What is it that we want from love?

(This post is best read to the tune of this fantastic song.)

This morning I woke up at 2 a.m. There was a text on my phone from somebody I love, somebody whose very existence shakes me to my core. We’re at an impasse. We’re going around in circles, triggering each other, trying to be gentle, lashing out when we’re in pain, withdrawing, moving closer, moving away again.

Why do we take this so personally?” he asks. “Because it IS personal”, I reply. I type and retype my message many times before sending it, yet this morning I realise how the emotion of the night might have made me sound harsher than I intended, might have overridden the love and gentleness I feel. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that he’ll suggest we stop this wrestling match once and for all. I’m afraid that I’ve finally pushed him away. I’m afraid that we can never come back from how hurt we’ve each been. I’m afraid that we’ll miss out on something powerful, on the profound healing and connection that we could have had, if we don’t climb out of this cycle.

What do I want from this love? Why am I still here?

Beyond that, what does it mean to love? What is the purpose of love in our lives?

In a way this post is a follow-up on my previous one. I grew up wanting love, romantic love in particular. I might be romantically inclined due to personality and all the books I read when I was much too young for them. But looking back it’s quite obvious that most of all my romantic inclinations were because I wanted to find someone, to find a somewhere, where I’d feel safe, seen and special. I wanted to matter. I wanted to be wanted. And I wanted this because I wasn’t getting it.

I am no outlier when I say that my childhood was, for the most part, unpleasant – many people have uncertainty, neglect or abuse as their origin story. And nobody emerges from childhood unscathed. Sometimes I think about how we are all walking about, as adults: making a living and making families all while trying to protect ourselves, still terrified of being weighed and found wanting. It’s so strange that the mistakes our parents made become so inextricably part of the fabric of our lives. It’s so weird that we get angry or burst into tears because someone says something that inadvertently reminds us of being that child again. It’s so weird that it can take a lifetime, if we live life well, to properly deal with and heal our wounds.

Anyway – because of my childhood, and because of books and movies and because everything, I thought for a long time that finding a romantic partner was all about feeling safe and fulfilled.

I wasn’t entirely unrealistic – I knew that a relationship would mean compromise and talking through stuff, that we’d still argue sometimes and all that jazz. But I thought that there would be this specific feeling to a relationship: I’d feel totally beautiful and awesome, loved for who I am, while also feeling challenged and inspired. We’d sit up at night and talk about poetry. We’d motivate each other to reach higher heights. We’d also be each other’s homecoming. There’d be this balance between cosiness and inspiration and it would be amazing.

I still kind-of think that. All of our loves do this, after all: my friends hold me when I’m terrified; they also poke me towards further growth. But with each friend there’s a different balance; I make my peace with the limitations of every friendship. I do not expect my friends to know or understand me fully. I take the support where I can get it and I am deeply grateful for it, but I know that no one friend will somehow validate my entire existence. In fact, the beauty of friendships is that we receive both love and opposition in ways that we never even thought we wanted. It’s uncomfortable. I walk away from barbeques or brunches feeling discomfited sometimes, annoyed even. The art lies in being open to a friend’s being, to the odd and lovely ways in which they enrich our life. Instead of trying to make our friends fit our needs, we open to who they are and how they see the world, and we are the richer for it.

But there’s so much more riding on romantic relationships.

When we fall in love we tell ourselves it’s about the other person. It’s about how cute they look in the mornings and about their lovely eyes and about how much random knowledge they have about superhero movies. It’s about how they sing in the shower. It’s about how competitive they get when we’re playing board games.

And these things might be true, but they’re not the whole truth. Not in my case, anyway. Falling in love is also – mainly – about myself.

A while ago I sat down and tried to analyse what happens for me when I fall in love – what makes it feel so intrinsically different from a close friendship?

