On Change

Can Love Last?

CanLoveLastIn Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time, psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell explores why romantic love usually fades over time. His surprising argument is that it's because we expend considerable effort degrading it, and for good reason.

Mitchell argues that it’s our desire to stabilise our relationships, to guarantee access to love, that undermines desire:

“The great irony inherent in our efforts to make love safer is that those efforts always make it more dangerous. One of the motives for monogamous commitments is always, surely, the effort to make the relationship more secure, a hedge against the vulnerabilities and risks of love. Yet, since respectable monogamous commitment in our times tends to be reciprocal, the selection of only one partner for love dramatically increases one’s dependency upon that partner, making love more dangerous and efforts to guarantee that love even more compelling. So we pretend to ourselves that we have, somehow, minimized our risks and guaranteed our safety— thereby undermining the preconditions of desire, which requires robust imagination to breathe and thrive…

Love, by its very nature, is not secure; we keep wanting to make it so.”

Mitchell considers several factors that are often blamed for the decline of romance in long-term relationships: that it thrives on novelty and is dispersed by familiarity; that sexual lust is difficult to reconcile with respect and admiration; that romance is inspired by idealisation, which withers with exposure to reality; that it turns too easily into contempt; and because it’s eroded by the guilt and self-pity generated by the mistakes we inevitably make.

Romance may be dispersed by familiarity, but Mitchell argues that often that familiarity is not real but constructed, to give us the feeling of security we seek. We convince ourselves that we know everything there is to know about our partners, that they cannot surprise us.

Passion doesn’t decline because it’s incompatible with respect and admiration but because it’s so arousing that we do everything we can to control it.

Romance may be fuelled by idealisation, but it doesn’t ebb because reality sets in. Mitchell argues that idealisation is not inherently a bad thing. Fantasy doesn’t necessarily cloud reality, it can also enrich and enhance it. Each offers a different viewpoint that can be useful in different contexts. However, long-term relationships are necessarily utilitarian, and an idealistic view of our partner’s abilities are not helpful in that context.

Romance isn’t eroded because love inevitably becomes contaminated by our natural human aggression. Because of the risks inherent in love, anger and even hatred are inseparable from it. Aggression is a necessary component of romantic passion. Aggression is a response to threat, and the threat of losing the person we love is constant. Romance is not degraded by the presence of aggression, but by an inability to manage it skilfully. Mitchell gives an example:

“There are many different strategies for managing the confluence of love and hate in romance. The basic underlying principle is to both express and control the aggression at the same time by diminishing or obliterating the object of desire. Aesop long ago identified this common solution as “sour grapes”: the seemingly desirable other that disappoints was rotten all along. There might be good grapes out there somewhere, but self-protection against disappointment requires constant reminders not to expect any sweetness from one’s own bunch. Denigration thus serves the purpose of maintaining equilibrium, and a chronic contempt for one’s long-term partner often feels like a necessary requirement for stability.”

Romance isn’t necessarily eroded by the mistakes we make. Mistakes are inevitable, and hence so are the guilt and pathos that flow from them. However, Mitchell argues that guilt and pathos each appear in two forms. In genuine guilt we accept responsibility for what we have done, acknowledging that nothing can be done other than bear the feelings of regret and move on. In genuine pathos we may grieve over the way we were betrayed or disappointed, but again, we move on, recognising that the future can be different. In contrast, in guiltiness we become enmeshed by our guilt, becoming stuck in attempts to buy exoneration because we cannot accept the suffering we have caused. In self-pity we become stuck in a perception of ourselves as a victim. Guiltiness and self-pity degrade passion, but genuine guilt and pathos do not.

So can romance last? Yes, says Mitchell, but not by attempting to resolve the tensions inherent in it, or by “a laboured struggle to contrive novelty”. Rather, it requires two people who are able to tolerate its fragility, understand the forces that undermine it, and a willingness to constantly build and rebuild it.

Einstein’s Dreams

Einsteins Dreams“There is only one cause of unhappiness,” says Anthony DeMello in The Way To Love. “The false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” Whether it’s the belief that happiness requires money, or marriage, or children, there are certain ideas that our parents and culture have instilled in us so deeply that we consider them axiomatic, not beliefs at all.

Similarly, we take the laws of the physical world for granted. When we drop something, it falls to the ground. When our car is moving, we must brake to stop it. Time flows from the past to the future. All these things are so obvious, we rarely give them any thought.

In Einstein’s Dreams, physicist Alan Lightman asks us to reconsider time. The novel is a collection of vignettes, each describing how life might be if time behaved differently to the way it does in our world.

