Diana and Cupid, by Pompeo Batoni
As I sit down to write, the message on my Yogi Tea reads: Love is life, life is love.
Yup. Valentine’s Day is in the house.
Every year at this time there is inevitable backlash to the sudden onset of saccharine soliloquies.
The conflict doesn’t stem from a lack of enthusiasm for the general concept of love, but from a heightened awareness of what love represents and the pressure of expressing love the Hallmark Way.
Love is and always has been all around, no matter the calendar date.
There would be no museums, no Grammy Awards, no cinema, nor library if Cupid’s arrows failed to pierce.
But if an alien came to visit earth he/she/it would think we humans to be a rather masochistic lot. Unrequited love takes up more space in art and in our hearts than any other topic.
A quick Google search of the world’s greatest love stories brings the point home:
Romeo and Juliet… both die for love
Cleopatra and Mark Antony… both die for love
Tristan and Isolde… both die for love
Pyramus and Thisbe… both die for love
Why are we so morbid in our portrayal of love?
And why can we send people to the moon but not discover a universal solution to loving well?
Perhaps the problem is not love itself but how we define it.
Star crossed lovers
In today’s western modern society we use the same word to describe our enthusiasm for a pair of shoes (I love those Jimmy Choos!) as we do to express our devotion to another human being (I love you more than life itself!)
If eskimos have 50 words for ‘snow’, surely we can find more than one for ‘love.’
Actually, we did.
In ancient Greece there was not one word for love, but six, each representing a unique facet of the ideal. The concept that one person can fulfill all six versions of love always and forever is a superhuman task. This is not to say that we can’t be in satisfying long-term partnerships, just that there is much to be said for cultivating love in all her forms.
In case you’re curious, the six types of love are:
- Eros: Sexual passion and desire
- Philia: Friendship
- Ludus: Playful affection
- Pragma: Long-term relationships developed over time
- Agape: Selfless love
- Philautia: Self-love
In How Should We Live, historian and philosopher, Roman Krznaric’s states:
The lesson from Ancient Greece is that we must instead ask ourselves, ‘How can I cultivate the different varieties of love in my life?’ That is the ultimate question of love that we face today.
This doesn’t mean having affairs with other romantic partners, but instead having a love affair with life.
HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU
This brings us to the heart of the matter. (See what I did there?)
We look for partners who reflect back our own soul. Philosophers and scholars agree that our greatest desire from another human being is to feel seen.
This is particularly apparent now that we spend more time facing our computers than one another. We view emojis more than the person sending them.
Then there is our culture’s celebrity obsession. The relevance here in terms of love and recognition is that studies show the demand for photos of celebrities going about the banalities of their day (Stars! They’re just like us!) is six times greater than there is for them posing on the red carpet. Why is that? Because we want to feel that we are more alike than different. We want to feel the pull of “us” instead of the push of “them.”
We crave familiarity among people we’ve never met. And we find comfort in the familiarity of self in the eyes of those we adore.
MIND THE GAP
Of course, we’re human and therefore flawed, and boy, don’t we know it! Thus, we tend to look for partners whom we believe fill a void. It is commonplace to describe our beloved as our “better half” which implies that we are only 50% complete prior to having met Mr./Mrs. Right.
Not to harp on the whole Ancient-Greeks-were-so-much-smarter-than-us thing, but they had another way of looking at this desire to feel whole from another. Instead of viewing our partners as the missing puzzle piece, the Greeks believed we could take turns being both teachers and learners of one another. Yes, we can (and hopefully do) find ourselves in awe of the person we love, but also, we can (and hopefully do) mutually improve him/her and ourselves in the process. Our lover doesn’t “complete” us; We make one another better.
In Bed: The Kiss, Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec
Of course, this requires trust and ample communication between the two people involved in order to not turn each teachable moment into a diatribe.
Love is ongoing journey, not a final destination to be reached, and both people have to take turns steering the ship. (What? I can’t think of a better metaphor here. Just go with it, please.)
Whether single or sequestered, if we want to be better in relationships (of any sort) we’d do well to focus inward. The better we know ourselves the better we can correctly see ourselves in others and the more we can understand what we bring to the table.
ROMANTIC OR CLASSIC?
Rom-Coms and fairytales are entertaining, and often cathartic. But they can also be dangerous.
When did we start believing in maidens and towers and knights in shining armor? When did boy meets girl become the whole story?
We have Romanticism to thank for that.
