―By Leatrice Asher
What we refer to as “love” relationships may vary widely—from a parent’s feeling of unconditional love for a child to excessive and enthusiastic adoration for another person. All expressions of love that are fettered with attachment will result in pain and suffering, but the focus of this article is on what is often referred to as “romantic” or “intimate” associations.
If we think someone else can make us whole, or holds our ticket to happiness, then the unrealistic nature of our expectations will cause us to experience pain. But nobody “out there” can give us happiness. In fact, happiness is not in any way dependent upon whether a particular individual is in our life, or what they are giving us, or the qualities (love, devotion, joy, sexual arousal, or friendship) they are displaying at the moment. Happiness is not contingent upon who or what is in our life, but rather upon how we handle who or what is in our life.
There will be less of a tendency to become confused about the nature of happiness if we can remember the difference between feeling and sensation (as discussed in previous articles on pain); otherwise, when pleasant or unpleasant sensations arise in relationship our understanding will be limited by those influences. This can be seen when we interpret sensations we experience with another as so exquisite or intense that we then declare ourselves to be in love with that person. If these sensations actually were love we would simply enjoy them, and that would be that. But because these are sensations we are responding to, we don’t want those pleasurable moments to end, and it is the clinging to sensations that causes our pain. When the excitement subsides—when things become too humdrum and our cravings for new sensations are no longer being met—we may no longer be interested in that person.
Conversely, we may succeed in repeating the experiences and sensations with our “loved one,” and even convince ourselves that those sensations (and our happiness) are dependent upon the other person remaining in our life. We may come to believe that the only way to assure the continuation of our happiness is to in some way possess that person, make them permanently ours. But what are we actually trying to possess? Our craving is for certain sensations, and our attempts to make the other person “ours” is a ritualistic way of “insuring” that we have an unending supply of these sensations—even a lifetime fix! But sensations are always fleeting, and so we will invariably end up frustrated, and pain will inevitably return.
In addition, all those people and things to which we are related—friends, lovers, an object, a situation—are in a state of constant flux. The sensations we associate with our relations may lead us to idealize them in certain ways—to make static objects out of them in our minds. But that is not who or what they are; they are mental images based on sensations we associate with them.
Consider all the emotional pain and disappointment we see around us every day in the world and in the news. How much of that is related to this very confusion—the confusion of ephemeral “relationships” with the objects or people that they seem to come packaged in? When we look out into the physical world, how much of what we experience are these constantly changing sensations? The answer is everything. Nothing remains static in the physical universe, and that includes the aggregates of sensations that we idealize and objectify into human beings—even our friends and lovers.
Those individuals we tend to profess love for are also those to whom we most often apply the term “relationship.” We tend to attach special significance to both of those words. We even have words like “lover” or “love interest” to describe those relationships. Indeed, we use the word love in a way that seems to imply a transcendent quality, as if the romantic imagery reflected the special status of the relationship. Even the simple declaration “I love you” has an almost sacred solemnity about it when uttered. Yet the reality of what we call love falls grievously short of the imagery. Or we could say it in a different way: the so-called reality is nothing but imagery. And the imagery is contained in the sensations we experience.
Sensations are very conditional. They come and go, and they constantly change. That even includes all appearances that our loved one may take. Any “love” that does not go deeper than those associated sensations is bound to be very conditional in nature. And what is conditional—only present under certain provisional circumstances—does not last.
Love is a creative force, not something we give and retrieve at will. Love is constant. Its motive is itself—it is not motivated by greed, ownership or mere attraction. If we give, while wanting something back in return, and if that something isn’t forthcoming, we no longer want to be with that person but seek someone who will give us what we want, or be what we want them to be. Then it is not love but something else—usually an attraction to, or rejection of, certain sensations. Interestingly, people’s relationships with their animals, although not without attachment, often seem more unconditional. But animals don’t present us with the kind of challenges that come from interaction with another human being.
We are often given the injunction that we should try to love one another—or try to love ourselves. This is a different use of the word love. It has a valid motivation—to stretch our concept of love beyond attachment. But can we try to love another or ourselves? We can observe how we are unkind and unloving, but if we are only trying to conform to a higher ideal—one that we have not yet really become—we only paste a gilded veneer on top of something tarnished. It is like trying to give a good self-presentation while ignoring the fact that our understanding, or our inner self, does not measure up to the façade. Eventually our ideals come crashing down, and then we may be left in a worse state than before.
Sometimes we are love, most of the time we are not. Conforming to high-minded ideals because we want others to think we are good or spiritual is not spirituality; it’s avarice. Rather than trying to mold ourselves to fit a concept of goodness given to us by others, we could instead turn our attention to understanding how we became fractured from ourselves—our original balanced state—in the first place. Whatever results from this intention and inquiry will then be reflected in our interactions with others, which may indeed be a more loving nature.
So while we have different associations with the word love—love for a child, a parent, a friend, a teacher, love of our country—we have a particular conception of love when we think of that which occurs between two people who are smitten with one another. We call this being in love. But here again the language speaks for itself. When we’re in something the potential exists to be out of it as well. What we refer to as love is usually romance, replete with sensations, often sexually stimulating in nature.
