Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.
The way a relationship begins is often a far cry from what it’s like after many years of being together, and what it’s like is what we make it. If our partner asks for help and we don’t give it—or if we take a moment to consider our partner’s point of view; if we feel entitled to scream obscenities when we’re angry—or if we pay close attention to our partner’s needs; either way, our actions will have consequences, positive or negative. To ensure that the love we begin with is still there 10 or 20 years in the future is thus a constant process of making and creating a loving environment.
When people talk about the “work” of relationships, what do they mean? Simply that if a relationship is to stay intimate, loving, and happy, it requires some effort on our part. We need to be compassionate and consciously available; to make sure we understand our partner’s point of view before we express our own; to speak and act respectfully; to check our defenses at the door and empathize instead of falling into tit-for-tat retaliation. During arguments we must remember who it is we love and what our intentions are for the relationship. At the same time, we must be aware of what is causing our anger, which may mean holding on to it until we do understand it. To find love is a miracle; to keep it takes focus. Relationship is at its core very simple, but simplicity is a complex process.
People have made war in the name of love, spent fortunes in love’s pursuit, and even died for love. And although there are many ways of loving—from affectionate friendship, to the infatuation of love at first sight, to the romantic love that arises after infatuation fades, to the consummate connection that is forged in an intimate process over many years—they share a common heart. Diane Ackerman writes in A Natural History of Love:
So it is with love. Values, customs, and protocols may vary from ancient days to the present, but not the majesty of love. People are unique in the way they walk, dress, and gesture, yet we’re able to look at two people—one wearing a business suit, the other a sarong—and recognize that both of them are clothed. Love also has many fashions, some bizarre and (to our taste) shocking, others more familiar, but all are part of a phantasmagoria we know. In the Serengeti of the heart, time and nation are irrelevant. On that plain all fires are the same fire.
Others have recognized that fire, too, and given it names of their own. Pioneer psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan wrote that love is the state in which the needs and feelings of the other are as important as or more important than our own. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of love as a wish or call for the other to come out. Sigmund Freud is well known for describing the two most important conditions in life as love and work. Milan Kundera describes love as interrogation. These notions of love all have a common theme: an intense feeling that pulls one’s thoughts and desires toward the loved one.
For many of us, that intense pull is the defining characteristic of a romantic relationship—and the thing that makes being in love so irresistible to us. We think of romance as the stuff of grand gestures, selfless acts, and consuming feelings of till death do us part. We yearn to be filled with the contentment that the thought of love conjures up. But real love is more than romantic thoughts and feelings passively received. Real love is actively made, and we must consciously choose to make it, not just once but throughout our lives together, over and over again.
An excerpt from "Happy Together".
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