Home /  Article Archives /  A New Meaning For Love

A New Meaning For Love

by Charles M. Johnston, MD.
Send this page to your friend

A New Meaning For Love
Charles Johnston is a psychiatrist in private practice and director of the Institute for Creative Development, a think tank and training center in Seattle. The ideas in this article about the evolution of intimacy are expanded in his recently finished book , The Creative Imperative: A Transformational Theory of Human Growth and Planetary Evolution.

TODAY WE SIT AT THE CUSP of a very important change point in cultural history, and one of the areas where change is most personal and challenging is in the realm of relationship. There is a quantum leap occurring in the meaning of love. The experience we call love is changing significantly both in its nature as a felt experience and in the forms that it takes in our daily lives. The changes are manifesting not just in our intimate relatings, but in every aspect of human interconnection - in the structure and purpose of the family, in friendships, in our social identification in community, nation and biosphere, and integrally with these, in our relationships to ourselves. Today we must bring more to the experience of love than has ever before been a human need or capability.

What is this leap? To answer that let's begin by looking at intimate love, for this is where the changes are closest to us in our daily lives. This change in our concept of love is illustrated by my reaction to the dilemma of a couple who came to me recently for therapy. Both people were mature and showed a high degree of sensitivity to each other. They were accustomed to security and contentment in their relationship; but lately they had begun to argue, and resentment and fear were entering their relationship. While I empathized with their pain, I also felt a sense of respect, fascination, even excitement. A part of me was perceiving their conflict not as a problem, but as an expression of an important new kind of possibility in love. The more I listened, the more I felt that their frustrations and pain were little, if at all, a function of personal failings, but a direct function of the integrity with which they had risked to live their relationship. They had begun to push into the cultural frontier, and their fears seemed quite appropriate to the degree of unknowness inherent in these new challenges. What is this frontier? Put simply, it is the ability to love as whole people.

To fully understand the implications of this attempt to love as whole people we might reflect on what love in our culture has been. The intimate bond has been a dynamic in which two people, each functioning as halves, come together to create a whole. In its right time, it has offered a rich and beautiful kind of connecting. My grandparents exemplify this; their purpose in love was to complete each other. They met in grade school and were inseparable throughout their lives. They succeeded to such an amazing degree in being the mythic brave knight and fair princess for each other that when one died, the other followed within months. The primary "organism" of their existence was quite literally the whole created from the two of them together.

Today, something different is beginning to take place. We are coming to relationship as whole people. Bonding as two halves is a hard security to surrender, but increasingly we are finding that there is really no choice. More and more, the image of "the other as answer" is ceasing to work. When one part of us tries to make someone else our solution, another part quickly acts to undermine it. We find ourselves creating struggle, doing something to put the other off, anything to regain our embryonic yet critical connection with a new sort of completeness in our selves. Increasingly it is possible to love only to the degree to which we can find ways to relate to others while remaining whole.


This shift in the reality of love is subtle, and immensely significant. To understand it we need to view the present from the perspective of our cultural history. We tend to think of love's dramatic dance as, for better or worse, pretty much the same throughout history. Love is love. In truth, the experiences to which we attach the word love are profoundly different in each epoch in the history of our culture.

Two kinds of wholes define and organize our experience of relatedness. Each has evolved in specific ways over the course of human time. The first I call the sphere of social identification. This is the largest interpersonal perimeter in which we feel a sense of belonging. Through the course of history, we have progressed into ever-expanding spheres of social identification - from our origins in the tribe, to clan and village, eventually to nation state, and now increasingly to the globe, to a social identity with the whole of humanity.

The second organizing whole I call the sphere of personal identification. It is the smallest personal perimeter that has independent meaning in our experience. It is this perimeter I'm referring to when I say that we are just emerging from a time in which two individuals as halves come together to create love's whole. If we think functionally rather than anatomically, the smallest personal perimeter with independent meaning has always been larger than the sphere created by our individual bodies.

The sphere of personal identification progresses through a specific evolutionary sequence, but the direction of movement is opposite to that of social identification. With each stage in culture less people are needed to establish this sphere. In tribal reality, the tribe marks this perimeter as well as that of social identity. The "body" of the tribe rather than that of individuals defines the primary organism. If someone breaks a taboo of sufficient importance to have them expelled from the tribe, the common response is for the person to simply go off and die; to be excluded from the tribal whole is tantamount to nonexistence. The sphere of personal identification, like that of social identification, progresses through a specific evolutionary sequence, but here the progression is from tribe, to clan and large extended family, to smaller and smaller extended family units, and finally in this century to individual relationships and the nuclear family. With each stage in culture, less people are needed to establish this sphere. In this decade, with childbearing increasingly a question of choice, the smallest personal perimeter that has meaning to the individual has shrunk from the nuclear family to the couple.

