Can Love Last? The Fate Of Romance Over Time (Book Review)

Author:  Mitchell, Stephen A.
Publisher:  W. W. Norton, 2002
Reviewed By:  Rochelle G. Kainer, Winter 2003, pp. 27-29


Art pushes back the void. The sudden death of Stephen Mitchell left a great void, and his posthumous book Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time consoles us. It is the bittersweet fruit of his labors that made him so highly regarded in our contemporary analytic world; one he helped shape through his open mind and his generous spirit. From his now classic book on Object Relations theory (co-authored with Jay Greenberg) to this final one, he left a rich intellectual legacy.

I learned of this book from Stephen while it was in progress. In these ethically challenged times, I should make a full disclosure: We each lived, practiced, taught, and wrote in different cities. I was not a part of his New York academic world, nor a participating member of the Relational school, nor even one of his close colleagues who are still actively mourning his premature death. However, this does not make me either indifferent to his loss or someone who only knew him through his writings. On the contrary, for it was his initial enthusiasm for my book, The Collapse of the Self, that led to its inclusion in the Relational series published by The Analytic Press. During that process our communication was limited to a few brief telephone calls. We did not actually meet until after its publication. The meeting took place during the social hour of an analytic conference where we had presented papers. I had been hoping to speak to him alone to find out what he was working on, and to seek his advice about my writing.

I saw him across the room talking to a mutual colleague who had written an endorsement for my book. She smiled in recognition, and I went over to join them, standing there silently as they spoke with one another. Stephen animatedly went on with what he was saying, but it was clear that he did not know who I was. He turned to me enquiringly, introduced himself, and asked my name. Speaking for the first time, I said, “You are going to be so sorry you asked that.” He smiled and asked, “Why?” I said, “Who is your favorite author?” With what must have been a flash of aural recall, he suddenly beamed and said, “Rochelle?” I told him that I’d like a word with him when he was free.

He came out to join me on the terrace and we started talking shop. I told him that I thought my last book completed whatever I had to say clinically. I wanted to write for a more general audience. “And you—where are you now after your many books?” He said he was now writing for a general audience. I told him I was writing Crazy in Love on the transcendent longings that fuel erotic desire. He said he was writing Can Love Last? —a book on romantic love. I confessed that I didn’t quite yet know how to make my way out of our familiar clinical world. He simply said, “You must speak to my agent.”

There can be few acts that can be more encouraging to a writer than being published and being led to a coveted agent. Stephen did both. Can I then be neutral in reviewing Can Love Last? Probably not—but I can be empathic to the creative task Stephen chose for himself. I know so well that it takes many hard, writing-filled hours to free oneself of the jargon of one’s clinical pen, in order to be useful to those who do not speak language that is second nature to us. This review is my tribute to him, and my analysis of what he projected and achieved in Can Love Last?

One could discuss a number of the ideas in Can Love Last? for Stephen Mitchell had never written (and probably could not write) a book that was not erudite. Margaret Black, Stephen’s wife and professional colleague, made that so clear in her Foreword. This last work is no exception even as he began reaching out to what publishers call a “high end trade,” i.e., intelligent general audience. I have good evidence of the book’s appeal to such an audience from a reaction of a charming friend. He might best be characterized as a cross between Peter Pan and a middle-aged serial lover who simply hasn’t been able to stay attached to one person. He romances one, and then goes on to the next. I gave this chap a pre-publication copy of Can Love Last? with the instructions to read it in the service of his eventual cure. Among the variety of Stephen’s clinical examples, I recognized his case—and he did too! While my friend has not yet been cured, he found the book stimulating and helpful, and I know he read it carefully. Perhaps, if he’s moved to seek therapy, he shall—with any luck—find a Stephen Mitchell as analyst.

For Stephen’s many case vignettes are of people who essentially despair over their lack of, or their loss of, passion for those they love. By and large, Stephen’s patients do not appear to be mere belly or butt bangers, i.e., individuals who are content to conduct their sexual lives on the level of indiscriminate promiscuity. The sexual passion his patients want is for the most part nuanced and balanced. They have a romantic itch of the soul that is at least as strong as their genital itch. They care about their relationship with the partners they wish to love, even as they angst over their inability not to be able to sustain erotic passion or love towards them. I think of their dilemma as one of the more noble aspects of conventional existence. They have the capacity to suffer the pain of ethical and moral guilt for their actions—or lack of feeling—in a world where many cannot.

The book’s clinical examples focus primarily on heterosexual lovers who long to be able to experience, and continue to feel, strong erotic desire for their partners. However, like my friend, these men and women are people for whom change is probably not possible without a therapeutic journey to illuminate their unconscious internal world. I see them as held in thrall in a deeply entrenched sadomasochistic (i.e., self-suffering) position. The cases may differ, but I think the underlying dynamic is the same.

Stephen’s cases also reflect our contemporary culture. He shows that these patients are not quite the same as those who sought treatment with Freud. In that Victorian era, the “self was even more repressed than the sexual” (according to Elliot Gilbert, late professor of Victorian literature). However, some of Stephen’s patients suffer the same “psychical impotence” as any Victorian analysand. Beyond Freud’s era and its gloomy aura of unsavory sex, sexual passion for the current heirs of the sexual revolution is now a good thing. Sex is now understood as imbuing us with vigor, stimulation, and life at least during the pre-AIDs time in which most of Stephen Mitchell’s patients came of age.

