I’ve been thinking about relationships lately, partly because I have an idea for a book. Not the one I’m currently working on, which doesn’t focus on relationships — it focuses on friendships between women. But I mean romantic relationships, not friendships. We’ve had this idea, for the last hundred years or so, that we’re all supposed to be looking for True Love.
I say the last hundred years, because the idea of falling in love and then spending the rest of your life with the person you fell in love with is a fairly recent one. We trace romance back to the chivalric ideal, the Romances of the medieval period. But that was a very different ideal — there, your True Love was not the person you spent the rest of your life with. Romantic love happened outside the marital bond, and was destructive to it. Tristan and Isolde does not end with the marriage of Tristan and Isolde. It’s not until the eighteenth century, but even more so the nineteenth century, that we get people falling in love, getting married, and presumably living happily ever after — in a sense, the novel takes the plot of the fairy tale and moves it into the domestic sphere.
So we get the fairy tale idea of True Love, which we are all supposed to wish for, to try and find. I’m afraid I’ve gotten cynical about that lately. When you’re a writer, and interested in people, and good at listening, people tell you things — as though you were Hercules Poirot. And sometimes the relationships that look so lovely on the outside aren’t so lovely after all, when you hear about what happens on the inside. The thing is, someone can love you and still treat you horribly. Or at least, that’s what I’ve seen in some relationships. Tristan and Isolde weren’t so good to each other either.
So I have a different ideal than the cultural one, which is True Partnership. I see this too, and not infrequently. I suppose True Partnership includes True Love, but I think of it as a relationship in which love is not simply an emotion that the partners feel for one anther: it is instead a constant basis for action. Love is a verb, not just a noun. The people I know who seem to be True Partners (seem to be because of course we can never get inside a relationship) are each wholly themselves — they each have their own lives. But in addition, they also have a life together. That life allows them to develop as themselves, to keep their own identities. It does not operate as a constraint on who they are, and indeed it helps in their self-development. Each partner becomes more himself or herself in the relationship. Separated, they would each still be whole — but together, they are more than the sum of their parts. True Partnership involves both freedom and togetherness, both independence and trust.
I read an article recently about a couple who had done everything together, all their lives. At the end of their lives, they died within a week of one another. A lot of people though that was sweet — I thought it sounded like a play by Jean Paul Sartre. It would be claustrophobic, not to have one’s own life and identity, to be only a couple. And I’ve met people who hesitated to do what they wanted because the other partner would disapprove. Who quite literally needed to ask permission — whether to attend a social event or pursue their professional goals. I’ve never understood living like that.
The picture I’m going to include at the end of this blog post is of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. They seem, to me (and again, one can never get inside a relationship), an example of what True Partnership might look like. They weren’t interested in destroying each other, and would make for lousy opera. But they seem to have had a marriage that was truly good for them both.
(I suppose I’ve seen too many relationships in which people love each other, but at some level don’t actually like each other? They would love each other more if the other person could change, just a little . . . could become more of what they want in a mate. That’s a deadly sort of relationship. At least, I think it is, although I see it plenty.)
So, that’s my ideal: a True Partnership. Because I’m not sure that True Love is enough. I love opera, but who wants to end up in one?
Agreed. Have you read HH Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness? iirc, he spends the first few chapters debunking romantic myths, fairy tales and expectations wrt ‘happiness’.
Of note, earlier today, this tweet was making the rounds: “True love leads to the expansion of the revolutionary struggle.” ~ Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
Given the extreme power imbalances in our world economies, the notion of True Partnership is revolutionary indeed.
An observation on love and partnership. On falling in love one can find another person, whether you like it or not, who is as important as you, if not more important than you. Someone you would die for to save them. Look at Robin Hood.
What if the other person, whether they like it or not, has this happen to them too. Each person promotes the development, freedom and discovery of the other. Both grow and flourish for as long as this state of euphoria lasts. Perhaps it naturally wanes after a month, but could last till these people die. To live is such a privileged. To be in love as well….
