More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.

From the archives:

"The Wifely Duty" (January/February 2003)
Marriage used to provide access to sex. Now it provides access to celibacy. By Caitlin Flanagan

"Mr. Goodbar Redux" (January 2002)
Illusions. Affectation. Lies. This is the insidious and incapacitating legacy of modern dating books. By Cristina Nehring

"Wooed by Freedom" (October 2000)
Why the young distrust love and fear commitment. By Peter Berkowitz

"Uncertain Objects of Desire" (March 2000)
A look at matrimonial ads in The Times of India. By Chitra Divakaruni

"The Plight of the High-Status Woman" (December 1999)
Recent fiction, essays, and self-help books (Dumped!, for one) suggest that a harsh new mating system is emerging. By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

"De Sade's Daughters" (February 1997)
In the new erotic writing by women, sex is a cruel, even murderous business, and men, for the most part, are brutes. By Lee Siegel

"Love in America" (May 1938)
"The American woman entertains the delightful illusion that there must be some man on this earth who can understand her." By Raoul De Roussy De Sales

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "In Search of Mr. Right" (December 18, 2002)
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the author of Why There Are No Good Men Left, discusses the challenges facing today's single women, and argues that the contemporary courtship system needs to be transformed.

Interviews: "What We Owe" (February 20, 1997)
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead discusses the urgent need to end America's "divorce culture."

The Truth About Love

February 14, 2003
very year as February 14 approaches, we are bombarded with images of hearts and flowers, diamonds and chocolates, and with treacly musings on romance and love. This aggressively peddled vision of love has a tendency to heighten our expectations and cause us to lose sight of the complicated realities of entering into and sustaining intimate relationships. As a counterpoint to the fairy-tale depictions of love so dominant at this time of year we offer a sampling of Atlantic articles that take a more penetrating look at the dynamics of love—and why relationships are sometimes so confusing and difficult.

In "Some Differences Between Men and Women" (March 1988) Ethel Person considers how childhood experiences manifest themselves many years later in adult relationships. Person explains that one of the most important processes in one's life is the consolidation of his or her gender identity. For a girl, the process of securing her feminine identity is more straightforward because her primary caretaker is usually the same-sex parent, who hence becomes the daughter's model. Person explains that "Most women feel the pull to duplicate the maternal identity by falling in love, pair-bonding, and literally becoming mothers." Achieving an ideal love relationship forms "the cornerstone of [a girl's] feminine identity." A girl's identification with her mother does cause some internal conflict, however, because during the Oedipal period the daughter rejects her mother in favor of her father. This means that not only does she give up her first love object, but that love object becomes her sexual rival as well. Person explains the consequences of this conflict:
One could say that all heterosexual women have experienced the loss of their first love object without the hope of ultimately replacing her with someone similar (unlike the situation for men). This early loss (and fear of retribution), along with the threat of the loss of the new love object, appears to be at the core of the female's pervasive dread of losing love. In some women the fear is activated not by any slight on the part of a husband or a lover but by an adulterous impulse of her own. This dynamic, of an adulterous impulse leading to the fear of losing love occurs so regularly among women that it seems to recapitulate some earlier confusion: did the girl renounce her mother, or was she rejected by her? For women, the lifelong problem seems to be uncertainty about achieving and conserving a love relationship.
Boys, for their part, face the issue of achieving a masculine identity while being nurtured by a feminine parent. Person cites French theorists who argue that alongside the boy's pre-Oedipal image of the mother as revered nurturer rests the Oedipal image of the mother whose exclusive love the boy cannot secure. According to this theory, the boy tries to separate emotionally from his mother, not only because he fears his father—his sexual rival—but also because he feels that his mother has rejected him. This experience, Person explains, contributes to the "two very different images of women [that] run through the male fantasy life: woman as temptress, seductress, femme fatale, and woman as nurturer, comforter, eternal mother." For Person, this split image helps explain why so many men have difficulty finding satisfaction with only one woman, and why men have a propensity to separate romantic longing from sexual longing.

A boy's inevitable perceived rejection by his mother, Person argues, deals a devastating blow to his psyche. Thus, some men seek to assert control and domination over the women in their lives in an attempt to compensate for a lingering sense of inadequacy. "Out of a need for revenge," Person writes, "the man reverses his infantile experience: he demands sexual and amorous fidelity while disavowing it himself."