Well, there’s a moment, usually quite soon in our friendship, when something shifts. I talk to this person and suddenly realise they’re really, really amazing. They’re wise, and smart, and mysterious. (Ah, that mystery.) Suddenly I feel a jolt of desire – not physical desire, but rather desire for this person to love me. This person, I have decided, has something that I don’t. Their combination of traits and unknown-ness has become a thing that I want, that I need, to feel better; because I do need to feel better, I always need to feel better, incomplete and wounded human that I am. I am a relational being, and so I look to others to fill the gaps in my psyche. Who better than this wonderful mysterious human, this wise person who seems so capable of holding my frightened heart in their hands and restoring me to fullness?

Of course as I get to know the person better I realise they couldn’t possibly validate me as I’d hoped. They’re scared and scarred too. But I keep on hoping, because there’s so much riding on this. I have put power in their hands and at times it feels as if my continued existence depends on their love. This is when reality starts intervening uncomfortably. Their tiny habits, those things I loved so much at first, now seem an obstacle, an annoying reminder of their flaws and of the ways in which they’ll never be able to make me feel whole. How could a broken person ever make me un-broken?

And so we settle into the long twilight of our relationship. By now tenderness has grown up between us and for a while it’s the glue holding us together. Fondness has replaced the initial in love feeling. But I’m itchy. I tell myself relationships are all about compromise and good communication, but somewhere inside I miss feeling alive, feeling gloriously awakened. The inspiration has made way for cosiness, and not even enough of that in between the miscommunications and the grind of daily life.

And then I fall in love with someone else. I think “ah! There is someone, after all, who can make me feel alive and valid and powerful. I was just with the wrong person!” Then comes decision-making. Do I break up with my current person, someone who’s dear to me and with whom I’ve crafted a life? Do I stay, instead, suspecting that all relationships, after all, entail disappointments? Or perhaps I try to have the best of both worlds: I decide to try polyamory. I enter this perilous world of endless negotiations, of time management and pangs of jealousy, straddling my cosy love and my new exciting flame as best I can. Eventually the exciting love becomes familiar and flawed as well and I fall in love with someone else. Then at some stage I reach saturation, my calendar overflowing, my heart exhausted. And I still, STILL, haven’t found someone who might finally make the broken pieces of my soul stop aching.

I think back to that initial moment of falling in love. There’s a transfer of power that takes place there: I place the responsibility for how I feel in someone else’s hands. I hope that they will make me feel valuable and valid. And I do this because I perceive them as being in some way less lacking than myself. Their allure lies in how little I still know them: because I do not know this person’s flaws and fears, I can imagine that they hold the key to finally feeling whole.

Yeah, I don’t actually want that scenario. If I investigate this thing it becomes clear that this type of falling in love, this heady blend of hormones and infatuation, is largely dependent on misinformation. It demands that I do not see a person for the fullness of who they are, that I surrender curiosity and engagement in favour of wish-fulfilment. This person becomes the holder of my hopes and fears, instead of an vast person, unique unto themselves. I miss out. I miss out on a flawed and glorious human.

I don’t think we ever stop projecting our hopes onto other people. We all see but through a glass, darkly. It’s an interesting ride, anyway, realising again and again what it is we want as we project these desires onto someone else. But I don’t actually want to be stuck thrill-seeking in this way endlessly. I’d rather eye this whole falling in love thing a bit more warily, cognisant of my own insecurities making themselves known yet again. I’d rather connect with a real person.

But if love is not about wish-fulfilment, what is it about then?

Well I suppose it could be about anything.

Recently a friend said to me that love should help people attain their life goals. I liked that. It makes sense: if you want security and cosiness, then seek out someone(s) who’ll chase the same goal, people to whom building a coherent life is important. Perhaps someone who’ll be fun to come home to. Someone with roughly the same level of ambition or with corresponding dreams. You know, all the compatibility stuff we hear about. Wanting to build a life, wanting to have kids, wanting a partner in crime – all those things are worthy dreams. We get to have them.

