I think about love
a lot. I don’t suppose I’m unusual in that regard – it’s probably one of the most thought-about topics in the history of – well – history. One thing I’ve noticed about myself and my musings on love is that no matter what age I am, I always seem to think that I’ve finally got some sort of true understanding of this love thing. You know, what love is, how to recognise it, what it means to be in love, etc, etc. The problem is, every couple of years my ideas change again, and I wonder how my previous conclusions could have been so simplistic and naïve.
I first thought I had it sussed way back when I was sixteen. Yep, knew all about it. I was in love
(with a girl called Gai) and that made me an expert. I think that my idea went something like this: Being in love means you can’t live without them.
Woohoo – groundbreaking stuff. It was probably a little more sophisticated than that, but you get the general gist.
Fast-forward a few years, to maybe 1989. My heart’s just been broken for I think the second time, and, again for the second time, I’m using another relationship to help me get over it. So me and this new lady (Helen, from New Zealand), we’re having this discussion about love. She’s several years older than me, she’s giving me her take on the matter, and I’m arguing with her. “Love is when you can’t live without them,” I’m saying (or something to that effect). “Love is when you get a deep, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that you want to spend the rest of your life with them.” And she’s saying that what I’m talking about is essentially Need
. Or at least a very needy form of love. She put forward her
notion of love, being that you can love someone quite independently of how they feel about you
. In essence, you love them for their qualities, not for what they can do for you. You love them simply because they’re wonderful. I didn’t want a bar of it (needless to say, she and I weren’t in love). “No no,” I said, “you’re talking about the kind of love you can have for a painting, or your dog, or a friend. I’m talking about being in
love! That chemistry
, that irresistible attraction that makes every cell of your body ache to be with them.” I couldn’t see any passion in her kind of love, and I told her so. We agreed to disagree.
Back when I was sixteen, and in love with Gai, I remember reading for the first time the famous saying that I’m sure you’ve all heard: If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.
When I read that, I thought about it in the context of my relationship with Gai. “Yeah right!” I thought (I don’t think they had that expression in 1981, but you know what I mean). I tried to imagine letting go of Gai. Inconceivable. My version of the saying looked more like this: If you love something, hold on to it with all your might. If it tries to escape, hold on even tighter.
Helen was completely correct, of course: it was
Need. Well, it was incredibly needy love, at any rate.
It seems to me now that that kind of needy, jealous, clingy, possessive love is a love steeped in fear (fear of loss). I realise now that I loved that way because I was incredibly insecure. Gai was virtually the only wonderful thing in my life, and I was terrified of losing her, so I held on for all I was worth. I learnt, of course, that that kind of love can be pretty destructive (*wistful sigh*).
So here I am in 1999. I’m 34 years old, and my notion of love has changed quite a bit over the years. I’m no longer the mess of insecurities that I was back then, and Helen’s ideas are seeming more and more resonant every day. I’d like to meet up with her now and talk about them some more. I wonder if she still thinks the same….
These days, when I think of love, it inspires two feelings in me:
- It means that everything about the other person is fantastic. You don’t want them to change anything. You love them just the way they are. Because, if you want them to change, if you want them to be somehow different, then what exactly does it mean when you say that you love them? If your love for them is somehow contingent upon them adhering to some image you have of how they should be, then you’re not loving them, you’re loving yourself, through them.
- You want them to be happy, even more than you want to be happy yourself. This implies that you put their needs above your own, and furthermore, that you’ll love them regardless of whether they love you back, or, even more difficult, if they love someone else. It also inspires the common sentiment: I’d do anything for you.
And yes, of course, you also want to bonk their brains out, not to mention be with them for the rest of your life, if not longer.
All of which makes me a little worried. Because I look around at the rest of the world, and, in most relationships that I see, it isn’t like that. It seems that, in most cases, love is about getting your needs met. You know – “I love such-and-such because they love me
. I love them because they’d do anything for me. Because they make me happy. Because I couldn’t live without them” (I know all about that
one). A different bunch of sentiments altogether. So have I
got it wrong, or has most of the rest of the world?
