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Person, E.S. (1991). Romantic Love: At The Intersection Of The Psyche And The Cultural Unconscious. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 39S(Supplement):383-411.

(1991). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39S(Supplement):383-411

Romantic Love: At The Intersection Of The Psyche And The Cultural Unconscious

Ethel Spector Person, M.D.

Not a primary affect, but a powerful compound passion, in which affective and cognitive components are inextricably intertwined, romantic love is best conceptualized as a creative synthesis of many diverse feelings, impulses, and wishes which come to be focused on one person alone, the idealized beloved. The best evidence that romantic love is not hard-wired into the emotional repertoire of humanity but is a cultural construct is the fact that there are so many cultures in which it is virtually absent.

Romantic love provides a premiere case study of the way in which the cultural unconscious (by which I mean the stamp impressed by a given culture upon expressions of drive and affect) intersects with the psyche to create important cultural narratives. Fantasy-based, romantic love appears to be a cultural innovation of the medieval world that borrowed both from the world of Islam and the Marian revival within the Catholic Church. Redefined in the nineteenth century, romantic love continues to exert a major effect on the imaginative lives and behavior of those of us in the West.

The psychological predisposition to love is probably located in the intimacy of the infant-mother dyad and is related to the child's dependence on an idealization of its parents, culminating in the oedipus complex. The ingenuity of the cultural innovation of romantic love is that it brings together into one story line—the story of idealized mutual love—the possibility of simultaneously fulfilling many disparate wishes, fantasies, and needs. As a cultural construct, it appears to have as much to do with the resolution of issues of authority and personal autonomy as with narcissistic repair or the disposition of libido.

Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research; Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Columbia University.

Whatever we may think of it, professionally or personally, romantic love is the single most powerful passion in many contemporary lives.

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