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Love: Finding the Good and Avoiding the Bad

By: Jack Kamm

“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”—Anais Nin     

            We’ve all experienced change, which can be exciting as well as scary. Some changes are insignificant, like rearranging a closet. Others are cosmic, like birth and death. But only one change sends the sun rising within us faster than a gasp, and suddenly our heart becomes a magic carpet fluttering toward Venus.  Nobody but us navigates this joyous journey.  So—if we take a wrong turn, we have only ourselves to blame.

         Such a turn may cause love to crumble, but not the longing to love—not the hunger to find our most nearly perfect mate.  Even in old age, this longing hoists the sail just high enough to catch even a doddering wind, but one dogged enough to push us toward a waiting heart.   

             Love: Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

            But what is love?  Is it the desire or willingness to have children who look like our mate, big ears and all? Does it demand-self-sacrifice? Is it nothing more than Nature’s catnip drawing two people together to make children? In order to know the answers, we need to heed Socrates’ advice: “…Know thyself.”   

        Two Kinds of Love: Organic and Romantic

        The “self” that Socrates refers to appears within us at birth in the form of a blueprint that Nature has drawn. Down the road, if supported by our upbringing, this blueprint will serve as our personal guide to organic love.  After all, as Montaigne says, “Let us give Nature a chance; she knows her business better than we do.” But before we can fulfill our blueprint, we need to understand it.   

Getting To Know Our Blueprint

WHAT KIND OF HOUSE AM I..? 

A log cabin?  An A-Frame?  A Mansion?

Country home or city? How high is my ceiling?  Can I withstand storms?   

            Lots of free space or a clot of shelves filled with paintings and sculptures? Numerous lights or few?

            Living room bare and burly…Or decorated with cushions and flowers? What color are my walls? Pictures framed on them…or animal heads?

            A library?  Nursery? Garden? Music Room?  Messy house or neat?

            A pool table…a fountain…a pinball machine?

            Kitchen floor tile or teak? Marble countertops or laminate…?        

There’s  a difference between asking “Who am I?” and “What am I?” The latter question will prompt responses like, “I’m a teacher.” Or doctor, brother, son, mail carrier, artist, wife, physicist, masseuse, geologist. But thesereferences are only labels.  Labels change; our self-hood does not.    

            Accordingly, the question “Who Am I?” speaks to an immutability deep and hardy as the root of an oak. For some it’s a question best answered only after psychotherapy. In general, it’s a question that can de-fog the mirror of self- identity because it’s the only question whose answer showcases our blueprint.

         “There is just one life for each of us,” Euripides said. “Our own.” Choosing to be somebody else invites misery.  Just ask the musician who, because of family pressure, traded in his violin for a trowel. Ask the botanist who, to please his fiancée, became a mathematician. Or, frightened by her minister’s threats, the lesbian who pretended to be straight. Or the assertive daughter who, cowed by her bullying father, muzzled her nature and behaved like a titmouse. 

If we betray our nature, we search for love with a stranger’s heart.  If we fool ourselves, others can fool us too. Wearing a mask, we choose masked-people as well with whom we share the illusion of love, which soon turns into the reality of Hell because the relation between immiscible partners will always be sour and, therefore, doomed—regardless of the amount of counseling and the number of retreats we as a couple attend.

            Understanding My “Self” In 4 Parts: A Test

            Assign percentages to every part so that all parts equal a hundred. For example: “I’m 40% Commander; 10% Follower; 20% Intellect; 30% Survivor.

            IF WE KNOW EVEN THIS MUCH OF OUR BLUEPRINT SO FAR, WE’RE STARTING TO KNOW OURSELVES.

      Sex: Confusing Desirability with Good Looks 

            Would you rather be with a good-looking person who doesn’t turn you on or with somebody less than good-looking who does turn you on? Remember: Our blueprint shows allegiance to Nature, not to Social Approval.  We share the bed with our partner, not with arbiters of aesthetics.  Our blueprint will always choose passion because, whether we want children or not, it’s passion—not propriety—that fills maternity wards.  

We Want What We Need…Or Do We Need What We Want?   

Some people mistake compulsion for need, like: “I gotta have that car.”—Or, “I know I own thirty shirts, but I really need the red one I saw in the window.”—Or,  “I need my face tucked up a bit.” 

These are not Needs; they’re Wants. 

But needing or wanting an object is different from needing or wanting a mate. Our blueprint needs a  type, like athlete or intellectual or traveler.  From among this type, we choose the individual we want.

