Love sick (part 1)

The following is Part 1 of a three-part extract from Frank Tallis’ excellent book Love Sick. The book takes a good look at romantic love, or more accurately the sickness of it, a fact underlined in several of the articles on this website. Dr. Tallis’ extensive clinical experience confirms just how sick-making these practices are for all who indulge them.

Incurable Romantics

Love, love, love – all the wretched cant of it, masking egotism, lust, masochism, fantasy under a mythology of sentimental postures, a welter of self-induced miseries and joys, blinding and masking the essential personalities in the frozen gestures of courtship, in the kissing and the dating and the desire, the compliments and the quarrels which vivify its barrenness.

The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer

Romantic love has been described by the Jungian psychoanalyst Robert Johnson as `the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche’. Although this sounds like a wildly extravagant claim, it is almost certainly true. Love – and in particular romantic love – is our great preoccupation. Almost every aspect of our life is affected, in some way, by the concept of romantic love.

The word ‘romantic’ is troubled by a long history. It is like an overworked canvas, the composition and brushwork of which cannot conceal the suggestion of earlier drafts. English dictionaries distinguish ‘romantic’ with several definitions, but in reality, such tidy divisions are misleading. When we use the word, these different meanings bleed into each other. To be romantically involved is an admission that carries a host of implications: passion, folly, obsession, anguish, recklessness, intrigue, and adventure; archetypes rise from varying depths and jostle with each other for recognition and influence.

As with any native tongue, we first speak the language of romantic love without being able to explain its grammar. The assumptions on which romantic love is predicated are buried in the unconscious mind, where they exert a powerful influence on our beliefs, attitudes, and expectations. We never pause to question their legitimacy. When a romantic hero decides he will sacrifice everything for love, no one will ask ‘Is she really worth it?’ or ‘Can’t he find someone else?’ Romantic love has its own obscure logic which we all tacitly accept.

The roots of romantic love run deep. Indeed, the fundamental mental conventions of romantic love were consolidated on the ancestral plains of Africa, where evolutionary pressures determined that men should court women, that women should be coy, that relationships should be exclusive, and that love should storm the mind like a form of madness. However, since the rise of civilisation, these features have been increasingly complicated by ideological factors. The roots of romantic love are profoundly deep, but, now, they are also hopelessly tangled.

To understand fully the concept of romantic love requires an examination of its cultural history (in addition to its evolutionary history)…

* * *

The Islamic courtly tradition was introduced into Western culture by the troubadours, whose poetry preserved many features of Arab mysticism – particularly, a quasi-religious praise of female beauty. However, as this theme was reworked, it also began to change. Spiritual inaccessibility gradually evolved into alluring aloofness, which in turn became regal disdain. Thus, a recurring figure in troubadour poetry was the cold, cruel mistress.

The theme of inaccessibility was also explored in another way: the introduction of a female character, immensely desirable, but unavailable through marriage.

Even at this very early stage, the authenticity of love was being judged according to its difficulty (with respect to obstacles and impediments) and its irrationality. In troubadour poetry, we can recognise the cultural ancestry of modern concepts such as Lee’s mania or Tennov’s limerence: love that does not need liking – love that may even thrive in response to rejection or contempt. The troubadour’s cruel mistress reappears again and again in literature in different guises: the enchantress, the femme fatale, the Belle Dame sans Merci. Long before psychologists began to study love in a systematic way, literature required a particular female type who would represent unhappy love.

The doctrine of romantic love (also known as courtezia or amour courtois) would have spread across Europe irrespective of royal patronage; however, the process was certainly accelerated by events at the court of Poitiers, where William IX is reputed to have been ‘the first troubadour’ (on account of having written the earliest surviving examples of coutly verse in the Provencal language). It was also at Poitiers that William’s granddaughter, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter, Marie de Champagne, encouraged celebrated poets such as Bernard de Ventadour and Chretien de Troyes to compose works that exemplified courtly ideals. A narrative vehicle that was popular among the poets of Poitiers was Arthurian legend, which delivered a cast of characters whose relationships could be fully exploited to dramatise the frustrating dynamics of romantic love. Thus, Guinevere’s beauty is beyond compare, and Lancelot – Arthur’s most loyal servant – must fall hopelessly in love with the queen. (English readers are more familiar with this dynamic through Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.) In the poetry of Chretien de Troyes, love – always complicated, but even more complicated by courtly conventions – is once again described as an illness: ‘My illness is what I want. And my pain is my health… I suffer agreeably… I am sick with delight.’

