for regarding nonsexual love as having a higher value than amorous emotion, there is no psychological basis for considering it in any way more "real."

As earlier stated, the growth of sexual love will be aided by favorable personality traits, and retarded by unfavorable ones. The fact that we may be quite differently affected by sexual and nonsexual traits explains what appear to be contradictions of amorous experience. Thus: "I'm in love with him, and yet I hate him," or "Much as I dislike her, I cannot put her out of mind." That certain traits of the love-object may arouse aversion is clearly possible, but that we may love and hate the same person will seem less contradictory if we recognize that the conflicting emotions are aroused by distinctly different aspects of the personality.

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