Random Thoughts

The mythology of love...

I'm not sure even how to start really writing about "love." It is a topic almost more incendiary, here in the secular West, than God! Everyone has their opinions, their thoughts on the subject, and quite often they express them as dogma... what must be, with no room for flexibility, insight, or learning.

I have been thinking about it for so long that I may not connect well to someone who is just starting to wonder what this source of so much pleasure or happiness and so much pain is all about. I will try to watch out when my thoughts rest on years of fine tuning or experience and try to bridge the gaps with what I remember of the process as it occured in myself.

Love and relationships are even difficult to define, to even start talking about them. But without some definition, we won't even know what we are talking about. Love has many faces and types, and there are as many different kinds of relationships as there are interactions between people. For this discussion, I will be taking the subset consisting of the attempts people make to develop one on one, exclusive, sexually bonded partnerships. I will often, however, make comparisons to the broader ranges that each word applies to for clarity or insight.

So today I will talk about the mythology. Mythology is what we are taught down the ages to accept as "the way things are." Mythology can make life easier or harder, bind cultures together, or set them at war. A mythology is part of the social contract. Mythology can be said to have a quality level, as can many things. The quality, positive or negative, of a mythology is how well it works. Do people who follow its rules and examples lead happy lives? Do those uncomfortable with some of the myths still manage to find a place in their society? Do those who need to abandon it become pariahs or mystics? Mythology can be true, or outrageously fictional - it does not matter except in its relative success at making lives less miserable.

The mythology of love, taken in the sense that it occurs in the individual and is acted out, has a number of roots, some deeply embedded in culture, others temporary and fleeting. Some are very personal, others more social.

For the individual, I think the primary myth of love is generated "at home." The relationships between the caregivers, often biological parents but not always, forms a pattern, a structure, which is taught at a very early age and gains much of its power from the total dependence of the infant on those who provide its early sustenance. We learn from our parents; not what they wish us to learn, but what they do, how they act.

Another, later source of mythology is other relationships we encounter - relatives and their marriages, friends and theirs, which have a more personal influence. This can be toward or away from their pattern, however. Much more so than the model of our parents, these relationships are veiwed through a more critical eye - if we thoroughly disapprove of someone or their spouse, their model might become an "anti-myth" in a sense.

Laid on top of this framework, and sometimes starting very early in life too, are the myths hidden in the mass media. Where this used to consist merely of religious stories and fairy tales, and later to an extent literature (popular or profound), in the middle of the 20th century the movies began to exert a strong influence, followed closely and I think now much more strongly by that vast wasteland, television.

In this little map I have ignored the deeper historical, cultural roots of myths about love. I might try to present how they fit in as I go along, but here in the United States, the culture is so heterogenous that there is very little compelling ancient mythology. It comes up more as a clash of myths that people struggle with than anything, I think.

So what do we have? Before we start carefully examining ourselves and our experiences, there is probably a whole bunch of junk all mixed up in our head about love.

  • Unstated assumptions about how "it will be," based on infantile memories of our parents - and remember, no matter how miserable those times were, they were all we had to go by. Our providers were almost gods back then.
  • Various conflicting ideas about "true love" floating around from various sources.
  • Some simply terrible myths from the films and television about problem solving - I don't care how well the complexities are presented, it is rare for a noticeable conflict to go from painful arguments to resolution in two hours, let alone thirty minutes.
  • We might think "there is someone for everyone."
  • We might believe in "soul mates."
  • A very common problem is to be attracted to the "wrong sorts of people" (the "good boy/bad boy" problem).
  • We might have been taught for so long that we are so special or so pathetic that we will either put up with no trifle or almost constant abuse and somehow think we are "trying to love."
  • They say, you can't love another until you love yourself - which is all well and good, but what is love in the first place?

OK, so what is this thing called "love?" Oh boy.

Um, how about a mutual, deep and abiding respect and consideration for another person, combined for the purposes of our discussion with a component of sexual attraction and mutual satisfaction of desire? Will that work for now? I'll fix it if it seems wanting.

So there are two distinct "love" problems immediately attendant upon this notion. Love now, and love later - the terrible, intoxicating high of "falling in love," of the chemistry (and I really mean "chemistry"!) with some new-found heart-throb versus the strong sense of commitment and respect that slowly grows and is earned over years of sharing lifes troubles and joys.