One definition of the word “romantic” in The American Heritage Dictionary is “not compatible with reality.” Isn’t this what so often happens when we fantasize and fixate on someone else? This can only lead to pain, especially if the object of our desire doesn’t return our affections—or doesn’t constantly provide the stimulation to distract us from our underlying pain. Romance is the melding of drama with fantasy. Its pleasures will always be fleeting, its miseries many. When we’re smitten we also tend to be more impulsive. This can lead to jumping too quickly into bed or marriage with another.
If we believe in the promises of ever-lasting happiness and ever-lasting pleasure, we will experience pain and disappointment when our prince or princess doesn’t deliver. Now we will want him or her out of our life, with the same urgency we wanted them in … so we can hurry up and start romanticizing again with someone else. In other words, we simply “un-love” when the terms are no longer to our liking. Of course, we can only turn off our love if we never really loved to begin with.
Although we may not like another’s behavior, may not be able to live or even associate with them, when we stop loving them it’s because we never opened to the extent that we became love. Pain will continue to be a product of most relationships because relating to another without loving them, or being loved, is painful.
How can we begin to extract the precious jewel embedded in our encounters with others? The first step is to recognize that likes and dislikes have nothing to do with love. So if you wish to have less painful relationships it’s imperative that you not confuse this higher-minded state of being love, referred to by the ancient Greeks as Agape, with the romantic attachments (or even pure fantasies) that we typically call love. As you observe yourself, you could also ask what exactly you are gravitating toward. For example, if your answer is sensations, then that is your learning environment. We work from wherever we are at this moment. There are no “right” or “wrong” places to be. It’s not important where we are situated but how we handle where we are situated. Do we use our situation to observe and learn why we are there—or do we become related to what we are given unconsciously, letting it form our destiny? When we arrive at a place in life where we fully understand the limitations of our present associations, we will be in a position to grow into the next stage.
Rather than using our relationships as an environment for learning, many of us typically use them as a kind of talisman, hoping in some way to be saved by them. When this becomes our unconscious pattern, growth is precluded.
If we wish to maintain our resolve and stay focused on understanding our lessons, this is something to keep in mind: “What is the most estimable vision I hold of what two people can be together?”
Loneliness is a tremendous motivating factor. I recall that when my son was seven years old he asked me if he could have a parrot. Surprised that he wasn’t requesting a dog or cat, I asked him why he wanted a parrot. “So when I’m lonely I’ll have someone to talk to,” he replied. As adults our loneliness tends to be less poignant and more driven—most likely not easily assuaged with a parrot. Without someone by our side we tend to fold in discouragement, wonder what’s wrong with us. When we feel overwhelmed by our aloneness it’s with welcome relief that we submit to the onslaught of advice that encourages us to fill the space beside us with friends, gurus, lovers, groups, anything or anyone that will allow us some escape or respite from ourselves.
Look around you; listen. You will observe how many people are desperately looking for this elusive “other,” looking for someone to fill their void, and you will hear conversations about this wherever you happen to be. When this loneliness becomes so unendurable that anyone or anything is more tolerable than facing ourselves, it is likely we will no longer discriminate in our choice of relationships. If we are desperate we will choose poorly, and that choice will likely give rise to a great deal of future pain.
Is this what most of us really want: Casual sex? Romance? Although we may not be fully aware of it, what we may actually be looking for is connection—to feel engaged by another. Kindred relationships often bestow a common frame or reference point through which we may better determine truths. But ultimately, the union we seek from others must take place within, because no one and no thing outside of us will ever really fulfill this desire. What we can do, however, is utilize relationship to help illuminate this union – within.
Relationships between men and women present a wonderful opportunity—to assist one another on the great journey to self-completion. Relationships enable us to see, within the other, those qualities that lie more dormant within ourselves—and to see what a melding might look like, feel like, within ourselves. With this recognition will come more respect and appreciation of the other gender—without and within—something that is very much needed these days. When men and women “square off” against one another they do so with themselves—their own indwelling counterpart—as well.
If we cannot regard relationship as the important tool that it is, then we are only creating further suffering and eventual disillusionment by building a ceremony around relationship and consecrating it with vows. Relationships are not just about frolicking in the tulips together; they’re about the work we do sloshing around in the trenches. Relationship is hard work, not just a joy ride. If, in the process of doing the hard work, we also find our lives highly enjoyable, that’s an added bonus. More important is that we may find ourselves obtaining a sense of joyfulness from the work itself, and from the expanded sense of intimacy that results from this mutual effort.
Although relationships are a primary means of learning and development they are not intended to solve all of our problems. As we grow in our relationships, our tendency will be again and again to idealize the relationship itself, or the other individual. It may look a lot more like true love than where we started, but in a subtle way we are still putting someone else in the position of responsibility for our happiness. When the time comes to move on, or that person no longer wants the responsibility, we will again feel hurt and perhaps wronged as well.
But difficulties such as these can yield especially fruitful information if we can keep these two questions before us, and this applies to any relationship that hits a “rough spot”: “Why is this person in my life?” and “What am I supposed to learn from this person’s being there?” By asking these questions we position ourselves to receive that information. This is not work that can only take place in a therapist’s office. We have the ability to learn to recognize our lessons, how they repeat themselves, and what we can do to keep them from showing up again in our life. Once we know that we can direct the course of our life, that is what we will do. The trust we will then develop in ourselves and in our ability to persevere will bring more happiness and contentment than we ever thought possible. But enjoyment of life is incidental to our true purpose—to become aware of what we have created, to balance those thoughts and thus to learn and grow.