Person outlines some of the lasting effects of these divergent developmental experiences of males and females:
By and large, women escape into love, whereas men fear being made vulnerable by love. Women establish their feminine identity through loving, whereas men must be sure of their masculine identification before they can fall in love. Consequently, women often distort love in the direction of submission, men in the direction of dominance....
In "Intimate Partners" (November 1986 Atlantic), Maggie Scarf likewise discusses the ways in which an individual's childhood familial experiences affect his or her adult relationships. Scarf argues that our experiences growing up within a family unit make such an impression on us that they significantly shape the way we see the world and experience intimacy throughout our lives.
In the very process of choosing our mates, and of being chosen and then, in elaborating upon our separate, past lives in the life we create together, we are deeply influenced by the patterns for being that we observed and learned about very early in life, and that live on inside our heads. The possibility that there may be other options, other systems for being in an intimate relationship, often doesn't occur to us, because we don't realize that we are operating from within a system, one that was internalized in our original families. What has been, and what we've known, seems to be "the way of the world"; it is reality itself.
Unfortunately this means that the emotional baggage that one brings to a relationship can sometimes distort the way one perceives the other person, in a process that Scarf calls "projective identification."
When, for example, a man has been struggling with an underlying, denied, and dissociated depression, he may find himself attracted to—and marry—the very woman who can give expression to this aspect of his internal world for him. He may then play out the role of the logical, unemotional, unneedy husband of the openly vulnerable, dependent, moody, often frankly despairing wife. The problem is, however, that the same underlying motivations that led him to select that mate—as part of an effort to relieve his own anxiety—will inevitably result in his wanting her to remain depressed at the same time that he finds her recurrent depressions unbearable.

Predictably, the more he projects his repudiated, intolerable feelings of dejection and sadness onto his wife, the more he is likely to dissociate his own self from them—and from her as well. She will then be carrying the depression for the pair of them, but the more she does what he at an unconscious level wants her to do for him, the more their mutual estrangement and tension will grow.
This example illustrates the "emotional deal," as Scarf calls it, that many couples strike in coming together and staying together. Scarf believes that all close emotional attachments involve some degree of projective identification. However, the health of the relationship ultimately depends on how much of each partner's self ends up stifled as part of that emotional deal. In relationships where the two partners seem complete opposites of each other (for example, the rigid, moral man who marries the slovenly promiscuous wife), it is clear, Scarf explains, "that ... a trade-off of projections has occurred—an unconscious deal has been worked out in which one partner has agreed to carry the 'badness' and one to carry the 'goodness' of the couple, as if they were parts of an undifferentiated whole organism."

Such a relationship is far from ideal. "Marriages," Scarf explains, "become stronger and more intimate to the degree that the overall rules of the interactional system permit the partners to be separate and different people." If a couple engaged in a damaging cycle of projection wants to improve their relationship, it is necessary for both parties to "re-own and take responsibility for those aspects of his or her internal world which are being put onto the partner. This means learning to experience ambivalence: the good and the bad within the other, and the good and bad within the self."

The ability to accept the intimate partner in his or her entirety and to allow that person the space to grow and develop requires, above all, maturity. "Learning to contain one's ambivalent feelings about self and about other people," Scarf writes, "is a part of growing up; it is a developmental achievement." Thus, by achieving a level of comfort with one's own identity one becomes better able to take part in a constructive relationship with an intimate other.

In "A Marriage on the Rocks" (July 1962), Nora Johnson makes a similar point. "To be happily married," she argues, "requires a maturity that most of us do not have." It means two people "accepting each other as they are and knowing in what ways to leave each other alone."

Unfortunately, she points out, most marriages are entered into under the spell of unrealistic fantasies about romantic love. Given the number of illusions most of us harbor about the subject, we should not be surprised, she suggests, by the high divorce rate.
A whole bundle of our cherished tenets contributes to this situation. Marriages are made in heaven; togetherness is the answer to everything; if we cannot adjust, we might as well be taken out and shot. For a country with so many of the accouterments of sophistication, we remain astonishingly innocent about marriage. We believe in it with a faith that is almost touching, a boundless hopefulness that is rather like the way we feel about new presidents, new face creams, or anything new that promises to change our lives....

We are so deluded by the mass communications glorifying love and marriage and parenthood that we believe solutions to our problems will be found in the institutions rather than in ourselves.
Johnson does end on a slightly optimistic note, insisting that "love in the grand manner" does exist. "But to have it we have to know ourselves to begin with, and believe in it when we get it."

—Michael Lee

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Michael Lee is a new media intern for The Atlantic.
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