What if time wasn’t a straight line, from future to past, but bent back on itself in a circle? What if effect sometimes preceded cause? What if the passage of time brought increasing order? What if there was no time, only images? What if we only lived for one day? What if time was a sense, like sight or taste? What if it was a visible dimension? The number of alternatives Lightman considers is dazzling.

Some scenarios are chilling. What if the texture of time was sticky, causing certain people and places to become stuck at a certain moment, never to break free?  

“The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.”

Or suppose there was a place where time stood still from the perspective of those outside it.

“Who would make pilgrimage to the center of time? Parents with children, and lovers…

Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.”

Einstein’s Dreams is an intellectually interesting series of thought experiments, but some of the vignettes offer insight on the way we live our lives in this world too. Consider a world in which time works as it does in our world, but people have no memories.

“Late at night, the wife and husband do not linger at the table to discuss the day’s activities, their children’s school, the bank account. Instead, they smile at one another, feel the warming blood, the ache between the legs as when they met the first time fifteen years ago. They find their bedroom, stumble past family photographs they do not recognize, and pass the night in lust. For it is only habit and memory that dulls the physical passion. Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first.

A world without memory is a world of the present. The past exists only in books, in documents. In order to know himself, each person carries his own Book of Life, which is filled with the history of his life. By reading its pages daily, he can relearn the identity of his parents, whether he was born high or born low, whether he did well or did poorly in school, whether he has accomplished anything in his life. Without his Book of Life, a person is a snapshot, a two-dimensional image, a ghost…

With time, each person’s Book of Life thickens until it cannot be read in its entirety. Then comes a choice. Elderly men and women may read the early pages, to know themselves as youths; or they may read the end, to know themselves in later years.

Some have stopped reading altogether. They have abandoned the past. They have decided that it matters not if yesterday they were rich or poor, educated or ignorant, proud or humble, in love or empty-hearted— no more than it matters how a soft wind gets into their hair.”

Or consider a world where people live forever:

“Strangely, the population of each city splits in two: the Laters and the Nows.

The Laters reason that there is no hurry to begin their classes at the university, to learn a second language, to read Voltaire or Newton, to seek promotion in their jobs, to fall in love, to raise a family. For all these things, there is an infinite span of time. In endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait. Indeed, hasty actions breed mistakes. And who can argue with their logic? The Laters can be recognized in any shop or promenade. They walk an easy gait and wear loose-fitting clothes. They take pleasure in reading whatever magazines are open, or rearranging furniture in their homes, or slipping into conversation the way a leaf falls from a tree. The Laters sit in cafés sipping coffee and discussing the possibilities of life.

The Nows note that with infinite lives, they can do all they can imagine. They will have an infinite number of careers, they will marry an infinite number of times, they will change their politics infinitely. Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer. The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly. And who can question their logic? The Nows are easily spotted. They are the owners of the cafés, the college professors, the doctors and nurses, the politicians, the people who rock their legs constantly whenever they sit down. They move through a succession of lives, eager to miss nothing.”

Or what if, Lightman concludes, time was a nightingale?

“Trap one of these nightingales beneath a bell jar and time stops. The moment is frozen for all people and trees and soil caught within.

In truth, these birds are rarely caught. The children, who alone have the speed to catch birds, have no desire to stop time. For the children, time moves too slowly already. They rush from moment to moment, anxious for birthdays and new years, barely able to wait for the rest of their lives. The elderly desperately wish to halt time, but are much too slow and fatigued to entrap any bird. For the elderly, time darts by much too quickly. They yearn to capture a single minute at the breakfast table drinking tea, or a moment when a grandchild is stuck getting out of her costume, or an afternoon when the winter sun reflects off the snow and floods the music room with light. But they are too slow. They must watch time jump and fly beyond reach.”

Lightness and Weight

UnbearableWhat’s better: a life of lightness or one of weight? So asks Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Our culture is schizophrenic. On one hand we are told to value selflessness, self-sacrifice and duty. We are urged to marry, to raise children, to contribute to our communities. Those who avoid commitment are criticised as immature and selfish.

“Necessity, weight and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy and only what is heavy has value.”

On the other hand, our culture of individualism encourages us to do what makes us happy, to follow our bliss, to put ourselves first. If we’re dissatisfied with our marriage, we don’t need to work on it, we can just get a divorce.

Knowing whether to pursue lightness or weight isn’t easy. We cannot look to others for guidance. One person’s lightness is another’s weight. To Franz, the secrecy surrounding his affair with Sabina was heavy. To Sabina, that secrecy was light: it kept their relationship free from the judgement of others. When Franz leaves his wife, and the gaze of the world falls on them, their relationship becomes joyfully light to Franz and unbearably heavy to Sabina.

Moreover, many of our most important decisions – whether to marry, for example, or have children – are transformative experiences. We cannot know whether we should pursue them until we are already committed, because the experience itself changes us in a fundamental way.

