romantic love

My Theory of Love, Part 2

There was a bunch of things I wanted to talk about in this post that wound up being peripheral to the main direction the writing took me in, but that are still really important to my conceptualization of love. Before I get into those concepts, though, I also want to expand a bit on some of the points I already made.

In my initial post on love, I mentioned in passing how my understanding of love as being as being, at heart, something over which we have a certain amount of control (we can’t force ourselves to fall in love with someone, I don’t think, but when faced with a person we are capable of falling for hard, we do get to decide whether to give in to that feeling or not.) I also said that this understanding is an important part of what makes it possible for me to trust my partner in the ways you have to trust your partner in order to be happily and functionally poly.

I realize that this statement seems to imply that I trust my partner not to fall in love with someone else. But, I do specifically identify as polyamorous, and not some other form of non-monogamous, and I have chosen that label deliberately, because I am open to the possibility of us having multiple love relationships in our lives. The key for me is not that a person can choose not to fall in love with someone else, the important factor for me is simply taking a thoughtful and conscientious approach to the ways in which we choose love and the ways in which we lean into it.

As I said before, when we’re talking about the chemically-based, dopey addiction form of love (Big Love, the kind that you hear about in songs and poetry so often) isn’t perpetually sustainable. And in any long term relationship, there will be times when one or both (or some subset, or all, depending on how many people we’re talking about) partners aren’t really feeling it. And it’s at these moments that relationships based in Big Love are at their most vulnerable. It’s easy to say “well, I don’t feel that way any more. I guess it’s time to end it.” But I truly believe that when you find a person who can inspire Big Love in you (and I have no idea what makes some people have that affect on us, when others don’t), you can find it with them again. And again. And again and again and again, barring really drastic changes in your relationships (which I’ll get to later in this post).

For poly people, relationships are really vulnerable when one partner is simultaneously out of Big Love with their existing romantic partner, and facing the opportunity to lean into a new Big Love relationship. It would be easy, in this situation, to wind up giving over an inappropriate amount of your emotional commitment and energy to this new partner, and to abandon your existing lover (even if not literally, but by denying them the level of intimacy and concern and attention they’ve come to rely on from you). It’s possible, in this situation, to forget that you need to be really deliberately leaning into your previously existing relationship if you want it to survive.

And really, (as I am so fond of pointing out,) there’s no difference between the kind of risk that’s involved here and the risk involved in the same situation in a monogamous relationship. There’s nothing about being monogamous that prevents you from meeting people that give you the spark of Big Love, and only truly understanding that you get to choose where your priorities lie will save a Big Love relationship in its moments of ebb. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no room for excuses about how a person couldn’t help it, they just fell out of love, or they just fell in love. In the first case, they chose not to lean back into love (and don’t get me wrong, it’s possible for this to be a legitimate and healthy choice, if the relationship in question isn’t actually worth leaning back into, I just think that we need to learn to take responsibility for it as an actual choice). In the second, they chose to give in to new love (and again, this is obviously not a bad thing to do. Just acknowledge that it is at least partially under your control).

So, that’s all Big Love. Big Love is, within the subset of people for whom we are capable of feeling it, a choice we make. But I hope it’s been clear in my discussion of it that Big Love is neither necessary nor sufficient for a solid and healthy romantic relationship. The truly important things in a relationship are the things I keep hinting at as the motivations for leaning back into Big Love and letting it re-surge. A really good relationship is the kind where the people in it actually like each other as people, are capable of having good conversations, and can support each goals in life, even (and especially) those that extent beyond the boundaries of the relationship itself. To me, a really good and inspiring relationship is distinguishable from the best kind of friendship only in the level of explicit commitment between the people involved.

You’ll notice that the distinction I made had nothing to do with Big Love, right? As far as I’m concerned, Big Love is mostly a bonus to the real kind of caring an commitment that is required for a long-term romantic relationship. As much as Big Love is the most earth-shattering-seeming thing I have ever experienced, as much as it really feels like it has the power to change world, it really, really doesn’t. Big Love is relevant only to those who share it, and it actually changes absolutely nothing. It doesn’t make bad relationships and better, or even any more bearable, it just makes them harder to leave. It doesn’t even materially improve good relationships, it’s just an additional fun experience you get to have together, if it’s a thing that you can access.