One of the most extraordinary developments at Poitiers was the creation of an inner court – the Court of Love – where noblewomen would meet to pose questions about love and the proper conduct of lovers. Questions would then be disputed, juried and judged, according to the increasingly dogmatic principles of courtezia. Perhaps, in an effort to make the task of this inner court easier, Marie instructed a cleric, Andrew Capelanus (also known as Andrew the Chaplain), to write a formal book of statutes: a kind of lovers’ charter.

Andrew began his task by consulting a classical authority – the Ars Amatoria (or Art of Love) by Ovid. It is difficult to imagine a more inappropriate work on which to base a ‘respectable’ canon. As with much to do with romantic love, history reveals cross-purposes, because for Ovid adoration is only a means to an end. Ovid adores, not because he can’t help himself, but because by feigning adoration he is more likely to succeed in seduction. He is a cunning and manipulative strategist, who advises on everything from good ‘chat up’ lines to how physical defects can be concealed by adopting special positions during intercourse. In an age of political correctness, he is still able to offend modern sensibilities. He recommends pretending to cry, making false promises, writing flattering verses (however insincere) and even coercion: `Some force is permissible – women are often pleased by force.’

Ovid also advises the aspirant libertine to affect the symptoms of love sickness: ‘All lovers should be pallid, it’s chic to be pale;/ Only fools deny it, pale skins rarely fail.’ Moreover, he observes that loss of appetite and worry ‘make the young lover as thin as a rake’. Therefore, if wishing to attract the attention of women, one should: `Look lean – it suggests passion.’

When Andrew Capelanus came to write his own work – The Art of Courtly Love – he did so by borrowing from Ovid. Thus, Ovid’s cynical observations were used to shore up the romantic ideal. Love sickness – merely another weapon in Ovid’s armamentarium – became fully established as a crucial sign of love’s authenticity.

Capelanus described love as `a certain inborn suffering’ and suggested thirty-one rules of love. They include the following:

Rule 2 He who is not jealous cannot love.
Rule 9 No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love (also translated as: No one can love who is not driven to do so by the power of love).
Rule 13 When made public love rarely endures.
Rule 14 The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
Rule 15 Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
Rule 16 When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
Rule 20 A man in love is always apprehensive (also translated as: A lover is always fearful).
Rule 21 Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
Rule 22 Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
Rule 30 A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved (Also translated as: The true lover is continuously obsessed with the image of his beloved.

Love and mental illness were closely linked according to the principles of Hippocratic medicine; however, Capelanus’s principles seem to do much the same thing. At Poitiers it was decided that love – if true – must be disturbed and slightly perverse; it must be obsessive, compulsive, agitated, anxious, jealous, suspicious, clandestine, and frustrating.

There is still some debate concerning to what extent Capelanus meant his rules to be taken seriously. It is possible that The Art of Courtly Love was meant to be satirical – but if so, its satirical content was lost on contemporary and subsequent generations. The Art of Courtly Love was never viewed as a critique. It was always viewed as a manifesto.

Romantic love became an increasingly important feature of literature in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Lais of Marie de France and de Lorris’s Romance of the Rose are significant examples; however, the quintessential courtly romance of the middle ages must be Tristan – now more widely encountered in the opera house as Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

Although Tristan does not feature King Arthur, it is an ‘Arthurian’ romance set in a landscape of castles, quests and dragons. An authenticated ‘original’ does not exist, but five versions have been handed down – the most famous being those of Beroul, Gottfried von Strassburg and Thomas.

Tristan is raised by his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and it falls upon him to escort King Mark’s bride-to-be, the beautiful Princess Isolde, from her home in Ireland to the king’s castle. While crossing the Irish Sea, they both mistakenly drink a love potion, and subsequently fall in love. The love potion – a potent symbol of love’s madness – neatly excuses Tristan’s betrayal of his uncle.

In Gottfried’s version, the bemused Tristan complains: `I do not know what has come over poor Isolde and me, but we have both of us gone mad in the briefest space of time, with unimaginable torment – we are dying of love …’

Tristan and Isolde (against their better judgement) become clandestine lovers and, in doing so, stir the gods of tragedy. Much of the ensuing drama concerns their attempts to avoid discovery, and eventually they must separate. Tristan is wounded by a poisoned spear and, as his life ebbs away, he calls for Isolde. She rushes to be with him, but arrives too late and can do nothing to save him. Clasping his dead body, she gives up her spirit and dies.

During the middle ages, romantic narrative’s landscape of kings and queens, knights and ladies, heroism, bravery, destiny and magic became established in the Western imagination, and is familiar to children, appearing in numerous story-books. The idea of romantic love has penetrated so deep into our culture, that few people escape its influence before leaving the nursery. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is that many grow up assuming they will find fairy-tale happiness in the real world – an expectation that is rarely fulfilled. Moreover, it is curious that the main exemplars of courtly romance (which in a sense foster our fairy-tale aspirations) rarely end with a `happy ever after’, but with torment, tears and death.

Continued in part-2….

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


About Dr. Frank Tallis

Frank Tallis is an author and clinical psychologist. He has held lecturing posts at the Institute of Psychiatry and King’s College, London, and written self help manuals (How to Stop Worrying, Understanding Obsessions and Compulsions), non-fiction for the general reader (Changing Minds, Hidden Minds, Love Sick), academic text books and over thirty academic papers in international journals. He has also written several novels including: Killing Time, Sensing Others, Mortal Mischief, Vienna Blood, Fatal Lies, Darkness Rising, Deadly Communion, and Death And The Maiden.

Main Website

A values-based approach to gynocentrism for men

By Paul Elam

For the values centered model, I assume three states of being most typical to modern western men. Those are:


Gynocentric Reactive

Gynocentric Proactive

Gynocentric refers to the average man. He usually, but not always, operates with women unconsciously, just following whatever scripts he has adopted from early life. He seeks women’s acceptance without an intact set of values that are designed to protect him. In fact, it is his values that put him at risk. Many men value only being accepted sexually and romantically, by any woman they are attracted to, regardless of her moral character and any possible risk she represents.

The gynocentric man is the one with a piece of paper that says kick me taped to his back. We can mock him if we want, but we are well to remember that we have all been this man at one point or another in our lives.

The next state of being, Gynocentric Reactive, is a much more complicated affair. Here we see men who are infinitely more conscious than gynocentric men. They are aware of relationship pitfalls, may even be quite familiar with concepts like gynocentrism, hypergamy and male disposability.

It is their reaction to that information that may foment troubles. These men can be perpetually fulminating and overtly hostile to anything female. It’s the “all women are bitches and hoes” crowd, and the ever present resentments they carry can cause emotional and psychological atrophy. They may have a diminished capacity for reason and defensively take refuge in an ideology that shields them from examining their anger productively.

Another manifestation of the gynocentric reactive man is one who hides inside emotional armor, simply reducing women to their sexual utility, doing their best to get sex then get out. Unfortunately, it is a form of self-protection that may well heighten risk with repeated sexual contact with women who have not been assessed for anything other than physical attraction.

Finally, there are still other gynocentric reactive men who are just frustrated by the realities of lived experience with women. They find themselves caught in a web of confusion and consternation. They tend to be understandably mistrustful of women, and sometimes vacillate between being indifferent to them and being attracted. They feel stuck and outgunned. Chronic loneliness is often part of their lot. For this reason, many of them may be attracted to the other forms of reaction-based mindsets that don’t leave them feeling so vulnerable.

Gynocentric Reactive men get call misogynists a lot. They’re not. Setting aside judgements about the efficacy of their state of being, they are just men rationally demonstrating the will to self-protect. Regardless of how tiring the perpetual anger may be, they are much more functional and conscious than the gynocentrist.

Finally, there is the Gynocentric Proactive man. He routinely operates consciously with women. He has a clearly identified, personally chosen set of values that trump his sexual instincts and significantly temper his need for female approval.

Whether he includes women in his life or not, he is not burdened by fear of, or resentment toward, them.

He does not tolerate abuse, doesn’t take unnecessary financial risks or commit thoughtlessly. He can be available for a relationship if he chooses. He is also willing and able to let a relationship go that threatens his well-being. And he can do it without undue emotional distress.

Importantly, he is willing, indeed insistent, on evaluating any woman on his radar for risk and maintenance concerns.

It is important to reiterate here that none of these states of being can be called wrong. They are simply ways of coping in the modern sexual milieu. Even the gynocentric male is trying to cope in his way.

I will point out, however, that when I see men belittling and shaming other men for not walking in lockstep with them, it usually comes from gynocentric and gynocentric reactive men. Those are also the two states of being where, exceptions notwithstanding, I have observed the least happiness and the least reasonable points of view.

So, obviously, the intent here is to suggest that there is much more benefit to men in a Gynocentric Proactive state of being. The benefits are certainly there for emotional health.