Thoughts on Love

I think there are two kinds of romantic love. (I’m not talking about love in general, love for country, love for a child. Romantic love specifically.) One kind is for writing about. The other kind is the one you actually want.

The kind for writing about is the Tristan and Isolde love. It’s immediate, passionate, intense. It breaks you apart and remakes you, so that you’re a different person, no longer the person you were. It demands everything from you: your time, sometimes your life. It’s the best thing you could ever possibly experience, until it’s the worst thing you could ever possibly experience and you want to die.

That kind of love makes for fabulous stories. You can write all the intense and passionate parts, and then you can write all the painful parts. You can torture your characters all you want.

The other kind of love does not make for interesting stories. You probably have an idea of what I’m going to describe, but that idea is wrong. I don’t mean the sort of domestic love that endures for years. I don’t mean that at all, and I don’t think that’s romantic love but something else. The Tristan and Isolde love does not fade into domestic love. If it does, it wasn’t the Tristan and Isolde love, which either endures or destroys itself. It can turn into hatred more easily than it can become domesticated, settle down into an ordinary life.

No, the other kind of love I’m talking about is described by Viktor Frankl, who writes,

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

I suppose what I’m really describing are three types of love: romantic love (passionate, intense), domestic love (comfortable, a safe haven in a stormy world – Tristan and Isolde were never safe havens for each other), and this other thing for which I have no name.

Romantic love makes you feel bound to the other person. Domestic love makes you feel safe with the other person. This third thing makes you feel free and not at all safe, because it means that you are seen, truly seen, by another person. Seen not just as who you are, but as who you could be. And so this love says to you, become who you could be – I will help you, I will be there for you as you do that, but I will demand that of you, that you become the self you were meant to be.

But it also leaves you perfectly free. It’s not a love that says, love me back. It’s not a love that says, do your duty. It’s not a love that restrains you in any way, except by asking you to become yourself.

And it’s a love that sees you, not as a reflection of the one who sees, but as who you actually are.

It’s a light in the darkness, by which you are seen and enabled to see.

I think I’ll call it perfect love, and it’s what I think we are all striving for. Romantic love feels wonderful, until it doesn’t. And domestic love makes us contented, until we realized one day that we want more, that we are not being our fullest, truest selves. That we were not meant to be contented, but to be discontented, to be forever searching and striving for more. That the search and the striving make us most human. What we want is the love that calls us on through the darkness. That offers a partnership deeper and stronger than either of the others. (If Tristan and Isolde had lived, would they have found it? Would he have helped her become a poet, would she have sent him on his quests with her blessing and a kiss?)

But that sort of love doesn’t make for very good stories, does it? (Although it might, just might, make for good art.)

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8 Responses to Thoughts on Love

  1. rushmc says:

    I think you’ve pegged it exactly. Romantic love has the same thrills as a rollercoaster ride–and likewise tends to make you sick if it lasts too long. Domestic love is…comfortable. (Talk about damning with faint praise.) Your third type is what I have sought instinctively my whole life. Unfortunately, everyone I’ve encountered has been mentally stuck in a cycle round and round the first two types (and a few who were capable of neither).

    I think this is still my favorite all-time quote re: romantic love:

    Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.
    –Matt Groening

    And this is a good one for domestic love:

    There are good marriages but no delicious ones.
    –La Rochefoucauld

    Perhaps these two touch on your “perfect” love:

    Look for your counterpart
    who always walks with you
    and mostly is what you are not.

    –Antonio Machado

    Love is not just looking at each other, it’s looking in the same direction.
    –Antoine de SaintExupery

  2. rushmc says:

    I must disagree with you on one point, however. I think it would make for excellent stories.

  3. Charles Tan says:

    I think it’d make a great story too–but of course this assumes it’s given the right treatment and written well. For example, what sacrifices must the lover make in order for their partner to realize their full potential? Sometimes this means parting, arguing, cajoling, trusting…

  4. Jo Jo says:

    “Love” is a meaningless biological illusion and cultural artifact, where self preservation (through species preservation) meets primate altruism, extensions of formative kinship structures and culturally encoded customs. One can hypnotize themselves out of “love” as easily as they can hypnotize themselves into it. Compassion, free of desire, is the only aspect of humanity that matters. Peace.

  5. Shelle says:

    Writing about that perfect love in a way that is meaningful to enough people to make a good story – that’s a challenge. I imagine that the story of that perfect love is different for everyone and not entirely told in words.

    I enjoyed your post very much.

  6. Thoraiya says:

    “It’s not a love that says, love me back. It’s not a love that says, do your duty. It’s not a love that restrains you in any way, except by asking you to become yourself.”

    That sounds really sucky for the other person and not like love at all. It sounds like what all artists think they want, and the practical people who fall in love with them and provide this precise fantasy eventually crack and leave them because you can’t clean up another person’s mess forever without your dream being supported and encouraged in return.

  7. Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.
    –Matt Groening

    I love that! Especially the ice weasels. I do think, with reference to the last post, that if you love another person in a way that restrains that other person, that asks that person to be something other than who he or she is, you’re asking for heartbreak. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert, but in my personal experience, loving another human being simply because of who that person is, not because that person fulfills a need of yours, not because that person presents you with a particular image of yourself, is the only way to do it. It’s the way we love our children, simply because of who they are. If that love is returned in the same way, wonderful. That doesn’t always happen, and then it’s time to move on. I would never recommend, and have certainly not recommended above, cleaning up anyone else’s mess. That seems directly contradictory to what I’m talking about. The love I’m describing doesn’t involve taking responsibility for another person. It involves loving that person enough to insist that he or she take responsibility. That person can’t become his or her best self without doing so. None of us can without taking responsibility for ourselves.

  8. Kivitasku says:

    I hate that third kind of love. It’s asking too much. It’s telling you to be your best self when what you may want to be is just happy or enough or useful or accepted. I don’t want my lovers to make those decisions for me.

    I also don’t think that love is any deeper than any other kind of love, romantic or not, it’s just a different type, with intensity that varies from case to case, same as with any other kind of love.

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