So let’s congratulate Mary on her marriage to Stan.  She  chose him over all her other suitors. Why? Because—whether realizing it or not—she didn’t want her child to have their traits, either physical, emotional or mental. On the other hand, what about menopausal women? They can’t give birth yet they’re still attracted to certain men and not to others.

Menopause doesn’t erase the source of a woman’s attraction to a man, a source spiraling back to her blueprint in a what-If desire: What if she could have children…? Answer: it would be with Todd. Or Mike…or Benson—but never, ever with Nelson, whose breath turned her off.    

Yet here’s the reality of organic love: Nelson’s breath repelled Nancy but it excited Harriet, all in keeping with the saw, “You can’t account for chemistry.” And what accounts for that chemistry?  One’s blueprint.   

Personality vs. Anatomy 

Our blueprint speaks to personality, not to anatomy. The luckiest among us, the happiest in love, are those of us who live in a culture that allows us to fulfill our blueprint.  A woman who’s tough and brave, for example, should be free to love while avoiding the cliches of the kitchen, even of the nest. Similarly, a submissive man should be free to love a woman who guides him. If a ruling patriarchy impairs that freedom, then, in their search for love, masculine women and feminine men will suffer.      

The Beam of Organic Love  

By contrast, healthy love glows with mutual bliss, respect, kindness, like-mindedness and passion. As the lyric goes: “A love that’s true? There are such things.” Sure, squabbles erupt and tempers burn white, but they’re soft-white and infrequent. For two people sharing an organic love, reconciliation after a squabble is swift and seamless and smooth as damask.   

In such a relationship, we see life through our partner’s emotions as well as through our own. This kind of empathy is the requisite for any thriving relationship: Feeling our mate’s pain, we don’t destroy at moments of his or her vulnerability. Instead, we build up with compassion because both our hearts conjoin. In this sense, to hurt our  beloved is to hurt ourselves.    

The Long Life of Compatibility

The one guarantor closest to promising us a blissful relationship that endures is compatibility. To remain together, a couple needs to be harmonious in their view of life and how they want to live it, harmonious in their values and  philosophies, in their goals, in their temperament, in their treatment of time and their choices of the best ways to spend it, in their distinction between needs and wants. 

If the smell of fish disgusts us, could we ever be happy with fishers, regardless of how many times they wash their hands? If we’re a mansion, can our lifestyle wedge into a log cabin? If we love animals, can we enjoy life with a hunter?  A reader of serious books, do we want a mate interested only in gossip rags?  If we love conversation, can we be content with the uncommunicative?  

If you’re an introvert, keep away from the extrovert. If you’re a progressive, duck the conservative. If you enjoy kicking a football and watching baseball, avoid the person who calls sports “Macho bullshit.” Hate movies?  Don’t flirt with the filmic. 

Love eating in? Avoid the restaurant-goer. Enjoy spending money?  Shun the tightwad. Pious? Close your door to the atheist.  Is meat your thing?  Dodge the vegan.  Love to make love?  Avoid the unsexed.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  It is….but only for integrated personalities who know their blueprint.  

          What about the saying, “Opposites attract”?  That’s only partially right: the only difference between two people in love should be the difference between leader and follower. An authentic leader makes wise decisions, is aggressive when necessary, self-assured, never sadistic, prepared to give his or her life to protect the family.

The follower feels happy and secure under this protection.  Hence, he or she cedes control and, more than not, will accept the partner’s decisions.      

By contrast, imagine a relationship between two strong decision-makers—two leaders, two pugilistic and inflexible wills: “How about we take a drive in the country today?” Christina suggests. 

“Nah,” replies Robert. “I’m not in the mood.  Let’s visit my mother.” 

Snarl.  “Hey!  Nix on that. I’ll be happy not to see her grumpy face for a while.” 

“Well screw you.  I’m going.  You can do what the hell you please.” 

Oooops! Two powerful rams battering each other on the crumbling ledge of their marriage. Remember Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

On the other hand, what happens when two people incapable of making decisions connect…two fragile beings swirling down the rapids of a crisis—any crisis—screaming and flailing and clutching each other, neither confident enough to grab onto that solitary branch jutting out of the water…neither valiant enough to save the other? 

What about co-captainship?  Each person having “equal say”? Neither “ruling” the other?  This kind of coupling makes for a hesitant, uncertain course—mediocre at best with more pretense than reality, lots of discomfort and too often a jousting of egos. 

