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

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.

Yours,
Sugar

Love: It’s all Greek to Me

First and foremost, apologies for not having posted in quite sometime. I meant to get something up last Saturday, but didn’t make it in time before my boyfriend came to visit. He lives in London (yes, it’s a trans-Atlantic relationship) and I haven’t seen him in five months, so I basically put aside everything this past week so we could spend time together. And now, I’m “back”!

I was sitting in the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side with my roommate last Saturday doing research for my blog (and devouring a delicious s’mores tart with a tall glass of milk while dutifully waiting for my boyfriend), when a guy sitting behind us overheared me discussing on my blog. He was flipping through Ideas that Matter by A. C. Grayling and came across a section on love that he thought sounded like a good fit for the blog, so he passed the book on to me.

I didn’t know who Grayling was so I spent some time reading his Wikipedia page as well as his website. A great deal of his recent work has focused on morality, religion, and humanism, which is reflected in the book. Since I didn’t read the whole book, the four or so pages on love seem a bit out of place given Grayling’s academic interests, but I did like what he had to say overall.

There are two particular passages that I want to note here.

Santorini

 English has just one inadequate word to denote all these different emotions – these bonding, affectionate, caring, needy, desiring, dependent, nurturing, passionate, painful, ecstatic, erotic, romantic emotions – and the kinds of relationships that involve them. The Greeks, with more nuance, had several names: agape, storge, philia, kudus, eros, pragma, enabling them to discriminate more finely among them.

Ludic is playful, light-hearted love, nothing deep and meaningful. Erotic is sexual, physical love, of course. Storge is love based on deep and genuine friendship, such as that between well-functioning families and  between married couples after many years. Although Grayling does not name the source, he says that sociological research into the respective proclivities of men and women as classified in terms of the Greek notions suggest that men are more prone to ludicrous and erotic love and women to storge and pragmatic.

I grew up in a family that speaks Gujarati and a bit of Hindi and I studied Spanish in college. What always struck me is that there were numerous different words for love in Indian languages but only one in Spanish. Amor is the noun for love in Spanish, and amar is the verb form meaning “to love.” In Hindi, there are several nouns alone: pyaar, ishq, mohabaat, prem. Unlike in Greek, I’m pretty sure that in many instances these words are interchangeable, but I just feel like something as complex as love can’t be reduced to just one word.

The second passage I like is:

The reasons why any two people fall for each other and pair off, whether for the short or the long term, tend therefore to be for reasons that – whatever rationalization they gave to others – they do not themselves really understand, for they lie too deep for reasons.

So basically, this blog is pointless because we can never really understand love. Even people in love many times don’t really know why they are in love, despite all their attempts to give reason to what’s going on in their heads and their hearts. It’s just a feeling…. 🙂

Let’s Bring Back Love Letters!

Now, I don’t want to come across as “high maintenance” by sounding like I’m moaning about why people don’t seem to write love letters anymore or why it’s too much to ask that my significant other write me a love letter once in a while. Of course, he will quickly retort that it’s not as if I have written one to him, which is not true! I did write one to him….four years ago. I digress…

I don’t think technology is sole reason why people don’t write letters anymore, much less love letters, although let’s be honest, it is the dominant reason. I was browsing through “Top 10 Famous Love Letters” on Time.com doing research for this post, when it occurred to me that maybe all those great love-letter writers before our time are also to blame for why we don’t write them.

Forever defamed by one of the Sex and the City movies, here is a snippet of Beethoven’s letter to his “Immortal Beloved

“Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, Be calm–love me–today–yesterday–what tearful longings for you–you–you–my life–my all–farewell. Oh continue to love me–never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved. Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours.”

Even that warmonger Napoleon found time to pour his soul into a few lines of  romantic poesy.

“Since I left you, I have been constantly depressed. My happiness is to be near you. Incessantly I live over in my memory your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solicitude. The charms of the incomparable Josephine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart. When, free from all solicitude, all harassing care, shall I be able to pass all my time with you, having only to love you, and to think only of the happiness of so saying, and of proving it to you?

Let me be clear, it is not that I am simply lamenting at why people don’t write letters, but more so, I am lamenting that people in love are no longer inspired into action, which includes writing love letters, putting feelings into a tangible, concrete form. Last I checked, love is both a verb as well as noun describing a state of being. Where has all the action gone?

Maybe we have no good role models anymore. I mean let’s be honest, who among us can be as eloquent as Beethoven or Napoleon, and if we did manage the feat, we would surely be laughed at or worse, be accused of being insincere because our feelings appeared to be exaggerated.  I know that if my boyfriend said he had “tearful longings” for me, I would laugh at him. The words are beautiful when read, but are incredibly out-of-place in our 21st century existence.

So unless we accept the mediums of email and texts and “i luv u”–which I do refuse to accept–we need better modern role models for love letters that fit our culture and language. A good place to start with is Other People’s Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See.

