The Benefits of Romantic Love

Nathaniel Branden knows something about relationships. The author of "My Years with Ayn Rand," he had a long, tumultuous romance with the author of the novels "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," despite the fact that they were both married. He was the best-known figure in Rand's inner circle until she kicked him out in 1968 because he'd fallen in love with another woman (not, as it turned out, his wife). In the years since, Branden, a psychotherapist, has written several books on love and self-esteem. His classic "The Psychology of Romantic Love" was first published in 1980; a revised and updated version goes on sale this week. Branden now sees patients and leads workshops as a corporate consultant based in Los Angeles. NEWSWEEK's Temma Ehrenfeld spoke to Branden, 78, about how his views on open relationships, and on romantic love, have evolved over the past four decades. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The subtitle of your book is "Romantic Love in an Anti-Romantic Age." What do you mean by "anti-romantic"?
Nathaniel Branden:
We are living in a time of terrible emotional shallowness. There is a lack of depth and passion in young people, and it shows up in their relationships. It's not good news for romantic love, and that means it's not good for people. They don't understand what they're depriving themselves of. There has to be some way back to intimacy.

You write eloquently about the courage and self-esteem that love requires.
Romantic love can be terrifying. We experience another human being as enormously important to us. So there is surrender—not a surrender to the other person so much as to our feeling for the other person. What is the obstacle? The possibility of loss. Need creates a vulnerability that can be frightening and enraging. Romantic love is not for children. Ten-year-olds can't have romantic love and neither can a 35-year-old whose view of his self-interest is fit for a 10-year-old.

Do you need to be happy yourself before you can be happy in a marriage?
Yes. If we are happy within ourselves, we don't accept or demand that our partner should fulfill every need. We need to be comfortable with our own company.

Some people say the real challenge is to be happily independent, relying on friendships rather than a romantic partner.
The evidence is strong that people want romantic love. I see it with gay clients as well as straight. I'm not writing a prescription for the whole race, but from the work I've done I've seen that people want a relationship in which they are loved and valued in a very profound way, where they will accept and be accepted, will admire and be admired and will have sex.

What advice do you give young people about creating passion and romance in their relationships?
Many years ago I was having lunch in a restaurant and woman came in whom I knew slightly. She was dating a friend of mine. I said, how are you getting on? She said, "We've had a very good thing. I'm a very experienced woman sexually, and he's the best lover I've ever had. But I'm going to end the relationship pretty soon." I said, That's a pretty strong endorsement. What's the negative? She said, "Nathaniel, he's just too eager to please. He's technically very good, but everything is for me." He gave no indication of selfishness of a benign kind.

Selfishness isn't usually the word we use to describe love.
Of all the nonsense written about love, none is more absurd than the notion that ideal love is selfless. To love is to see myself in you and to wish to celebrate myself with you. What I love is the embodiment of my values in another person. Love is an act of self-assertion, self-expression and a celebration of being alive.

I'm not talking about acting like nothing matters but your own needs. I'm talking about having a healthy respect for one's own needs and interests, coupled with an understanding that that's true for everyone else. Self-esteem is vital. It has become something of a cliché to observe that if we do not love ourselves, we cannot love anyone else. That is true enough, but it is only part of the picture. If we do not love ourselves, it is almost impossible to believe fully that we are loved by someone else. It is almost impossible to accept love.

Do you believe in love at first sight?
To love a person is to know and love the person. But we can pick up an enormous amount about another human being just by exchanging a couple of sentences. It's not yet knowledge, it's an intuition that motivates you to want to find out more. You meet a man who makes a profound impression on you. He asks you out, and over time you find that he's who you thought he was. You find yourself feeling more and more. I wouldn't call that falling in love instantly, but it can feel like it was instant because of the strong immediate attraction. It became love after you had validated it by experience.

You received a lot of publicity many years ago about your open marriage and affair with Ayn Rand, who was also married at the time. What do you think now about the problems posed by jealousy and the idea of non-exclusive sexual relationships?
I think that a non-exclusive relationship is an almost certain recipe for disaster. Cultures that take extramarital sex for granted are not cultures in which marriage is associated with intense passion. When we love passionately, I believe the desire for sexual exclusivity is entirely normal.

If we wish to minimize problems of jealousy, we must never give our partner grounds to doubt our honesty. And we must never ignore or refuse to deal with our partner's painful feelings.

Most couples or individuals who have experimented with sexually "open" relationships in their younger years are generally inclined, by the time they are in their 40s or early 50s, to favor sexual exclusivity. There is the feeling that romantic love, in the context of an exclusive relationship, may in the end be the most exciting adventure there is. This is my own conviction.