Is It Love or Emotional Terrorism?

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Dec 8, 2010
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Are you in a loving relationship, or what amounts to a hostage situation?

Last week I published an article here on Elephant Journal entitled, “Christianity Through My Buddhist Eyes.” This article was an exploration of the Christian faith from a Buddhist point of view. In this post, I reduced the entire spectrum of Christian experience down to one basic truth: love.

I noted that the Christian tradition holds to the idea that God created “the heavens and earth.” In the beginning there was God, and the whole of creation poured fourth from this point.  Christianity goes one step further, saying “God is love.” The Bible describes God’s resting place as the temple, and says that man is this temple. So, creation pours forth from God who is love and rests in man—

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

We are the Son of God, and forgetting this is original sin.

The article received quite a few comments, but there was a particular comment of interest to me. It came from Robin: “What do you think about romantic love based on what you’ve said about love here? Is it an illusion?

So often writings on spirituality come off as vague and abstract. This is not necessarily a bad thing; they are just addressing a subject on a vague and abstract level. This post will be neither vague nor abstract! It will be a gritty look into the most common manifestation of love: romantic love.

Before we can address romantic love we need to know what we are addressing. Defining love is no small task. There are a few things we can say about it, but we would do well to start with what love ain’t…

Selfishness is the expression of ignorance.

Thomas Merton said in No Man is an Island, “A selfish love seldom respects the rights of the beloved to be an autonomous person. Far from respecting the true being of another and granting his personality room to grow and expand in its own original way, this love seeks to keep him in subjection to ourselves. It insists that he conform himself to us, and it works in every possible way to make him do so. A selfish love withers and dies unless it is sustained by the attention of the beloved… We seek to make pets of them, to keep them tame.”

Selfish love is an illusion because, it is not love! Selfish love is nothing more than a hostage situation. Relationships like this are based on fear and aggression. For reasons well beyond the scope of this article, a pervasive thread of discontentment sets the tone for such an affair. By discontentment I mean, the subtle feeling that something is broken or missing. This subtle feeling then motivates us to go out looking for a solution or that magical missing ingredient. Eventually boy meets girls, and we think we have found the answer…

When selfishness sets the mood, we are not in the relationship for the sake of the relationship; rather we are using the relationship as a solution to our problems. We have an awful lot invested in our partner slave. Instead of being an autonomous human being, our partner is seen as a precious commodity- something we can’t afford to lose because, without them we are lost. So we scan the environment for possible threats. Maybe we read their text messages a time or two, stalk them on Facebook, or subject them to a ruthless interrogation when they show up 10 minutes late. Perhaps we micromanage the affairs of our partner, or suppress their desire to pursue their goals for fear of losing them to the task. Whatever the case maybe, we do not see this person as our partner, but as our property, and we treat them as such. We anxiously peer into their lives, violently suppressing their right to creative expression, as we aggressively seek to eliminate any and all threats to our personal security.

Relationships like this are very intense. So much is on the line all the time. It is one serious conversation after another: “Do you really love me? Listen… Listen… Listen… Are you sure you want to be with me?” We regard the other as our territory, and defend it with all the neurotic energy we can muster.  Our inability to see them for who and what they truly are is a symptom of pervasive discontentment. This sort of dissatisfaction runs deep. It arises from and is sustained by a fundamental misunderstanding. Unless we are willing to look within ourselves for the causes and conditions that give rise to discontentment we will continue to behave more like an emotional terrorist than a lover!

Selfishness is the expression of ignorance. So, selfishness blinds us to love. It transforms the object of our love into a reference point, which the ego uses to define itself. So what is true love?

True love is stepping out of the center.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche so elegantly described love as, “A vast share of energy which is not centered, which is not egos at all. It is this energy which is the centerless dance of phenomena, the universe inter-penetrating and making love to itself.”