Is the former a reliable indicator of the latter, at all? In other words, is "falling in love" a reasonable approach to "being in love" someday? I really don't think so. They are such different things! Falling in love, that is, becoming highly excited and focused on some person, usually is a combination of intense sexual attraction (and either the pleasure or anticipation of sexual activity) and getting to know someone with a special combination of similarities and difference from ourselves. Neither of these is a good recipe for long term compatibility or appreciation. Sexual attraction and activity are notoriously fickle about their blessings, no matter how much we think we know about our libidos, our habits, and our desire to please or be pleased. Worse even than that, the peculiar balance of sameness and not-sameness that can make exploring a new intimate's personality such a thrill will not last most of the time. They will cease to be new and different, and the samenesses can rapidly turn into boredoms.

Let's look at each of these aspects on their own and how they can evolve to happier or sadder consequences, for a moment.

Sex. Oh yes, good stuff, it is. It is rare to find someone who does not "like sex." In reality, we all have tremendoulsy varying drives, propensities, and styles of enjoying sexual pleasure. Those least interested in it actually have it best, so long a they can find each other! Those with the need and the drive and few inhibitions may seem to be getting a lot more, and a lot more out of it at first. Sadly, the sheer intensity of sex can make other issues much more difficult to cope with as they come up. Also, we often find that the "magic" that drives our sexual desire for our partner can be shattered by the most innocent (or heinous!) transgressions. It is a lot more difficult to rebuild or repair passion than to find it and enjoy it.

Jealousy is a raging beast that can cost many intimacies before it is manageable or subdued (if this ever even happens).

The little slights and arguments between a couple are very difficult to keep out of the bedroom (or wherever one is having sex). I don't mean actually arguing, necessarily, between the sheets, so much as the pallor cast on one's delight in one's partner by an ongoing disagreement. It can be quite difficult to rise to the occasion (sorry!) of giving pleasure to one's beloved when the bitterness of conflict is hovering over the relationship. Habits are easy to form, and hard to break. A habit of letting the little things intrude, which can start quite by accident, will be difficult to work past eventually. The pain of struggling to not let the big things intrude can take all the joy out of a relationship even when you know your partner loves you still, or even more than ever.

Difference and sameness - a two headed coin that slowly becomes two tailed. We are certainly attracted to people who seem to enhance our experience and perception of life by bringing something new to it - their experiences, their sense of humor, their tastes. Their very touch is new and different. At the same time, a certain amount of sameness is almost necessary. Do you speak the same language? Do you share some political or religious feelings? Hobbies? Line of work? These things give you an arena in which to explore your differences and broaden your conception of life.

With time, however, the dark and light can trade places. The newness wears off, and may not really be something we wanted to live with forever if it stays different. That quirkiness can turn to irritation pretty quickly! The sameness turns to boredom and habit. It takes effort on both your parts to keep growing - together and apart - so you always have some fresh sameness and differentness to share and explore thorugh each other. Anyway you look at it, though, this particular dynamic will change radically over time and cannot be counted on to fuel the quality of your companionship.

There is no "rule book" for avoiding these conflicts - situations are too complex and too individual to just refer to the manual and follow instructions. However, it can certainly be said that some kinds of habits of character or personality traits will work to your advantage - not only in intimate relationships but in all of life. I have often thought that mellow, easy going people will usually find each other in their early adulthood and with a small amount of luck, live "happily ever after." Their temperaments suit them to success in this. For those of us with thornier or more complex styles of interaction, we have to figure out ways to complement our "difficultness." One can be to at least identify our flaws and try to minimize them, while honing our skills and qualities to make up for the negatives. We can also learn to accept that we will probably make a "fairer" partnership with another person who also has their issues - maybe some of their strengths will even be in our weak areas, and vice versa, and the match could be beneficial.

When it comes down to it, though, whenever we have opportunities to observe (and catalog) our deficiencies, we should make it a serious priority to unlearn them. It is one thing to try to date someone who can express their failings and apologize for them in advance (as opposed to after hurting us...), it is another to encounter someone who has leanred how to improve themselves, who remembers traits they no longer exhibit, who perhaps has some weaknesses they have almost conquered, and is unafraid to continue the process.