Romantic Love

        In many ways different from Organic love, Romantic love is the flash, the hypnosis,  the “summer with a thousand Julys.” It’s the rainbow that arcs from our parents, from the books we read, the shows we watch, the trends we follow, the ads on buses, the clergy. In Romantic love, environment delivers our partner fully packaged and ribboned. It even tosses a bouquet of roses to us in celebration, yet cares little  about the thorns that make us bleed. 

       Parents: Implacable Sculptors

      Of all social influences, our parents are the most potent in sculpting the soft clay of our self. Unfortunately, during our childhood, many parents cannot discern our blueprint; worse, those who can neither love nor accept it and, accordingly, force us to play the role of a character in a script they themselves wrote and want us to follow.

      Many parents glorify their children and, consequently, turn them into narcissists. By contrast, some parents—intentionally or not—devalue their children and turn them into martyrs.

If we inject narcissism or martyrdom into the seeds of character, what kind of person will bloom? A narcissist, says the dictionary, is an individual “overly self-involved and often vain and selfish.”  On the other hand, the martyr “…makes great sacrifices or suffers much in order to further a belief, cause or principle.” Both types of personalities love in unhealthy ways: the narcissist loves the self too much; the martyr doesn’t love the self enough.

Let’s take Peter. Dating, he chose Gloria, a narcissist like his mother. Diane chose Bill, a martyr—like her father.  Peter and Diane were comfortable with narcissism and martyrdom because they grew up with them. As adults, pleasing their mates was not generosity but self-preservation because in recognizability there’s safety, and as children both Peter and Diane had felt safest catering to the dispositions of their parents. 

            The Undeveloped Child Within Us

In this sense, many times our parents—whether or not aware of their actions—hobble our development.  For example, did our father’s emotional or physical abandonment make us feel unlovable—perhaps even suicidal? Was it a parent’s frequent rubbing of our back and legs that rubbed away, as well, the boundary between Parent and Paramour? Was it a parent’s constant criticism that scarred us and, therefore, made us feel inferior?

            Ordinarily we’d think it absurd to let a youngster choose our mate, yet that’s exactly what we do when we carry within us the bruised child of our beginning years. Such a child will choose another child.  Consequently, when two wounded children are forced not only to live together, but to share things the way grownups do, they remain inter-chained in a crawlspace of selfishness, impatience and tantrums, all impelled by the craving for instant gratification.  In this sense, many couples even well into old age are really unhappy children.

Parent or Mate…?

Sometimes, tugged by the needs of a hurt child, instead of choosing other children as mates, we choose a new parent.  How do we know?  Well, as women, do we see our man as a Daddy we want to please because we fear his displeasure? Or because we crave his praise to feel validated? Do we see his control over us as proper? Do we let him punish us—even hit us—if we do something wrong?

If we’re men, do we see our woman as somebody to fear?  Somebody we need to please in order to avoid her anger or her grumpiness? Do we depend on her for comfort and are willing to follow her instructions as well as accept her castigation when we misbehave? Do we see her as the source of our sustenance?

If the answer is yes in both situations, then we see our mates as parent-substitutes. Connecting with these people, we assign to them the power to heal the aggrieved child within us by providing what our actual parents couldn’t. With such a partner, we may indeed enjoy many things missing in our childhood—like trips or parties, but—-because we chose a parent, not a mate—we will never experience a mature and sexually fulfilling relation. 

Loving Our “Self”

As adults, before we look to love someone we haven’t yet met, we need to know whether we love someone we have met——ourselves.  And if we do love ourselves, how much?  Movies, TV shows, books and clergy preach that our lives matter less than the lives of others.

Without even blinking, for instance, in film a character bleeding to death says, “Don’t worry about me.  Save John.” In all TV series, a mother who learns she’ll die giving birth, says, “Save the baby. I don’t care what happens to me.” In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton trades his life—with sanctimonious felicity! –for Charles Darney’s.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do,” he chirps at the hangman’s noose, “than I have ever done.”

Why did he give up his life?

To ensure the happiness of Lucie, his beloved, that’s why. Lucie doesn’t love Sydney. She loves Charles and wants to be with him. Thanks to Sydney, she gets her wish. Imagine giving up your life just to ensure that your true love can be happy with your rival? Is this the misguided altruism we want to instill in our children? 

A character in Jodi Picoult’s The Pact informs us, “When you loved someone, you put their needs before your own. No matter how inconceivable those needs were; no matter how fucked up; no matter how much it made you feel like you were ripping yourself into pieces.” 

