Cautiously in love

I just wanted to say thank you very much to everyone who has taken the time to stop by and read my blog. A much bigger thank you to those who have liked, commented, followed, etc. I appreciate the support and am thrilled that you find this subject and the content as appealing as I do.

For today’s post, I received a question from a reader that I want to share and respond to. (If anyone else has any questions they want me to tackle, please feel free to send them in!)

Can you address how getting close to someone can create a feeling of vulnerability to the point where you fear getting too close to the person?
– Cautiously in love

Dear Cautiously in love,

My very first post mentioned a New York Times article discussing how Alain Badiou thought it was absurd that tourists were chaining love locks on Parisian bridges:

The idea that you can lock two people’s love once and for all, and toss the key, is a puerile fantasy. For Mr. Badiou, love is inherently hazardous, always on the brink of failure and above all vulnerable.

We are taught from a young age in the Western world to plan and to go for what we want. We have a difficult time acknowledging that not everything is in our control and that we aren’t as independent and as self-reliant as we try to convince ourselves we are. And love is one of those things that profoundly shakes up our sense of independence. It lays bare all of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, exposing them not just to others, but also to ourselves.

A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon introduces the idea of open-loop limbic resonance, meaning our brain functions are created and physically changed by those we care for.

“Because loving is a reciprocal physiologic influence, it entails a deeper and more literal connection than most realize. Limbic regulation affords lovers the ability to modulate each other’s emotions, neurophysiology, hormone status, immune function, sleep, rhythms, and stability…. Lovers hold the key to each other’s identities, and they write neostructural alterations into each other’s networks.”

So remember all those times when you can’t sleep at night because your significant other is away? Yes, those aren’t just because you’re pining for them and madly in love. It’s also because your brain misses the regulation that he or she provides by being close.

I think that the vulnerability you’re feeling is because both your heart and your head are slowly becoming more and more dependent on someone else and you are trying to think your way out of it. That fear you feel comes from the logical, socially-conditioned place that is resisting the direction your body is going in. And that’s fine. There’s a lot to be said for being cautious and not completely giving in to your emotions. You need to have some sense of self-awareness to be able to protect yourself in the event that your head and heart have misjudged.

But for now…guess what? The fact that you feel vulnerable means that you are already in too deep, so stop trying to think yourself out of it. Give your brain and your heart a chance! 🙂

loop of dependence


Dating advice from the 1950s


Apologies for the long sabbatical, life got in the way! Terrible excuse, I know, but please accept this post as an apology!

The Atlantic posted a short video inspired from a series of films based on the book Marriage for Moderns by Henry A. Bowman. “Choosing for Happiness” is a dating how-to guide for young women in 1950. Mary, the narrator, is relatively unfamiliar with the social scene on her college campus and looks to her friend Eve for advice on dating and men.

The video’s a bit long, and of course, girls were married at 19 then, but here are the lessons I’ve learned that be applied to 21st Century dating:

  1. Don’t try to change a guy.
  2. Spend long afternoons with a man, not long nights.
  3. You can’t trust a guy that’s all eyes and smiles.
  4. When a man says he doesn’t think of you as a woman, leave….now!
  5. A guy saying that someone should take you across his knee and give you a spanking does not mean the fun sort of spanking.

What do you think? Anything in the video that’s still useful?

Love, Real Love is an Ingredient so Absolutely Necessary

William Cobbett (1763 – 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer and journalist, who was born in Farnham, Surrey. He was also a man of many words, and his rather rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story gave him enough life experiences for him to write down all his life learnings into an advice manual: Advice to Young Men and (Incidentally) to Young Women in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life. In a Series of Letters Addressed to a Youth, a Bachelor, … Husband, a Father, a Citizen, or a Subject. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can also download it for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

According to Cobbett, the choice of a partner is the most important decision of your life:

When we consider in how great a degree the happiness of all the remainder of a man’s life depends, and always must depend, on his taste and judgement in the character of a lover, this many well be considered as the most important period of the whole term of his existence.

So what should you look for in a wife:

But to have the [numerous delights of marriage], as well as the cares, the choice of the partner must be fortunate. I say fortunate; for, after all, love, real love, impassioned affection, is an ingredient so absolutely necessary, that no perfect reliance can be placed on the judgement. Yet, the judgement may do something; reason may have some influence; and, therefore, I here offer you my advice with regard to the exercise of that reason.

The things which you ought to desire in a wife are, 1. chastity; 2. sobriety; 3. industry; 4. frugality; 5. cleanliness; 6. knowledge of domestic affairs; 7. good temper; 8. beauty.

So Cobbett wants a personality-less woman who, in his own words, can maintain a house so well that he can come and go without a single worry.

