I’m writing a blog series about M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled (you can read Part 1 here), and as I read the book, I came across a definition of love that is perhaps the best I’ve ever read. Dr. Peck differentiates between “falling in love” and “genuine love.” Falling in love he defines by the psychiatric term “cathexis,” which he defines as “being attracted to, invested in, and committed to an object outside ourselves.” We can “cathect” a beloved, a child, or even a hobby, like writing or painting.

But according to Dr. Peck, the state of cathexis is temporary, both in romance and in friendship, an illusion that in romance often tempts us to consummate our affection sexually and ultimately propagates the species by luring us into marriage vows that we might never agree to were we not cathecting the one we “love.”

While cathexis is necessary- and almost always precedes genuine love- it is short-lived, wearing off not only in romances but in friendships as well.  Only when this phase wears off do we have the opportunity to mature into genuine love, which he beautifully defines as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

What Love Is Not

Dr. Peck says love is not dependency or self-sacrifice or lust or even a feeling of love- that someone can feel “love”- cathexis- can “fall in love,” and experience the euphoria of such a feeling, but that it’s not truly genuine love unless the feeling is accompanied by action, that genuine love is defined by loving action. Love is conscious attention, a time investment, a commitment to nurturing the spiritual growth of one another, the willingness to take risks even when it’s scary, the risk of opening the heart, even with the knowledge that the heart is likely to get broken, if not right away, then one day in death.

Dr. Peck goes on to say that we do not offer genuine love with the expectation that it will be returned, but that after enough expenditure of energy fails to elicit loving action, even when it is clear that loving feelings are present, one’s energy simply needs to be conserved.

Extending Yourself For Love

I’ve written many blogs posts about how keeping your heart open when you’re hurt is the hardest thing you’ll ever do and how love requires giving someone permission to break your heart. But I’ve never quite thought about it this way, that love is about extending yourself, pushing the limits of your comfort zone, taking risks, and being willing to be sometimes painfully vulnerable, all for the sake of your own and someone else’s spiritual growth.

I have been in too many relationships with people for whom I’ve felt loving feelings (cathexis), who I’ve been confident share my loving feelings. You know the ones. They tell you they love you. They write love letters. They say all the right things. But you don’t feel loved because their actions aren’t particularly loving. They’re not really willing to do the work or take the risk of extending themselves into loving actions or risk-taking in the name of love.

How Hard Should You Fight?

So what do you do in those situations? I’m a doctor recovering from a savior complex, so it’s in my nature to try to resuscitate a relationship long after I probably should. I’ll do CPR on that relationship, giving my own breath, pumping someone else’s heart, trying- in vain- to convince someone to extend themselves in order to save the relationship. In the end, I’m the one who winds up exhausted- and often hurt. But I am my own undoing. I really struggle with this. It’s such a fine line between loyalty and commitment, which I value, and letting go of relationships that take too much of my energy (which feels like failure to me because I want to believe that everyone I love will still be in my life when we’re 95 in our rocking chairs.)

So when do you fight for the relationship? When do you let it go? Dr. Peck has advice about this too.

When To Withhold Love

Dr. Peck writes, “Because genuine love involves an extension of oneself, vast amounts of energy are required and, like it or not, the store of our energy is as limited as the hours of our day. We simply cannot love everyone. True, we may have a feeling of love for mankind, and this feeling may also be useful in providing us with enough energy to manifest genuine love for a few specific individuals. But genuine love for a relatively few specific individuals is all that is within our power. To attempt to exceed the limits of our energy is to offer more than we can deliver, and there is a point of no return beyond which an attempt to love all comers becomes fraudulent and harmful to the very ones we desire to assist.

Consequently, if we are fortunate enough to be in a position in which many people ask for our attention, we must choose among them whom we are actually to love. This choice is not easy; it may be excruciatingly painful, as the assumption of godlike power so often is. But it must be made. Many factors needs to be considered, primarily the capacity of a prospective recipient of our love to respond to that love with spiritual growth. People differ in this capacity…It is, however, unquestionable that there are many whose spirits are so locked in behind impenetrable armor that even the greatest efforts to nurture the growth of those spirits are doomed to almost certain failure [my emphasis.] To attempt to love someone who cannot benefit from your love with spiritual growth is to waste your energy, to cast your seed upon arid ground. Genuine love is precious, and those who are capable of genuine love know that their loving must be focused as productively as possible through self-discipline.”

