Thursday 11 December 2008

Connections: Taming the mysteries of love and relationships

I’m not a psychiatrist. I didn’t study matters of love, sex and marriage in institution-sanctioned books and assume the material to be true. This is not the nature of my credentials. I’m a poet in the ancient sense; a kind of social scientist working independently by shaping my approach to life in the way of a virtual laboratory. I take the time to study these slippery elements of human experience in a very robust way while others are busy working overtime, raising children and all the other things that shape a materially comfortable community which I glean rewards from. I make the very substantial effort required to escape the illusions that are required of such a community while still benefiting from the overall wealth and security it generates thanks to the efforts of those, unlike me, who do more doing, and less thinking.

In return, it’s my role; my duty to do this; to share my findings with those who may benefit.

If credentials are required then I can only say this: Since dedicating my existence to the poetic pursuit, or more accurately, since my findings began to accumulate and consolidate and refine, I have experienced remarkable change which I regard as positive and evolutionary. I experience almost no fear, anger, stress or frustration. Why? Because in breaking these things down into their components I see with clarity how they depend on participation in mental charade; in societal illusion. I see incredible beauty in life and in people constantly; every day. I experience wildly elevated levels of peace and freedom. I literally feel like I’m the most fortunate person on earth. That’s just a feeling, mind you, not something I would ever regard as fact.

If these sound like states of being that you would like to participate in to greater degrees then you may want to engage in my ideas. If you can’t help but suspect I’m full of shit, then I expect you’ll prefer to look elsewhere to explore ideas. There’s no shortage of people eager to be heard!

Being approachable and attentive, people like to talk to me about their problems. I hear much lamenting over matters of the heart and difficulties with relationships. Everyone seems to have different ideas about what love is, what love means, what conditions and rules are supposed to be in place regarding love and relationships. People claim that there are all different kinds of love; they make bold declarations; “Love conquers all.” “All conflict may be resolved through compromise where there is true love.”

Indeed we’re compelled to classify love in overly simple ways; into loving and being in love; into sex and making love. Love as attraction versus love as a state. The list goes on.

It all seems so complicated; beyond grasp. But it doesn’t have to be. This beast can be tamed. Love and relationships can be approached with confidence and understanding. Before I outline, today, my key approach to love, the matter of connection, let me propose a few general perspectives:

Love is just a word. And as any other word in any language, it relies on common experience to be useful when it is spoken from one party to another. The hurdle is, we apply the love label to so many variations of multiple real components that rarely are both parties identifying with the same set of components; the same formula.

Fork is a nice simple word. It’s a utensil or a roadway feature bearing specific shape. Love is a far more complicated word because we use it in so many places. Love is not a thing. It is not even an identifiable package of things. It is an idea. And it’s a million dollar idea because it breaks down into so many components which break down into so many sub-components and it’s further complicated by the fact that so many of its sub-components go on in the back of the brain; in the places our awareness is not privy. You know this is so when you lust for someone without choosing to do so. Why is this person so damn attractive? You don’t know. You know it’s not him or her; that it’s your own subconscious interpretation. We might assume it has to do with survival - with breeding instinct. We might assume that biologists have a better grasp on it than we do. But luckily we need not despair in what we don’t know. We only need to understand how it affects our living experience.

Love works much more reliably as an adjective than a noun. We can call something an act of kindness when some mundane generosity occurs; something for which recognition is garnered, or some kindness in return. But where kindness is given anonymously or out of real caring we may call it loving kindness; a more useful, transferable idea than simply love. Similarly, we may separate sex with an adored partner from sex with a stranger with the term loving sex, which we do commonly, in essence, with the less-accurate phrase, making love.

Let me propose a useful metaphor for love: A Bordeaux blend. In essence Bordeaux wines do not exist because no Bordeaux grape exists. Bordeaux is simply an idea. The idea states that there are five real grape varieties considered applicable. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec - and - I forget the other. If you blend a minimum of three of these grapes - you have a Bordeaux. Of course the word Bordeaux is the privilege of the Bordeaux region. Outside of that, other words are used. In Canada, Meritage, for instance.