Prior to the mid-1800s we were far more pragmatic in our approach to matters of the heart. Emotions took the back seat to reason. But the rise of Romanticism changed our perspective. Suddenly passions were viewed as desirable, and idealism fueled revolutions, both in the bedroom and on the barricades.
Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People
Romanticism isn’t bad, and in the Are You A Romantic or A Classic? quiz (yes, this is real), I’m practically the poster child for the former. But as such, I’m also acutely aware of how I, and the rom-com obsessed society in which I live, could benefit from a tipping of the scales towards a more “balanced” world view.
Romance makes us feel alive. But the falling or initial experience of love is only the beginning of the real love story. We could benefit from more literature and art and movies that offer a glimpse of post-puppy love architecture. Sure, there might be less eros, but who says pragma has to be boring? Sex sells, but love wins. I, for one, would like to support the cause by seeking out stories that depict love in all her complicated forms.
In today’s era of online dating and personality assessments tests, we are led to believe the search for the perfect mate is one of compatibility.
While projecting the success of a potential partner beyond chemistry alone is a good start, the long-term success of a relationship has as much, if not more, to do with how the partners handle conflict than with what they have in common.
I’d propose the most accurate compatibility test is travel: Experience sleep deprivation and decision paralysis and lost luggage (tip: carry-on only). Whether or not both people want to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre is less important than how they’ll respond to the taxi driver ripping them off on the way.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee
TELL ME ABOUT IT
We know love exists and science tells us we are, in fact, hardwired to love.
Yet all of the above is still not enough for love to survive on its own.
Perhaps the question is not whether we have the capacity to love enough, but whether we can communicate in a way that each person can be seen and accepted.
Love is in us. It’s deeply embedded in the brain. Our challenge is to understand each other, says anthropologist and human behavior researcher, Helen Fisher.
This is where the adage it takes two comes in handy; Not just two people experiencing all the feelings of love, but two people communicating their love to and for one another.
The Wine Glass by Johannes Vermeer
Though there is no universally accepted handbook for How To Communicate Love, there are certainly resources to get us started, should we accept the quest. Here are three recommendations for expressing love:
1. The Five Love Languages
There’s a reason why the book continues to be on the bestseller list year after year. But even without the book, you can take the free online assessment.
In short, how we give love is how we we like to receive love. Often conflicts arise not because there is a lack of love, but because we fail to realize how the other person prefers to receive it.
The Five Love Languages are:
Words of Affirmation
Acts of Service
Fun fact: We’re often wrong in our assumed love language or our partners, even if we know them well.
2. To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do this
The NY Times recently published this article and accompanying questions for experiencing immediate intimacy with another. The prompts are powerful both because they require each person to be vulnerable and because the instructions demand physical closeness and eye contact.
If nothing else, this articles offers itself as a catalyst for couples and would-be couples taking time to sit down and have genuine conversations with the human being across the table.
Again, in this era of texting and emails, this latter point is especially important, as discussed in detail by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D. in her book Love 2.0: Neither abstract nor mediated, true connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires a sensory and temporal copresence of bodies. The main mode of sensory connection, scientists contend, is eye contact.
Love is many a splendid thing, but she is definitely not blind. Help her out by being both emotionally and physically present.
3. The Heart of Mindful Relationships by Maria Arpa
This book may be a bit zen for some readers, but it offers a helpful perspective from a mediator and counsellor who specializes in working with couples. I like that Arpa focuses on the value of contentment, the necessity of authentic dialogue and the role of mutual agreements.
If something is amiss, the goal is to change the relationship, not the other person. Much of Arpa’s advice is astoundingly simple, yet I suspect extremely effective.
For example: When you begin a dialogue, you should always allow your partner to finish what they are saying before you respond. Even if you don’t like what you hear, resist the temptation to interrupt. Hearing something you don’t like is part of learning.
The purpose of communicating should not be to win the battle or even the war, but to understand what it feels to be at peace with the person we fight alongside.
Love defies reason, confounds expectations, and changes everything.
As maddening as it is, much about the “who” we love is not in our control.
You love who you love. -John Mayer
What we can affect is how we love.
We are each responsible for strengthening trust, intimacy, and connection.
We (hopefully) don’t have to drink poison, or fall on our sword to show our devotion to another. But we will have to make sacrifices and navigate through times of change and conflict.
Love asks each of us to be life-long students and explorers of ourselves and our partners.
Perhaps the lesson was is the tea after all:
Life is (continuously learning to) love. Love (is continuously learning) to live.
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova
P.S.Please feel welcome to add your thoughts in the comments and share this post with those you love:)
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