“Each person promotes the development, freedom and discovery of the other.” Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at! 🙂
What a brilliantly perceptive blog. Thank you. I write of something like a ‘true partnership’ in my latest novel The Hidden Auditorium, in which a widow explains how she lived until her much-older husband died.
If we examine marriages we perceive as ‘happy’ (or rather, which are presented by the couple quite deliberately as being happy) we are bound to see exactly what you describe above.
There is a book in this. No fairy tale, either.
True partnership *is* true love, I believe. It’s what my parents have together (as you say, where the “love” is not simply a feeling but an action). They’re in their 21st year of marriage and have never loved each-other more.
The only aspect that I would disagree on is that partnership and love involves a great deal of compromise that often includes sacrifice. Read Byatt Possession. It is a modern fairy tale/myth that two people can be totally free in their individual lives and have a true partnership. A marriage based on love is very different.
Melinda, sorry it’s taken me so long to respond! This has been a particularly busy time. I agree that all relationships involve compromise. I would balk at the word “sacrifice” because I think that as soon as you feel as though you’re sacrificing something, you start feeling resentful as well. You start feeling as though you’re giving up a part of yourself for the relationship, and I don’t think that’s healthy. My ideal is to be in a relationship, but still be able to be your true, authentic self. For example, if you were a poet and that was part of your identity, but the other person wanted you to give that up, it would make for a lousy relationship. So yes, compromise is always necessary, but the true partnerships I’ve seen have allowed both partners to flourish as individuals. That’s the ideal I’m trying to describe.
I agree, Melinda. Marriages based on love must go through changes: an evolution through differing “loves” (English is poor in this regard because our vocabulary gives us only one word to describe various emotions… hence the debate). Partnerships based on compatibility or like-mindedness might very well have love as a spin-off, but are based on something other than a changeable emotion. Which is why arranged marriages based on cultural and intellectual compatibility are just as likely to succeed (some say more, in fact) than love matches.
Have you read Stephanie Coontz’s book on Marriage? She gives an amazing, amplified and useful history of romance, partnership and marriage. There was also an interesting article in Sunday’s NYT Magazine about Norman Rush’s “broken promise” to his long suffering (?) partner and wife.
What a wonderful post. Partnership was what I was seeking and had for a while, but
it could not last. What amazes me is that all my aunts and uncles had long, long
marriages that were charmed. They were high school sweethearts, or neighbors in
small towns and just fit together like salt and pepper shakers. And held hands still
like young lovers in their eighties. I think it was an age less complicated than ours.
Maybe there are no ideal partnerships in terms of what we all are speaking of. There are no ways to determine what love is and how it changes. Or even what equal means. When I was young I never saw relationships in terms of 50/50 and that sort of thing. I never believed that existed. I still don’t. I’ve been married 38 years. Some of those years, I might have given 20%, some I gave 80%, and so forth. But I’ve been giving this some thought because my life is changing again and Theodora might have hit a hot spot with me. Laughing. As I alluded to on FB, George MacDonald and an afternoon of discussing fairy tales is starting to look very good to me!
There is a cartoon going around the traps that shows an old grumpy couple sitting on a bench in the pouring rain. The man is holding an umbrella at arm’s length over his wife … and the caption goes “Love is caring for each other even when you are angry.” We’ve all seen it. It describes what experienced couples tell us: something we can barely understand when we are in the first flush of young love. Experienced couples tell us that caring for someone is more important than love. It transcends love, what we understand to be love. Even “true love” is a term that does not start to explain what long-term relationships evolve into. There are stages of development and periods of change, storms and dead calms that can threaten a couple’s “love”. Understanding what these changes do, and how compromise and delayed gratification (plus the knowledge that nothing lasts and nothing can be the same all the time), go a long way to forming the pillars and foundations that make a lasting relationship.