Furthermore, a truly mature and secure love, it would seem, wouldn’t place any conditions or limitations upon the other, meaning that you continue to love them regardless of what they might do. Whatever
they might do. Otherwise, as in point (1), you don’t really love them
, you love some idealised notion of who they would be if they behaved the way you want them to.
This is a little contentious. Take the standard and obvious example of learning that your partner has just had sex with someone else without your knowledge or consent. An affair, in other words. There’s no question – this has got to hurt. But the question is, how does that affect your love for them? Can you continue to love them as always? If not, why not? They’re still the same person that you loved before their indiscretion, after all. Surely whatever you loved about them before is still there?
Yes, of course, I know it’s not as simple as that. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this without using words like “unfaithful” or “infidelity.” Most probably the very least you can say is that they’ve broken a promise to you. If you’re married, then it was probably a promise they made publicly. And so now you learn that they are the sort of person that either breaks promises or doesn’t have the self-control to resist their biological yearnings, or maybe doesn’t care enough whether you get hurt. Perhaps all three. This may well cause you to reassess what kind of person you think they are, and you may find that you cannot love the kind of person that you now realise them to be. If so, then it’s simple – you leave. But is it ever that simple? Is it ever that black and white? Unlikely. Because, of course, part of you does
still love them, a great big part of you still wants to be with them, you just wish they hadn’t behaved that way, hadn’t done that dreadful thing to you. So it usually ends up coming down to: “Well, I forgive you, but if you ever do that again, you can kiss my love goodbye.” Perfectly reasonable, on the face of it, but it means, of course that your continuing love for them is contingent upon their good behaviour. And so you both live in guilt and fear ever after.
But let’s try to imagine another kind of relationship. In the true spirit of If you love something, set it free ….
you make no promises of fidelity to each other. No promises of any kind. You give each other the gift of total freedom. Actually, believe it or not, they already had total freedom all along, so it’s not really yours to give. Maybe you simply acknowledge that they have it, and that you would never try to interfere with it. And you tell them simply that you love them regardless, and that you want to be with them. Then you sit back and see if they indeed stay with you, see if they come back
, as the saying goes. Pretty scary stuff. No promises, no commitments, nothing to keep them with you besides your dazzling personality.But what if they leave me?
Well, then I would say it’s fairly clear: you’re not right for them. A damn shame, to be sure, but ask yourself: Would you rather live with someone who would leave if they had the choice? And let’s look at your love for them. If you love them, surely you want them to be happy. Is that a fair assumption? If yes, then would you want to force them to stay with someone that they didn’t want to stay with because they promised that they would?
So let’s assume they don’t want to leave, but instead, an even harder scenario: They stay with you, maintain that they love you, then go off and sleep with someone else. Now in this version, they’ve broken no promises, so the only feeling you’re left with is: They want something that you can’t give them.
And of course, that hurts. A lot. So far I think we’re all agreed. But here’s the contentious part: If you say that you love them, you’d be being inconsistent if you weren’t happy for them (assuming they enjoyed it, of course). Happy for them? Cheating bastards! How could I be happy for them?
Because you love them and they were just being themselves – doing something they wanted to do, something that made them happy. And your love for them means that you want them to be happy, remember? Yeah, but not at the expense of my own happiness!
Aha! There lies the crux of it! Whom do you want to be happy the most?
Quite an important question in any relationship between people who claim to love each other, I reckon. If you’re in a loving relationship right now, spare a moment and have a think about that one.
If you agree that to love someone means that you love them whatever they do, and then they go and do something that you don’t like, then you’ve got to ask yourself, well, do I really love them?
And if the answer is, yes, but only if they behave the way that I want them to, only if they don’t hurt me,
then that’s fine, as long as you now recognise your love for what it is – conditional.