We can follow this progression in the domain of love by examining how intimate pairings have been chosen in different stages in the evolution of culture. Initially, the tribe was the functional arbiter for this decision: marriages might be decided upon before birth, or arranged sight-unseen between individuals of different tribes to establish bonds of peace or allegiance. In the middle ages troubadours idealized romantic love, love as individual choice, but it was still much more poetic fantasy than practiced reality. Decision- making was in the hands of large extended families, and marriages were arranged by parents, grandparents and elders, frequently with the guiding hand of a village matchmaker. With the age of reason, the next reduction in the size of the sphere of choice took place, shifting to more localized extended family units. Only in the last few generations has the idea of love as individual choice - the idea that one might choose a mate without or even against family approval - become commonplace.

We are now beginning the next step in the progression of the sphere of personal identification: the ability to experience the whole, all of the parts of human organization, within the flesh of a single person. Evidence of this shift is all around us. We see it in our increasing reluctance to define ourselves in terms of pre-established sexual roles. We see it in the variety of forms we now accept as valid for relationship.

Like the shift in social identification to the global sphere, this shift in personal identification to the individual is a particularly momentous transition and one that marks an important creative end point - we are beginning to embody the largest sphere of human relatedness (the globe) and the smallest (the individual) at the same time! This step is both very exciting and profoundly challenging. It makes a human completeness possible that we have never known, and it demands that we bring more to the experience of love than ever before. As with earlier shifts, we will either come to relate within this new reality of love or we will not relate at all.


How must we change to succeed within this new paradigm of love? First, we will have to surrender the dream of "other as answer," the belief in that magic someone who will let us live happily ever after. Bonding in this polar sense is shifting from being interpersonal to being intrapsychic. Increasingly, women are developing qualities, such as assertiveness and worldliness, traditionally associated with the masculine. Men are exploring their sensitivity, their intuition, and their feelings. The kind of completeness that in the past has resulted from bonding with the opposite sex, will increasingly be found only in a new kind of intimacy with oneself.

Second, we will have to develop a dramatically increased capacity for sensitivity to the individuality of the persons we are loving and of ourselves. Until recently we have had available to us quite specific formulas for how to be in love. Society provided us with a list of appropriate sex role behaviors, and if we learned them adequately the likelihood of finding a pleasurable match was quite high. Today, as we each in our own way grapple with what it means to be a whole person, one of the main things we are discovering is just how different we are. Successful intimacy now requires the courage to meet a unique person, and with this the courage to learn about and share the ever-changing reality of one's own uniqueness.

Third, and most fundamental, if we are going to find new options in relationship, we are going to have to redefine love and reexamine what makes an experience love. Our old measures no longer work.

When working with a couple that is struggling I often ask each person what in essence they want from the conflict. The most common response I get is that they want to know the other loves them. But when I ask what might offer the proof they are needing, there is a startling realization - they discover that the things they think they want, that might provide proof of that love, are things they really don't want at all, and could not be given even if they did - things like wanting your partner to always be there, to always think you're wonderful, to make it so life would never hurt. Those ideals for love are outdated and stand in the way of love more than they inspire its realization.

To move past the two-halves-make-a-whole reality of love we must rethink how we measure love. Our new measure is at once simpler than our customary notions - and decidedly more challenging. I propose that ultimately what we are wanting to measure in love is the aliveness shared by two people, the degree to which a connecting is creatively vital. In a sense, love is simply what works. When something works, it feels alive; something feels alive when it is creatively generative. We feel love when our relationship creates new life, when one plus one becomes more than two.

From this new perspective the struggling couple's question of "do you love me" can fall away and be replaced by two much more direct and workable questions: 1) What is truly creative between us? What in our relating to each other makes us each more? 2) If we were to let love be manifested in whatever way would most honor what is uniquely alive between us, what would it look like? Often, the most powerful thing I can offer a couple in conflict is the simple permission to respect what works in their relationship, permission to ask quite consciously how often they really like to be together, permission to own what they really like to do when they are together and then to honor it. In this new definition, love has nothing to do with the amount of time two people spend together. Love depends instead on the degree to which that time spent together reflects what is creatively true, the degree to which it fully honors life.