But life goals also change. After thinking about what my goals might currently be, I wrote to my friend in response: “My life goals are to connect with other people in sincerity. To see them. To be seen. To be whole enough that I can love expansively, without feeling as if my life is being threatened by this expansiveness. To grow. To do everything as if worshipping. To know myself well enough that I am able to make my own boundaries and refrain from losing myself within others, but from this place be able to give, and receive, with joy.”

Good luck”, my friend replied, “That will give you much pain and much reward.” I know. It’s a different pain than one might imagine: it’s the pain of dying off bits of myself that no longer serve me. It’s also a different reward than I always thought love would give: the reward lies in feeling bigger, more myself, more at home with the texture of my own heart; it’s about becoming more accepting of the aches and fears within me that might never go away. And the reward lies also in being able to absorb so much more of someone else, now that I am no longer swept away by my idea of them. It’s worth it, it’s so fucking worth it, this letting go of old daydreams, for the honour of witnessing others more fully as themselves.

I guess we all decide what level of intensity, of pain and reward, we’re willing to live with. There is no better or worse choice, one path is not more noble than another. My friend to whom I spoke about love compared his current model of relationships to a dance: “To me, nowadays, loving is a dance. And we spend more time practicing the steps and learning how not to step on each other’s toes than anything else. There are moments of passion and excitement, but mainly it’s about repetition, over and over again the same thing. And your feet start hurting in specific places, and you wish the practice sessions could be over already because they’re boring and it feels as if nobody’s progressing. But then there are moments where you show off your skills, where you realise how well you know each other, and it makes you feel awesome. That’s opening night. But the rest of the time you’re mainly performing for schools, churches, and old age homes. And you decide whether this gives you enough joy and excitement to continue on this path.

Whether it be about the intricacy of a dance while avoiding each others’ toes, or about coming to accept ourselves more fully, or a bit of both – I think that love is better when we can ask ourselves questions about it. What is it that I want? Why do I want this? What would happen if I didn’t get it? What am I willing to surrender? Thrill-seeking quickly becomes a lonely, hungry chase. Digging deep sustains us far more powerfully.

Serial monogamy as a young romantic

For my tenth birthday I received my very first diary. It was a small flipbook with blank black pages; I wrote in it with my precious set of milky pens. The first page says “Warning! Danger! Property of Sage. If lost, return to Sage. Do not read.” I repeated this warning on every page, although it didn’t deter my siblings in the least.

One of my first entries reads as follows: “Samuel is very large he has brown eyes and brown hair. He is very quiet and very friendly. I love him very much. Signed, Sage.” (With a drawing of a heart and an arrow through).

About one month later, a new entry reads: “In love! I fell in love very suddenly with Raymond when he joined our school. I would describe him like this: black hair, medium size, long nose and that’s all. Goodbye!”

My subsequent diaries, all of which I kept, are increasingly full of lovesick entries.

There was Jean, who’d accompany his mom on visits to our family but sit outside by himself, fair hair hanging into his eyes, looking mysterious and a little sad. (I ran into him two years ago and he told me out of the blue that he’d had a crush on me too, but he’d been too shy to ever talk to me. With such satisfaction did I report back to my eleven-year-old self!) There were all of my friends’ brothers, especially Freddy who was older and had a steady girlfriend (so much more the allure) and was prone to whipping out his guitar and singing to any willing audience. There was Lewis, and Wynand, and Pieter, and many more.

When I was thirteen I made a list of all the boys I’d fallen in love with, going back all the way to my very first crush, Vincent, when I was four. We were in kindergarten together and the longing and awkwardness was about as real as it gets – I remember sitting on the swings in the playground wondering which magical power I’d developed that enabled me to always know, always feel, where he was standing. I had no words for the ache I felt when I looked at him.

