Specifically, Yours

An ode to concrete love

By Charlotte Fox Weber

Concrete Love and Abstract Love may be related to each other, but their characters and expressions are remarkably different. Let’s imagine them as rivalrous brothers. Concrete Love is about what’s real, immediate, specific. He pays close attention to the here-and-now, and observes the vicissitudes of lived experience, textures, nuances. He’s wise about what’s tangible, open to sensory impressions, and his descriptions are straightforward and clear. We always understand what he’s saying.

Abstract Love is hugely ambitious, but also obscure and vague. Although he’s intellectually rigorous and imaginative, he’s often hard to follow. Abstract Love fancies himself more of a romantic, an artist, but he strays a lot from where others are, and he pontificates. It feels as though he’s talking about himself most of the time, and even when it’s about others, the descriptions seem impersonal, detached. Perhaps he’s one of those philosopher types who loves humanity but can’t deal with people.

Abstract Love means well, but can do a lot of damage. His evangelical followers can make a real mess of things, expecting too much, explaining too little. So many fantasies, and so much heartbreak!

He’s most effective when he appears in poems, along with Concrete Love’s illustrations (but not on his own). Real life is full of surprises, but Abstract Love has a fixed mindset. Relationships work best for him at a distance, when they’re clearly and entirely based on fantasy, or if someone is dead — yes, dead. We can safely embrace Abstract Love with dead people and dead artists and dead philosophers, and unavailable people. But in real relationships, in real life, Abstract Love can be a troublemaker, a homewrecker, an intruder that cramps lived experience.

He’s a rabble-rouser in the workplace, but he doesn’t necessarily know where to lead people. It can be embarrassing to watch. He’s in another world, but he’s so confident, so full of obscure conviction, that he must hold onto his ideals, however removed they may be from where we are. Abstract Love is that guy in class who hasn’t done the assigned reading but he insists on talking about another book he’s read. He brings all discussion back to his view of what things should be like, how life should be. His ideas can be beautiful, and he creates compelling ideas and concepts that can be quite seductive. But he doesn’t always read the room, or elaborate. And he actually seems quite snobby, above his surroundings. It comes from a good place — he’s decent and principled deep down, and passionate too. He just doesn’t know how to calibrate his standards to real life. So he’s easily disappointed and pissing people off.

Engaging with the details of an experience — fully showing up — is a great act of love. And it’s authentic. Concrete is a material that’s solid, unpretentious, matter of fact. It also takes shape over time. Abstract Love is aloft in the clouds, daydreaming and staying clean and distant, while concrete love is getting muddy and expanding. Concrete Love is so immersed and unpretentious, he simply describes the granular details without needing to exaggerate or make a whole show. Abstract Love, on the other hand, is full of flamboyant gestures. He ponders about love, with obscure concepts of what it should look like, how it should feel. His language is full of what the psychotherapist Karen Horney called “the tyranny of the shoulds.”

In the words of the architect Philip Johnson:

“Concrete you can mold, you can press it to you after all, you haven’t any straight lines in your body. Why should we have straight lines in our architecture? You’d be surprised when you go into a room that has no straight line how marvellous it is that you can feel the walls talking back to you, as it were.”

The same could be said for relationships. They’re lively and multifaceted. Concrete Love doesn’t expect straight lines or fixed meanings.

Relationships can blossom like a thirsty plant when people notice and recognize each other, when they can observe each other with acceptance and appreciation. The humanist Carl Rogers said if only we could view people as we watch sunsets — notice the composition of colors without critiquing the entire layout. Rogers wished we could be more accepting of ourselves. Concrete Love champions this approach, embracing lived experience. When couples are disconnected, abstract statements of love mean so much less than attuned observations. In relationships, Concrete Love is an “Aha” moment when one person says “I see.” Seeing is understanding. Concrete Love is about seeing.

Charlotte Fox Weber founded Examined Life in 2020 and started the psychotherapy service at The School of Life in 2015. She believes psychotherapy helps people have a better understanding of the problems of living, in order for them to make changes that serve growth and personal fulfillment. Central to her work are issues surrounding anxiety and emotional management, relationships, low self-esteem and confidence, family dynamics, feeling stuck or lost, creativity blocks, and loss of meaning.
She works in a collaborative and relational way, in both time-limited and longer-term therapy. Charlotte’s first book, What We Want, is slated for release in 2022.

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