            Really??? Did those needs, all the time dormant, suddenly strike like a viper? For many of us, the freshness of new love—the very immediacy of its grasp–tends to crowd our aperture of vision.  Consequently, we see only the flowers, not the red flags flapping on the log or two rotting on the ground.

       Red Flags on Rotting Logs

       Your partner may tease you in unkind ways, then say, “I was only kidding.” Or your man slaps you and then, to regain your favor, buys you a gold bracelet.  Or he leaves you stranded in a mall…or your gal throws tantrums or flings your box of cigars against the wall…Or whenever you’re sad, instead of trying to cheer you up, she puts you down…

            Or he criticizes your hair style or your dresses and asks you to remove the mole on your chin because he finds it disconcerting…or she refers to you with pejoratives, like asinine or asshole…or he brags about himself while rarely complimenting you…or she keeps telling you how stupid your decisions are…or tells you that you eat more ice-cream than her obese uncle or he asks you how many guys you slept with before him or you find him snooping into your text messages.

            Those of us who ignore these snares may find ourselves floundering in the cyclonic waters of masochism, whose chum will always attract the jaw snapping sadist.

Sado-Masochism: Moth or Flame?

Like the moth flickering to the scorching bulb, some of us fly toward romantic incineration…not only once, but time and time again. Are we blind to the flame…or are we blinded by it?  The moth, as well as the flame, can be man or woman: one’s penchant for self-conflagration is gender-neutral although submissive personalities are more likely to be self-punishing.

The masochistic as well as sadistic individual invites emotional curdling. We don’t need whips and chains and a mattress to unleash internecine pain. This type of sado-masochism is not the sexual kind but rather the emotional and social kind. It can happen at the dinner table, on a tennis court, at a party…and all we need is hurtful words. Sometimes even a well-timed scowl can be sadistic.

If we’re masochists, we don’t love the abuser, our “sweetheart,” but rather the pain—which we inflict on ourselves through our union with the sadist. The moth is the masochist; the flame is the sadist. Yet we can’t be one without the other for too long.

For example, when the moth feels it’s not getting enough punishment, it becomes the flame and the flame becomes the moth—-a temporary switching of roles to re-arouse the other. Neither individual remains tranquil or loving because the last thing a sadist or masochist wants is freedom from abuse–whether giving it or receiving it.

The partner who hurts  us cannot love us. Ernest Hemingway says that he loves the marlin as well as the lion. He calls them his brothers. Therefore, he asserts, he has a right to kill them. This conclusion is a facile way to smash logic in order to justify destructiveness.  In a similar sense, abusers will come up with reasons, even teary ones, to explain why they hurt us.     

Sado-Masochistic Melody

The most injurious kind of bond between self-abasement and sadism is the kind that hides in sweetness.  Check out some of our most popular love songs.  

“My Funny Valentine.” 

A woman, while professing her love for a man, calls him dim-witted and dopey, vacant of brow, laughable and unphotographable, yet he’s her favorite work of art. 

             “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”

            Prepared to love one man until she dies, our singer discloses that he’s lazy and slow and can come home as late as he wishes because without him, there is no home.  She does admit, though, that perhaps she is crazy.

            “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”

            Here the woman, admitting that her guy never treats her sweet and gentle, compares herself to a weeping willow and hugs her pillow at night—something, she acknowledges, no woman should do—yet she stays with him. 

            “She’s Funny That Way”

            The narrator, a man, declares himself worthless yet informs us that his woman never hollers. In fact, to be with him, not only is she willing to live in a tent butshe wantsto work and slave for him every day.  And when he hurts her feelings, what does she do?She gives him a little smile

Should Romantic Love Be Unconditional?

Unconditional love, hugely organic, is the perennial flower that blossoms in heat as well as in frost.  Mothers give this love to their children; dogs give it to their owners.  Our society, in its most fervent rhapsody of romance, asks the same of couples about to be married: commit to a vow of love for as long as either lives.   

 Here, some of us might ask: “Are you telling me that if my husband, who has been a closet-gambler, has frittered away not only our home but our children’s education…or if he’s a chronic abuser…or that if my wife continually lies…or if she’s a recidivistic cocaine addict, I should hang in until one of us dies just to honor a vow?”

Others ask, “How can I guarantee love for this one person for a lifetime if I can’t be sure of my emotions even a month from now?” So: despite our gush of libido, are we capable of staying with our honey for a lifetime?

