top of page

"Stirring the Oatmeal" Love

The following entry in my blog is for people who like to read and want to understand married love in a hopefully better way. For some reason, I feel the need to defend my position here, even though it is not really mine but borrowed from Jungian analyst and author, Dr. Robert A. Johnson. (I've read and enjoyed his many books, but that is another story.) I first found him while in college years ago, just as I found Jungian psychology and any number of other ideas that enhanced my understanding of the world and my experiences in it. Not every source I read back then was Catholic, and that is the case still. I love reading and learning not only for its own sake--for the knowledge I gain and the insights I can share--but also for the glory I can relate back to God regarding His creation, of all that is good and wonderful. The following are notes and reflections I composed as a college student, but I find them amazingly insightful even now and am willing to share them here. Whence the whimsical title above, and consequently an anonymous picture of a couple evidently in love over menial tasks, you will come to see...all in good time.

My compilation of insights gathered from

"We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love," by Dr. Robert A. Johnson

The origin of romantic love for Western Society is recorded in our literature in the myth of Tristan and Iseult. It was called courtly love: the model of a brave knight who worshiped a fair lady as his inspiration, the symbol of all beauty and perfection, the ideal that moved him to be noble, spiritual, refined and high‑minded.

Courtly love was based on a completely new view of love and relationship: it idealized a “spiritual” relationship between men and women. Courtly love was an antidote to the patriarchal attitude in Tristan’s world: it idealized the feminine; it taught a rough knight to seek a woman who is more than a woman, the symbol of something so perfect and divine that she inspires a passion that goes beyond physical attraction, beyond love, to a sense of worship. Like the knights of old, we still seek the “spiritual” intensity, the ecstasy and the despair, the joyful meetings and the tearful partings of the romances.

Although romantic love has existed in other cultures throughout history (ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, and feudal Japan) ours is the only society that makes romance the basis of our marriages and love relationships and the cultural ideal of “true love.”

In our culture people refer to romantic love as almost any attraction between man and woman. A couple sexually involved is “romantically involved.” Or a woman may say, “I wish my husband would be more romantic,” when she actually means that her husband should be more attentive, more thoughtful, and show her more feeling. Our confusion in language tells us that we have lost the consciousness of what love is, what romance is, and what the differences between them are.

An example of this can be found in the new standards of right and wrong romance brings about. In the myth, Tristan finds himself inebriated by a love potion, and caught up in an affair with his king’s wife, Iseult. Despite Tristan’s betrayal of his duties as knight to the king, despite Iseult’s marriage vows and life with her husband, the couple continues their trysts, believing themselves to be “innocent,” “pure of heart.” Overcome by a truth and a power so awesome that they have lost their bearings, they resonate to another world, which has set them in opposition to all the standards of the ordinary human world. Seized by passion, the ego of Western man (represented by Tristan) finds opened to him a rare and wonderful world, which demands that he obliterate all sense of right and wrong. Commitment and all the standards of loyalty and faithfulness with which we use to sustain our human relationships are opposed by romance, which, in its purest form, seeks only one thing—passion. Our ideal of romance says that there is nothing so important as to be “in love,” to feel that intensity and ecstasy, to believe that one has once again found one’s missing soul revealed in the beloved.

Modern man believes that being committed to finding passion, being committed to being eternally “in love,” is the same thing as being committed to a person. Typically, he will begin a marriage with his soul‑image projected on his wife; he finds that he loves her, he values and respects her, and he feels the beauty of being committed to her and knowing that she is committed to him. (Actually, he only begins to know her as a woman after the projection begins to lift.) Then one day he meets a woman who catches the projection of his own inner idealized woman. The passion fades; the passion migrates to someone else he feels attracted to. He knows nothing of anima and less of projection; he only knows that this “other woman” seems like the essence of perfection; a golden light seems to envelop her, and his life feels exciting and meaningful when he is with her. If he is committed only to follow where passion leads, then there can be no true loyalty to an individual person.

