Being that February has a day dedicated to love, I thought it would be fitting to write about it.
My son approached me recently, tormented by the knowledge that he needed to have a difficult conversation to end a relationship that he felt he was losing himself in. He asked me why at the beginning of ‘falling for someone’, he cannot seem to spend enough time with the person. He described it is almost intoxicating; and then seemingly suddenly, he realizes he dove right in and lost himself along the way. While my son is only 15, and has many more years of learning about love, I have often felt the same way.
I must admit that for myself, the thought of living with someone seems more and more daunting, more of a fantasy than a reality. I say this because of my experience with relationships; I have been told I am “too independent”. Maybe I am, maybe I am not, however, this is something that I have had to explore given that it seems to be a theme. I have been on my own for twelve years, raising two children. While I often bounce things off my parents and sisters, I ultimately make big decisions on my own. This has shaped who I am now, however, it’s deeper than that. As I child I was always highly independent, this independence has served me well. It is part of who I am, and not likely to change any time soon. I now know that this needs to be discussed with any individual that I date up front. Instead of losing myself in the excitement of “falling”, I intend to be mindful of staying true to myself and teaching the other person about me.
Movies and books have taught us that true love is free of conflict, that once you meet your soul mate, you will have your happy ever after. I myself bought into this narrative from a young age, I read so many romance novels and had a detailed vision of what my happy ever after would look like. Over the last year, I have come to realize that this narrative, this vision, this utopic love, is not realistic.
The happy ever after that we are taught to believe is based on only one step of love: the ‘falling’ part. This part is indeed intoxicating, and has caught me off guard each and every time I start to date someone I really like. Here’s the thing, we all enter adulthood a little ‘broken’, we have scars, we have hurts, and are not always aware of them. There will be many moments of happiness, but “happy ever after”, is a delicious myth; and one that is causing great harm to long-term love.
Alain de Botton, founder of the School of Life and author of numerous books including “On Love” and “The Course of Love”, states that society has developed extremely unhelpful narratives about love that are perpetuated and reinforced by songs, movies and books. De Botton argues that romanticism has essentially, killed love. Narratives stemmed within romanticism are creating problems and inhibit individuals from being able to engage in enduring and meaningful relationships. De Botton argues that in order to have any real chance at long-term love, or, to heal our current relationships, we need to develop a new narrative. Consider his definition of love: “love is a painful, poignant and touching attempt by two individuals trying to meet each other’s needs in situations of gross uncertainty, and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is, but who are going to do their best to teach one another how to be our best versions of ourselves with kindness, charity and imagination” (de Botton, 2018). De Botton maintains that the acceptance of ourselves as inherently flawed individuals, is the bedrock for any long-term relationship.
Alain de Botton cynically states that marrying the person you love can be quite cruel in that quite often, both partners have an idea of who the other person should be and become invested in trying to make those changes happen. He asks: “what if you could accept that your partner will never change, how would you feel about that?” (De Botton, 2018). While we don’t need be perfect, (which is good news because humans are inherently flawed and thus perfection is not attainable), it would be helpful to be able to explain your imperfections to any prospective partner before causing deep hurt. De Botton states that humility and self-knowledge are highly protective factors in any relationship. Being able to identify your scars and past hurts and how they manifest in daily life is integral if you want to prevent projecting these towards your partner. So, how to de we go about cultivating this kind of real and deep love that is rooted in self-awareness? Whether you are already in a long-term relationship, or you are just starting, or still searching, there are steps you can take to heal and deepen what you have, or, towards building a meaningful connection in the future.
According to de Botton, one of the key central ideas of psychotherapy is that the way that we love as adults is a reflection and deeply connected to the way we learned about love as children. Look at how you are within adult relationship, there are many connections you can make to how you learned about love as a child. This has consequences when we try to find love as adults. De Botton suggests there are some key things we can learn to cultivate within our relationships, that will help us strengthen our connection.
The first thing we need to cultivate is a sense of charity- we need to be able to direct sympathy to what is lost or broken in our partners and to the mistakes our partners make. We all make mistakes, and will also at some point, require charity from our partners. We will need them to look past our inevitable failings, in a tender search for our deeply hidden merits. In our darkest moments, we are not always ‘at our best’, it is crucial for both to be able to accept this, and look beyond the pain, anger or hurt that our partner may lash out at us at some point in the relationship.
Another key ingredient to cultivate within relationships is imagination. Learning to look beyond the anger or rage/cynicism and picture the suffering and pain that got this person to this place, to love with imagination is to fill in the better reasons why others are acting the way they are. This love knows we are all a little broken, and that is OK.
Finally, kindness, we need to approach love with kindness, the way that we do with children. When a three-year-old is having a melt down, we do not criticize or judge them, we try to reassure them that they are loved and a hug is waiting for them should they need one. All of us are barely holding it together, and we should be kind with one another, remembering that we are all fragile, and likely a little broken, especially when we get to our later years. De Botton recommends that when your partner is visibly upset, to give them the same kindness you would if they were two or three, because in that moment, your partner has likely reverted to their childhood, and is not being rational. We’ve all been there right? Seems like such a simple concept, yet one not frequently adhered to in those moments of high intense emotions.
I would argue that the most important thing to cultivate is self-awareness. Difficulty with being in touch with our internal selves will drive a wedge in our relationships. We need to be aware of what our emotions are telling us. This awareness allows us to live more “wisely” and thus, make any relationship more meaningful. Alain de Botton indicates it is about accepting that we are all a little broken, because being human is hard, as long as we are aware of how it impacts us and those around us.
As you embark on your journey of self-discovery, make sure to take all the factors listed above and apply them to yourself: be charitable with yourself, be kind to yourself and use your imagination to be curious about yourself, not critical about yourself. Self-awareness is not about being perfect, it is about falling in love with yourself as you are, as scary as that may sound.
De Botton, Alain. On Being. The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships (podcast), August 1, 2018.