The monogamous among us can; the polyamorous cannot. Nest-builders, who are feminine people, can be satisfied with one lover as long as he or she protects the nest and, if necessary, refills it. Ironically, these protectors, usually masculine personalities, tend to be the polyamorous ones skulking into the verboten lair of adultery. 

So if we’re going to need more than one lover during a lifetime, should we reveal this inclination to our partner at the beginning of the relation? In most cases, honesty before commitment works best. If we pretend that this desire doesn’t exist, then down the road we pay a price that could have been avoided. It’s possible that our partner—if he or she is submissive—might “allow” us recreational sex outside the marriage. 

On the other hand, wanting to maintain our integrity, some of us write our own marriage vows and omit promises we know we can’t—or won’t—keep.  A written vow might look like this:  “I promise to do my best in full consciousness to honor and love you every day of my life.”

Many couples live together without marriage. They bear children and remain a loving family—but they’re rogues prowling outside the economic, religious, and social gates of society. Their kind of unsanctioned love feels unguarded and a bit exposed, like the over-night guest who doesn’t quite fit in and is forced to sleep in the barn. 

False Love Bleeds Out

Social rejection, though, may not be as grievous as love that collapses. Today in America about 50% of romantic marriages end in divorce or separation—usually after the children have already come. Why? Perhaps women who chose the wrong spouse have nevertheless accomplished their goal of motherhood and now view their husbands as obsolete except as functionaries of family support and protection. 

The Bandage of Sex

Haven’t we heard, time and again, Barbara say, “Yeah, Barry and I fight like hell almost every day—and I mean real nasty brawls, but come bedtime…”  The grin.  “That’s when we make up and the problem’s gone.”

Gone? Dream on. That’s like taking an aspirin and feeling temporary relief from the pain of a growing tumor. With fractious couples, orgasm simply bandages emotional cuts. It doesn’t heal them.

            All in all, it’s safe to say that the bruised child within us—whether narcissist, martyr, masochist or sadist—will probably not find true love. 

Assessing our Choice of Mates

  • Do we confuse Need with Want? 
  • Do we confuse our dream-partner with our real partner?
  • Do we settle because we believe that “normal” or healthy people will pass us by? 
  • Do we choose a mate to avoid solitude?
  • Do we choose a person in rebound, an awning to step under as shelter from the hailstorm we’ve just experienced with somebody else?
  • Do we choose a partner to please a relative or friend or, worse, to please the damaged and disgruntled child in us—the child who imposes on our mates the responsibility to repair the harm done to us by a parent? 

Fatalities in a Relationship

  • Jealousy
  • Mood Swings
  • Violence
  • Mendacity
  • Addictions
  • Despotism
  • Indifference
  • Deception
  • Sado-Masochism
  • Disdain
  • Narcissism
  • Manipulation
  • Martyrdom

      Excuses For Staying  

      It’s hard to let go of what we thought was love, hard to plunk ourselves onto a barren landscape without a flasked St. Bernard in sight. To do so takes self-affirmation and trust in the good graces of the universe.  We search for reasons to stay, reasons that come from the head, not from the heart.

            Lorraine says, “I know I’m an idiot for taking Sid’s violence. I know I should leave him but I can’t because…well, because he needs me. I mean, after all, in this cold world how many of us are really needed?”

            Terrence says, “Paige picks on me in front of company, which can be quite embarrassing. It’s been three years in this relationship now. I’m giving her one more year to change. If she doesn’t, I’m out.”

            Wanna bet?

Climbing Toward Our Best Self 

Is any partnership scar-free? Unlikely. If our journey toward organic love is to be successful, we need to smile with the face we have instead of copying the smile of others. In this sense, our goal is to climb not to the highest rung of love’s possibilities, but to the peak of our highest self.  Only from this apogee can we reach the height of other souls, confident and fulfilled ones, with whom we can share an enduring love.   

“I am the master of my soul,” says Henley in Invictus. “I am the captain of my fate.” You don’t believe it?  Then ask yourself: “Who leads me to a healthy relationship or shoves me into a destructive one or blocks me from leaving it—except me?” 

Categories: Blog, Essay

1 reply »

  1. So powerful! Gets one to think, access, clarify’s, deepens your understanding of love and relationships. A perfect tool for me to use as a Life Coach. And then there’s the writing skill . . . The choice of words, sentences. Engages the reader totally! Masterful piece of work.

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