Almost everybody is looking for “committed relationship.” Most people sense that this is what they need, and people talk about “relationship” incessantly. But for all our talk about “commitment,” we are sabotaged by our assumptions before we begin. We assume that the single ingredients for relationship are affection and commitment. If we look clearly, we begin to see that romance is a completely different energy system, a completely distinct set of values, from love and commitment. If it is romance we seek, it is romance we shall have—but not commitment and not relationship.

Romantic love is “story‑book” love. It doesn’t mean loving someone, but “being in love.” This is a psychological phenomenon that is very specific. The sure signs of true love are said to occur “when we are in love, when we believe we have found the ultimate meaning of life, revealed in another human being. We feel we are finally completed, that we have found the missing parts of ourselves. Life suddenly seems to have a wholeness, a superhuman intensity that lifts us high above the ordinary plane of existence.”

In the story of Tristan and Iseult, huge forces at work in us are vividly depicted in symbol: the dynamics of romantic love at work in the male and female psyche. Inability to recognize and channel these forces shows that the feminine values of feeling, relatedness, and soul consciousness have been virtually driven out of our culture by our patriarchal mentality. The effects of these forces is that men unconsciously search for their lost feminine side, for the feminine values in life, and attempt to find their unlived feminine side through women. And they describe why most women spend a tremendous amount of their energy in vain efforts to make a loving relationship with a man and to deal with his seemingly incomprehensible feelings, ideas, and reactions.

Jung found that the psyche is androgynous, made up of masculine and feminine components. Every man and woman comes equipped with a psychological structure which includes, in its wholeness, the richness of both sides, both natures, both sets of capacities and strengths: complementary opposites which balance and complete each other. No aspect of the human psyche can live in a healthy state unless it is balanced by its complementary opposite.

The psyche sees our capacity for relatedness and love as a “feminine” quality, emanating from the feminine side of the psyche. Feminine qualities bring meaning into life: relatedness, to other human beings, the ability to soften power with love, awareness of our inner feelings and values, respect for our earthly environment, a delight in earth’s beauty, and the introspective quest for inner wisdom.

By contrast, it views the ability to wield power, control situations, and defend territory as masculine strengths. To become a complete man or woman, the sum of these divergent forces, energies and qualities inhering within must be consciously accepted as a legitimate part of ourselves. Swords and lances may build empires, but they don’t give us a sense of meaning or purpose.

Western men are taught that the male ego must have control over everything within and everything around it. The one power left in life that destroys our illusion of control is romantic love. “Falling in love” with someone is an overwhelming event, deep in the unconscious psyche that happens to someone. One does not “do” it, one does not control it, one does not understand it: it just happens to one. What man‑in‑love sees in woman (or woman in man) makes him feel that he has finally realized himself, that he sees all the meaning of life. He sees a special reality revealed in her; he feels completed, ennobled, refined, spiritualized, uplifted, transformed into a new, better and whole man.

The supernatural world suddenly invades the natural world through romantic love. The fire descends from heaven! The world of soul and spirit, the overwhelming power of the religious potentiality in one’s soul, suddenly invades the ordinary world of human relationships. What we had always longed for, a vision of ultimate meaning and unity is suddenly revealed to us in the form of another human being.

When the magical wine of romance inflames man’s limbs, as it did to Tristan, he sees not so much the woman before him, but a radiant vision of the goddess of his own soul within himself who is suddenly and magically in residence within the flesh of a mortal woman. Western man looks on woman as the symbol of something spiritual instead of seeing her simply as a woman—as a human being. It still hasn’t occurred to him that he is caught in the ambivalence he feels toward his own inner feminine, sometimes rushing toward it in search of his lost soul, sometimes disdaining it as a needless complication in his life. This is the unhealed split within man that he projects onto outer woman, the war he fights at her expense.

