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The Existential Moment: Love

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,
Of every species that men know, I say,
And then so huge a crowd did they make,
That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
Was so full, that there was scarcely space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.

  • Excerpt from Parliament of Fowls
    by Geoffrey Chaucer

As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s worth delving into its rich history and what it teaches. Tracing back to the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, Valentine’s Day transformed with the spread of Christianity. It became associated with Saint Valentine, a martyr who, according to legend, sent a love letter signed “Your Valentine.” Chaucer romanticized the day in the Middle Ages, linking it with the tradition of courtly love. Today, we principally celebrate romantic love, exchanging notes and small gifts, often mass-produced (e.g., Valentine’s cards) in our modern, commercial world.

While Valentine’s Day focuses on romantic love, love is complex. The Greeks identified several types of love, a lost nuance. “Eros” is passionate, romantic love. “Philia” refers to deep friendship and goodwill. “Storge” is the unconditional, protective love often found within families. “Agape” is a selfless, universal love beyond personal affection. Each type offers a lens to view relationships, including the therapeutic relationship.

Existential Humanistic Therapy is relational and experiential. What is the role of love in therapy and in the therapeutic relationship?

“Unconditional Positive Regard,” an attitude and approach popularized by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, entails a therapist’s non-judgmental, empathetic acceptance of their client, more or less regardless of what the client says or does. This approach doesn’t necessarily imply approval of all behaviors but an understanding and validation of the client’s feelings and experiences. It’s about creating a supportive and safe environment, crucial for effective therapy and fostering growth.

The Greek taxonomy of love clarifies the role of love in therapy. “Eros” risks boundary crossing. It’s a situation to get consultation support if the therapist feels it and a potential clinical opportunity if the client feels it. “Philia” is lovely in therapy, but let’s be honest: we don’t always like our clients. That’s not the end of the world. It may be part of the reason they are there (i.e., relationship challenges), offering an opportunity. “Storge” or “motherly love” is also lovely in therapy. The warmth and support matters. However, the relationship with our kids or siblings is different.

“Agape” illuminates the role of love in therapy. “Unconditional Positive Regard” shares similarities with “agape’s” selfless nature. Both involve acceptance and care that is not contingent on someone’s actions or responses. We care without expectation. The approach helps create a “safe space” for openness, honesty, and connection. Notably, “agape” isn’t about what our clients (or others) do. It’s about a choice we make. It’s a powerful tool, arguably the most powerful, in therapy. And, frankly, our world cries for it.

Happy Valentine’s Day

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