True love is relationship without a center; it is freedom from self. Being without a center there is no sense of being threatened. Instead of monitoring and micromanaging the affairs of the other, true love recognizes and respects the need for that individual to spontaneously express themselves. True love is a spacious state of mind that is threatened by nothing because, it has nothing to defend. This enables us to completely accept our partner as they are—the good and the bad! True love just loves without any thought as to whether or not they deserve it. In love we see the complete person. He might be the tough guy when he is around his friends, but cries his ass of when he watches Hotel Rwanda. Or by day she maybe prim & proper, but at night she farts in her sleep just like everyone else. In love there is enough space to accommodate our partners contradictions!

This space or openness is not sappy blind love. It is intelligent. Not only does it recognize and respect the natural right of the beloved to be themselves; love embraces the fact that this self is changing from one moment to the next. Love relates to the actual person, and not some static idea about the person.  In other words, love never gets boring.

The experience of true love is an unavoidable accident. It is the spontaneous malfunction of ego’s defenses. Love is the energy discovered in the gap between one fixed idea and the next. We all experience this from time to time when we are with someone whom we care deeply about. For a second, you see no faults in them. There is nothing missing. There is just the realization that the experience is whole; nothing need be added nor taken away. Contentment.

Far from being an illusion, romantic love is a microcosmic example of the ultimate macrocosmic truth: Life is a process. Everything is a dimension of this process. Therefore, we too are a process. Man is a verb, and not a noun. This process is without a beginning or end, and therefore has no center. So, there is nothing to defend. Life is spacious or playful, and the point is to flow or play. I hope that you are willing to open up enough to play with others!


About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


51 Responses to “Is It Love or Emotional Terrorism?”

  1. KJB says:

    Perhaps Ben, love is the complete dismemberment of self. True love is the willingness to be completely open to give completely of oneself with no strings attached. Love is an open book. True romantic love is when two people recognize that this uncommon willingness to open up ones life to another is mutual.

    Most people go around making "love" to their flavor of the week partners thinking that there is something special in their groin that will give them magical powers if they could only "tap that next hot piece of ass". This perversion leads to the line "I thought you understood" or "I'm just not ready for that kind of relationship". How much more selfish could an Ego be? (withholding the subject of rape).

    “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.” as Antoine de Saint-Exupery puts it. Openness and unity, not individuality. Sure all people are themselves an individual and must grow as naturally an individual must, singularly. But one can not discount the influence of those who surround that individual day to day.

  2. KJB says:

    No person creates themselves, even you Ben are a product of your youth. How your mother and father treated you, reared you. The values and morals of every cognitive revelation from the moment you were born to the moment you die will effect and change you in some small way, no matter what your opinion is in relation. What have you learned of yourself perception from your past relationships? We must ask ourselves this question. Have we been able to give completely of ourselves and are we willing to ask for the same to be given in return?

    Therefore romantic love could then be placed on the unfathomable level for many. As they attempt to capture others in “love” Slaves to the individuals inability to let go of their own hidden doors. Doors that the “Slave” would have no way of knowing about without the guidance of their “lover“.

    If God is love, and love is truth, then romantic love is the complete commitment of love and unshakable truth by two persons to each other, and thusly to the rest of the world. It will inevitably fall apart when either of the partners commits to withholding any part of that commitment to true love, or truth.

  3. KJB says:

    Selfish love is one of unequal commitment to openness and truth. It eventually requires one partner to give all of themselves to a partner who is unwilling to face the pains of crossing the threshold from self-defense to love (being willing to let all things be known at all times.)

    Humans living in truth are not afraid of being alone but of being deceived into pouring unequally of themselves into the blackhole of selfishness in Ego.

    If you want to experience true romantic love give up all of yourself, wear thick skin and prepare to forgive the past transgressions of others and most importantly your “lover. Utilizing Buddhist concepts: there is no problem (in truth).

  4. KJB says:

    (2 Cor 6:14-18):
    14Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? 15 What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, "I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, 18 and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."

    This verse simply points out that there should not be unequal commitment. If you want peace and honesty you must commit to it yourself, no matter what you are faced with. You may find that there are some who are not prepared to give the same to you but you must forgive them and carry on so that you do not lose yourself to the trap doors of ego.