 “The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is.”

Faced with such difficulties, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we find we don’t know what we want:

“[Tomas] remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural. We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives, not perfect it in our lives to come. Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?...

Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion or not.”

On Closure

TheExaminedLifeIn The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz elegantly illuminates our struggles with love, change and loss through a series of moving anecdotes about some of the patients he's seen during his career.

In "On Closure" Grosz argues that the common belief in "five stages of grief" - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - is wrong.

"In the 1960s [Elisabeth] Kübler-Ross identified five psychological stages in the experience of terminally ill patients, the last of which is acceptance. About twenty-five years ago, Kübler-Ross and many bereavement counsellors began to use these same five stages to describe the experiences of both the dying and the grieving. I’ve long thought that Kübler-Ross was wrong."

He explains why:

"The ‘psychological stages’ of dying and grieving are wholly different. For the person who dies there is an end, but this is not so for the person who grieves. The person who mourns goes on living and for as long as he lives there is always the possibility of feeling grief."

While acknowledging that the initial shock and fear associated with a loss do decrease with time, Grosz argues that the idea that we can do something to achieve permanent closure is a fantasy.

"Holidays and anniversaries are notoriously difficult. Grief can ebb and then, without warning, resurge...

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss."

This fantasy can have serious consequences for those who fall victim to it.

"They suffer more because they both expect to make progress, to move through certain stages of grief. And when they don’t, they feel that they are doing something wrong, or, more precisely, that there is something wrong with them. They suffer twice – first from grief and then from a tyranny of shoulds: ‘I should have pulled myself out of this,’ ‘I shouldn’t be so angry,’ ‘I should have moved on by now,’ and so forth. There is little room here for emotional exploration or understanding. This way of being leads to self-loathing, despair, depression."

The Examined Life is fascinating in its entirety.

Marcus Aurelius on Impermanence

Meditations is saturated with Marcus Aurelius' thoughts on change, impermanence and death.

In a passage that finds an echo in Bhante Gunaratana's warning about inattention, Aurelius reminds us that change is already happening:

“Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot.” (10.18)

The present moment is all we have...

"Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see." (3.10)

...and all we can lose:

"The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose." (2.14)

Don’t waste time:

“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” (10.29)

We may not even be able to enjoy our whole life:

"We need to hurry. Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding— our grasp of the world— may be gone before we get there." (3.1)

There will be a last time for everything we do, and it may come sooner than we think:

“As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.”” (11.34)

Tomorrow our wife may leave us, we may be diagnosed with a fatal illness, we may lose our job. We may have already done something for the last time and not yet know it.

Not to hope that we will be remembered when we die. Anyone who might remember us will soon be dead too.

“So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone.” (7.6)

See also:


Marcus Aurelius on Acceptance

One of the themes of Meditations is our need to accept the things that are outside our control.

To play the hand we’ve been dealt:

“The spot where a person decides to station himself, or wherever his commanding officer stations him— well, I think that’s where he ought to take his stand and face the enemy, and not worry about being killed, or about anything but doing his duty.” (7.45)

To treat misfortune as an opportunity for growth:

"Just as you overhear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him” (like riding, or cold baths, or walking barefoot …), say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. There “prescribed” means something like “ordered, so as to further his recovery.” And so too here. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny." (4.8)

To not worry about what might not happen:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” (8.36)

To not be surprised when people act according to their nature:

“To expect a bad person not to harm others is like expecting fig trees not to secrete juice, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh— the inevitable not to happen. What else could they do— with that sort of character? If you’re still angry, then get to work on that.” (12.16)

To let go:

“Not “some way to sleep with her”— but a way to stop wanting to.
Not “some way to get rid of him”— but a way to stop trying.
Not “some way to save my child”— but a way to lose your fear.” (9.40)

See also:

Bhante Gunaratana on Impermanence

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana provides a chilling reminder of the unseen forces that are, at this very moment, slowly, imperceptibly destroying everything around us:

"Even as you read these words, your body is aging. But you pay no attention to that. The book in your hand is decaying. The print is fading, and the pages are becoming brittle. The walls around you are aging. The molecules within those walls are vibrating at an enormous rate, and everything is shifting, going to pieces, and slowly dissolving. You pay no attention to that either. Then one day you look around you. Your skin is wrinkled and your joints ache. The book is a yellowed, faded thing; and the building is falling apart. So you pine for lost youth, cry when your possessions are gone. Where does this pain come from? It comes from your own inattention. You failed to look closely at life. You failed to observe the constantly shifting flow of the world as it passed by. You set up a collection of mental constructions—“ me,” “the book,” “the building”— and you assumed that those were solid, real entities. You assumed that they would endure forever. They never do."