This is tough, too, because nothing we ever learn about ourselves takes place in a vacuum. If I learn some trait I harbor sabotages my love life due to one particular relationship, although it may truly be a character flaw, its solution does not necessarily help the next attempt. I may simply uncover another impediment to intimacy in that one! It really takes effort to discern what is a flaw and what is just a "feature" of some situation I was in. Did I seem impatient? Maybe I am... or maybe I was trying to cope with someone careless or lazy. Was I lazy? Hmm, could be - but maybe I was seeing myself through the eyes of an unforgiving, demanding lover.

Role playing: Sublimation and expectation.

This is an invidious form of mythology which can provide sometimes abrupt transitions in the quality of a relationship. The premise is that we shift our concept of either the role we shall play (sublimation) or that our partner must fulfill (expectation) at certain times in our history, usually ones marked with obvious signposts such as marriage.

Let me list a progression of these so you can that see it's more than just an issue of playing wife/husband:

  1. In meeting someone special, your role is one of excited provider and recipient of unusual benefits, ie their affection and attentions.
  2. During the "courtship" phase, your roles become that of entertainer, diverter, and vessel of hope for the future. You are both still trying hard to earn and keep these benefits by being your best selves. The effort seems worth it.
  3. The relationship becomes more stable - you are "going steady," or some such nonsense. It is easy to expect of your partner whatever role behavior you have always thought went along with this, whether it is acting nice for your family, always being available on a Saturday night, calling every day - whatever it is, it was not an organic outgrowth of who the two of you are, but something that was in your head before you met (this is, actually a critical definition of what "mythology" is and how it creates problems)
  4. Also, with this newfound stability there is a thing that can happen which isn't quite an example of role shifting but might as well be. It's called taking someone for granted. After all that strain and stress and work of negotiating the basic premises of your relationship, don't you deserve a rest? Can't you just relax and enjoy their attention (which is now a "given," a role they seem content to play) for a while? Well, if you both do that, neither of you is going to have much in the way of good company for long!
  5. If you survive this phase, or cannot escape from it, you may become Engaged to be Married. At which point, you will probably expect each other to behave as good fiances/fiancees "should" - and as in many of these cases, the coincidence of these roles as played versus expected will depend a lot on how much common cultural background the two of you share.
  6. Marriage is the biggest and easiest role playing transition to pick on, of course. It is very hard not to have some sort of idea of how you think a wife or husband should behave. It is easy to expect it of your partner, while falling into your concept of your own new role... this creates some magnificent permutations of possible clashes over the most mundane things.
  7. Divorce! Yes, unless the marriage is childless and simple to divide in material terms, you are going to find yourself having expectations of how an ex-wife or ex-husband should behave. Pretty funny, really. If this "step" occurs earlier in the series, your expectations might be for how an ex-whatever "should act."

It is very hard to clear ones mind of these roles - they represent the tangible portion, the tip of the iceberg as it were, of many mythologies which may be buried deeper in your mind. They represent the your view of "way things are," the unconscious set of rules for life we have absorbed.

I think this is just as good a disorganized time as any to address those movie and television mythologies. The biggest problems, as I see them, are twofold. One, I alluded to earlier - the time limit on resolving conflict. Even a film which is well done and unfolds years in its characters lives, is over within two to three hours at the most. While at one intellectual, level we perceive this and accept that the people spent a lifetime perhaps working out their differences and developing a deep connection to each other, in our life the process only took half an evening. Going from the seeds of conflict, to open anger and frustration, to attempts at resolution, through compromise and learning to the eventual happy ending, is a little emotional trip that our brain goes on - and gets used to. We get used to the amount of time it takes even if at some thoughtful level we observed "how long" it took the characters to do it. In real life virtually no genuine conflicts are going to follow this pattern. it takes skilled movie making to put us through those negative stages and get us back into a positive frame of mind in ninety minutes. In reality, we are still angry, hurt, confused even if the source of the conflict has been removed or reduced.

That is the problem with good moviemaking! For every excellent, realistic film there are fifty pathetic tear jerkers, tales of lost love rekindled, passionate belief and ridiculous behaviour rewarded, and just plain old living happily ever after. Do I need to go into how dumb these plots are? I hope not, but it still bears pointing out that every time we let this stuff into our brain, however lightly, it makes an impression, and that mark is either a reinforcement of a myth or a little anchor by which to grow one.