  5. BenRiggs says:

    I agree that people do not just create themselves of their own volition out of thin blue air? But are you suggesting that we can not break with the past? Are you saying that an individual does not have the opportunity to put aside the example set before them by their parents and society, and interact with the present moment?

  6. yogi tobye says:

    "Love. Love is a verb. Love is a doing word. Fearless on my breath…" Massive attack, Teardrop.

  7. KJB says:

    Yes in a large way I am suggesting that we can not "break with the past"… it would seem that there is little truth to be had by simply running away from the events that took us to this present moment. Though I feel it is worth noting that I am not suggesting that we dwell in the past but simply allow all that was to exist with out censor.

    Without accepting current life of the past, do you simply zombie through life with the constant resonance in your head that "there isn't a problem"? Interacting with lights as if you are a newborn child from one day to the next, squinting and questioning the source of such great lumminance? or do you recognize all the attributes you can recall, the existance of electricity, etc…? Piecing your present moment together in harmony with the nobel recogniton that you are whole and yet still growing. There is always the moment before.

    The light of the moon is only a reflection… it can not help itself… it can not deny the suns radiance. The moon has no choice but to live in the present moment… though it's past craters may change the shape of it's current reflection.

  8. KJB says:

    If someone were uncomfortable with their past and the subject arose… where does the "present moment"? Does the present moment exist in their shifting eyes? Inside their mind is reeling with how to aproach the subject that they had long since put away, for fear of judgement perhaps?

    (in this common situation it would seem the past is directly affecting the present moment? it doesn't change that person chemically or biologically but depending on their relation to their past it may change their reflection.)

  9. KJB says:

    Teardrop on the fire
    Of a confession

  10. Lonely me says:

    Everything you described about selfish love is me. I am head over heels in love with this man who has other girlfriends about whom he does not discuss however has never denied having multiple relationships. Now for reasons best known to him he has been spending less and less time with me which makes me insecure and suspect him of lying and he in turn feels more suffocated. I want to love him unconditionally and accept him the way he is, however i end up doing just the opposite. Help!

  11. BenRiggs says:

    Reply below…

  12. BenRiggs says:

    I know that people make decisions on the basis of precedents set in their past…

    Because this happens does not mean that it has to. Nor does it mean that there are not those who identify with the present moment; with what is happening right now. Look, it is far more sane to identify with right now, than it is yesterday. I am right now what is happening right now, no?
    Right now does not have to be a reaction, rejection, or acceptance of yesterday.

    Take for example: My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother left. My interpretation of this event left in its wake a tendency to assume all women would in the end leave me. In the past couple of years this obsessively pessimistic voice has died in me. I listen to the person with a recognition that this person is not my mother. She says she wants to be here I believe her- not because she said it but because she is here!.
    Then it is up to me to say whether I want to be here, which is a decision I make by looking at my actions… Am I enjoying the relationship right now? Not yesterday, or should I be enjoying it… Right now do I want to be here?. If so, I make the decision based on that evidence to continue my participation in the relationship… If I am not enjoying it anymore, I am honest about that by leaving. It is all about thought and action being in agreement, which is I think is honesty.
    Anything else suggest that thought is narrow, or not open to the new information the present moment has to offer. If this is the case each relationship will share a distinct pattern because, you continue to do the same thing as dictated by the past.

  13. BenRiggs says:

    Lonely me, we buy into other peoples shit when we listen to what they in spite of the fact that their actions do not agree with their words…
    I am not Dr. Phil. I do not know you or this man, and am hesitant to offer any black and white advice. The one thing I can say is that it sounds like you are head over heels in love with an idea and not a person! You are in love with what you think about this man, and hate his actions. The idea of him gets you all hopped up, but his actions make you cringe.
    Ask yourself this: Is it healthier for me to identify this person and their role in my life by their words or their actions? Why do you want to date a man that does not care about whether or not he hurts you? What does that say about what you think of yourself? These are the questions I would ask myself!

