Demystifying Love: Plain Talk for the Mental Health Professional

July 2, 2008

Although Demystifying Love: Plain Talk for the Mental Health Professional is economy-sized at 200 pages, the book is a useful attempt by the well-known psychiatrist and sex therapist Stephen Levine to condense a lifetime of knowledge from clinical practice, personal growth, and extensive reading about a complex subject. Not surprisingly, his case vignettes remain uppermost in the memory while the whirlwind tour of the many meanings of love, processes of getting into and out of love, erotic transference, psychological intimacy, and sexual desire gets a bit blurry

Although Demystifying Love: Plain Talk for the Mental Health Professional is economy-sized at 200 pages, the book is a useful attempt by the well-known psychiatrist and sex therapist Stephen Levine to condense a lifetime of knowledge from clinical practice, personal growth, and extensive reading about a complex subject. Not surprisingly, his case vignettes remain uppermost in the memory while the whirlwind tour of the many meanings of love, processes of getting into and out of love, erotic transference, psychological intimacy, and sexual desire gets a bit blurry.

However, there is a great deal of thought and experience packed into these pages, and the clinician grappling with both unfamiliar and all-too-familiar cases will find this little book worth skimming at first and then rereading. Perhaps because the language is often concise and the ideas are telescoped, every page makes points that can stimulate clinical and personal reflection and peer discussion (eg, “Staying in love is easier said than done”; “For the long haul, it is the ready reattainment of psychological intimacy that enables couples to make love again and again over decades, to shed their inhibitions during lovemaking, and to eventually discover the limits of their sexual potential with each other”; “The work of love is a self-management process that can last a lifetime” [emphasis in original]).

Almost a third of the book deals with infidelity, and this investment allows Levine to dwell in some detail on the many different ways that infidelities come about and affect primary relationships. By avoiding theoretical language, he offers a pragmatic approach that illuminates the serious damage that infidelity can wreak, without moralizing about it. Couples can but often do not survive revelations of infidelity, so putting it into the larger context of the many dimensions of relational love is illuminating.

The same pragmatic approach characterizes Levine’s discussion of erotic transference, which offers a useful lecture to novice therapists about why and how not to take patients’ longings at face value. Overall, all the subjects are dealt with in a no-nonsense format that offers a calming antidote to much of the overheated and hyperbolic writings on love and sex.

Although shortcomings in a book this size are inevitable, because it champions an open-minded approach to love, I especially regretted the omission of some detailed examination of cultural variations. The reader gets nuggets such as, “Cultural values are insidious. They affect us in ways that we do not initially perceive.”

But in contrast to the allotment of precious space to useless sex difference generalizations such as telling us how much testosterone is converted to estradiol by men and women, a couple of vignettes showing how meaning can be affected by race, class, religion, and national origin would have been useful. I was left with an uncomfortable feeling that despite his efforts at inclusiveness, Levine does not sufficiently interrogate the middle-class perspective that infuses his many meanings, motives, and processes of love.