When To Love, When To Let Go


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.

Still noodling,

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