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Erich Fromm's Theory of Mature Love

A frequent contributor to Moral Relativism Magazine, Anaya completed a B.A. in English with an emphasis on writing at Skidmore College.

The Kiss - Gustav Klimt

The Kiss - Gustav Klimt

Erich Fromm's Theory of Love

Love is often confused with the idea of losing oneself into something that is considered larger than life—than the self or the sum of one’s parts. Out of the desire for human connection comes a desire to fuse with another person: for the two to become, in essence, one; to know another as completely and as deeply as one knows oneself.

This is what Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving describes as immature, symbiotic love. For Fromm, this sort of love is both transitory and illusory, and cannot compare to the mature form, in which union is attained through the retention of the individual self rather than loss through symbiosis. Mature love, and the resulting knowledge of another person, can only be attained through the act of love, rather than the illusory state that is immature love.

The Drive Towards Human Connection

Fromm claims that the deepest, most pressing need of mankind is to overcome a sense of loneliness and separation. As humans, we possess the unique characteristic of self-awareness. This self-awareness means that each individual has an understanding of him or herself as a distinctly separate entity from the larger group, be it family, community, or society.

Individual separatism is, for Fromm, an essential feature in understanding the human experience, and one which is the source of much loneliness and existential angst. Out of this sense of aloneness, in which man has an “awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him…of his helplessness before the forces of nature and society...[making] his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison,” there is an almost inescapable need for union or connection with the world outside of himself.

The prison of aloneness can only be transcended through a sense of union, in the connection with the Other, be it the individual or the group. Though there are different forms of love, such as brotherly or familial love, quite often the drive to achieve a sense of union manifests itself in the romantic form.

Mature and Immature Love

Fromm differentiates between mature and immature love. In mature love, while both partners come together to create a union, they each remain their own individual people within that union. In immature love, both partners are expected to give up aspects of personality to meld into a dual being, a shared personality.

Basic Elements of Mature Love, According to Erich Fromm

The mature variety of romantic love is considered in Fromm’s philosophy as a paradoxical state. This form of love “breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow man” yet at the same time allows each partner to retain their individual sense of identity, creating both union and separation at the same time. Thus a “paradox occurs that two beings become one and remain two.”

Western philosophy has a tendency to reject this sort of paradoxical thinking, stemming from the tradition of Aristotle, which has highly influenced Western logic. The Aristotlean viewpoint tells us that something cannot both exist and not exist. A cannot both be A and the negation of A. Our understanding of love, considered in logical terms, looks something like this:

If I = individualism

and Individualism is NOT equal to union

then NOT I = union

In Aristotlean logic, we cannot create the equation I (individualism) + NOT I (union) = L (Love).

States Aristotle: “It is impossible for the same thing at the same time to belong to and not belong to the same thing and in the same respect…This then is the most certain of all principles." Yet according to Fromm, this sort of paradoxical logic is implicit in mature love, as it does indeed allow for its participants to both belong and not belong to the concept of union. It is immature love that that does not allow for both, leading to a condition he calls symbiotic union, which in Western culture is often confused with love.

Sadistic and Masochistic Symbiosis

In Fromm’s symbiotic union, the desire for union is fulfilled through a melding of each individual into a single identity, the two become one. This is characterized through active and passive forms, the passive participant being the incorporated into the active one, existing as “part and parcel of another person who directs him, guides him, protects him; who is his life and oxygen as it were,” not unlike a fetus in the womb of the mother.

While the passive participant is alleviating their inherent sense of loneliness through incorporation with another, the active one is no less dependent or symbiotic within the relationship. Their own loneliness and separation feels satiated with the incorporation of the other into their own self; they too are no longer alone in the world. There are varying extremes of active symbiosis, the most detrimental of these involves condescending or commanding attitudes, humiliation, hurt, or exploitation of the passive patner.

Immature love, while arising from the need for union is problematic for Fromm, because it presents an illusion of union, while ultimately being unhealthy and unsatisfying because true connection is not attained. The basic principle behind the idea of union is a joining or uniting of two separate entities, and when one of these entities becomes lost or swallowed, there can be no true union because it is missing a vital component.

Not to be confused with the sexual term, Fromm uses the terms sadistic and masochistic to describe active and passive symbiosis respectively, though the sexual acts of masochism and sadism can also be considered to be expression of symbiotic union in a sexual manner. The act of sexual intercourse should however be mentioned in conjunction with immature love, because in this form of love, rather than the sex act being a natural expression of healthy love it serves to further the illusion of union through the act, though afterwards can create feelings of anger, shame, resentment and hate when the illusion of closeness or union has disappeared.

Love as an Action Verb

Immature love can also be characterized through a lack of objectivity; there is a fundamental lack of respect for and recognition of the individual nature involved. The love that exists is focused on the object of the person’s love as they are perceived, often even as a projection of internal desires, not as they actually are.  The love object as perceived is felt to be “known” deeply and closely, which is something of a fallacy. Because of the feeling of closeness with someone who was previously a stranger, a sudden intimacy is created, which according to Fromm, creates the feeling of “falling in love.” Eventually a sense of familiarity is evoked, and the intense feeling of “falling” disappears. In a repeating cycle, a new stranger must then be sought out in order to recreate the sensation.

 It bears mentioning that Fromm posits that there is a specifically human drive to “know the secret of man,” because of the fact that we both “know and do not know ourselves.” This idea that the self is both familiar and a mystery leads us to try to uncover the secrets, the depths, of another, something that the sudden closeness with a stranger presents the illusion of. This is also the root of the more negative extreme of active symbiosis, through having power over another there is an inherent notion that they can in a sense force the other to betray their secrets, their own human nature.

Symbiotic union, then, incorporates the sense of falling in love by getting to know deeply another person previously unknown, out of a basic human need for both union and knowledge stemming from a sense of loneliness inherent in the human condition. This sensation of falling in love creates an illusion of closeness and knowledge of the other, when in reality the love is based on the perceived object rather than the person in their essence, who is either passively incorporated into the other, or incorporates the other into themselves and is thus inflated and enhanced by the other. Both partners, active and passive, thus exist as the immature object and recipient of love, and feel love for the other because of this, rather than maturely and freely giving of their love as an action, which is the basis for a mature, unsymbiotic relationship.

Mature love is lasting love.

Mature love is lasting love.

Rainer Maria Rilke on Loving

“For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us….That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. ..But learning time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is solitude, a heightened and deepened aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?). It is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke