The cultural prescription that women achieve identity through coupling, men through achievement and autonomy, is reinforced by consequences of the asymmetry in female and male pre-Oedipal and Oedipal constellations. These differences are clearly expressed in the strikingly different problems men and women face in the pursuit of love, and in the different prototypic stories of the passionate quest; they may also contribute to a different timetable for love.
In contemporary culture one of the most prominent differences between men and women as regards passionate love is that their capacity for it—and vulnerability to it—may well peak at different periods in the life cycle, a different timetable that is the result of both socialization and of discrepant object relations. Although both sexes experience first love at about the same time, in adolescence or young adulthood, the subsequent pattern is often different. Men may be more vulnerable to the sorrows of first love, an experience which can be such a blow to masculine self-regard that it causes some men to withdraw from any subsequent emotional exposure to avoid being hurt. In young adulthood, women feel a great readiness and urgency to fall in love. Many young men, too, continue to be prone to love attacks, but other men may be willing to run the risks of romantic love again only in middle age or later. Inhibited in the search for love by fear of either loss of autonomy or power (or both), such men return to it only after repetitive conquests are finally perceived as empty, or the limits of achievement have been explored and have either confirmed masculine identity or been found wanting. For other men, love comes when waning power facilitates the re-emergence of merger fantasies, particularly as accompanied by a fantasy of vicariously sharing in the youth of a young woman. While the appetite for romantic love does not always abate in women, some opt in later adult life for the rewards of different pursuits, in particular motherhood or work. For many, these years offer the first opportunity to pursue power, to seek a different kind of identity consolidation and transcendence in the work of the mind or the imagination.
Overlapping cultural, contextual, developmental, and perhaps biological factors, too dense and intertwined to weigh separately with any degree of authority, affect the male and female experiences of love. Cultural imperatives regarding masculinity and femininity play a role, as do early object relations and the asymmetric structures of the Oedipus complex. The main problematic in (heterosexual) love is the female's longing for it, the male's fear of it. Consequently, women often distort love in the direction of submission, men in the direction of dominance— though these distortions are not invariably gender-linked, individual psychology taking priority over cultural directives. As far as I can make out, homosexual lovers incline as much to enactments of dominance and submission as do heterosexuals (surely male homosexuals do).
I am not personally sanguine that a power differential in love can ever be totally eradicated. The image of the slave of love (the submissive partner)—and by imaginative extension, the master (the dominant lover)—is too entrenched for me to think of it as merely a cultural distortion accounted for by socialization. While not inevitable, its frequent appearance seems almost mandated by the existential nature of love which simultaneously demands self-transcendence (the loss of the strictures of self-boundaries) and self-affirmation. Many pairs of lovers attempt to maintain some balance through a strict division of labor, one lover being committed to the transcendence of the self through surrender, the other to the affirmation of the self through domination, and both of them (presumably) integrating both properties through forging a mutual identification. Here, the feminist critique seems incontrovertible: such a balance of power leaves the surrendering lover—usually the woman—more at risk, the other lover better able to disengage and embark on a new relationship, and generally not so dependent financially. (But the dominant lover may lose the transcendent and transformational potential of love.)
Liberation from gender stereotypes may help unlink the roles of slave and master from gender, though it is unlikely that it will obliterate the roles altogether. Even so, such a corrective would be an immense forward stride. But the greater liberation—for both men and women— requires more than the transcendence of gender; it requires the ability to transcend the self.
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