Potential Space

by Suzanne Stambaugh, Psy.D., Impulse Staff Writer

Perhaps no single word in the English language is tasked with such a multiplicity of meanings as "love." And there is no lack of rigorous (and sometimes inspired) academic work to describe the various facets, expressions, positions, and forms of love.

One of the more interesting of these threads, described by Thanopulos (2012), unpacks the relationship between love and responsibility. In the journey towards intersubjectivity, the individual transitions from a possessive love that denies desire and agency to its object to a responsible love that protects the autonomy of an acknowledged subject.

The mechanism by which this happens is the realization that the object's very separateness, its uncontrollable and independent exercise of will, is what makes it valuable and desirable, and what constitutes it as a subject. The individual realizes that in order to preserve love, s/he must not only recognize the other's subjectivity but also safeguard that subjectivity.

Like many developmental processes, when the growth trajectory is thwarted, the result is a diminished ability to act in the world with agency, energy, and a capacity for joy. For such adults, whether they are clients, friends, family, or even ourselves, it may benefit to consider the individual's way of relating to failure and loss. After all, to take responsibility for something is to risk failing in that task, with all the subsequent social and emotional sequelae.

Such failures are difficult enough to navigate when they are the relatively abstract failures of middle class youth in the first world: disappointing adult expectations, not living up to potential, giving in to petty temptation. Considering that many adult responsibilities include terrifyingly concrete stakes, such as the health and well-being of children, the elderly, and other dependents, it is little wonder that the prospect of failure becomes overwhelming for some.

When responsibility for others is a task too daunting to face, our capacity to love and be loved is crippled. And yet one is still not protected from failure and loss, since they are constants in the equation of life.

Helping others to develop the emotional equilibrium to face failure (and agency as subjects of their own desire) and to recognize and respect the subjectivity of others is not only effective treatment but a path to individual satisfaction. It is also a shining example of how embracing, rather than avoiding, our responsibility for the well-being of others can be a manifestation of humanistic love.