This way of defining relationship asks that we look beyond the form of love to what organizes it as feeling. It could lead the struggling couple to any of a myriad of different options, each of which might be love's most potent expression. They might realize that committing themselves to an exclusive, life-long relationship would be the most creatively vital thing they could do. Or they might realize that the amount of time they wanted to spend with each other was significantly less than they had thought, that there was a need to spend more time alone or with other people, perhaps even other lovers. If this needed separateness could be honored they could continue loving each other, perhaps even more deeply than before. If doing it would demand too much vulnerability, then all that would be left to them would be the two polar options of the old reality - to stay in the safety of a relationship that makes them less, or to separate completely using animosity as a way to explode apart the two halves of the whole.


Love in this expanded sense demands a profound new maturity. I think of our present cultural changes as analogous to the passages that occur in the life of an individual as he moves into mature adulthood. We are moving into the adulthood of the human species. We are stepping beyond responses that have been fundamentally adolescent in their dynamics and are engaging a profoundly more adult reality. Politically we are seeing that to survive we must leave behind our adolescent view of a world made up of good guys and bad guys and accept the much more complex and multifaceted reality of a common humanity. Economically and ecologically we are having to face the very adult fact of global limitations; if we don't take responsibility for the welfare of our very fragile planet we may not have one. In realms where we are accustomed to relying on experts - education, medicine, law, economics, politics - we are being forced to realize the very big difference between expertise and final truth; we are learning over and over that in the end we must each be responsible. In a similar way, spiritually we are finding ourselves questioning the image of an all-knowing father god (with its accompanying beliefs in absolute moral law and a chosen people) and looking toward more personal and challenging meanings for the sacred.

Love in this new sense is a function of this same critical passage. As with the arrival of adulthood in the individual, the human species now has much greater possibilities for choice, and along with that, a substantial increase in responsibility. In earlier times we didn't have the freedom to choose our mate. What we did have was tradition and community, forces that made it so that pairing, even pairings between strangers, generally worked. Today we can choose not only the "who" of relationship, but any of a multitude of forms. In exchange we find ourselves responsible in a reality in which success of intimacy rides directly on the courage and sensitivity we bring to it. Similarly, children in our past were a given. But with this lack of freedom came an extended family system that provided much of the decision-making and care involved in child rearing. Today we have a choice as to whether or not to have children, but the old support systems have disappeared. Raising children in our rapidly changing, often impersonal world demands an almost super-human level of commitment, love and skill. Thus, the new paradigm of love is demanding that we leave behind the innocence of adolescent perception and meet love for the immensely powerful and challenging dynamic that it is in its adult fullness.


In looking ahead into this time of new maturity, I am especially fascinated by the question of what will serve as the glue in the bond of intimacy. The primary glue in the past has been precisely the "two-halves-make-a-whole" dynamic that we are leaving behind. This has been the central force in both the pragmatics and passions of love. Our ability to reliably add to each others' lives has been based on the inherent complementarity of interlocking sex roles, and the experience we most associate with love - the magnetism of romance - has been a direct function of our polar halves and the electricity that inextricably links them.

With the individual coming to embody the whole, what will be the new basis for love? It is a critical question, for on first glance it appears that just as we are coming to the place of greatest potential for fully personal intimate love, we are losing any reason to risk it. Will men and women in the future really have enough to offer each other to justify what must be put into love, or the commitment necessary for healthy child rearing? If men can embody the feminine and women the masculine, and if each is able to perform most of the tasks that used to be the others' province, is there sufficient motivation for intimate bonding? Clearly there is still sex; but for the task of really deep bonding our erotic touchings are rarely enough.

As I see it, there are a number of pieces in the answer to this question. One thing that will certainly help is our growing acceptance of options in intimacy. In a polar reality, love is an all or nothing proposition - either you love someone or you don't. It's a total giving over. The increasing flexibility of the forms associated with love will help us allow relationship to be, as it must be, a process, a gradual and ever-evolving exploration of the ways of being that are uniquely right for two people.

Second, while we are surrendering much that has made love possible in the past, our capacity to nurture love - the capacity to deal with uncertainty, to really experience another, to take responsibility for our actions - is growing. We are becoming capable of embodying more aliveness, of being creative in ever fuller ways with each other. Thus, while the polar magnetisms will not be absolute in the ways to which we have been accustomed, we will be more and more capable of giving to the affinities we do feel the risk and commitment necessary to have them blossom as meaningful love.