And because this book is supposed to be advice for young women as well:

Young women may take my word for it, that a constantly clean board, well cooked victuals, a house in order, and a cheerful fire, will do more in preserving a husband’s heart, than all the ‘accomplishments,’ taught in all the ‘establishments‘ in the world.

Now, I would love to be a modern feminist and say that Cobbett is wrong, but you know, I think he’s completely right in his advice to women. I think every guy wants to come home to a good meal, kick his feet up and relax.

What do you think?

What Makes a Happy Marriage? Lust, Laughter and Loyalty

I came across an article on the BBC by Adam Gopnik called “Is there a secret to a happy marriage?” and naturally I was curious. Now, I’m not married, but I think you can substitute “marriage” with “relationship” and the advice would still hold.

Gopnik starts off by saying that “Anyone who tells you their rules for a happy marriage doesn’t have one. There’s a truth universally acknowledged, or one that ought to be anyway.” But while reading Charles Darwin’s list of pros and cons on the idea of marriage, Gopnick thought about his own years of married life and came to a formula for a happy marriage.

You can find an excellent summary of Darwin’s thought process on Brain Pickings, but some of his reasons against marriage were:

  1. Limited Means. Feel duty to work for money.
  2. Freedom to go where one liked.
  3. Travel. Europe, yes? America????
  4. Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.
  5. Anxiety & responsibility.

His reasons for marriage included:

  1. Children.
  2. Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one.
  3. Charms of music & female chit-chat.
  4. Object to be beloved & played with.
  5. Better than a dog anyhow.
  6. Home & someone to take care of house.

Clearly Darwin was clear on his priorities, particularly on how a wife is better than a dog. In the end, he decided to indeed marry his cousin Emma Wedgewood, and as Gopnik writes, they had a great marriage. “As he lay dying in 1882, the distinguished scientist, who had irrevocably altered the consciousness of the world, and knew it, said simply: ‘My love, my precious love.'”

After considering marriage, Gopnick says:

Marriages are made of lust, laughter and loyalty – but the three have to be kept in constant passage, transitively, back and forth, so that as one subsides for a time, the others rise….The trick is that marriage is played upon a tilted field, and everything flows downhill towards loyalty.


Lust and laughter need no explanation. You have to physically want your partner, be attracted to them. And you should enjoy your time with them. They need to be someone you can laugh with, even during the bad moments.

Loyalty is the interesting element. Gopnik says, “Marriages from which lust fled decades ago, and laughter became hollow back in the 1990s, but which continue to run on loyalty alone….Loyalty alone can sustain a marriage, but not happily, and not for long.” Loyalty is the absolute necessity that no marriage can do with out, but it is not sufficient for a happy marriage.

Several people commented on this article, and one noted the absence of love in Gopnik’s happy marriage formula. However, I think that romantic love is strongly implied. What differentiate my feelings for my significant other from friends, family, acquaintances and strangers are that all three elements are present: lust, laughter and loyalty. I am loyal to my friends and family and have a lot of good times, but clearly there is the absence of lust (as there very well should be where family is concerned!). I can have a lot of laughs with, and possibly even lust for, acquaintances and strangers I just met, but I would be lying if I said I felt any loyalty to them. My boyfriend is the only person I can say I have lust for, laugh with and am loyal to, and coincidentally, I’d also say I love him.

So…while Gopnick doesn’t specifically mention love as the secret to a happy marriage, I think it has a strong presence in his equation. What do you think?

African Pygmy Hedgehog(LOVE this! And I want! )

When do you tell someone you love them?

bellIf you’ve read the “About” section of my blog, you know I’m a big fan of Dear Sugar. I think the advice she gives is so straightforward, compelling, from the heart, and clearly from someone who has experienced a great deal in life.

I was thinking about what to write today, and it occurred to me that rather than talking about anything philosophical or biological, I wanted to share a particular Sugar letter on when you tell someone you love them.

“Johnny’s” twenty-year marriage fell apart three years ago, and he’s recently been seeing someone who is going through a bitter divorce. He thinks she is falling in love with him and he might be too, but he’s afraid of saying anything because in his experience love is “loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken.”

Johnny asked Sugar, “When is it right to take that big step and say I love you? And what is this “love” thing all about?”

Before I post Sugar’s response, I will say this: 1) Yes, her response is a bit long but please please do read through all of it. It really is worth it; and 2) I don’t need to say anything or comment on what Sugar’s said because I agree with her whole-heartedly and she is far more eloquent that I could ever be.

So…here is what Sugar said:

Dear Johnny,

The last word my mother ever said to me was love. She was so sick and weak and out of her head she couldn’t muster the “I” or the “you,” but it didn’t matter. That puny word has the power to stand on its own.

