Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Love is Work

One of the great sins of our culture is that we are taught to equate love with a perpetual state of bliss. The truth is that it can be blissful. It can also be be very difficult. In other words, love isn't easy. Love is work. It requires a lot of work from both partners.

Love is a verb.

It always was a verb.

If the pop songs and movies are to be believed, then it would be a pure feeling, without action. It can be given freely. It can be experienced at any time. But it cannot exist without work.

I recently realized that the physical, fun parts of love are the easiest. Kissing, making love, holding hands, cuddling; those are the easy parts. The more difficult parts are what love really is about. As my therapist put it recently, “My definition of love is staying together when the shit hits the fan.” And yes, the shit will hit the fan frequently. So much in fact that you want to invest in air conditioning instead. But it is through adversity that on can build strength. When you multiply that by two, then the the strength is doubled. A relationship is made stronger not just by the adversity, but by how the two people in that relationship overcome that adversity. I liken it to steel in a forge. The act of smelting—heating and pounding the iron, will temper it. The result is that it will become unbreakable. We are not taught this by our parents, or by our teachers. Instead, we are taught to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and bin the whole thing if it isn't perfect. If that were the case, then none of us would learn anything.

I should point out that there is a difference between adversity, and abuse. If a partner is trying to hurt the other partner, and hurt them needlessly, then a line must be drawn. All couples will argue. Oddly enough, that is the most insignificant part of adversity in a relationship. The most significant part is how the couple works through that adversity. And if one partner does accidentally hurt the other partner, how do they patch it up? The answer is that they need to talk to one another. They also need to respect one another, even when that respect is inconvenient.

Also, love requires a certain level of responsibility. It requires that the partners are each responsible for their own actions. While past experience may color their decisions, they have to treat their present relationship as new ground. Your current partner, or spouse, is not the same one you were with before. You are both old creatures entering into a new land together. The journey is the same, but the choices is different. Sometimes it'll be smooth. Other times, the road will be like you're trying to drive in fresh mud after a rainstorm. You may feel like abandoning the car, and just walking home. But if you do that, it'll take a lot longer to get home. For that matter, you might never get home. And so ditching the car just because it is stuck is not only a waste of a fine car. It's also a waste of time.

To continue with responsibility...

I think that sometimes people allow what their parents did to influence how they treat their partners. Or , how their partners treat them. It can be used as a catch-all excuse for any kind of bad behavior. A partner might say, “Because my mother had a bad temper, I have a bad temper.” Or, “Because my father drank, I drink.” Yes, that may explain where the habit came from. But it doesn't excuse it. Ultimately, the person has to take responsibility for their actions. This isn't always easy, as it requires one to be self-critical, but in a good way. While criticism from others can be hurtful, it is devastating when we see it in ourselves.

As Joe Strummer of The Clash once said, “The toughest thing is facing yourself. Being honest with yourself, that's much tougher than beating someone up. That's what I call tough.”

He's right. It is much tougher than pounding on anyone. Beating someone us is much easier than you'd think. Confronting yourself is far more difficult than anyone would imagine. I think that's why so many people are terrified to go into therapy. They aren't so much afraid of rejection. They are more afraid of what they'll learn about themselves.

In much the same way a partner might not confront what they did to upset their partner. They might just assume that she's being a “bitch,” or he's an “asshole,” and leave it at that. In reality, it's a matter of one, or both, not wanting to own up to their faults. And so any catch-all insult is used to relieve the burden of getting to the root of the problem. It doesn't help either partner; either the offender, or the offended.

Love isn't about how often you have sex. It's not about how long you can have it either. It is about how determined both partners are to care for one another. If your partner is sick, will you help take care of them? If they are sad, will you just be there for them? And if they are royally pissed off at you, will you still be there for them? As Julie, my therapist has remarked, “When you are angry at a partner.” Yes, you can love someone very much. You can kiss them passionately every day. And you can go to bed after making love for hours. But the very next day, you might be extremely pissed at them. Or, they may be extremely pissed at you. It comes with the territory. Again, this is about how the couple patches things up, rather than how they tear them apart. If the relationship is strong, and both partners really do love one another, they will work to (if you'll pardon the expression) clean up the piss.

Enough of these scatological metaphors. Usually those don't come into play unless children are involved. I don't have children, but from what I see, and smell, a lot of human waste is cleaned up. But that's another story for another time.

Love is about accepting the imperfections of the other person. As John Legend sang in All of Me, “All your curves and all your edges. All your tiny imperfections.”

That's a big part of it. Your partner won't always be in a good mood. You have to accept that. They won't always be in a bad mood (at least I hope not). You have to accept that as well. They will experience a whole range of emotions, just as you do. How they express those emotions is just as important as the emotions themselves. It is essential that both partners realize that what they are feeling in that moment is what they are feeling; either positive or negative. As Rilke once said, “No feeling is ever final.”

So that brings me to what love really is about.

It is about dedication. It is about deciding that one should stay with a partner, and care for them. It is ultimately everything two people can experience together; kissing, sex, marriage, dating, cuddling, sleeping, holding hands, arguing, making-up, she wants floral wallpaper, you want plaid, she isn't in the mood, you are, and the lawn needs mowing!

It is about the good, the bad, the sexy, the irritating, the offensive, and the unexplained. It all forms one big picture of a grand experience that only humans can have. Yes, it is difficult. But without that grand adventure life would be pretty pointless. You can't choose who you love. But you can choose how well you love. 

Though I think Freud will pretty much full of it, he did say one thing that was true.

When asked, “What is the meaning of life?”

Freud replied, “To love, and to work.”

For once in his cigar-smoking-mommy-obessed life, he was right. Just about one thing. But that one thing he was right about. Life is about loving and working. And loving is about work.

Text copyright Riley Joyce