One of the great paradoxes of romantic love is that it never produces human relationship as long as it stays romantic. It produces drama, daring adventures, wondrous, intense love scenes, jealousies, and betrayals; but people never seem to settle into relationship with each other as flesh‑and‑blood human beings until they are out of the romantic love stage, until they love each other instead of being “in love.”

Romantic love is afflicted with illusion: a man wakes up to his illusion when it suddenly dawns on him that the woman he is in love with will not, cannot, solve all his problems and make his life blissful with no further effort on his part. His wife awakens to the illusion when she sees that he is someone different from the man she thought she was marrying—and worse, that he is often sensitive and thoughtless just like all other men. She hadn’t seen the man; she’d seen her illusion.

We begin to see why this is so when we understand that it is the experience of the divine, of one’s own soul or anima that Tristan seeks in Iseult, that man unconsciously seeks in woman (woman may also project her feminine principle onto men) his own spiritual world. These illusions come when a man invests his soul into his personal situations. The soul can only do what it was designed to do, what it was destined to do: it can only lead us toward the infinite. If we put our soul into finite situations it keeps leading us toward the infinite, the archetypal. The soul cannot be blamed for being so good that it persistently attempts to extend man’s finite situation beyond its finite limitations. Rather, she (the soul) converts it into an allegory of great archetypal themes, eternal questions, holy quests and spiritual crusades. When we see a man put his soul into all kinds of finite human situations, we say that he is “blowing it all out of proportion” or “making a federal case of it” or “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

Our souls are pointed toward God, like sunflowers that face only the light; they see only the archetypes, the inner “gods,” the great leitmotifs behind all individual existences. This is why anima puts such a strain on personal life: anima is not interested in whether my bank account is balanced, whether my relationships with people are clear, whether the lawn is mowed. Her eyes are on the cosmic accounts, balanced in the scales of Libra, where the only issue is my inner wholeness. Her only interest is whether I live and experience every great theme of human existence that is contained in potential within my being.

A man who puts anima into his marriage is putting his fantasy into his marriage and turning it into a series of archetypal scenes, a playground for the impersonal forces of the unconscious. His wife, if she is not joining the fantasy, begins to realize that she is not so much a wife as the supporting cast in a gigantic stage play that goes on forever in her husband’s inner world.

In the instant a man falls “in love,” he goes beyond love itself and begins the worship of his soul‑in‑woman. Anima begins to blow his human relationship out of human proportion. Love is not just love but a divine ecstasy; every sight of the beloved brings not a quiet happiness, but unearthly bliss. But then, as soul swings her vision to the negative side of the archetypes, every mood becomes the occasion for a fight or a separation, every slight is the ultimate betrayal, every glance at another man or woman justifies blasts of anger and jealousy. In short, every ordinary event becomes part of a huge drama.

Strangely, this is the point where a man feels most unique, most individual, as though this has never happened to anyone other than him and his beloved. In fact, it is at this point that he loses his identity, his individuality, and becomes a player in a universal drama which at first leaves him feeling so intense, so out of the ordinary. But when subjected to the impersonal, divine power contained in the anima and animus projections, human relationships simply incinerate—“burn out.” People often say that they are “burned out” by a relationship. It is literally true. They are so exhausted by the sheer intensity of romantic love as we try to live by it, by the ecstasies and battles, the partings and reconciliations, that there is finally nothing left—neither life force nor goodwill nor affection—with which to love and companion someone on a human level.

It is no wonder that many people, finding themselves caught in the illusion of romantic love, decide that love is meaningless and give up on it. But there is a better way to avoid this illusion: we must pay heed to our souls, restore the sacred in our lives. So much of our lives are spent in a longing and a search—for what, we do not know. So many of the things we think we want turn out to be the masks behind which our real desires hide; they are the symbols for the actual values and qualities for which we hunger. They are not reducible to physical or material things, not even to a physical person; they are psychological qualities: love, truth, honesty, loyalty, purpose—something we feel is noble, precious, and worthy of our devotion. We try to reduce all this to something physical—a house, a car, a better job, or a human being—but it doesn’t work. Without realizing it, we are searching for the Sacred. And the sacred is not reducible to anything else.