Reading this brought me some measure of peace about a relationship I recently chose to end, even though I really didn’t want to let it go. I still struggle with figuring out how far to extend myself in the name of love. In some relationships, I give too much. In others, I demand more than I give and the other person winds up depleted. I’m still trying to find the Goldilocks “just right” porridge of love. But as painful as this process can be, I’m grateful for the spiritual lessons.

Do You Fight For Love? Do You Give Up Too Soon?

What are your thoughts about all this? Share your stories in the comments.

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  1. Meg Sylvia

    Great truths about love that need to be talked about! I think most of us grow up believing Hollywood’s message that love = infatuation, but as we can see by the success rates, basing a relationship off of infatuation leads to failure! Thank you for sharing your story, as well.

  2. Veronica Lacaille

    Im at that crossroads now, and I find it disturbing that this post comes to me today of all days. I struggle with trying to understand my partner; he’s bossy and
    difficult, immature, selfish, and “doesnt care” about our finances, world politics yes, everything else no. After 13 years, Im asking myself for permission to walk away from this relationship. I wish I had some sort of guide to know whether he is “locked behind impenetrable armor”. Thank you for this post.

    • Traci Dryer

      It is no coincidence that this post came to you now. I remember being in the same situation and I didn’t want to think I had wasted all those years with my first husband. Finally I came to my senses. I have now been married to the love of my life for 18 years. Find the person that makes you giggle inside. If you aren’t sure of this one–he’s not the one. Good luck, Veronica.

  3. Gitta Sivander

    I have been fighting for love due to a child involved, and due to my romantic old style believe of love lasting forever.

    I was willing to do everything, until I learned, that it was already all over, for years; I just didn’t see it- couldn’t see it and didn’t want to see it. For me the question that remains is: why ever fight for love? Either, your move forward together, through highs and lows….with an equal sense of responsibility for the situation.

    And when there is need for fighting, then it is already all over, then it has already come to an end, which is just not yet clearly visible.

    I have been fighting for love and feel that I have given up myself and who I am….for what actually? For a pure illusion.

    If one does not want the relationship anymore, it’s beyond time to move on with life and find the love you so search for within yourself first. Give the love you so desperately long to give…give it to yourself. If you first give to yourself, love will come to you when the time is right.

    That is what I have painfully learned from holding on to my marriage way beyond it’s time of expiration….

    • Cher

      Hi, I am at this point right now. My husband has left, he has a lot of resentment towards me and has felt this way for a long time, but didn’t tell me until it was too late. Of course I tried, I did all I could to be the perfect wife and mother (we have a very young daughter together). I believed in marriage and that it is forever, I loved not just him but his daughter (my step daughter) to someone prior to me, and his family, as my family loved him. I feel that we cant and shouldn’t just throw 6 years of love away due to 1 very hard year after the birth of our daughter and a lot of financial stresses. But then I learnt he had met someone else and for months had been having a relationship with this person, whilst still living with me and letting me try. At times he gave me hope, but just enough so I would hang in there, other times he would say he wasn’t in love with me anymore again. But he never actually left and always seemed so confused. I begged and pleaded, wrote letters and did all I could to save our marriage. But even after recently finding out about this woman he still doesn’t want me, which hurts the most, it is like double rejection. He says he doesn’t want her, but the still doesn’t want me either. He has only just moved out and my heart is in a million pieces… I am not coping well but know deep down I need to let go. This is not the same man I married, things have changed too much, and how can I continue to love and want someone that no longer loves and wants me. It is very hard and I know what I need to do but just don’t know how to do it…

  4. ting

    “Reading this brought me some measure of peace about a relationship I recently chose to end, even though I really didn’t want to let it go.”
    and reading your article brought me some peace about a relationship that recently ended too! 🙂

  5. FW2013

    Thanks Lissa. I’m trying to grasp this piece: “To attempt to love someone who cannot benefit from your love with
    spiritual growth is to waste your energy, to cast your seed upon arid
    ground.” I get it in theory, but doesn’t that go against the concept of not closing ourselves off, because by doing so we create a blockage in ourselves? I thought we were supposed to be loving regardless of what the outcome….that it’s our natural state of being to love others and that we are all connected. I agree that we should not expend energy trying to change someone or to force them to have spiritual growth, but does that mean we cut them off even in our heart? Could you elaborate please, as this seems to say we should love with conditions?

