Is your love the possessive kind?
Efforts to capture what you love can turn out badly for you both.
When you become passionate about something, or someone, you want to hold onto it, attach yourself to it, possess it. Fascinated, enchanted, or bewitched, you experience a high; your spirits soar. So naturally you desire to have the object of your attraction close by, to make it your own—and permanently.
Whether you’re “smitten” by an object, an entity of some kind, or an in-the-flesh human, your state of mind and feeling is one of excitement—a newly awakened zest and vitality. So you can hardly help but covet it. If you could, you wouldn’t hesitate to immerse yourself in it, merge with it, become one with it. (Think, quite literally, of the rare ecstasy of sexual union with someone you’ve just fallen in love with.)
So what’s the problem with this?
Unfortunately, just about everything.
Let’s start with a non-human entity that charms, or captivates, you. If, for example, you fell in love with a piece of music, you likely played it over and over. As a result, what typically happened? Doubtless, at some point in your life you actually had such an experience. Unless you were able to find something new in the music each time around, what would have occurred was that with each listening you experienced decreased gratification. Additional exposure, less enjoyment. Eventually, you probably decided to listen to something else (including selections you deemed clearly inferior to the piece you’d just abandoned). Or, completely sated with what you were so fond of, you might even have chosen to listen to nothing at all (another variant of finding silence golden!).
As by now seems to be well recognized, our brains crave novelty. So once what you were originally hooked by has “worn in,” its capacity to excite you has “worn out.” Afflicted by the curious disease of human nature, you’re then in pursuit of “the next great thing.” And so on, and so on. The title of an Irving Berlin song could hardly state this conundrum more emphatically: “After You Get What You Want, You Don’t Want It” (1920). And although you may not completely lose interest in what initially so attracted you, over time it’s almost certainly going to elicit less enthusiasm.
It’s interesting to note that photography—and, by extension, the various forms of video photography—have since their inception been tremendously popular. Why? Simply because taking a picture of something, or filming it, is an extremely effective way of “capturing” the experience, indefinitely prolonging its lifespan for you. Contriving to make less fleeting, or more memorable, what gave you pleasure gives it a kind of durability. You can look at it over and over in the attempt to subjectively recreate—or revivify—your original gratification. And, of course, what was “caught” or “commandeered” by you could involve anything from, say, the unspoiled splendor of a beautiful scene in nature to that wondrous, beguiling smile that first endeared you to your lover.
Here, too, you’re trying to capture something—to “fix” it in time and space—to avoid its one day leaving you. And in fact it can feel nothing short of tragic when, many years after an experience, you’re no longer able to visualize it. All the same, even when you employ the most advanced technology to immortalize something you treasured, it still can’t quite last. There’s something essentially ephemeral about joyous moments, and maybe that’s part of what makes them joyous in the first place (and, indirectly, also why feelings of nostalgia are bittersweet). If they were to go on indefinitely—or maybe even perpetuate themselves out of control—their “hold” on you would be lost entirely. What was fervent in one sense can become fervent in another, totally different (and far more negative) sense. With excessive repetition, what was originally pleasurable can actually degrade into something approaching agony.
(I discussed an extreme example of this in an earlier post entitled “The Three Surprising Types of Spontaneous Orgasms.” There’s something called “Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder (PGAD), which involves a woman’s involuntarily (i.e., with no manual stimulation) having multiple orgasms, to the point that the sensation is experienced as an acute ache—a most irritating throbbing or burning. So, as improbable as it might seem, even orgasms can, with enough frequent intensity, become not simply undesired but irksome, if not downright excruciating. In such an instance, too much pleasure not only undoes itself, it becomes painful.)
So how might trying to “capture” the object of your fondness play out not with some physical or material entity but with a person?
Here, I’ll offer another quote: “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If not, it never was” (Richard Bach). Although admittedly overstated (and maybe even a bit cornball), this quote does suggest that there’s something misguided about trying to possess what you’re enamored with.
In fact, the phrase “set it free” suggests that the loved object has been treated as an object, that your love may somehow be “enslaving” it. And that implication makes the attachment seem not only unethical but, well, unloving. Regardless of motive, the outcome of such willful dominance is to dehumanize the other person. And the effort to subdue them in order to “secure” your love for them is really indicative of a narcissistic-ally exploitative pseudo-love—rather than a responsibly adult give-and-take love. The latter form of caring might involve similar devotion or ardor, but it nonetheless honors that person’s individuality as separate and independent from your own . . . and needing to be respected as such.
Additionally, if the other person feels engulfed by how you’re self-interested, or dependently, pursuing them, sooner or later they’re likely to flee. And rightfully so. After all, how many healthy people would choose to lose themselves in a relationship where they’re related to as a conquest—or reduced to one? Maybe in taking part in some time-limited, mutually agreed-upon sexual escapade, but hardly as a lifelong, self-sacrificing commitment.
In short, though the urge to capture and make your own whatever you’ve become enamored with is natural and understandable, in reality it’s untenable. With material things the effort ultimately backfires; with other humans it’s just not workable—and probably not ethical either.
Unquestionably, various people, experiences, and objects can significantly enrich your life. But that doesn’t—and can’t—happen as a result of deliberate, calculated manipulation. It’s fine to seek joy and pleasure whenever, and wherever, possible. But to do so heedlessly, neglecting all other considerations, is to seriously risk compromising what you can have.
[Leon F. Sletzer]
Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers.
The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful.
An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts–on a broad variety of psychological topics–have received over 8 million views.