- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

By Stephen A. Mitchell
Norton, $24.95, 223 pages

Can love last? What an incredibly loaded question, pretty much on par with What's the meaning of life? And does anyone know the answer to it? In "Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time," psychoanalyst Stephen A. Mitchell boldly takes on the task of exploring the theme, but gives us few answers.
In the introduction we learn that Mitchell (he died in 2000 before his book went to press) will examine romance and why it fades over time by looking at case studies, i.e. the author's past patients who are, or have been, in failing marriages or relationships.
The cases are interesting in a sort of voyeuristic (but not very educational) way. We learn that Brett, who's in his early 30s can't sustain his interest in one woman. He goes from one to the next because he is incapable of integrating desire and love. Harold is the same way: married, but having affairs because he's compartmentalized desire and love.
Then there's Susan in her mid-40s who's married with children, but has love affairs because she finds her husband's doting anti-erotic. And Cathy, who is no longer attracted to her husband because once the highs of the initial infatuation were gone, he seemed all too "common." The magic was gone.
Mitchell dishes up innumerable case studies of romance gone awry, and not one case where it's been sustained successfully. But then again, therapists seldom deal with happy people. We also receive a history lesson of psychoanalysis with dozens of references to the papa himself, Sigmund Freud, as well as a look at what roles romance and passion have played in history. The potential for romantic passion might have existed throughout human history and there are examples of it in the Bible, writes Mitchell. But its more prolific and practical existence may not have emerged until the rise of the modern family.
The reason, we learn, that romance is so difficult if not impossible to sustain over time, is because it contains a constant tension. One part of us wants to feel secure in our relationship with our spouse or mate, and part of us desires passion, which is built on spontaneity, danger and uncertainty. We want security and adventure at the same time. (Mitchell spends many more pages on the excitement of adventure as in sexual attraction than security as in commitment; a natural choice since adventure is, well, more exciting).
As with so many other things in life, it seems, we want to have the cookie and eat it too. This makes the state of romance fragile and endangered. For every page, the reader finds out just how fragile it is, as the author continues to explore the topic and give a heap of examples of men and women his patients who can't reconcile a committed relationship with sexual attraction. They have affairs, they watch porn, they go to prostitutes.
And for every page, the suspense builds and the reader wants an answer. How are we supposed to reconcile our simultaneous wish for security and adventure? Don't hold your breath. On page 199, after criticizing self-help books as being simplistic, the author gives us the most poignant line of the book: "In order for romantic involvement to remain vital and robust over time, it is crucial that the commitment not be so rigid as to override spontaneity and that spontaneity not be so rigid as to preclude commitment."
Well said, but much too little, much too late.
In entitling the book in the form of a question "Can Love Last?" the author sets himself up for the inevitable; we are going to want some answers. But he spends 99 percent literally of the time exploring and not answering. Maybe it's just an unfortunate title, but a question always begs for an answer. If a math teacher asks what's 2 plus 2, and then instead of giving, or getting, the answer 4, spends the whole lesson analyzing why a 2 is a 2, he might end up with confused and dissatisfied students.
While criticizing self-help books that try to provide a road map to success, Mitchell falls into the trap of giving us a sure road map to failure, by sharing examples of dysfunctional relationships, with only one helpful hint, that redeeming paragraph on page 199. "Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time," should probably not be read by someone who needs to know the answer and get some tips on how to make it work, but rather by a person with a casual interest in what makes us tick.
In the world of desire, passion and love, the perfect reader would be the casual lover and not the committed partner, because, after all, the book's emphasis is on sexual attraction, which the author repeatedly says is triggered by adventure, novelty and excitement. So in the end, for all the interesting examples, Freud references and historical accounts of passion, all we end up with is another question, "What's love gotta do with it?"

Gabriella Boston is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.

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