(I wrote two earlier essays on love, here and here. In addition, I have expanded on marital love’s purpose in this essay. In fact, I have a whole tag library on love. This essay is more of the same. Maybe it is time for me to write a book.)
If you spend an afternoon pruning, planting, weeding and hedge trimming as I did today then your mind will probably wander. Mine wandered into the challenging subject of human relationships. By the time I was done five hours later (okay, I don’t do outdoor chores as often as I should) I realized that loving is both selfless and selfish.
This may well be obvious to you but was not obvious to me at all. I was schooled in Catholic theology. I learned that the highest form of love was expressed by doing things for others that gave you no pleasure in return. By the time the sweepings from that last hedge had been bagged, I realized that you have to get something back from your loving acts. Otherwise, you will stop doing them.
I do not know why it took me fifty years to figure this out. If you slavishly perform loving acts even when you do not want to and in particular, if you are not getting much reciprocation, you probably have a pathological condition. If this sounds like you, maybe it is time to visit a headshrinker.
Nowhere is this truer than with romantic love. You respond in a loving way to your lover because you want to make them happy. Why do you want them to feel happy? You want them to feel happy so that they will have incentive to keep finding ways to make you feel happy. This is why mutual infatuation is such an adrenaline rush. It is also why, after a period of weeks, months and occasionally years, it comes crashing back to earth. Eventually you realize you were just playing mind games with yourself. Enduring romantic love is actually something quite a bit different.
The problem with romantic love relationships is that over time we tend to become complacent. If, for example, we perceive true love as getting our feet rubbed every night, this works great until, of course, you get it every single night for years. After a while, it does not feel quite so special anymore. You take it for granted. You will notice it if your spouse stops rubbing your feet, and you will probably resent him/her because of it. Most likely, though, unless you are the type who can be content through endless simple repetition of the same loving acts, you will want all those foot rubs and something else. Your spouse, trying to make you happy, will try to accommodate. However, the way the love paradigm works, you are not supposed to come back at your spouse and say, “Hey, because I am now also giving you a back scratch every night too, will you now agree to take out the trash all the time?” Your partner is supposed to want to give more back unilaterally when they are given more love. The typical reality though is that after a while, this quid pro quo arrangement gets too burdensome, and one side will unilaterally stop it. This may be at the crux of much marital unhappiness.
Thus unless we temper our expectations of romantic love, it can ultimately become self-defeating. It will lead to the loss of that loving feeling and, ultimately, that “I’m not in love anymore” feeling. We have to put romantic love into perspective. This kind of love is great while you can get it, but it is unrealistic and truly myopic to think you should expect this degree of love to be demonstrated all the time. It is like Pavlov’s dog hyper-salivating every time the bell rings. After a while, poor Pavlov’s dog’s brain was probably damaged from all the focus that food could be delivered at any moment. This suggests to me that too much romantic love is inherently unhealthy. Perhaps that is why I am suspicious of certain religious figures, say nuns who are “married to Christ”. They spend much of their day in prayer, presumably communing with God, endlessly playing through the same script that I love God, God loves me and when I die if I am worthy enough I will be embraced in God’s love for eternity.
In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World the cure for all of life’s traumas and disappointments was a soma pill. Soma was guaranteed to make and keep you mellow. Love too can be like using soma. It can distort the brain, set false expectations and, perhaps most importantly, keep you from engaging life. If there is a reason for being alive, it is likely not to stay in the flush of romantic love indefinitely. We are likely here on a mission of some sort. While mutual infatuation can feel addictive while it consumes you, we must be sanguine and realize that love expressed as mutual infatuation must necessarily be temporary. A love that feels more like the contentment of a cat purring on your lap is nice, but not terribly exciting. Yet this is the long-term kind of love, if we are lucky enough to get it, that we will experience with our life partners. This kind of love, of course, is the healthy kind because it is limited in scope. You can put on the shelf as needed so you can engage the world. It may feel about one tenth as powerful and interesting as the infatuatory phase of love, but it is the one on which we need to settle.
Of course, there are other kinds of love. Parental love. Fraternal love. Unrequited love. Altruistic love. Regardless of its form, unless you receive something back in at least the measure in which you give it out, it is unlikely to endure.
Of all the forms of love, parental love is perhaps the most challenging. It is true that parents do tend to get love back from their children, particularly when they are very young. As they mature, of course, children feel the obvious need to create more distance from the parents. The early bond, at least if it is strong enough, allows for both parent and child to keep expressing love in different ways as the child pulls away. As any parent can tell you, parental love can be extremely challenging and vexing. Most who get through it successfully claim that of all forms of love, it is the most rewarding. Perhaps because like many parents I have found it so very challenging, I am a big believer in planned parenthood. If you are not psychologically ready to invest so much of your time and energy for such a long period then you should simply not be a parent.
Unrequited love is an illusionary love. It thrives on the wan expectation that it may someday blossom into genuine romantic love. Fraternal love is so amorphous that it may not count as genuine love. Of course, you will tend to have positive feelings for people with whom you share much in common. Altruistic love is fine, providing that in dishing it out you feel a sense accomplishment that you made the world a better place. I still think that obsessive altruistic love is ultimately unhealthy, however much it may help those on the receiving end. Human beings needs time apart from others. An extreme form of altruistic love, such as Mother Teresa’s, may win brownie points in heaven, but is likely the manifestation of coping with childhood feelings of shame or low self worth.
For most of us, romantic love will remain our favorite kind of love. It is important for us to keep romantic love in perspective. Its adrenaline phase by necessity must end. This is both healthy and necessary. We should not sell ourselves on the illusion that we need periodic doses of infatuating love. We should feel grateful if it comes but a few times in the course of life. Genuine romantic love is more often expressed through the gifts of presence and compassionate listening. These are wonderful gifts and if we can get them in a partner, we are truly blessed. They provide a solid foundation to a committed relationship as well as provide a support structure that allows us to tackle life’s many challenges.