Anyway – by the time I was thirteen, the list of all my crushes was longer than the years in my life. All of them had felt intense. I had daydreamed about marrying every single one, being carried off on a horse (there were always horses in my daydreams) while playing the violin, swept up in our deep and abiding love with which we would subsequently travel the world, feeding hungry orphans and becoming famous. I was getting a little worried, too: how would I know when I’d found the right one, if every time felt this intense? And so I asked my mom: “How do you know when you have found your True Love?”

My mom’s response left much to be desired. She thought for a moment, looking puzzled, and then said something along the lines of “well, you kind of decide this is it. You make up your mind to love this person for the rest of your life.”

My mom was not a good authority on love, I decided. She and my dad were forever splitting up and getting back together. Obviously she hadn’t found her True Love, but I would. I’d know it when it happened.

My first serious relationship started in high school and lasted through our undergraduate studies, five years altogether. His name was Krisjan and he was my best friend. We spent almost all our time together, riding our bicycles through the small university town, arguing about politics, eating mulberries from the tree behind his residence, watching rugby games with his friends, making out. He was intelligent, odd, kind, and loved Rambo movies. When we argued he’d go quiet and grim, I’d burst into tears, eventually we’d make up without reaching a resolution. Sometimes I’d picture our life together, the farm we’d live on, me perhaps teaching (I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else with a degree in language), him making his own craft beers and driving around in his pickup truck with our toddler sitting next to him. Imagining our future made my throat constrict, and I wasn’t sure why. I knew I loved him – even though I’d had other crushes since we’d started dating, the thought of us ever being apart felt ludicrous.

And then I fell in love with someone else.

It happened on an varsity tour in Europe, and it was perhaps the most terrifying experience I have had to date. This guy was everything Krisjan was not: flamboyant, liberal, emotional. He was a philosophy student and it showed. He bought sunflowers from a street vendor and gave one to each of his tour mates, pulled me into a waltz in the subway where a man was playing the accordion, burst into tears during the train ride to Antwerp. He spoke about Nietzsche and existentialism A LOT.

I wanted this life forever: to stand on the prow of a boat entering Amsterdam harbour, sick with longing, the rain whipping harsh tears into my face. To meet eyes across a crowded restaurant and smile with a secret knowing – I see you. To wander the streets of Amsterdam and come to sit next to a canal where all of a sudden, at three in the morning, bridges lift and tiny boats start chugging past while we talk about the meaning of the universe. To karaoke together, him with a rose in his teeth, me suddenly gloriously aware of my body and radiant youth.

I barely ate, barely slept. At night I turned this question over and over in my mind: How to break up with Krisjan? It was unthinkable. It would be like cutting off my arm.

I had to do it.

And so I did. It broke both our hearts, but I did it. I came back from Europe, arms laden with the Belgian beers I had bought him, and broke up with him at once. He cried. I cried. He begged me for two weeks of normalcy in which to say goodbye, I begrudgingly said yes. We spent the entire two weeks arguing, him beseeching me to come to my senses, me torn between this gaping loss and the romantic dream pulsing within my heart.

I journaled intensively during this time, and wrote long letters littered with poems to my philosopher, Alexander, who was studying on the other side of the country. I wanted…something else. Not to fall into another long-term relationship, but rather to have an undefined enduring romance, one in which our knowing of each other would be stronger, braver, more real, than any man-made institution. I would never get married, I decided. I wrote to Alexander that defining our relationship would make it lesser somehow, would remove the spaciousness from our union, might squeeze the air from it. Much taken by my unconventionality, he wrote back that he’d like to take my brain out on a date.

But our romance almost immediately floundered. Alexander’s roving soul was matched only by his roving eye and within two months he let me know that he’d met somebody else. My heart shattered, but my commitment to a new kind of life did not. I decided to make up for lost time by making out with every somewhat attractive guy I met. I swapped spit with a first-year in a noisy club near campus, disgusted by his kissing technique but undeterred in my quest for fun. I learned to provide a pseudonym in clubs, so that guys wouldn’t find me afterwards on facebook. I embarrassed my friends with my unsubtle flirtiness. I broke my toe on the dance floor. In between I grieved, for my beautiful earthy Krisjan, and for my flamboyant philosopher, my True Love gone, Alexander.