Real love, to me, the meaningful kind, is just the kind of affection we feel for all the people with whom we make deep personal connections and build friendships. And finding someone you can actually build a contented life with is way more important than that chemical rush. So, again, I guess for me it’s not about trusting my partner not to fall in Big Love with another person. And it’s not even about trusting him not to fall in Big Love with someone else to the exclusion of our Big Love. It’s that, when it comes right down to it, I truly believe that he values this thing that we’ve built together, the underlying structure that has allowed us to fall into Big Love together again and again, more than any chemical rush he may have with another person. The work we’ve done together means so much more than any new love, no matter how Big, ever could, and I know he won’t ever forget about me or neglect me, no matter how deeply involved he gets with others.

So yeah, I think that’s why I don’t have jealousy issues, really. The times when I have felt jealousy have never been about other people, and have always, at bottom, been about some structural weakness that had turned up in our relationship that needed a bit of work. And once those get addressed, the “jealousy” vanishes.

My Theory of Love

One of the things I find really tricky in talking about romantic relationships is defining what exactly it is that differentiates them from friendships, or from any other kind of non-romantic love relationship. It’s a very difficult thing to put ones finger on, though I have some ideas.

Ain’t it romantic?

The big thing, is, of course, romantic love. Which, as I understand it, (and because I feel compelled to put this in the most unromantic way possible) is largely a chemical process in the brain that can be compared to addiction. When we are romantically in love with a person, our brain feeds us happy-making chemicals when we are around them, and that makes us want to be around them.

This, though, is obviously a bit of an over-simplification. I have no idea, for instance, what causes this kind of feedback loop to start – what makes us fall in love with some people and not others? For me, the only definite necessary elements are about me; I fall in love when I am in a mental state that allows me to be open with another person. In short, I fall in love with people that I feel comfortable being vulnerable with, and to be perfectly honest, my vulnerability may not be directly related to the person in the moment. It may have more to do with he greater context of my life and mental state related to things that have nothing to do with the person, but I do need to be in a particular mental place to fall in love. Though there’s obviously more to it than that. I suppose the other person has to be responsive to my openness an vulnerability, because otherwise the experience could be quite a negative one for me.

For me, there’s also this squishy period during the falling in love process, where I’m quite certain I could choose to shut down and abort, and not become emotionally entangled. I’m not sure, because I’ve never done this, but I’ve definitely been in a hazy place of “this is a person I could conceivably fall in love with” and made a conscious choice to lean into that possibility, and that’s how falling in love has historically worked for me. I’ve even been able to hold myself in the fuzzy, squishy potential-filled status period with some people. For these people, I don’t feel like it’s accurate to say I ever fell in love with them, just that I definitely could have.

So, for me, the ultimate difference between a really good, meaningful platonic relationship, and a romantic one, is a question of how I choose to approach it (and, of course, the other person’s inclinations). Of course, while this sounds like a really minor difference, it still has huge implications for the substance of the relationship. Being in love is exactly like how all the stupid love stories in movies and on the radio make it out to be, and all the shit that you assumed was schlocky exaggeration when you’d never been in love is suddenly so totally 100% exactly how you feel, and really, it’s not even close actually, and real love is so much bigger and better than any of those media have ever been able t communicate, you know?

It feels life-changing. And it’s wonderful and powerful and valuable, to the people who experience it. But substantially, I’m not sure how important it is. And I mean it. This kind of love, the one I’ve been trying to describe, is what I tend to think of as “Big Love”. It’s something I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have experienced more than once in my life, and to have with my husband now, but at the same time, it’s not necessarily what I value most in my relationship with him.

The thing about Big Love, is that’s it’s volatile. And it’s actually not something that’s totally sustainable over the long-term; I believe I’ve read that the brain can only sustain it for a couple of years at most. And we’ve been together significantly longer than that now, so it’s fair to say we haven’t felt the Big Love for each other throughout the entire course of our relationship. And in fact, I can tell you truthfully that I haven’t; that at times, I have loved him no more or less than other important people in my life; an that at times, I realized that I could choose to not love him anymore, and that it would be relatively painless on my part to do so. I’ve always chosen to lean back in and fall back in love, and the Big Love has always reignited, easily and comfortably.

