By Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D.
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Mae West
Posted Aug 29, 2009
“I love you much too much, I’ve known it from the start, but yet my love is such, I can’t control my heart” Alma Cogann
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Mae West
Love is morally desirable as it entails profound care for another person. It is hard to see how such positive care can be criticized. Nevertheless, people do criticize lovers and especially those whose love appears to be excessive. Can one tell one’s beloved that he loves her too much?
Romantic love is described in idealistic terms as something huge, uncompromising, and without limitations. Statements like “The world has changed, everything is different now,” “Loving him is wonderful; my whole being expands into unprecedented realms,” “I am surrounded by nothing but you” are common among lovers. If “All you need is love,” and “You are everything I need,” then it is difficult to see how love can be criticized as being excessive.
There is indeed a view claiming that unlike other emotions, love cannot be criticized since it consists of disinterested care for the beloved, which involves promoting only her well-being. According to this view, the value of love is not determined, or at least not entirely determined, by its practical value as a means to achieve certain of the lover’s ends; rather, it focuses upon the well-being of the beloved. Accordingly, we would not usually criticize a person who is deeply and happily in love with someone just because we think he could have found a better partner.
However, even if love were concerned solely with disinterested care for the beloved (and this is not obviously so), there is still the question of what constitutes proper caring. Love is not a merely theoretical attitude; it has profound behavioral implications for our life. And if such behavior becomes improper, then the issue of whether one can love too much might arise (contrary to the above view).
Emotions might be harmful when they are excessive. Emotional excess is harmful for the same reasons that other kinds of excess are harmful. As in other emotions, excessiveness in love can impede the lover from seeing a broader perspective. Even normal cases of romantic love tend to create a narrow temporal perspective that focuses on the beloved and is often oblivious to other considerations. Accordingly, it has been argued that it is impossible to love and be wise and that the true opposite of love is justice. Little wonder then that, as Stevie Wonder puts it, “All in love is fair.”
Although it is difficult to define what constitutes excessiveness in love, characterizing love as “too much” implies that some damage has been done-either to the lover or the beloved. When intense love blinds our sight and makes us act improperly, people may say that such intense love is too much. A remark such as, “I couldn’t help it, I was madly in love with her,” indicates that sometimes love can be excessive.
Loving too much can be problematic when it hurts the lover, which typically occurs in the long term. The lover’s intense love might be excessive in the sense that it prevents her from realizing the true nature of their relationship. For example, her intense love might prevent her from noticing, or at least admitting, that his attitude toward her is humiliating or that their relationship has very little chance of surviving in the long term. Hence, contrary to the claim cited above, it is possible to criticize someone’s intense love on the grounds that such intensity prevents him from seeing his partner’s faults or from recognizing that he could choose another partner who might make him happier and more satisfied in the longer run. For this reason, classical art often depicts the God of love Cupid as blind indicating that lovers are blind to the faults or the unsuitability of the one they love.
Lovers may also feel that they love too much when they believe that their beloveds do not love them to the same extent. When a lover feels that she gives more than she gets, she will feel that she loves her partner too much. If she feels that she gets more or less what she gives, the feeling of loving too much is unlikely to arise. Needless to say, love should not be a mechanical calculation of what we give and get, but where there is a profound lack of reciprocity, it is natural to feel one is loving too much (see here). People who love too much often keep investing in a relationship that has no chance of surviving as their beloved does not love them to the same extent.
Loving too much may also hurt the beloved. A typical example of this is when the lover does not allow the beloved to enjoy sufficient private space. This behavior occurs in minor forms in many relationships, although it is typically a characteristic of pathological cases. Thus, a man who killed his girlfriend (in his view, he did so out of love) said, “Once she said to me: you love me too much, and I don’t like that. You invest so much.” (see here (link is external)). It should be noted that the wish to be with each other as much as possible is a main characteristic of love and not an external feature of it. The nature of the private space is determined by the given personalities and by other factors, such as the stage in which the relationship is currently. Thus, this wish may be more pronounced in the infatuation stage, when it makes little sense to accuse lovers of loving too much.
With regard to parental love, some might claim that loving a child too much could be harmful as it can spoil her. Others might argue that the problem here is not in loving the child too much, but in not understanding what is good for her in the short and long term. To this one might respond that it is precisely the nature of intense emotions not to realize the genuine nature of the given circumstances.
Profound romantic love is not in its nature excessively wrong; but some cases of such love have a greater chance of being so.
The above view can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: “Darling, my love to you is so profound and intense and I will maintain it for the rest of my life. But if you feel somewhat uncomfortable with how I express this love, please whisper this in my ear, while not forgetting to also kiss it.”