A third key realization is that sexual equality offers something very different from sexual equivalence. Wholeness in a woman results in a whole woman; in a man it results in a whole man. I find it helpful in understanding this integration process to think in bodily terms. One of the most striking things that occurs in the process of personal integration - a woman finding her masculine, a man his feminine - is a marked increase in the intimacy that a person feels with his/her own body. One then finds one's experience increasingly rooted in the essential gift of gender. From this new place, one can leave behind sexual stereotypes, and at the same time be moved by the particular sorts of beauty and power to which being embodied as a man or a woman can offer special access. New possibilities of complementarity and mutual appreciation are opened, based not on roles, but on our most intimate experience of ourselves.


Can we take these notions about intimate love and our capacity to embody the whole and apply them to other manifestations of love - to the love between parents and children, the love that bonds friends, the particular love that links a teacher and a student, the bonds of community, the experience of divine love?

Let's first examine vertically-organized relationships where one half of a polarity is viewed as above, the other below. The bond that organizes the relationship between parents and children has changed in very dramatic ways within just one generation. The parent/child bond is, at least in its inception, quite polar - the infant is helpless and can exist only by virtue of the care and knowledge of the adult. In the past we never really transcended that polar organization; we got older and challenged the authority of our parents, and in time we had children ourselves. While growing up might seem like becoming whole, more accurately it was an exchange of the child side of a polar pair for its adult complement.

Today, children are beginning to experience and state their uniqueness in a way that is really quite new. In addition to classical rebelling, there is a growing capacity for real individual identity. As with any change in a polar dynamic, a commensurate growth is happening on the other side of the equation: parents, particularly mothers whose bond to children has been most total, are saying, "Yes, children are a rich part of my life, but they cannot be all of my life." On an even more fundamental level both men and women are realizing that it simply no longer works to assign the entire child-half of the polarity to children. To be as creatively vital as we must in today's changing world, the "child" must be a living inner part of each of us.

This same process of a gradual connecting and infusing of the reality of upper and lower poles can be seen in other vertically-organized relationships. In the educational sphere we are seeing changes in the relationship between teachers and students, a recognition that we both teach and learn from each other. It is dramatically evident in the realm of leadership. It used to work quite well to think of bosses and workers, politicians and populace, experts and ignorants, as occupying fully separate domains. Today we are recognizing that for leadership to be effective, we must find more participatory forms for its enactment. We are having to accept that it is simply no longer an option to abdicate responsibility in either our personal or our collective relationships.

Changes in the realm of divine love are precisely parallel. The age-old polarity of omniscient lord and obedient supplicant is giving way to a reality in which we are being challenged from above to accept the power and responsibility of our personal divinity and from below to realize the spiritual not as a separate etheric realm, but as simply one expression of the fullness of life.

We can also see a parallel transcending of polarities in those human bonds that organize more horizontally. For example, we can see an important shift happening in the meaning of friendship. In the past, allegiance was always an important element - a friend is someone who is "on your side." Now we are increasingly wanting friends who are fully themselves, who are equally willing to applaud our courage and challenge our frailties. In the larger sphere, we see dramatic changes happening in our experience of social identification. Until this century, community had a central place in people's lives, but in the past few decades this has become just a memory for most of us. Today we are beginning to remember the importance of community, but with an important difference: we no longer need a polar other - other religion, other ethnicity, other social class - to define our identity in community. The link here is the new whole of social identity - for the first time we are experiencing our identity as a planetary community.

If our recognition of these evolvings is to creatively contribute to their realization, it is essential that we understand and be humble to the magnitude of the changes with which we are dealing. The ability of an individual to embody the whole represents a major transition point in the evolution of the human species. It is an exciting time in the story of relationship; it is also an awkward, in-between time. We are infants in these changes. At our deaths we will likely still be children in them. They are challenging us to a qualitative increase in our capacity for aliveness and our ability to connect meaningfully with ourselves and with others.

During the 1969 Revolution in Libya, I had an awakening realization. I was going through the pain and separation of a failing marriage, when I realized that I was allowing the anger and mistrust that I was experiencing in my marriage to dictate my negotiation strategies with the Libyans. Just as I had adopted a Win/Lose approach in my marital life, I was adopting a Win/Lose approach with the Libyans. The inability of my wife and me to act with love and trust in our personal lives was a critical factor in the political interaction of the United States government and Libya.

One of the commonest perversions of love is the effort to limit it to the private sphere. The Greeks had a special name for those apolitical persons who thought eros was appropriately expressed only in privacy. They were called "idiot." In its original sense, idiot signified a purely private person.

If you were to define love, the only word big enough to engulf it all would be, "life." Love is life in all of its aspects. And if you miss love, you miss life. Please don't.



© Copyright 2002-2019, Leonie's Light. All rights reserved.