I mean, relationships? They do take work. But love, itself? That part, for me, is easy. It kind of always has been. And as long as I continue to choose to love him, our marriage will continue to be worth the work required to keep it going. Which looks like a weird feedback loop, where the marriage is the reason I choose to stay in love, and being in love is the reason I value the marriage, but it’s not that, really. I value the marriage because it’s something we both chose – it’s a project we have undertaken together, as partners, and as friends, and loving each other is itself one aspect of that project.

Really, at the bottom, a strong friendship is the reason our romance stays strong. So, the difference between a truly loving friendship and a romance? As far as I’m concerned, it’s what you choose, together, to make of it.

And all of this, this is why I’m able to be happy an comfortable in a poly relationship. I think that so often, when people have debilitating jealousy issues, or respond to the idea of their partner caring about someone else, it’s because we frame love as a force of nature. It’s something that just happens; it strikes without warning, and more importantly, it’s an unstoppable force. And if we believe this narrative, it’s only natural to want to prevent our partners from being exposed to people that they might accidentally fall in love with.

I mean, I used to just wonder at how little some people trust the people they supposedly love, and I never understood why people would make formal commitments to be faithful if neither one really believed the other. But I think I understand now that for many people, it’s not about whether they trust their partner. It’s simply that we’re tricked into believing that they have no control in the matter – that even if we trust their intention enough to accept their promise of fidelity, when it comes right down to it, they don’t get to choose whether they will fall in love with someone else and break our hearts.

But, I know that I chose to love the man that I do, and I know that he chose to love me. And the only thing I need to trust in is that he will continue to make the same choice throughout the years, for that is the real commitment that we have made to one another. Luck’s got nothing to do with it.

It really is as simple as this.

And of course, I know that there are other factors, both internal and external, that may change how we feel about our relationship to one other. And we may not spend the rest of our lives together; few people do. But the thing that I do know, for sure, is that if we choose to part ways, it won’t be because the magical, uncontrollable spirit of love abandons us. It will be because our relationship no longer represents the practical, mutually beneficial arrangement for us that it currently does. It will have run its course, and I suspect that I will judge it to have been successful, no matter when it ends, for having improved both of our lives for its duration.

And honestly, I really hope we’re smart enough to end it if that ever ceases to be the case. I think that’s part of what real love and actually caring about each other is about.

And as of this writing, I totally intend to keep on loving this man with all my heart for decades to come.

UPDATE: there was a bunch of stuff I couldn’t fit into this post, so there’s a part 2 here

Love and Silliness

There’s this story I’ve been carrying around for a very long time. It’s from early on in my relationship with my partner. And I’ve long yearned to share it with someone, anyone really, but I always felt that I should really share it with him first.

Not because it’s important; it’s really not. It’s practically an inconsequential detail. But it’s something he didn’t know about our relationship.

You see, we’d been together for about a month. Not long at all, really. But ours was a relationship that formed quickly and touched us both deeply almost immediately. Our first date lasted, oh, about 36 hours? I only left because I really did have to make it to class the next day. And we saw each other almost every day after that.

About a month into this whirlwind, as I was floating back into the reality from a post-coital bliss, I looked straight at him and, smiling, said, “Hello, you.”

And he looked right back at me and said, “I love you, too.”

Neither of us was really ready for that (though I was very much in love him already, too,) so we wordlessly shelved the sentiment, and it didn’t come up again until I actually got to a place where I was ready to say the words, myself. (I did it through email, because that is my tried and true method of sharing that kind of thing. It works for me. Don’t judge.)

I never knew whether he knew that he was (technically) the first one who’d said “I love you,” or if he simply thought that we’d exchanged the sentiment on that day. And there was never a moment in which it made sense to bring it up, and since I didn’t know how he would react, and it wasn’t exactly important anyway, I held this story silently in my heart while years passed by.

It became more and more difficult to imagine a moment that would be the perfect set-up for me to tell him. I knew I wanted to share this with him, but I never really knew how.

Until yesterday, when I said to him, “I love you,” (as I now do several times a day.)

And he looked back at me, and said, “Hello!”

I was silent for a moment, and then I burst out laughing, so hard that when I was finished I had no choice but to explain to him what was so damn funny.

So I did, and then we laughed together about it, because we’re even now.

It’s all good.