Pop songs and breakups are enough to make anyone question the true nature of love. Why does it endure in some cases but not in others? How do couples make it last? Author and journalist Bruce Brander offers some answers appropriate for Valentine's month in his recent book, "Love That Works: The Art and Science of Giving."
Born of decades of research and conversations, "Love That Works" delivers a succinct assessment of what's wrong with the way people love today and how they can grow to have better relations with significant others and even strangers in grocery store lines.
Among its pages are the insights of philosophers, psychologists, and religious thinkers accumulated by Mr. Brander during his more than 30 years of study.
His motive in writing the book was compassion, "to spare people the suffering that I saw that was going on so prevalently," Brander says in a phone interview from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"We don't talk much about the travails of broken romances ... it's one of the best-kept secrets in our society," explains Brander, who had his own brushes with "distressing romances" before marrying.
What most people do wrong, he suggests, is equate romance with love, not realizing it's only a steppingstone. Romance - the head-over-heels, can't-think-about-anything-else kind - is self-oriented and doomed to fizzle if not built upon. It draws people together and jump-starts love, but that's it, he says. "We expect romance to carry the whole weight of love. We shouldn't stop there, and our society tells us to stop there."
In his view, the media and society keep people at the selfish level by promoting looking out for No. 1 and encouraging them to view love as a commodity, as something to be consumed, rather than expressed. That cultivates emotional responses that are narrow and needy.
Brander points to one psychoanalyst who suggests that a culture's love relationships are simply a reflection of that society's human relationships in general. He sees potential for more than that. "Instead of only falling in love," he writes, "we also can rise to love."
The author starts by defining love the way the ancient Greeks did, with not one word but three. The first is eros - which Brander calls a self-focused, beginner-level love. ("Eros says I want, I need - therefore I love. In that sense, it sounds like a pop song," he writes.) Next is philia - a type of friendship, or we-centered love, that looks out for the wants and needs of others. And finally agape - a "no strings attached," unconditional giving. (Think Mother Teresa, or a mother and a newborn.)
His discussions of agape love delve into the beliefs of Christianity and other religions with regard to the word. But he says the book is not religious per se. "I mention religion simply because they trumpet the cause the loudest," he says.
He calls agape and philia "higher loves," which are serene and stable and not nearly as exciting as the beginning eros romance (and discussed less frequently). Being in love is "a passive and personal emotional state," he says, but loving is "an active effort to aid someone."
"Marriages that succeed get into these higher loves," he says. "It's just more generous, where the other person is important in his own right, rather than just an instrument for my wants and needs."
Those higher loves are attainable now, Brander says. But they take practice and effort. Loving differently means having a more generous, kinder, less-acquisitive approach toward everybody and not just one person, he suggests. That's what will help people rise above the current level of relationships and develop their spiritual and emotional being.
"It's very simple," he adds. "Not easy, but simple."