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Love Under the Microscope : Psychologists Are Beginning to Research What Poets Have Always Known

March 30, 1986|JACK SMITH

I read in an article from Newsday recently that psychologists are trying to find out what love is.

It was inevitable that these insatiable clinicians would go poking around in the most mysterious of human emotions, using their usual tools of tests and questionnaires.

Though the term wasn't mentioned in the article, I take it that the phenomenon they seek to identify and define in their technical way is what I call romantic love--a love between two young people that is essentially physical and sexual, but which calls into play a symphony of other emotions and relationships.

In their various studies, the psychologists have already discovered certain characteristics of love that poets have always known: In its most intensive phase it is short-lived; it may differ in intensity between one partner and the other; it does not necessarily lead to a lasting marriage.

If love were not subject to these shortcomings, half the novels ever written and half the movies ever filmed would have been without a plot and theme.

What would novelists and screenwriters do for stories if it were not true that women often suffer love unrequited, and that men do, too; and that love may quickly cool, either on the part of one partner or the other, or both.

That love may be fleeting, Edna St. Vincent Millay told us years ago:

And if I loved you Wednesday,

Well, what is that to you?

I do not love you Thursday--

So much is true.

One of the psychologists' curious findings is that women, more often than men, are likely to put their lovers to "secret tests," such as introducing them publicly as "my boyfriend," or having them drive 100 miles through a storm to keep a date.

Neither of those tests is a very good measure of true love. Any real man who is truly in love with a woman wouldn't merely drive 100 miles through a storm to hold her in his arms, he'd swim the English Channel in February, or mush 100 miles through a Yukon blizzard. He'd even eat quiche.

As the popular song had it:

I'd climb the highest mountain

If I knew that when I climbed that mountain

I'd find you. . . .

I'd swim the deepest ocean . . . etc .

On the other hand, if she introduced him as her boyfriend, he might well take warning that she was going to regard him as a possession and embarrass him with public expressions of her ownership.

One of the psychologists said that people often reach a point in life where they are ready to be married and begin a search for a partner. He cited a young man who predicted on his first date that he would marry his present spouse.

I did that myself, and I wasn't ready for marriage. My present spouse was a blind date. I didn't even go to her door the first night. Our intermediary, a mutual male friend, went to her door to fetch her, and when she emerged in the porch light I knew I was going to marry her.

Now is that love? Or is that readiness?

One psychologist has reduced love to three components--intimacy, compassion and decision commitment. That's the trouble with psychologists. They put into words what can't be put into words except by poets. I defy any psychologist to put "decision commitment" into a poem.

But there's plenty of commitment in the old song:

Just Molly and me,

And baby makes three;

We're happy in my Blue heaven.

I think the psychologists are on the wrong track when they say that men love their lover first, their best friend next, their parents next and their siblings last, while women love their lover and best friend equally, followed by their parents and then their siblings.

I doubt that. What man could bear the knowledge that his lover loved her girlfriend as much as she loved him? Impossible.

Romantic love cannot be compared with friendship in any degree, or with love of one's parents or siblings. There may be a deeper commitment in a parent's love for a child--a willingness, without thinking, to sacrifice life itself for that child's welfare; but yet it is of a different stuff from romantic love.

There is no doubt that romantic love is guided and driven by genes and hormones; it is inseparable from the sexual impulse, and yet we feel it as something higher than a mere sexual connection. Along with laughter and speech, it raises us above the other animals.

If psychologists are looking for its cause, they will find it in Cole Porter's song:

Penguins in flocks, on the rocks, do it,

Even little cuckoos, in their clocks, do it,

Let's do it, let's fall in love.

Whatever it is, it's universal, and it's easy to fall into. Even psychologists do it.

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