Can Sexless Love Be Fulfilling?

By Liah Greenfeld

In Modern Emotions and Perennial Drives: Love and Sex, I argued that the modern concept of love as an identity-affirming emotion, the way to one’s true self, and the supreme expression of the self, changed the cultural significance (that is, our attitude to) of sex, elevating it far above the base drive, legitimate only in marriage for the purpose of procreation and even then considered sinful within the framework of Christian morality which was dominant in our, Western, civilization throughout the last fifteen centuries of its pre-modern existence. Love became the greatest modern passion, it was presented from the outset–in Romeo and Juliet–as sexual love between a man and a woman, and the involvement of sex in it purified sex and added to it an important spiritual dimension. The essence of the modern ideal of love, and of love-relationship, however, has always remained its identity-affirming power, the fact that it offered the most direct route to finding oneself and, therefore, to  meaning in life and happiness [see Modern Emotions: Happiness].

So long as this was the essence of the emotional bond in a relationship, the relationship could diverge from the ideal-typical image of love and still be recognized and characterized as love. The most obvious diversion was the understanding that love was possible between persons of the same sex. Such love relationships could be both sexual and not sexual (though in the United States, as noted in the last post, they would most probably be sexual). It is quite possible, for instance, that the insistence on the homosexual couples’ right to marry–at a time when the institution of marriage loses support among heterosexual population–has as its goal precisely this recognition on the part of society at large. Given that we consider only love marriage as truly legitimate (which is, incidentally, the reason for our divorce rates), giving homosexual couples’ the right to marry necessarily amounts to the public acknowledgment of their relationships as love.

But love has extended farther than homosexual couples from the original modern idea of it as a sexual relationship between a man and a woman: it extended to relationships that are not sexual at all. It is only since the 16th century that love in the sense of identity-affirming emotional bond, filling one’s life with meaning, could be found–and sought–in the relationships of parents and children. This may seem counterintuitive, especially in regard to mother-child relationships, given what we know about the bonds between mothers and their young in the animal kingdom. Surely, human motherly love derives from the same instinctual (natural) source! But both comparative zoology and comparative history contradict this assumption. Even the most devoted animal mothers chase their offspring away, when the job of raising them up to maturity, genetically determined, indeed, is completed–think of cheetas, leopards, bears. As to history, it is enough to consider the past of Western societies. Before the 16th century, when the contemporary concept of love emerged, children were commanded to honor their mother and their father and owed their parents the duty of obedience and respect to the end of their days. The parents owed their children nothing: the Ten Commandments include no mention of parental duties. Certainly, sometimes profound affection tied generations living in the same household. But it was dependent on class, with the top families in the social hierarchy entrusting the upbringing of their children, from the moment of birth, to various servitors, and hardly having any but the most formal relations with them at all. Very often, moreover, affection could not go deep: women were constantly pregnant, infant and child mortality was extremely high, both physical and psychological investment in a particular child had to be kept at a minimum. But even were all this not so, affection (a secondary emotion–see Are Human Emotions Universal?) cannot be equated with love as we understand it today– a much more complex tertiary, culturally produced emotion, which affirms the ideal identity of the individual and helps him or her to find meaning in life.

From the 16th century on, many a woman would find true love–and herself–only in motherhood and the love of a child. This, far more than anything else, explains why modern society places children on such a pedestal. Children too, especially before they reach the age when they can search self-affirmation outside of home, become very dependent on the parent’s love in the formation of their identity (I shall explain in a later post why they were not so dependent in pre-modern societies). This may explain the paradox that it is precisely in our time, when parents–especially mothers–are much more emotionally (and otherwise) invested in their children than ever before, that children have so many complaints against their parents (especially mothers, perhaps): just see the posts on problems with mothers in the days around Mother’s Day in Psychology Today. We expect from our parents much more and, obviously, have many more reasons for disappointment and frustration.

But the deep need for finding meaning in one’s life–the reason for being on this earth at this time–and for the affirmation of self leads us to expand the concept of identity-affirming love even further and include in it dumb creatures, our pets. Our concept of pets and the idea of dog as a man’s best friend derive directly from the search for self-definition. Most modern languages do not have a special category for pets within the general designation of domestic animals. Derived from a Scottish and North English agricultural term for a lamb or kid taken into the house and brought up by hand, the word “pet” was, in Scotland, first applied metaphorically in early 16th century to spoiled children and then to animals, such as monkeys or peacocks, kept for entertainment or home adornment, rather than a utilitarian purpose such as hunting mice and protection. In England, the word “pet” soon became a term of endearment. The first instance of its application to a dog, cited by Oxford English Dictionary, happened in 1710 in connection to “amorous passions.”

It is our need for self-affirming love that led us to see a fellow being, a soul-mate, in a creature with a tail and four paws–a dog or a cat, and the many of you who have owned one know precisely what I am talking about and how powerful the emotion is and how it fills one’s life. This emotion–this variety of love–has also been unfamiliar to people in pre-modern societies, just like “romantic” love, identity-affirming parental love, happiness, and ambition, already discussed in these posts. What connects all of them is that each has a role–and helps–in the construction of our personal identities. In the next post I shall explain why the need for such help arose and what was the source for this expansion in the range and change in the character of our emotional life.

[Originally published on Psychology Today]

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