In the worst "love" stories, the resolution comes via some sort of luck or plot twist, rather than the efforts and understanding of the characters.

The problems with television are similar but magnified by the shorter time spans taken by the stories and the typical constant interruption of the flow by advertising interludes. One small advantage that themedium can take, of course, is the serialized story. When some characters meet in your living room weekly and struggle to improve their lives together, leaving many unresolved conflicts to work out over years of our time as well as theirs, this could help. Unfortunately it is still poor business to do this, making it rather rare. We are more likely to be treated to the same story every week, as the same two characters conflict in the same way over a new situation, and resolve it the same way... in the same forty two minutes, after deducting time for those who paid for it to be fed to us. Then there are the soap operas. If they had anything resembling real characters, they might be fabulous laboratories for learning, but in reality, they tend to extremism and ridiculous passions (what few of them I have seen, anyway) and endless melodrama.

Anyway, how about a trip back to the surface, for air, and a return to talking about love?

How about the one about everything being easy with the right person?

Let's go back to that "falling in love" problem. Here we have it in a new guise - if you assume that "everything will work right" if only you find the right person, how do you find them? Random chance? The internet? Sexual attraction? How do you decide they are the right person? Everything is still "easy." When do you dump them because they aren't? When it becomes difficult... right?

The idiocy of thinking you can embark on, or plan to start, a "long term relationship?"

For some reason, many of us seem to have this fantasy relationship we are going to start, which contains the seeds of our romanticized vision of a distant, wonderful future. We will work at it, stay close, enjoy the years and someday just sit cuddling by the fire, magically agreeing on our favorite cuddling music, our favorite wine, and at what point exactly cuddling turns to sex - or sleep. Hey, it's a charming vision, and I guess there is nothing wrong with a little self indulgent hope that some of our dreams will come true! The trouble is, you can't work "now" on "twenty years from now." You can only try to make "now" work. A really good, or least livable, pleasant, series of "nows" do eventually add up to a really long time. But do you get a merit badge for it? Well, no. Far worse to struggle miserably with the long term as your only goal, than to be alone a lot, with some pleasant intimate interludes along the way.

There is also expecting that just because you share some values with your partner, that all unexplored areas will coincide as well.

"We used to think so much alike, and now we disagree about everything." Well, maybe you were each a little careful at first, to present the parts of yourself that, one, everyone likes, and two, you could figure out that your new partner would like from what you knew about them. As time went by, you showed more of your rough spots, or had to cover more issues, and found the areas of disagreement - perhaps at the worst times, too - as the initial glow of finding each other was wearing off. It helps to know what is really important about yourself and your needs and what you have to offer, and remember to keep these out front, where they can drive away those who would not be happy with you and attarct those who, perhaps, might at least enjoy your friendship for a time.

Or how about, "love conquers all?" Really, what is this "love" stuff? Why does it matter? How much does modern advertising increase our frustration by actually using it (and our desires for sex, acceptance, intimacy) to sell things?

Love is not a thing. Even as a "feeling" it is tricky and hard to define. It's easier to know when you have it or don't have it than to describe what it is. And that's pretty useless. Being made to feel that certain behaviours will lead to love in your life is just a way to get you to act a certain way - and it may be in the interest of the motivator to keep you yearning rather than actually provide satisfaction. Conversely, being taught that other ways of living will make it hard to have love in your life limits your opportunities for self exploration and discovery - which are certainly requirements for any kind of love that I can see as worthwhile.

Romantic love itself is just a myth, really, a concept once reserved for the gods and royalty to play with in their idle hours, that now is used to make us all miserable, more often than not. It is a harness to yoke the energies of human sexuality, and a structure to define and euphemize the responsibilities of child rearing. It can do these reasonably well in a homogenous culture, sometimes, but its downside is far more treacherous, leading to bad gambles, insane jealousies, and lonely lives that did not need to be so.

Once you get the mythologies out of your head, the main obstacles to love in your life are guilt, fear, and doubt.

The fact that, yes, people do enjoy times in their lives that are truly loving does not have much to do with what single people are searching for, or what couples hope they will have when their current fight is over. It's just that - it is possible - not predictable or plannable, but possible.


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© Huw Powell

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