Love as Passion

These are a few notes and reflections on the early chapters of Luhmann’s Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (English translation, 1986).

Marriage based on love, or the love marriage, evolved to solve a particular social problem, or to resolve a paradox. It isn’t simply natural or inevitable. It had to be cultivated; it’s a cultural thing. The love marriage is characteristic of post-17th-century functionally differentiated society. This is also the time when the nature/culture distinction became influential. See Thomas Hobbes.

Societies today that still practice arranged marriage are not functionally differentiated–or only partially functionally differentiated. These are societies in which everyone’s life is tightly bound to the family. Families remain together in the same place, if possible, (or travel as a group like gypsies Bedouins, Irish Travellers, migrant workers) and live the same kind of life, if possible, for generation after generation. The family pattern is repeated. Family cohesion takes precedence over individual happiness or self-determination. In fact, the individual isn’t even a relevant concept. The family or clan, as an autopoietic system, must survive generation after generation.

But the great love stories of world literature (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Dido and Aeneas, Dante and Beatrice) are based on passion, and this passion has no regard for family ties or conventional morality. Love as passion can tear families apart (read Anna Karenina), as parents disown children who have fallen in love with the “wrong” person or when a person cares more for their romantic partner than for their family of origin—or even when a family member develops a passion for something that the family disapproves of or doesn’t understand.

In a functionally differentiated society, the individual (at least upon reaching adulthood) is, to a greater or lesser extent, cut loose from the family. The person is expected to make their own way in the world. The more functionally differentiated the society, the more individuals are their own. Of course, a family member, after some time on their own, may return and live like their family has always lived (as in the Amish custom), but that is supposed to be a choice rather than a necessity, .

A major factor here is the complex economy of a functionally differentiated society, which puts pressure on the traditional, multigenerational family (grown children move away to take jobs or seek higher education). The modern educational system also explicitly comes between parents and children. The family and education system, contra Parsons, do not work in harmony.

For Luhmann, love as passion is a communication medium, and this passion is not really associated with marriage. Passionate love is supposed to happen outside of marriage, or is supposed to lead up to marriage but not last long thereafter. That’s why most fairy tale romances and romantic comedies end at the wedding. Love as passion is a feature of the extramarital affair or premarital life. Think of Prince Charles and Camilla. Passion is not bound to a moral code, and it has no regard for political, religious, economic norms, or for any other communication system. Passion as a communication medium reproduces itself until it can no longer do so. Passion is excessive and unreasonable; it destabilizes human relationships.

Love (like language) has evolved to solve the problem of the operative closure of the psychic system. No one can know what another person is thinking or feeling, or how another psychic system processes information. But love is characterized by a willingness or effort to understand what another person is thinking and feeling. All that’s necessary is the willingness or effort—not the ability—to understand. In order to truly understand another person, according to Luhmann,

One would have to participate in the other person’s self-referential information processing or at least be able to adequately reconstruct it, in order to be able to ‘understand’ how input works in him as information and how the person in turn reconnects output (what is said, for example) and information processing.

The communicative medium of love functions to make this seemingly improbable step possible. This is what is called ‘understanding’ in everyday parlance, and finds expression as the wish to be understood and–in the form of the complaint one is not sufficiently understood–is pushed beyond the bounds of the technically possible. (Love as Passion, p. 24.)

Love makes unrealistic or unreasonable demands on the other person’s capacity to understand. But love is not about reason.

The understanding issue also applies to close friendship, which is all about the effort to mutually understand and accept another person. Deep friendship is not so different than love; it just lacks the sexual aspect.

Friendship, if we think of it as communication medium, may have evolved to deal with (not actually solve) the problem of psychic closure, or the sense of aloneness. This “problem” can never be completely solved. Communication in general, or society, evolved to try to solve that problem. Language doesn’t solve the problem of the operational closure of psychic systems, but it works well enough to coordinate human actions.

Passion is only one kind of love. In addition to intimate friendship, there is, of course parental love, etc. Each kind of love has its own semantics.

In love, a great deal is left unspoken or excluded from communication. Luhmann argues that

love solves its own attendant communicative problems in a completely unique manner. To put it paradoxically, love is able to enhance communication by largely doing without communication. It makes use primarily of indirect communication, relies on anticipation and on having already understood. And love can thus be damaged by explicit communication, by discreet questions and answers, because such openness would indicate that something has not been understood as a matter of course. (25)

In other words, one is not supposed to be constantly asking, Do you love me?

Georg Simmel said something similar–that married couples should not share all their secrets. A degree of separation in necessary and healthy. The individual is observable inside and outside of a marriage or intimate relationship. A great deal of the experience of each member of intimate relationship will be excluded from the intimate relationship/social system.

Every social system or structure has its own semantics. Semantics supports social structure. So there is a semantics of love that we are supposed to learn. These aren’t just internal, subjective experiences. We learn how to recognize the signs of “true love,” and we come to know what is expected or how love is supposed to work. In the 17th century, the period Luhmann discusses in Love as Passion, people learned how to love, or the semantics of love, by reading novels. Today, we have movies, particularly romantic comedies.

Although passion breaks all the rules of morality and common sense, it is “nevertheless tolerated as a sort of disease and honored by being assigned a special role” (26).


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