Krisjan had not quite disappeared – our friendship had been too real for that. He still was, somehow, my person. I missed him too much to let him go entirely, sometimes we even hooked up again. I was incredibly confused – how could I love someone this much (maybe even be IN love with them…?) yet also feel profoundly in love with someone else? (the dream of Alexander was still very much alive). Perhaps it was a question of timing. I wrote in my journal:

I realise more and more that Krisjan is not the one for me – in any case, not for the foreseeable future. I don’t even know why, but I just feel it – I want more. It’s not that he’s not enough, it’s just that I need other things too. And, though he might not know it, he needs that too. He is meant for more things in life than simply being my anchor and my rock.

I quoted a lot of Kahlil Gibran in my journal too – ‘let there be spaces in your togetherness…’

Alexander came back on the scene; he did a lot of that over the next two and a half years. We had a complicated romance: I knew he was falling in and out of love with the varied women crossing his part and it hurt, but in a bittersweet way. Since we’d made no promises and were always long-distance, I too was meeting, even sometime briefly dating, other men. Krisjan and I never got back together, although the friendship endured even as the romance faded (he is now married to a teacher, lives on a farm and has a baby I have no doubt will soon accompany him on tours of the orchards in his pickup truck).

But I continued to believe in the dream of the One True Love. I’d fallen in love again – and again, and again – but I’d never again had that magic we’d had in Amsterdam, Alexander and I, wandering the streets with unspoken universes hanging between us. I thought I only had to wait; we’d find each other, he’d come back to me when the time was right. In the meantime I tried hard not to get too entangled in other relationships. I wrote a lot of poems. I moved to a new town, started working.

Then he met someone else, on the other side of the world, and this time fell in love so hard that I could feel the intensity of it from across the ocean. We were over, I knew it then. He’d found his One True Love and she wasn’t me.

The relief was tremendous.

I was angry, I was embarrassed that I’d wasted so much time waiting for him, but I was heartily glad to be rid of all that melancholy holding-off. To make matters worse, he got married, betraying my dream of a True Union Which Needed No Formalising. It was clear: he’d never been The One.

But then, how do you know which one’s The One? That same question, more than ten years later. I was coming to realise that I had in fact dearly loved every man I’d dated thus far. The love between Krisjan and I was real. As was the love I’d felt for the men who’d been there since, and the heartbreak when we’d split each time (all of this while ‘waiting’ for Alexander), and the love for Alexander too. Each connection had been beautiful. There had been moments of tenderness and laughter in each relationship; evenings of board games and walks next to the beach, drunkenness and hangovers and movie nights.

With each of them I’d had moments where I’d look at them and think “I see you. I really see you. This is enough.”

Maybe every one of them was The One, for a while? I wasn’t quite ready for that thought yet, but I decided that each had been the right one for then, propelling me into further maturity, punctuating my life with horniness and laughter on this strange journey towards self-knowledge. I would be ready, I thought, when the right one comes.

It’s seven years later now. Lots to tell, no space in this post. But this strikes me when I think of that time: returning to my diary, seeing that I wrote “I want more. It’s not that he’s not enough, it’s that I want other things too.” Remembering my brave suggestion to Alexander, that we fling convention to the wind and meet as lovers undefined. Observing how much space I was able to hold in my heart, in spite of my confusion, for simultaneous connections of all kinds. Cherishing the strong friendships I still have with many of these connections (including with Alexander, who is now one of my closest friends).

Increasingly, I was moving away from the model of serial monogamy I had been taught, even from the prioritisation of romance above all else. But it took me another five years to realise that. What I was coming to know, in the meantime, was that there are many, many more ways to love than we allow ourselves to imagine. And all of our loves are beautiful, and there is growing to be found in all of them.