I’ve been thinking a lot about love recently, about what it is and what it is not. Maybe there isn’t one answer and maybe each new experience alters our conception of what it is, and what it is not. It’s a fluid spectrum, much like sexuality. Maybe everyone values elements of love differently and needs different features to be present in order to categorize it as such. But that’s the beauty of it…and the extreme annoyance.
Can we ever communicate to someone else the feeling of love that we experience? When something feels so irrational and cannot be comprehended by ourselves, how can we begin to explain it to another?
Are all relationships flawed if we can’t possibly begin to understand one another’s feelings of love?
I was recently reading a biography of the author Patricia Highsmith who described love as an illusion, a fantasy. This wasn’t meant in a dismissive way, but she decided that it was safer to love from afar. She realised that her feelings of love for others were projections of what she wanted to see, what she wanted them to be, and in turn, what she wanted to feel because of them. The reality of who her lovers were actually had very little to do with her feelings of love, so to avoid disappointment she kept her distance.
All those times when we’ve suffered unrequited love for someone , when someone has breezed into our lives in an unobtainable fashion and we experience inexplicable desire, that’s fantasy. We barely know them and yet our heart is breaking with love for them. We don’t truly know that person enough to love them, we’re merely in love with our assumption of who they are, who they could be, or the potential of who we could be if we were together. Highsmith saw this as a reflection of her own ego. I can see the logic in this; we’ve all felt our own feelings increase in response to someone’s declaration and flattery. Bit of a crushing realisation, but there you have it. Despite being a rather crazy cat lady, Highsmith was a bloody clever one.
As I was walking to the gym yesterday, my thoughts turned to Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I appreciate that he’s a left-field source of love-related wisdom, but hear me out: he suggests that we often forget that love is an act – as in, you have to work to demonstrate love for someone. It’s not an omnipresent force that sweeps you off your feet. The act of loving someone comes with making them feel secure, safe, supported, comforted, caressed, etc. Covey believes that love is when we provide this to another without strings attached of what we receive back. Don’t get me wrong: I think that this works across a long-term partnership; it’s based on the concept that love is kept alive by working on it, but where does it leave the love we experience in the honey-moon period – or is that not love, is it merely lust? I also believe that the ‘no strings’ concept only works to a certain extent until one is made to feel like a door-mat and that the relationship is serving very few needs in return – everyone has needs. There are limitations.
Most recently, The Priest in the BBC series Fleabag, defined love to be ‘all any of us want, and it’s hell when we get there’. Rather depressing but stay with me: “it takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope….when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope”. It’s true; it does take grit despite the fact that it’s often tearing you apart. It takes strength to stand up for a love that you believe in, to leave a love which is no longer equal. Ultimately, at the base of our stomachs we know when we’ve found it. Yet the idea that finding somebody that you love feels like hope also mirrors Highsmith’s comments that love is fantasy – psychosis; what we’re loving here is a hope of the possible, the hope of a future which doesn’t yet exist, or a person who we don’t completely know. This makes me rather sceptical. Yes, you can love the IDEA of someone, and the possibility they bring to your life, but does this mean that you’re in love with them as the fleshy individual? No.
I believe that love is visceral. It’s the feeling of being truly understood. When the other person looks at you they see right through you. They know how your mind operates, they read your body like it’s a book. They take your desire in their hands like it’s a physical object and meet it with their own. When you talk it’s as if your foreheads are touching – you know what their sentence will be and so there’s no need for words. It’s that feeling of being held, not physically, but your soul being cradled, supported and nourished. You guard each other fiercely, on high alert, to ward off danger and ensure safety. You go when called – no questions. Their flaws are as beautiful as the perfections – they’re beautifully flawed in your eyes. Love also eats you alive. What it gives with one hand it takes with another – and you have to be ok with what you’re losing in light of what you’re gaining. You see parts of yourself you never saw before – you change in a way that can never be reversed. You have been touched so deeply that those fingerprints are ever-present on the inside – there’s a part of you which will always belong to the other, no matter how great the loves subsequent.
Love requires a number of factors to align – my visceral definition of love requires that yours has to be met in equal force by another. This is outside of our control. The extent to which someone is standing opposite you, mirroring you, is unpredictable. The pieces of the puzzle have to fall in the right rotation and face up. There are many loves that could have been more, that could have been right, but the corner piece was missing.
Poem: The Sun Rising, John Donne