  14. BenRiggs says:

    "Needy love" is most definitely something we will all go through, but it is not something we have to remain in. Let me be clear on this point: We do not discover centerless love by any other means than questioning and resolving the traumas we carry within us, that force us to be needy and guarded.
    When you have dealt with those traumas you will have dealt with the causes that gave rise to neediness, and you will become aware of your own internal wealth, which will prompt you to contribute to the relationship, as opposed to trying to suck it dry in order to solve some problem you have.

  15. KJB says:

    (2cents) Perhaps you should just consider him a friend and continue to live your life.

  16. robin says:

    I, for one, am very grateful you are not Dr. Phil! One in this world is quite enough. (hurmph!)
    But seriously, I see this as a really important topic in the evolution of consciousness in the US. Young people enter marriages/partnerships believing in the idea (illusion) of shall I say ego-defended, romantic love and set the stage for dysfunctional families. The media and popular culture really doesn't help. I appreciate how you have put forth the idea of honesty with self and others as a basis for true romantic love.
    My interest in this topic probably got started with John Lennon's " Imagine" which I first heard as a child. I kept thinking of what a world would look like if we did all love each other. I mean practically speaking, what would it look like? Would people still get married? Wouldn't we all love each other equally? OK, yes, I know – besides the whole sex issue- I'm not advocating mass promiscuity! I guess I still wonder if there really is a true romantic love aside from true love that we experience in an ego-less state?
    Robin Steed

  17. BenRiggs says:

    This article never says something is wrong with depending on your partner. It does however suggest using someoe is selfish….

  18. BenRiggs says:

    Why can't two people honestly engage in a promiscuous affair?

  19. KJB says:

    Did someone say people couldn't engage honestly in a promiscuous affair?

  20. KJB says:

    the near future is soon the past

  21. KJB says:

    You know what though Ben, The problem comes in with the honesty part of it in practice… with complete disclosure, it would seem there should be no problems. But you have to consider that you are then banking on the fact that both partners are at a point in their life & philosophy that they are prepared to be completely honest. Also that both parties are taking the time to listen to each other so that communication can occur and be completely consenting.

    Promiscuity promotes lots of negative habits. Not to mention if a person were to not be aware they had an STD they might be completely honest and still leave you with an uncomfortable or even deadly situation. But speaking non-medically, there is still alot a responsible person should consider and be aware of to truely have an honest promiscuous relationship (emotionally, psychologically, socially, etc.). Respect and honesty are ideas worth incubating.

    (Though I have not always seen with these eyes, I truely believe there is something more to be had in commiting to a monogamous relationship.)

  22. Tamara says:

    I agree that Love is not selfishness…. it is what I call "selflessness". Love is a beautiful process, a deep learning experience full of first realizing ones self, understanding ones self, falling in love with oneself, accepting oneself, and Loving your own inner being and then your very own outer world becomes full of LOVE…Love is an outer reflection of your inner self…your one true love God created for you to meet, for you to share your world with to make the world a better place to live, your romantic partner, your lifelong partner who is strong where you are weak and who teaches you more about LOVE than u ever though possible, who helps you truly grasp the joy, the bliss, and the peace of your heart ever more…. Yet, Some people never reach deep enough within themselves to experience such deep love; because their EGO dominates their hearts… but when LOVE is understood; Love happens! "And what do you got if you aint got love"?

  23. Tamara says:

    As Human Beings, its our choice to manifest and keep Love alive! Jesus Christ teaches this, Mother Teresa teaches this, Budda teaches this, Tich Naht Hahn teaches this, Dala Lami teaches this, etc. So now we can "Be the Change we wish to see in the world" And love abundantly every second….for LOVE CAST OUT ALL FEARS and CREATES an inner peace, quietness, and calmness that no one can ever take away!! So today CHOOSE LOVE!!! Figure out how to love truly love and do it!!!

    Yes, there is still true romantic love. For I experience everyday. because not only do I receive it… I GIVE IT!!! We have one purpose in this lifetime…its simple…but yet so many people dont…. why is this?? Our purpose is to LOVE! Love from our hearts not our ego…..

