On Romantic Love
by Berit Brogaard
Oxford University Press, 2015 ($21.95)
In spite of what you may have heard, love—at least the healthy kind—is actually pretty simple. If you have strong positive feelings for someone, want to protect him or her, and want to be with him or her, you are feeling love. If you also feel, at least sometimes, that you want to be physically intimate with that person, you have crossed over into the world of romantic love.
Unrequited, intense and baseless love has, over the centuries, inspired thousands of poems and works of art—perhaps millions, if we include the ones that ended up in the trash—not to mention more than a few suicides, murders and wars.
Enter Brogaard, a philosopher at the University of Miami, with a largely upbeat message about what we can do when love is going wrong. Drawing on analyses of real romantic mishaps and assertions she makes (mainly speculative) about how the brain and mind process emotions, Brogaard argues that we can exercise some degree of rational control over the love we feel, even when it is driven by unconscious processes. In so doing, we can learn to flee from harmful relationships before too much damage is done, heal more quickly after painful breakups, and, more important, use our head and not just our heart to manage love relationships worth keeping.
On the downside, Brogaard sometimes gets lost in tedious debates, such as one about whether love is really an emotion (she says it is), and seems unaware of the hundreds of experimental studies conducted in recent decades on how emotional bonds are formed. She even overlooks some of the most basic contemporary theories of love, focusing instead on ideas that are sometimes a century old.
Brogaard makes her case mainly by surveying a variety of modern therapy techniques that alter how people think and feel. Even simple acts such as moving things around in your house can release you from the hold that sour feelings have on you after a breakup, she says. She is persuasive, but her advice is easier said than done when the madness of imperfect love actually hits.