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.