Love works the same way. There are a great variety of applicable connections between people. Physical attraction might be one connection. Or perhaps you may break that down into multiple connections; face and body, for instance. Familiarity may be a connection. If you are a downhill skiing nut than that may be a connection. And where some minimum of connections are satisfied, the point where the object person becomes significantly present in our thoughts; where multiple attachments are forming; where there is intensity of feelings; perhaps infatuation, then we apply the love label. For that very flexible love label is the only way we know to sum up what is really a combination of many processes.

I urge people not to think backwards, not to take the love label, an end point to a process, and think of it as a start point. It is not a pre-existing object. This is a trap we fall into with many idea-words in our society.

The beauty in recognizing love as a combination of connections is that it empowers us to take much more control of our romantic dealings. We can analyze our relationships reliably. We can engage in more useful meaningful discussion and resolve marital discord more productively. We can form a framework with which to recognize our own needs and the dialogue with which to communicate them.

All connections fall into three categories. Those which naturally fit, those which don’t fit and never will, and those which do not fit perfectly but which may be resolved through loving compromise (note the power of love as adjective here!)

The relationships I see that work well (sadly, a small minority), both straight and gay by the way, adhere to the following three-step process:

1. Celebrate the connections that fit naturally.

If you and your wife both love bowling than for goodness sakes, bowl together. Don’t join separate gender-oriented leagues that take place on separate nights so that you don’t have to hire a babysitter. Hire the babysitter. It’s an investment in your marriage. Don’t give up bowling so that Billy can play soccer. Find a way to do both or else recognize that Billy would rather have his family together. I think it’s obvious that having fun together is essential to a good loving relationship.

If you and your partner are great in bed together than have frequent sex. Don’t ask your psychiatrist if you’re a nymphomaniac! Celebrate the connection.

Understand what marks a valid connection, though. I’m wildly attracted to my sweetheart and that feeling is not mutual. However, I love to adore someone who is beautiful and the sweetheart likes to be adored. So the connection is good! It so happens it’s one of very few connections we have. But we recognize that and it’s all good. We’ve had a very satisfying simple affair for years.

2. Recognize, discuss and track the connections that require compromise.

Maintain open dialogue about this. Don’t silently resent your partner for all the compromises you make. People naturally engage in faulty accounting here. You judge your own concessions as being bigger than those you receive. Worse, you tend to forget about those you receive while retaining memory of those you give. Through discussion you maintain a balanced perspective.

Make sure that you have a plan and are making progress with regards to connections that you judge necessary but that have yet to close.

3. Dismiss from your relationship those connections that will not fit.

This is really the first step and it can be the hardest. Let go this unending worship of Ward and June Cleaver. There is no reason why you need a relationship that is infinitely all-encompassing. This fantasy that one person will be your perfect number one connection in every possible imaginable way has done incredible harm. While not strictly impossible, it’s a ridiculous expectation. And the fact that so many distraught couples are faking it - adds to the false expectation of its plausibility.

Where a connection simply can not be made, you have two choices. Let it not be a part of your relationship but something you are free to engage in with others; or else you can go on torturing yourselves with unproductive argument forever or for the life of the relationship.

Have the courage to build a relationship of your own special design and be proud of that. Don’t expect to get real joy from a relationship if you are sacrificing your love for dedication to reputation building and societal financial successes. A trophy marriage holds no joy. Joy comes from being real. It comes from being yourself and from being your only judge of yourself. It comes from rare honesty.

My friend, “Mary” lives in the suburbs and shares two kids with her ex-husband. She has the kids for a week every other week. She expected that any partner would automatically know that he would have to embrace those kids and a family lifestyle. Her boyfriend of two years, “Frank”, never has shown interest in her kids and has never mislead her about that and has never been especially apologetic about it. She has spent every other week living with him in his big-city apartment and enjoying the night life; something she considers a guilty pleasure. And every second week she’s back in the suburbs with her kids. For two years she has lamented his lack of interest in her children and wondered how long she must wait for them all to move in together (given her ex will still get the kids every other week). For two years all her other friends have been telling her that she’s right and Frank is wrong. For two years I’ve been telling her that right and wrong is a societal illusion and that she needs to map the lifestyle connection correctly and be honest about it and decide whether compromise is possible or not - and clearly - it never was. Frank and Mary will never meet on this regard. And for two years I told her to decide whether that lifestyle connection is critical to her or whether it can be dismissed from the relationship.

