If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way—
Round in circles I’d go!
Longing to tell you …
How I loved you—
If I loved you.
– Carousel, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
When we fall in love, we don’t know our beloved. She’s a mystery. We’re constantly looking for her—in our mind, on the street. We contrive “chance” encounters. When we meet, we’re jumpy and off-balance.
We want to gaze upon our beloved, inhale her aroma, absorb her essence. Everything we behold is suffused with love. The world is new.
Why do we love? To complete ourselves. To give us purpose. To know our quest. To bring us home. To accept ourselves. “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.”
In adolescence, as we struggle to put together a viable self, our basic guide is love—love for ideas, art, cultures, but above all, love for particular individuals. Love, while it sometimes leads to folly, is nonetheless the best catalyst there is for defining ourselves and identifying our task. As Charles Baudelaire said, “Nature, whether in cookery or in love, rarely gives us a taste for what is bad for us.”
Young love is fanciful, fleeting, and fragile—in a word, romantic. As we come to know our lover, we lose a piece of our innocence. Once love has been acknowledged and returned, it either evolves or turns into memorabilia. Memories aren’t experience, whereas love must be experienced or it’s just habit. Disappointed, we may conclude that love has not lasted. But, in truth, it has as many lives as a cat.
As routine displaces novelty, we may be tempted to shift our attention to someone new and taste again the thrill of romantic love. This is the point of no return. As the mystery that fuels romantic love is dispelled, we either move on or get serious.
If we follow its lead into deeper waters, love morphs into something with the potential to remake us. This is the love of familiar, committed partners, variously known as con¬jugal, married, or spousal love. Marriage is love’s crucible—it has the tensile strength to contain the heat of self-transformation.
Here, we know our partner. There’s neither the mystery nor the uncertainty to stoke fevered romance. In fact, relationships between mortals invariably include conflict as well as canoodling. But we do not abandon our partner or abort the process just because our ego takes a hit. The bonds of marriage bring us back to try and try again. In “sparring” with our partners, we root out the false in each other and grow.
In a long-running, committed relationship, we love our partners because they love us in spite of the fact that they may hate something about us (often the very same things that bother us about ourselves). A love strong enough to incorporate criticism continually renews its lease on life. As we respond to our partner, a subtly altered person steps into our shoes. Instead of settling into habit, the relationship is recharged by the advent of changed partners.
Sometimes the business of love completes itself for one or both partners. Two people may either hit an impasse or, for reasons they may only dimly surmise, cease to support one another’s continued development.
At moments like these it will seem that love has indeed ended, that the relationship is beyond hope. The point of the sword is hard to find, and having found it, it’s a mistake to wriggle off before getting as clear as you possibly can as to why you’re doing so. Achieving a blameless understanding of a break-up may take years, but it’s a high-return investment in the rest of your life. As we better understand how ex-partners served our development, they may come to feel like old friends.
During a long relationship, there are moments when we see our partners as we did at the outset—with beginner’s eyes. A certain smile, a fragrance, a toss of the head, a posture or gait, can make our hearts leap.
At the start, there was mystery: What does a smile mean? Will our love be returned? Now, we know. The smile holds not mystery but meaning: together, we go forward. The gaze of love holds not a question, but an answer: refreshed, love endures.
Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.