    Tamara Ezernack

  24. Tanya says:

    Yes, but just because a love is not selfish, it does not mean it cannot work…Love can let the other be, flourish, expand…but that does not unfortunately mean that the relationship will work, despite two loving souls who want only that. Love also needs to be in harmony, it needs to be nourished by another love which is heading in the same direction.

  25. Tanya says:

    I meant 'it does not mean it CAN work'! whoops, sorry

  26. BenRiggs says:

    I am not suggesting that I personally prefer a promiscuous relationship over a monogamous one.. But I am not a puritan either.
    Can two people be honest with one another and say I am not interested in a committed relationship right now, but would like to just have fun? I do not see the problem with that… If you find that your partner has not been totally honest with you or that their opinion has changed, and they do have an ambitious attitude about the relationship, then you can be honest with yourself and them by saying, this isn't what I am looking for. The same is to be said if I find myself wanting more out the relationship. I have to be honest about that. Otherwise who I am right now is being dictated by the past.
    I personally believe that committing to monogamous relationship is a powerful avenue of maturity and self discovery, and that is a huge part of the sacrament, as it brings US closer to God. But I think who one decides to walk this path with is a serious decision best made through trial and error.

  27. BenRiggs says:

    Tamara Ezernack how are you? Love your response!

  28. BenRiggs says:

    Are you saying that love (from an objective like ultimate love point of view) is not enough? That there has to be some kind of subjective compatibility?

  29. Tamara says:

    I doing amazing! Loving me up some life 🙂 How is your world going Mr. Writer!??

  30. Tamara says:

    Tanya Love is what makes the world go around….the relationship does work as long as understand one anothers love language…the relationship doesnt work when you dont have the right love languages… its sooo important to understand one anothers love languages… when one expresses love differently rather than with what the other needs then one becomes to feel unloved; we all have different love languages. Whats yours?? So ideally u must be with someone who expresses your love language naturally..because they will fullfill ur emotional needs by just being themselves 🙂


  31. Tanya says:

    Yes, I totally agree Tamara, yet time can change that language, it can make what the other seeks turn in direction, so despite all love for the other that you have, you will no longer reach out and connect, because, as you so rightly say, you start to speak different languages. Life moulds you and forms you, and despite all your best intentions, you can sometimes no longer hold on to 'what was'…

    Thanks for taking the time! xx

  32. Chloe says:

    Great post, Ben. Love is something that is difficult to talk about in concrete terms, but you've done an eloquent job here.

  33. KJB says:

    I love the romanitc language and ideals here, thank you for them… but I want to challenge to break it down slightly further to say that the "love languages" may be more psychological than mystical… trail and error, child hood intamacy experience, perpetual conditioning, acts of nature, and so on… Suggesting that your Love Languages are the way each individual expresses their greater perception of the present moment and their conditioned reaction to sociological situations and intimacy. Both, compounding subconcious/ concious perception of all things past with the limited perception of the imidiate surrounding circumstances.

    Thought: In the process of life errors will be made… while life goes on.

    (if what I wrote makes sense to you, it shouldn't contradict your post in the least. Thanks agiain)

  34. Tanya says:

    So true KJB!

  35. Tamara says:

    Yes I agree…we learn how to love…love is a verb..learning to love comes from your childhood experience, from your experiences, etc..but ur past does not have to shape your future nor your present moment. At anytime, u can decide to love….I think love is both psychological (mind) and mystical (Heart), but at the end of the day, we as human beings must be conciously aware of how to love…and not be afraid to love deeply, to open our hearts, and to let go…..and trust the mystical path God has blessed us so greatly with…


  36. BenRiggs says:

    Thank you very much Chloe!

  37. 13thfloorelevator says:

    People "use" each other all the time. The gist is in how it's done and why. Like I said . . . neurosis. Good luck .

  38. 13thfloorelevator says:

    Love is actually a very poor indicator for the success of a partnership or marriage. What is it, exactly, that you are concerned with "working"?