After two years she finally stopped listening to everyone else and started listening to me and now she has decided that such a connection is indeed critical to her and that Frank will not be her ultimate partner. They remain loving friends and Mary is now free to pursue the relationship she really wants. They have ended two years of constant arguing and agreed that they are not “on the same page.”

I urge you to think of relationships in these terms of connections and to talk to your partner or partners about all your connections. It’s important to be on the same page. Where you think a connection is strong but it turns out your girlfriend doesn’t - guess what? She was right.

Also, people change. Yes. They do. With every living moment we acquire new observations and our mind is changed and we are a new entity! I know that behaviour patterns seem slow to change but they can and they do. That's a subject for another time. So do our perceptions change and our priorities. So be aware that connections change too.

Besides being a very useful tool in problem solving, the connection model - or framework - is vital if you are single and wanting to date. You should know for yourself what your priorities are. Which connections are critical you? You need to know where you will be willing to compromise and where you will not.

Love is just a word. What matters is the meaning you attach to the word. - Rama-Kandra
(film: The Matrix)

When tragedy befalls you, Don’t let it get you down. Love will cure your problem. You’re so lucky I’m around. Let my love open the door. - Pete Townshend

A billion facets of brilliant love. A billion facets of freedom turning into light. - Bruce Cockburn.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, in fact I've written one, due to be published any day now, which ties in nicely whith much of this.

Yes, I think the problem is, Love means different things to different people. and sometimes this creates problems.

I think the thing most people forget is 'It is not love that which conditions makes'.

And I agree with this 'I urge people not to think backwards, not to take the love label, an end point to a process, and think of it as a start point. It is not a pre-existing object. This is a trap we fall into with many idea-words in our society.'

Love HAS no rules. It just is.

A very wise post, generally.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, FWG. Knew it had to be you :-) I think putting poetry into prose often makes its meaning clearer; if one is not limited by words, there's no harm is using many words to convey a concept :-) Very applicable. :-)

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about being able to stand back and give a different sort of perspective. I think we certainly do flutter around trying to live up to the cultural/familial and societal ideals. But it changes with almost every generation..ever so slightly but it does. It's good to sometimes remind ourselves and others of this.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting post. But why some work and others don't is sometimes just a mystery and doesn't bear analysis.

I've been in the same relationship for 47 years with very few ups and downs. We do some things together and some things apart and we are very different personalities but somehow we've continued in a loving relationship. Plus we are very good friends and I think that is a huge essential.

Frankly I don't see any formula that works for everyone. You work it out as you go along, as it suits you and giving each other a lot of leeway.

Anonymous said...

I had an acquaintance who seriously thought he'd made a study of sex by perusing PORN MAGS

I told him over and over that hardly any real women would do the stuff he told me he wanted to do without getting paid for it, but he insisted and women thoroughly took the peepee out of him in consequence!

Anonymous said...

fascinating post. I was just having a similar discussion with someone about the limitations of our language to describe "love". Like the Inuit, who have 80 something words for snow, we need more words for Love.

Anonymous said...

Crushed: Thanks. But I actually made a bit of a mess of this post. I started with the quotes and never actually got around to some of the more relevant points I had in mind. The Matrix quote was relevant but I fucked it up. That quote is not from the Matrix but elsewhere. This is what I get for waiting until the last minute to write the post. I rushed to the publish button.

Kate: By the way - I have nothing against the societal standard relationship as long as it happens organically and is not forced by engaging in all kinds of pretense. Some couples happen to connect naturally on all critical points or have enough dedication to each other that all non-connections are (or become) compromisable. Unfortunately - the vast majority of relationships I witness involve false thinking in terms of "I'm right, you're wrong" and there is too little respect where all disrespect derives from illusion.

JMB - it's great that you do some things apart. I have great respect for that sort of balance. Absence makes the heart grow fonder! That you don't fear the separate interests demonstrates that certain possible connections are left off the radar. Very good.

Gledwood: Yikes.

Nurse: Excellent point. Words are created by we, the people, not by dictionary manufacturers. Perhaps if we used the word love less often and described loving elements more specifically, new words and phrases would arise.

Eve: Thank you!