I wasn’t with my mom when she died. No one was. She died alone in a hospital room and for so many years it felt like three quarters of my insides were frozen solid because of that. I ran it over and over it in my mind, the series of events and choices that kept me from being beside my mom in her last hours, but thinking about it didn’t do a thing. Thinking about it was a long dive into a bucket of shit that didn’t have a bottom.

I would never be with my mother when she died. She would never be alive again. The last thing that happened between us would always be the last thing. There would be the way I bent to kiss her and the way she said, “please, no,” when I got close because she couldn’t any longer bear the physical pain of people touching her. There would be the way that I explained I’d return in the morning and the way she just barely nodded in response. There would be the way I got my coat and said “I love you,” and the way she was silent until I was almost out the door and she called, “love.” And there would be the way that she was still lying in that bed when I returned the next morning, but dead.

My mother’s last word to me clanks inside me like an iron bell that someone beats at dinnertime: love, love, love, love, love.

I suppose you think this has nothing to do with your question, Johnny, but it has everything to do with my answer. It has everything to do with every answer I have ever given to anyone. It’s Sugar’s genesis story. And it’s the thing my mind kept swirling back to over these five weeks since you wrote to me and said you didn’t know the definition of love.

It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.

The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it. And, Johnny, on this front, I think you have some work to do.

But before we get to that, I want to say this, darling: I sort of love you.

I love the way you wrote to me with your searching, scared, knuckle-headed, nonchalant, withholding dudelio heart on full display. I love that you compelled me to write dudelio, even though—on top of the fact that dudelio isn’t a word—I am morally opposed to the entire dude and dude-related lexicon. I love how for five long weeks hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought: But what about Johnny? What will I tell Johnny? I love that one recent evening when I was lying in bed with my man and he was reading the New Yorker and I was reading Brain, Child, I had to stop and put my magazine on my chest because I was thinking about you and what you asked me and so then my man put his magazine on his chest and asked what I was thinking about and I told him and we had a conversation about your troubles and then we turned off the lights and he fell asleep and I lay there wide awake with my eyes closed writing my answer to you in my head for so long that I realized I wasn’t going to fall asleep, so I got up and walked through the house and got a glass of water and sat at the kitchen table in the dark and looked out the window at the wet street and my cat came and jumped up on the table and sat there beside me and after a while I turned to her and said, “What will I tell Johnny?” and she purred.

I always knew what I would tell you. Not knowing wasn’t exactly the problem. What I was mulling over is how I’d get at the layers of things your letter implies to me: the questions you didn’t ask that stand so brightly behind the questions you did.

You aren’t afraid of love, sweet pea. You’re afraid of all the junk you’ve yoked to love. And you’ve convinced yourself that withholding one tiny word from the woman you think you love will shield you from that junk. But it won’t. We are obligated to the people we care about and who we allow to care about us, whether we say we love them or not. Our main obligation is to be forthright—to elucidate the nature of our affection when such elucidation would be meaningful or clarifying.

And in your case, it will be. You asked me when is the right time to tell your lover that you love her and the answer is when you think you love her. That’s also the right time to tell her what your love for her means to you. If you continue using avoidance as the main tactic in your romantic relationships with women, you’re going to stunt not only your happiness, but your life.

I encourage you to do more than throw up your hands in your examination of “whose fault” it was that your twenty-year marriage fell apart. It was no one’s fault, darling, but it’s still all on you. It would behoove you to reflect upon what went right in that relationship and what went wrong; to contemplate how you might carry forth the former in your current and/or future relationships and quash the latter.

There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in a long-time monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word love are leftover from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.

A proclamation of love is not inherently “loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken.” The terms you agree to in any given relationship are connected to, but not defined by whether you’ve said “I love you” or not. I love you can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful and I’m going to do everything in my power to be your partner for the rest of my life. It can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful but I’m in transition right now, so let’s go easy on the promises and take it as it comes. It can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful but I’m not interested in a commitment with you, now or probably ever, no matter how groovy or beautiful you continue to be.

The point is, Johnny: you get to say. You get to define the terms of your life. You get to negotiate and articulate the complexities and contradictions of your feelings for this woman. You get to describe the particular kind of oh-shit-I-didn’t-mean-to-fall-in-love-but-I-sorta-did love you appear to have for her. Together, the two of you get to come to grips with what it means to have an exclusive, nicely clicking, non-committed commitment in the midst of her bitter divorce and in the not-too-distant wake of your decades-long marriage.

Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word love to your lover has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel.

So release yourself from that. Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.

We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime.