It’s so much easier to write about sex than about love. Someone asked me, “do you love him?” and I heard myself say, “For me, the concept of love has exploded. It is so many things that it is like a dancehall mirrorball and I interrogate it so much that it constantly turns, partly to escape the questions and partly to answer them.”
I started with “unconditional positive regard,” which means simply accepting the other person, as is, no assembly required, just take what comes. But that has sometimes made me into a patsy, a punching bag, someone who can’t defend herself for fear of the consequences. Is there such a thing as “negotiated positive regard?” The positive part seems irreducible, a matter of hope and the reason for staying. The regard part is an open eye, really seeing what is there, not just some imaginary projection.
What happens when, like a photo in developer in the darkroom, the forming details reveal something conventionally considered reprehensible -- stealing or cowardice or some other kind of cheating or victimizing others? Do you stay, hoping to be a good influence? Or do you rationalize about why they do it? Or do you leave with tears streaming down your face? Is vengeance justified? It seems as though, before any decision, one has to look out from that other person’s eyes, see the world as they see it. But they don’t want you to. They are afraid it will give you power over them. They have learned long ago that the only real safety is secrecy, hiddenness.
So then it becomes a matter of unrequited love, no longer an interaction but a yearning. A loneliness that is specific and focused. It’s not just wickedness that can put up the glass barrier -- any number of relationships are impossible due to circumstances. But this is a time when we have access to the faces and hearts of people that fifty years ago we would never have even known existed, and the strange is always seductive.
Maybe it helps to read about the modules in the brain that support bonding, attachment, recognition, faithfulness. They are separate in their whorls of function, quite unlike the lumped-up portmanteau of daily terminology. If one module is missing, the person recognizes his mother, but believes she is an impersonation -- not really mom at all, because there is no apparent feeling about her. If a different module is missing, one doesn’t recognize her familiar face, but reacts to it warmly anyway. If a certain kind of ground squirrel, which is normally faithful to its mate, is genomically altered by knocking out ONE GENE, it becomes promiscuous, racing through the grass after new partners. Stick the gene back in (it’s not that easy!) and Mr. Squirrel sleeps at home.
What about the envirome, one’s personal history? The happy little person who imprinted you in second grade with the memory of a freckled face and curly hair, so that ever after people who looked like that made you smile, isn’t that a sort of shaping love? But isn’t the stiff, thin, red-headed, brilliant person who refused you so that it made you obsess about a close relationship, if only to find out what they were about, doesn’t that stamp you with a unsolvable problem that you will try to explore again with every stiff, thin, red-headed, brilliant person? And as you grow, your ability to figure it out also grows so that maybe this time, this time . . .
I find that people are far too binary about who desires whom: you’re this or you’re that, you yearn for this which puts you in one category or that, which puts you in the other. But in fact, desire waxes and wanes, not just physical desire, but the emotional and mental wishes and attractions, both sides of the brain, one rushing eagerly and the other saying, “Watch out. There’s danger.” Which may only make the yearning more intense. So many stories hinge on bad timing, not just “Romeo and Juliet” or “Summer and Smoke.”
Unrequited love is a category all its own, bittersweet: sweet in the swelling emotion of regard for the beloved, bitter in the knowledge that it can’t go further, can’t complete. But there’s safety in that tumescence, never climaxing, avoidance of risk, of not finding out what one doesn’t want to know anyway -- not really. It’s not exhausted by reality, but always alive in a hidden place. Others need never know. You can get hooked on that.
The eye searches for pattern: a profile, the boss of a cheekbone, a gesture like the tilted lift of chin, or a way of squaring the shoulders, or a particular gait. The ear listens for a timbre or an idiosyncratic pronunciation, and can separate it from every other voice in the room. Love from a distance never gets to taste, to smell, and yet an actor on a screen who embodies the object of yearning can be more real than actual persons in the same room. Can this be healthy? Surely it’s natural and universal? A kind of emotional practice for reality -- if it will translate, if the gauzy unreality is not lost entirely.
Love in relationship becomes something else. Bonding, the extension of identity to include the other person so that “me” is “we.” The best relationships are partnering for a goal, in order to prevent eating each other up in craving and demands. Is there a memoryome? (They’re calling all the internal inventories of guiding data and evolutionary forces the science of “omics.” Genomics, proteomics.) Surely sharing intense and unique emotional experiences is one of the components of love.
Investigators of morality have discovered that the instinct of not having sex with family members, avoiding incest, is not a function of genomics, but rather the experience of growing up with them that triggers a module in the brain that makes you love them in a different way. Likewise, an unfamiliar man in the house with small children should not be trusted, because until he has spent the time with them to make him instinctively protective and curb his impatience.
Love of lesser beings, children/animals/dummies, too easily leads to trouble, control and even violence, so it becomes ownership and abuse. Then the private love between individuals becomes the business of society and authorities may step in. But let’s not end on a dark note. The love to look for is the one that opens doors, is full of gifts, puts one on tiptoe, makes one sing. Keeps one’s identity.