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?