“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation…. Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate—?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.” –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Last night, I sat in a bar in Philadelphia and listened to a man on the other side talk very loudly about the education system, about credit cards, about politics. He really seemed to want attention. I had an inkling he was single, and he was sending out signals that he wanted a woman to talk to him, to be rapt by his knowledge and conversational skills (which involved a lot of talking and no listening, mind you). I wondered whether he was on a dating app, what his profile might look like, shuddered once again at the very prospect of writing a profile as an inducement to love, and waited for my friend David to arrive.
When he did, I asked him this question: “Why is it so important to us as human beings to have a relationship? Why do we seem to think it’s the most important thing in the world, that we can’t fully rest until we’re in one?”
David didn’t know. Neither did I. But we mined this question for a while, because that’s what we do. We take a topic like an onion and explore its many layers, talk about our experience, try to come up with solutions, fall flat, do it all over again the next time we see each other.
The only thing I can come up with in answer to this question is that there is something primal in the desire for union, and there must also be something spiritual, too. In a primal way, we want to have sex. It’s a powerful urge, a natural urge to want to be touched, to want to experience physical pleasure. But in a spiritual sense, we want to merge and connect on another plane. A union with another person is like building a fort, having a place to land for a while after being at sea. It’s an opportunity for someone to truly get to know us, in all kinds of ways. And it seems to be the foremost way for us to learn about love on this earth, about what love means, about its many layers, about what it takes to keep the flame burning.
For me, a romantic partnership (I don’t know what other word you use to describe it), is about being seen and known on an intimate level, a level others do not have access to. (And I suspect we could say this about other kinds of relationships, too: colleagues, parenthood.) A romantic partnership embraces a vulnerability unlike other relationships in life. It doesn’t mean it is the only relationship, but the inclusion of sex into all the other parts of daily existence means that this person gets pretty darn close. And so that relationship has to be special; it has to be both unique and familiar at the same time.
And the choices you make about whether to invest in that love must be your own, wide-eyed, deliberate, thoughtful. Because that is unconditional love. It’s not an overwhelming feeling that takes over your body. It is a care-filled decision beyond obligation, beyond societal frameworks and expectations. You need to know what you’re doing, the potential that you’re taking on, in order to love someone in any real way. And you must do it not out of loneliness, or desperation, or weariness, but instead with conviction, curiosity, bravery, a willingness to try.
As a parent, I love my children unconditionally. I know that they only live with me for a time, and it is my job to give them the best rearing to prepare them to flourish in life. It is my job to teach them and be a rock for them to come home to, a place they feel safe and loved and nurtured. But it also means that in wanting what’s best for them, I cannot love them by only focusing on what’s best for me. I cannot grasp at them, want them to define my role in this life, desire that they fill some hole or ache inside me that wants to be filled. So much about being their mother is about letting them go so they can explore and learn, and decide on their own what they need me for, at the same time as I create a structure for them to flourish.
When it comes to a partnership between two people, I don’t know that we have the same idea that love is unconditional. I think, instead, we want someone to provide something for us, a service, perhaps. And we are not always clear on what we can provide for them. It becomes transactional, capitalistic, instead of a dance or exchange of being in a person’s space and sharing nourishing energy. And so failing relationships end up with two people pondering, consistently, whether they are getting their needs met, going over a tit for tat, a list of pros and cons. But true love is a delicate dance of knowing that we both choose to be here, and we are both strong enough and confident enough to walk away, and yet we like this experience so much, it adds so much to our lives, that we want to stay.
I don’t know how it all works. This is conjecture, this is rumination, this is earnest seeking. I just know a lot of people are unhappy in their relationships. A lot of people feel stuck. And yet we all, at the same time, yearn for the union of a partner, the intimacy of being held and danced with on many levels.