Now I’ll throw this into the pot: Even if they don’t
sleep around, if they have a normal libido, they’re almost certainly going to want to
. It’s part of being a healthy sexual individual. And the only reason that they don’t, if they don’t, is because they don’t want to hurt you. Which is wonderful, of course, but if you love them, and they want
to, then why shouldn’t they? (What if, in fact, it didn’t
I can tell I’m skating on thin ice here. Let’s try a little make-believe conversation ….
“Honey, there’s this new girl at work. She’s kinda cute, she’s giving me the come-on look, and I can’t stop thinking about her.”
“And, to be honest, I want to bonk her brains out. How do you feel about that?”
“Well, I’d rather it was my
brains, of course, but if it makes you happy….”
“Thanks honey, I love you.”
“I love you too. And darling….?”
“Wear a condom.”
Pure fantasy, right? Well, probably. But that’s not the point. The point is, he wants to.
So bad he can taste it. Whether or not he actually does
, whether or not he tells his wife about it, he still wants to.
OK. Let’s assume he keeps his longings to himself. He loves his wife, and he knows that such an admission would crush her. So we have a fellow who can’t stop thinking about the floozy at work, probably thinking about her even when he’s in bed with his wife, but she doesn’t know
. So how does he feel? Probably ashamed of his feelings. Guilty, almost certainly, that he’s having these unwholesome desires. And sad – sad that the trust in his marriage doesn’t extend to his telling his wife about his true feelings. And let’s not forget the reason that he wanted to sleep with the babe in the first place – he’s horny and feels like something new (if only for an evening). So we have sexual frustration, shame, guilt and sadness, all because he’s not allowed to have those feelings.
His marriage vows made no mention of floozies.
And the wife is blissfully unaware. We all know how commonplace affairs are, so in many cases, he’s going to go ahead and do it anyway, still without her knowledge, which of course breeds even more shame and guilt. How would it feel, being a wife in such a situation? You’re in a relationship with someone who either is
an adulterer, or would
be, if only it wouldn’t hurt you
. Either way you cut it, you’ve got concealment and guilt. I don’t think I want to be you.
The above conversation is totally alien to us because we’ve all been brought up in a culture that gives fidelity a very high value. Everywhere we look, we learn that adultery is bad
. How could anyone discuss extra-marital sex like they’re going to test drive a new car? But let’s say that such a relationship is workable. So his wife doesn’t interfere with his desires, and he does indeed go off and bonk the floozy, relieving her of her brains. What happens next? Well, either he comes back to his wife, having gotten it out of his system, and loves her even more for the freedom she allows him, or he doesn’t come back – he falls in love with the new babe and runs away with her to Acapulco (this sounds terribly unlikely, if you ask me, in view of the special relationship he has with his wife).
If he leaves his wife (as I said, extremely unlikely), then they weren’t right for each other, and it’s better that she found out sooner than later. Furthermore, her pain is considerably less this way than if they’d made the standard set of marriage vows and promises to each other, and he went and did it anyway, thus breaking his vows and doing something that he promised her he wouldn’t do.
It doesn’t seem any worse in our make-believe scenario – in fact, it seems infinitely more honest, respectful and loving. Well, that’s how I
see it, anyway.
(And before you start feeling sorry for the poor woman, don’t forget, she is perfectly within her rights, in this hypothetical relationship, to do exactly the same thing with the local handyman, or whoever.)
But what if he makes a habit of it?
Then that’s the kind of guy he is. Love him the way he is, or don’t.
But I wouldn’t be able to let him/her just go off like that – I’d be incredibly jealous!
So from what insecurity does your jealousy spring?
I guess the hardest part about learning of a partner’s liaison with a third party (permitted within the bounds of the relationship or not) is that, somehow, you weren’t enough for them. They wanted something that you couldn’t, or didn’t, give them. Inevitably, you take it personally, wondering what the other one
has that you don’t. And of course, the answer is – nothing. There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, there’s nothing wrong at all! Speaking personally, I’d be extremely surprised if, after ten years in a marriage with me, my hypothetical wife didn’t harbour a strong desire to have sex with someone else, no matter how much she loved me. I’m not saying that I’d like
it (I’m not quite up to that yet), just that it would be extremely surprising if she didn’t
want to. Just for something new. Just for fun. Just to reassert her sexuality – to remind herself that she can still arouse someone besides her husband. To feel sexy. To feel good about herself. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just being human.