  39. BenRiggs says:

    Regardless as to why or how I am using someone I am using them, which means that there autonomy is being ignored. I see them as an instrument I can wield around until I get some need met. This is selfish. I fail to see how in the end selfishness can lead to anything other than conflict and therefore suffering… Am I missing something?

  40. yogawithbeth says:

    thank you for sharing such beautiful language

  41. papito bodhi says:

    hmmmmm. well. i must say that i felt a little strange about the article. i liked the theme yet it somehow turned into a giant polarity. love equals this, not love equals that.
    more questions arise and the article does not allow for that freedom, that exploration of the grey murky areas of love. and there are many of those.
    life (and love) are not so black and white my dharma friend.

  42. Jennifer says:

    This is interesting, but I wonder at the assumption that such a relationship dynamic is the fault of only one party, the one who is in the position of being "selfish". In my own experience, and from what I've seen in the experience of others is that such a dynamic can arise because of the relationship situation rather than the orientation of selfishness coming in.

    In other words, one example you use is that of jealous behaviors that turn tyrannical. I have experienced and seen in others that one relationship can inspire jealous feelings while previous or later ones did not. In such cases, I believe it to be circumstantial, and while still an indication of something unhealthy happening, I would be hesitant to lay responsibility at the foot of only the jealous party.

    One can find themselves going to the mid-point of the "love-hallway" only to find their beloved is not there when they said they would be, or had been before. In bewilderment, one then goes all the way to the other end of the hall and finding their beloved STILL not there, confusion and anxiety can easily arise in those not so easily moved to anxiety. Should the balance continue to be thus one-sided, a terribly unhealthy dynamic sets in, and rather quickly.

    This has less to do with selfishness, and more to do an unclear situation. Often in such cases, the "absent" beloved seeks to keep the other and thus may say the right things, or be present just often enough that love is glimpsed and experienced sporadically. Many, many, many behavioral studies have shown that strange things happen when random reward or punishment is present. In random reward situations, motivational behavior is exponentially increased. In random punishment, learned helplessness (which looks much like depression and neuroticism) sets in.

    I think before assessing whether one is engaging in "selfish" love, one needs to assess if they have become trapped themselves in a different kind of selfishness – one of neglect. In this case, one selfishness has become a coping mechanism for another selfishness. Of course, if one finds this describes them in the majority of their relationships, that is a different matter.

    But, I do yet agree with you that if you find yourself behaving in ways you've described here…it is a sign of something unhealthy and dark. Expose it to the light of awareness, and extend love to yourself in the process.

  43. Ella says:

    Brilliantly presented, slurped this down like an udon noodle and wanted more! I shared this piece with my readers, your point is well taken and appreciated. I often end up in this conversation, not just with clients but with everyone I know. Upon reviewing some of my earlier relationships, I've been able to shed light on some rather dark situations. We can get so caught up in preconceived relationship roles and believe we're in love and righteous with our swords. Only through some serious trench digging and commitment to our liberation from unexamined beliefs can we move from terrorist trick or treater to trusting partner. Having walked down the planks only makes me appreciate where I stand today all the more.

    "Unless we are willing to look within ourselves for the causes and conditions that give rise to discontentment we will continue to behave more like an emotional terrorist than a lover!"= yuppity yup yup yup.

  44. […] keep them in a cage constructed out of our fears and expectations. We utilize various forms of emotional terrorism to keep them in these cages, but since staying in a cage means denying their very sense of being […]

  45. […] Chapter 9-a: Is It Love or Emotional Terrorism? […]

  46. Elaine says:

    Also told by a very good friend of mine.

  47. Horte says:

    So difficult to define love, you have done marvelously!

  48. myla fonseca says:

    very good article, trungpa's love definition is one of the best ever!!! thx.

    i would only add: "For a second, you see no faults in them [and in nothing else around you]. There is nothing missing. There is just the realization that the experience is whole; nothing need be added nor taken away." 🙂