Our irreverent culture teaches us from childhood that nothing is holy, that nothing deserves our reverence, that everything in life can be reduced to romantic love, sex, physical possessions, drugs, and people. The wise man knows that an entire dimension of his life must be removed from human relationships and reestablished elsewhere, on another level of himself—a level that he can’t live outwardly, that he must live by himself. To his ego it feels as though he is impoverishing his human relationship or cheating himself. At first he feels that half the thrills, excitement, fun, and intensity is taken out of human relationship. With time he learns that his soul‑life never really belonged there and that his human relationship is actually thriving better without it; but for a time, it feels dismal.

The fault in romantic love is not that we love ourselves, but that we love ourselves wrongly. By trying to revere the unconscious through our romantic projections on other people, we miss the reality hidden in those projections: we don’t see that it is our own selves we are searching for. We need to revere the unconscious parts of ourselves that we project. When we love our projections, when we honor our romantic ideals and fantasies, we affirm infinitely precious dimensions of our total selves. Love of the total self cannot be a centering of the universe on our egos. It is the ego’s seeking after the other “persons” of the inner world, who hide within us. Love of self is ego’s longing for the larger dimensions of the unconscious, its willingness to open itself to the other parts of our total being, and to their points of view, their values, their needs. Understood in this way, love of self is also the divine love: our search for the ultimate meaning, for our souls, for the revelation of God.

Romantic love can only last so long as a couple is “high” on one another, so long as the money lasts and the entertainments are exciting. By contrast, true love exists regardless of our opinions or feelings about what it ought to be. Love is different from what our culture has led us to expect: human love causes a man to see the intrinsic value in a woman; therefore, love leads him to honor and serve her, rather than to try to use her for his ego’s purposes. When love is guiding him, he is concerned with her needs and well-being, not on his own wants and whims. And if the woman is relating through love, she will take the same attitude toward him.

The antidote to the potion of romance is the discovery of the sacred in the midst of the humble and ordinary. A wise woman once called true love “stirring‑the‑oatmeal” love. Stirring the oatmeal is a humble act--not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, making do with the budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To “stir the oatmeal” means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty, in simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything.

When a couple are genuinely related to each other, their love is experienced in the small tasks they do together: the quiet conversation when the day’s upheavals are at rest, the soft word of understanding, the daily companionship, the encouragement offered in a difficult moment, the small gift when least expected, the spontaneous gesture of love. Love is content to do many things that ego is bored with. Love is willing to work with the other person’s moods and unreasonableness. Love is willing to fix breakfast and balance the checkbook. Love is willing to do these “oatmeal” things because it is related to a person, not a projection.

Romantic love is beautiful and powerful on its own level. To conclude with Dr. Johnson, “it has overwhelmed our collective psyche and permanently altered our view of the world. As a society, we have not yet learned to handle the tremendous power of romantic love. We turn it into tragedy and alienation more often than we evolve it into enduring human relationships. But if men and women come to understand the psychological dynamics behind romantic love and learn to handle them consciously, they will find a new possibility of relationship, both to themselves and to others.”

49 views3 comments

Related Posts

See All

3 commenti

09 lug 2022

There's just so much I could say about this article, Fr. Atchley. Thank you for writing it! This is your best, most profound article yet. Everything you said in it -- YES. Again, there is so much I could say, from a personal level, but I won't. If I did, I'd end up writing another article!

What you said reminds me of a blog post I wrote years ago (I think it was about ten years ago now ... oh, I'm old!) It was dedicated to my husband, as an anniversary gift to him, but one I wanted all to see, so I made it public in my blog. It was called, "On Our Anniversary: Why I'm Not in Love…

Mi piace
10 lug 2022
Risposta a

True -- perhaps I will! 😁

Mi piace
bottom of page