And of course, I’d be lying if I said that I
wouldn’t probably want to do the same thing after ten years of marriage as well. Probably. I think. I don’t know whether I’d actually do
it, mind you, just that I’d probably want
to. Whether I did or not would ultimately depend upon my wife, and the nature of the relationship we had.
So basically, I don’t know. I’ve never been married, and I’ve never been in the kind of relationship that I’ve described above. I’ve never even experienced the pain of being cheated on, so I have no idea whether I’m even capable of setting free
to that extent. It’s all hypothetical. Untested. What you’re reading here is only how I feel right now (or at least how I think
I feel). A couple of years from now I may look back on these words and wonder where I got such absurd notions.
What I really want, of course, is to meet someone who thinks like I do, who agrees with the stuff I’ve written here. Then, if I fall in love with her, she’d make me put my money where my mouth is – hold me to my words. Make me walk the talk, as they say. That would be a wake up call. Scary. I’ve committed myself now – I’ve got my feelings up on a bloody web page! I’d have no recourse if one day I realised that I couldn’t bear to live without her and said to her, “um, Honey? You know how I said you could do anything you wanted? Well, I’ve changed my mind. If you could just look over this list of rules I’ve drawn up….”
Aw hell, I don’t know. Whatever this love thing is all about, there’s one thing I’m certain of – it has nothing to do with rules. I can’t imagine truly loving someone and then wanting to impose my will upon her, to restrict her behaviour in any way. Similarly, I’m sure I’d get a bit antsy if she was to love me “only on the condition that ….” Another thing I’m sure of is that if the communication is good enough, and all of this stuff is understood up front, then the relationship should be able to survive anything
. Anything except one of us falling out of love, of course.
Is it just me, or does the marriage vow, “I promise to love, honour and obey” get up everyone’s nose? What’s all this vowing and promising stuff? How can you possibly know how you’re going to feel in twenty years’ time? I’d feel plenty awful if, ten years into a marriage, I woke up one morning and found that I was no longer in love with my wife. That would be bad enough. I’d hate to think that, on top of that
, I’d have to carry around the guilt of breaking a promise. Surely a simple declaration of love would be more fitting. Something like, “I love you. Right now I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone. Loving you is so wonderful that I hope to be able to love you forever.” No promises, no vows, no obeying
. If you feel the need to make a vow, try this: “I will always be honest with you, and never hide my feelings.”
On a final note, here’s an analogy that helps me crystallise my thoughts on love: I envision a partner as a beautiful bird, that flew into my life one day and brightened up my world with its song, with its colour and with its grace. How lucky am I, to be visited by such a creature. The temptation is to put the bird in a cage, to keep it with me for evermore. But, of course, in a cage, birds can’t fly, and flying is what birds do. That’s why we love them. And birds aren’t happy in cages. So I offer the bird some food, in the hope that it’ll stay a while. And if it flies away one day, well, that’s sad. It’s infinitely sad, yet it’s worth remembering: if the bird thought it was going to be caged, it never would have come in the first place.
Phew! I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit worn out. I’m impressed if you made it this far. I’ve had similar discussions with a few people over the past couple of years, and often, after hearing me out, they’ve turned to me and said,
Who are you kidding, Mark? You’re just looking for a licence to screw around. I hope that’s not how it sounds. To tell the truth, I’m well aware of how close to the heart this issue can be with a lot of people, and, seeing as I’ve got my opinion out there flapping in the breeze, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on what I had to say. Agree with me, disagree with me, love the words or despise them, this is a subject that I can’t hear too many points of view on, and I’d love to hear yours. Is there some big part of this love thing that I’m not seeing? Make your comments below…