Although today’s patients are supposedly spared a Victorian sense of sexual guilt, they are even less guilty about their expectation of a fulfilled self. When they cannot love the person whom they find sexually exciting—or when they no longer have sexual desire for the one they love—they experience an uneasy guilt and unhappiness. Rank might say that these patients, have no guilt regarding their sexual will, but they have ethical guilt about their lack of their will to love.

I think Stephen might have agreed, given his attention to the issue of will and guilt. I would have loved to further discuss with him Rank’s idea that all willing fosters guilt, for it is the inevitable guilt of our separateness from the other. How we express our sexuality is but one aspect of human will. The irony of this guilt of willing is that in the absence of willing (i.e. if ethical willing is denied) the result is a feeling of inferiority. I would have liked hearing his thoughts on this in relation to his patients.

These patients who have strong sexual wills indeed know that love and sex are vitalizing forces. Or, their sexual and romantic lives would be vitalizing ifonly some twist of their psychic baggage were not messing up their relations with their love object. Love here is seen in its familiar context of commitment, stability, permanence, marriage, creating a home and a family. They know they have a right to expect a rich sexual life, but they experience constriction and deadness when this sexuality is in a relational context. Then, their passionate self gives way to a sexually stifled self.

Thus, it is not so much an issue of sexual dysfunction—most of the men and women he cites are clearly able to “go for it”—but there is always trouble when they try to keep it going in a relationship with a specific other. As befitting one who shaped a whole generation of the Relational school, the emphasis is on those who suffer in the relationship they create to house their sexual life. In one explanation of why someone who once was sexually exciting to them is no longer so, Stephen cites the sources of deflation as idealization, aggression, and the inevitability of change.

I would have also liked to be able to discuss these last three themes with him. The role of idealization is fundamental to my own work on desire—and I see it as both a necessary and a transcendent longing. I would have added the importance of the role of identification in both the transcendent aspects of idealization, and in holding on to pathological internal objects.

I would have also raised with him—in his discussion of hawks and doves—that aggression as an instinct is something I think even Freud might have relented on by now after all the metapsychological advances that came after him. I would have told him that I believe the human capacity for destructiveness certainly exists within all of us, and cannot be ignored as it flashes in our face daily. Depending on how we are constituted, our destructiveness can turn against others as in a sadistic mode, or reflexively expressed as our self-defeating sadomasochism (the most frequent mode of his patients). Yet, it is probably better not to think of the expression of aggression as inevitable, i.e., an instinctual drive that must inevitably explode in the way one’s sexual drives presses on the self. Even if we both grant the toughness of women, I would have wondered aloud if seeing aggression as an instinct is a holdover “guy thing.” Perhaps he would have been amused, but I know his discussion would have been thoughtful and illuminating.

The idea of the inevitability of change would prompt me to want to explore this in relation to an essential Buddhist precept. In some of Stephen’s clinical examples, when desire flees in relation to their love object, they suffer. Buddhist wisdom has it that desire itself (grasping after something) creates suffering. In Stephen’s cases, the suffering comes from lack of desire—but in a sense, the unhappiness of those in Stephen’s examples comes from deeply desiring the very desire they cannot feel. They are driven to change this fundamental aspect of themselves and they are fortunate in having an analyst who is in full sympathy with their quest.

I noted Stephen’s brief mention of meditation and the search for the transcendent. I would have liked to discuss this aspect of my own journey with him. Given his capacity for helping those who suffer, I think he would have no trouble in recognizing a compassion in himself for all “sentient beings” that is a fundamental ideal of (Tibetan) Buddhism. Whatever else Stephen’s work reflects about his theoretical constructions and beliefs, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, first and foremost shows his humanity for his patients. It is to the sorrow of all that he was a man interrupted.

Finally, Can Love Last? has given me some closure on what has always puzzled me about the notion of the “relational.” Not being part of its school—or a straight member of any one theoretical school—I had not used the construct in my own clinical metapsychology. In this book, the mystery of the relational rationale becomes clear for me. I had long formulated the dynamics of an individual as their construction of their subjective self as a response to their identification with their internal objects. I have long experienced analysis, as did Loewald, as a chance for an individual to utilize the mental make-up of the analyst to find and internalize new object relationship that enabled them to re-construct their internal object world on a less pathological basis.

Heretofore, constructs such as the relational and the interpersonal (although I am aware of the distinctions drawn by each of their schools) evoked more of the outer world of the patient, rather than the inner subjective world. It was the latter that I felt it my task to understand either through my empathic skills or, failing that, through my capacity to accept a patient’s unconscious mental projections until I clearly understood their subjective meaning.

However, by Stephen taking his work into the field of love and romance, the two worlds of self and other become unmistakably interrelated. Failures of romance and love are failures that reflect both the self-structure of one’s mind and one’s interpersonal constructions, as well as their reciprocal dynamics. If I am impelled by pathological identifications in my internal object world and internal object-relationships, I will inevitably find and desire those love objects that help me re-create early failed love. I will be sadist to your masochist, or masochist to your sadist. Somewhere in the trace memories of my limbic system, I will find the perfect Fairbainian “exciting and rejecting object,” or become that kind of object in relation to the other. Love is unmistakably relational.

I would have liked to have told him that he was a doctor of limbic love, and that he taught and helped an entire generation and those to yet to come. I would have personally thanked him for the book.

Reviewer Note

Rochelle G. Kainer has practiced in Washington, D.C. for the past 30 years, and lectures and supervises at the Washington School of Psychiatry. She is currently working on Crazy in Love about the transcendent longings fueling erotic desire.

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