New York

So let’s getting writing people! You can even start with a postcard if you want….I probably will….

Male & Female Erogenous Zones and the Science of Falling in Love

I’ve been trying to read A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon for, oh, about 6-7 months now. It focuses on the science of human emotions and biological psychiatry, and has received numerous favorable reviews. My main issue is that it’s just a bit too heavy on biological functions (neural pathways, neurotransmitters, frontal cortex and such) for me to fully enjoy during my daily commute, which is my main reading time. However I do enjoy it so I will get through it, slowly but surely.

In the meantime, I found a lovely little infographic that details the science of falling in love, so you don’t have to spend hours reading the first few chapters of the aforementioned book.

Ladies, did you know that eyelids and the forehead are erogenous zones for men? Unsurprisingly, women differ in that they prefer the scalp and lips. I completely believe that since I don’t know of a single woman who does not enjoy a head massage. The ears, neck, abs, feet and the back of the knees are all hot spots for both men and women. Abs? Really? Do they mean actual abs or the region of the body where your abs should technically be for those of us who might have an inch or five of food lovin’?

Also, anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that there is an initial “honeymoon” period of happiness, euphoria and excitement, and after a while, that phase ends as you settle into a long-term relationship. It’s usually during this transition that couples have their first significant arguments and question whether they want to be together. (Of course, the arguments and questioning continue to reoccur now and then in every relationship, both healthy and unhealthy.)

You can now blame something on the end of this honeymoon phase: nerve growth factor or NGF. Produced along with dopamine, which causes feelings of excitement and ecstasy, the amount of NGF in the body directly relates to the intensity of romantic feelings. NGF is more prevalent in people who are newly in love while those who are not in love or in long-term relationships have lower levels of it.

Here is the full infographic for you to peruse through for a step-by-step outline of what happens in your body when you fall in love (or conversely, what you experience and feel when your body is in love):

Love isn’t a possibility, but an overcoming of the impossible

I will stop my chapter by chapter break down of In Praise of Love and just get into how love is constructed according to Badiou, and more importantly, get into what is this crazy thing called love and how does it last.

There are two fundamental aspects of love that correspond to everyone’s experience of it.

    1. “Love contains an initial element that separates, dislocates and differentiates. You have Two. Love involves Two.”
    2. Love involves risk precisely because you going from one to Two.

What is love’s main rival? For most of us, it would be another person, someone else that competes with us for the affection and attention of the individual we love. That’s not quite the case, as Badiou explains:

Selfishness, not a rival, is love’s enemy. One could say: my love’s main enemy, the one I must defeat, is not the other, it is myself, the “myself” that prefers identity to difference, that prefers to impose its world against the world re-constructed through the filter of difference.

It turns out that you are your own worst enemy, your insecurities, your ego, you desire for perfection without appreciating the other as he or she is, your desire to keep barriers and maintain differences rather than seeing past them.

So once you have love, does it last forever? I haven’t seen a study on this, but I’d be willing to bet that everyone, or at the very least the female population, would jump at the chance to freeze love, to preserve that moment where you’ve both declared your love for each other and life seems blissful, and you want it to stay that blissful forever. Alas, it does not last. You have arguments. You get married and maybe lose the excitement you once had. You get caught up in the day to day routine and take the other for granted. And then…you get angry because it feels like you’ve lost the love you have before.

Love invents a different way of lasting in life. That everyone’s existence, when tested by love, confronts a new way of experiencing time.

But love has many shapes and forms. Just as all species have needed to adapt and evolve to survive, love needs to as well. It cannot be and it should not be the same a few months/years/decades later as it first was.

So I’ve left this to the very end, but what is this “love” that Badiou has gone on about and that I’ve detailed in about 3.5 blog posts?

– Love is above all a construction that lasts. We could say that love is a tenacious adventure. The adventurous side is necessary, but equally so is the need for tenacity. To give up at the first hurdle, the first serious disagreement, the first quarrel, is only to distort love. Real love is the one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.

– The process of love isn’t always peaceful. It can bring violent argument, genuine anguish and separations we may or may not overcome. We should recognize that it is one of the most painful experiences in the subjective life of an individual.

– Strictly speaking, love isn’t a possibility, but rather the overcoming of something that might appear to be impossible. Something exists that had no reason to, which was never offered to you as a possibility.

I feel vindicated in reading this version of love, and not just because it corresponds so neatly with my own romantic version of love. I think it’s refreshing for someone to describe the depth and passion of the state of love into such an eloquent and humbling manner that doesn’t downgrade love as cheesy or kitschy.

Above all, Badiou’s notion of love celebrates transforming the seemingly not possible into the possible. And that is quite celebratory. For two people to come together and create a bond from nothing and to continue to sustain that bond to make it into something is simply amazing.

Monkey and bear(awwwww…)