    • CherylAnn Crego

      I so agree. I’m finally finding a way to love someone who who is not capable of benefiting from my love without giving up a piece of myself. It came about when I was able to let go of attachment to the outcome. That serves as an example to me with my ex. I have had to close myself off…stop extending energy…because it is damaging to me. Once I can let go of my attachment to the outcome with that relationship, I think I maybe be more capable of loving him. There are people in our lives that we can’t really cut out without alienating others, so learning to love them is kind of important.

    • Bita Asakura

      I think if we spend enough time making sure if this is a person we want to share our life with, then striving for unconditional love is the best. Because we grow spiritually together and it’s a situation. But it’s also good to know human condition, which is we can’t show unconditional love all the way. We have to reassess and make a judgment, which itself helps us grow spiritually.

      • Lissa_Rankin

        I highly recommend reading Robert Augustus Masters two books- Spiritual Bypassing and Transformation Through Intimacy. His teachings on “blind compassion” and “neurotic tolerance” saved my life. What I was calling unconditional love was actually just an unhealthy wound in myslf. Now I have a much better understanding of unconditional love. Very often, unconditional love is fierce, boundary setting, and does not tolerate destructive or abusive behavior in the beloved- as an act of love.

  6. Bob

    This blog entry was one of the best things I’ve read in a while. It described so accurately what I’ve been going through in a particular relationship for a while now. I fought for a response for a long time, which was very much like hitting my head against a wall. Recently I’ve just given up trying to elicit a response. Yes, it’s been difficult, because at one time the friendship was as described in the blog – nurturing spiritual growth and awareness. It’s difficult to let go when the other person decides to withdraw, and doesn’t have the courage (or maybe ability) to talk about it. I’m a big believer in communication, and I’ve tried even to elicit a dialog about my friend’s withdrawl. I’m not satisfied to let the friendship die of attrition. However, since I’ve given up on that attempt to get a response, I am more relaxed and less stressed in my daily life. It is a work in progress, learning and growing, finding what works for me. It was just heartening to read the blog and see my situation put so succinctly into words.

  7. Nina Geraghty

    Thank you Lissa for posting this, this is such an important blog because it brought into focus an issue that has been utterly murky for me until now. We have this idea that love suddenly “happens” to us, it “comes out of the blue and strikes our hearts”. What you bring attention to is the aspect of volition in love. I was once asked: “Do you WANT to love him?” Huh? Like I have a choice? Exactly that. So I have people in my life whom I WANT to love. Deeply. But the investment that requires of me is so much more than I receive back in terms of spiritual growth in the other that it exhausts me – that impenetrable armour you speak of – and I’ve been left with either hitting my head on a brick wall like Bob – or withdrawing the depth and breadth of love I have to give to something much smaller, something I can easily give without suffering. It feels sooooo WRONG to withdraw love though…. thank you for your insightful words. So helpful.

  8. T.L. Parks

    I remember years ago,
    watching Charlie Rose one late night, where he had Morgan Freeman on as his
    guest. When asked what it takes to create those “magic” moments on the screen,
    the ones that we all remember and that touches our hearts deeply. Morgan’s response
    really struck a chord with me. He said that the only time you see that “magic”
    is when the two actors on screen are willing to be completely vulnerable and
    trusting in the other. He said you can only go as far as the other actor is
    willing to go…no amount of expert training, no years of experience, no Oscars
    awards…there is nothing that you can do, if the other person is not willing to
    “dance.” You can only go as far with
    them, as they are willing to show that they will go with you.

    When applied to
    everyday life and relationships in general—I decided that his statement could
    apply to many things. Our real life relationships require that presence and
    vulnerability. No one person can create or maintain the health of a
    relationship between two people. When the “magic” fizzles, as it sometimes does,
    (and most likely will at some point)…it is up to both partners to be willing to
    step forward and show up fully and do the work. I try not to delude myself into thinking that
    I can “dance” like nobody’s watching, with someone who obviously is only
    willing to give me a sloppy 2-step at the most. You can usually tell early on
    how vulnerable someone is really willing to be in exposing themselves and nurturing
    the spiritual “dance” or growth between you. The thing is to be honest about
    it, and to accept that person and that level of experience, just as it is, and
    not try to kill yourself trying to make it as you would want it to be. Moving on from someone you love is not an
    easy experience. It doesn’t mean that you know longer love each other; it may
    just mean this is as far as we can go so closely together through this current

    • Jinx Jink

      W-o-w! I love this: “…I try not to delude myself into thinking that
      I can “dance” like nobody’s watching, with someone who obviously is only
      willing to give me a sloppy 2-step at the most.”

  9. Pierre Jusim

    Thank you for this as I have been on opposite sides of the coin; give too much or not enough. My relationship of six years ended in October 2013. While I was deeply in love with her, I became paralyzed and stopped my spiritual growth. I new better; I’ve always been a spiritual and free man and some where I just stopped. She extended her self over and over to and I couldn’t hear anything. When I snapped out of it I bought and engagement ring for all the reasons one should risk, but it was too late. I understand her choice and respect her commitment to her dignity and growth. Lesson learned is attention, self control and keeping your on the what’s important which is commitment and and not fear.

  10. Pierre Jusim

    Thank you for this as I have been on opposite sides of the coin; give too much or not enough. My relationship of six years ended in October 2013. While I was deeply in love with her, I became paralyzed and stopped my spiritual growth. I new better; I’ve always been a spiritual and free man and some where I just stopped. She extended her self over and over to and I couldn’t hear anything. When I snapped out of it I bought and engagement ring for all the reasons one should risk, but it was too late. I understand her choice and respect her commitment to her dignity and growth. Lesson learned is attention, self control and keeping your on the what’s important which is commitment and and not fear.

  11. Miss Mari

    When to let go, when to give up: Truly the hardest questions in love. I’ve been in too many relationships, most casual and few serious. After reading the post, I started to doubt the “serious” relationships I had. In my desire to ‘extend myself’ (as one definition of the so-called genuine love), I push too hard. Actually NO. That’s my misconception. I don’t push too hard. I push the other person (the person I have relationship with) too hard. Every after my relationships, the serious ones, I ask myself, “what’s wrong with me, what is it that lacks?”. Then I comfort myself by saying “there’s nothing wrong with me, it is with THEM”. And after all my self-counseling, I found myself left out, broken. Moreover, those casual relationships I had when I was younger are not painful at all. Maybe because I didn’t pushed them too hard. I just rely on what they could give and demand little. It is just giving them my effort they deserve. Nothing more, nothing less. Could it be that the casual relationships I had are the incidents which I love genuinely?

  12. VInterbarn

    Im in the position of letting go of the one I love deeply and it seems like our spiritual growth together continues… I love him so much..he is not here.. we are not together, and today I have given up.. <3 <3

  13. Jeffrey Dowling

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  15. Tamryn Garrett

    I am trying to let go of thelove and hope I had in a husband and partner of 14 years. He says he loves me but is not in love with me and has left. I believe we could have had a chance had he only said something before walking out. I love him but the keeping up hope is killing me inside so I am choosing to let go with love. Admitting to myself I love him but he doesn’t want or need that love from me and trying to move on.

  16. Michael

    I was in a two year relationship, and at times I took her love for granted. We would get in these trivial arguments over nothing and it would make me run away. Or it would make me upset. I broke up with her a few times for these reasons. Well, the last break up didn’t end so well. We both being hurt said some horrible things to each other. we didn’t speak for a month, and We’ve finally started talking. She says that she doesn’t look at me the same. But, I still feel the love between us. I’ve never fought as hard as I should have before. But, after all this I’ve grown so much and realize that I’m so much better with her, and I see all the things she does that helps me grow. Including not getting back together with me. Its painful, but I’m learning to be patient. Also, this is the first time I’ve loved someone unconditionally. Putting myself out there without expecting something in return. I know one day it will end if its not returned. But, at least I know how to love someone completely. I hope I get another chance with this beautiful person. Only time will tell.


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