I was in South Dakota this weekend for my niece’s wedding reception. Two years ago, my nephew got married. Both have awesome partners and are clearly in love. In all the talk about love, partnership, commitment, it occurs to me that as a culture, we have a very tenuous grip on what love actually is.
The divorce rate is over 50%. I’ve been divorced more than once. I clearly haven’t understood love properly. Perhaps Joni Mitchell put it best in her classic “Both Sides now”:
“Moons and Junes and ferries’ wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all”
So what is love?
I’ll take a Platonic approach to this. Plato argued that the world we experience, the world of appearances, is not the true world. The true world is the ideal; our world is just a poor reflection of that ideal, more illusion than reality.
In our world ideal love is distorted by human weakness, emotion, jealousy and fear. If we want to experience love, it seems we should seek the ideal, and try to work against the distortions.
So what is ideal love? Here’s a stab at a definition: Love in its ideal form is when one person cares about another to the point that the well being, happiness, and autonomy of the other is an end in and of itself. The last phrase is important – if it is an end in and of itself, it is not transactional. One doesn’t give love in return for love, or predicate love on what another does in response. In the move from ideal to “real in the world” love, the most difficult aspect is to have love as an end in and of itself.
Autonomy is an important aspect of love, yet one that people find difficult to apply. If someone complains, “She doesn’t pay attention to me,” “He doesn’t buy me anything,” or “She ignores me when I’m talking about things important to me,” then one is really saying, “he or she is being autonomous, rather than doing what I want them to do.” That ain’t love, that’s a desire for control. Even harder might be, “she slept with someone at the party, she cheated on me.” She can’t cheat if she’s autonomous.
While monogamy may be a common result of real love, expectations of monogamy are attempts at control. People usually nod to human jealousy and decide that if its expected of both, then at least it’s fair – two people agree that they can’t give up wanting some control of what the other does. In essence they say “we’re humans, humans are jealous, so let’s just accept that and promise to give up our autonomy in this realm.” That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a step away from ideal love.
The happiness of the other as an end is also an ideal difficult to achieve. Two people decide to find ways to be happy together, each compromising so that their happiness is shared. When these compromises yield happiness – the two enjoy doing something together – it’s great. They’ve learned to expand the experience of happiness to something new, that is an important benefit of love and friendship. But if they struggle through something (‘Football is important to Joe, so I’ll entertain his friends and pretend I’m enjoying the game….then he’ll go shopping with me which I know he hates…’), then it’s really misplaced. Better to go off and do something on their own or with other friends than believe it’s necessary to be together all the time.
At base, the more insecure one is, the more it becomes tempting to use relationships as a crutch to bolster self-esteem or avoid confronting difficult truths. Insecurity is the root of negativity, and the most certain path to the farthest point away from ideal love. Since all humans have some level of insecurity, love in the world is always likely to fall short of the ideal.
Yet as I think of my niece and her husband starting a life together, the joy of the two dancing to their song, and sparkle when they’re eyes meet, I hope they don’t give up the quest to express love in the most ideal way possible.
And as I consider a planet full of fear, jealousy, insecurity, stress and struggles for control, I realize that this isn’t just about relationships. The quest to experience love in its ideal form is universal, connecting all humanity. Getting closer to idealized love is the only path to really limit pain, misery and boredom in this world. But universal love for humanity is abstract and difficult.
Best to start the quest to express love as ideally as possible with the people around us – friends, family, partners, and even those who just cross our path for brief periods of time. Perhaps most importantly is to love ourselves – one cannot be strong and secure without self-love. We may learn that love is indeed the answer.