I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Falling in love: an unpalatable truth

With time and experience most of us discover that even the most stable and enduring relationships have a dark underside. However, some relationships appear to be programmed from the start to reveal this uncomfortable reality.  In such cases, it often seems that the more passionate and intense the relationship, the greater the propensity for love’s shadow to emerge. This may be a union of hearts but it is rarely a meeting of minds.  At times heaven seems near but hell is always just around the corner and a fall from grace seems both imminent and unavoidable. There is an underlying sense that time is measured and an uneasy awareness that something dangerous lurks just beneath the surface: a self-destruct button, waiting to detonate given the right amount of pressure.

Of course, being in love and truly loving someone are different things. When we truly love another, we cherish and nurture their hopes, needs and dreams as we would our own. Such altruistic impulses are rarely associated with infatuation. Furthermore, we see the imperfections of the one we love but continue to love them anyway - in spite of or maybe even because of their flaws.

By contrast, falling in love is easy and requires no effort. You can fall in love just as easily as you can fall ill with flu and we often feel that we have little or no choice in the matter. Furthermore, the intense attraction we experience when we are infatuated with someone temporarily blinds us to reality. We have fallen victim to the love bug, whose symptoms include: elevated heart rate, inability to focus, obsessive thinking, mood swings (varying from rapture to deep despondency depending on how the object of our desire is responding to us) etc. On a purely chemical level, the physical symptoms associated with being in love are not dissimilar from the high a drug addict must feel after taking a hit of cocaine: an instant shot of euphoria which gradually wears off over time…. until the next dose is delivered. It is therefore hardly surprising that we are unable to see the object of our affections with any real clarity whilst in the grip of this turbulent emotional state.

Looked at objectively, it seems likely that this uncomfortable state of irrationality, to which all human beings fall prey, is nothing more than a devious strategy invented by Mother Nature to ensure that babies continue to be born. What else could explain the fact that sometimes two clearly unsuited and emotionally incompatible people get together?!  Unfortunately this cruel and crafty lady does not care about the wellbeing of the two people involved; her only concern is their biological compatibility.

In my experience, the unpalatable truth about falling in love is that you can fall in love with anyone, including someone you may not particularly like and whose values you don't share! And, for us poor perverse souls who see love as a challenge, the intensity of our feelings only grows stronger when the object of our desire is unattainable. Marcel Proust describes the disastrous consequences of this kind of ‘love delusion’ in his epic book Swann in Love. Needless to say, this kind of infatuation can lead to some spectacularly ill advised decisions and problematic partnerships.

The kind of rapturous, passionate love that I have so far described is very different in nature from the kind of love that nourishes and sustains us. There is a world of difference between the kind of love that allows us to grow and flourish, becoming better people for the experience, and a passion that both blinds and enslaves us. It is, in short, the difference between what the Greeks describe as Eros and Agape. While Eros is characterised by passion and obsession, Agape is more like the unconditional and selfless love a parent feels for a child; it is the kind of love that requires us to look beyond on own self-centred needs and it always requires patience, understanding, forgiveness, flexibility, and a willingness to extend ourselves.

Of course, most relationships would not come into being in the first place without the initial intensity of Eros but, unless the influence of the God of erotic love is tempered by the balancing and stabilising presence of Agape, the flames of passion can rage out of control leaving nothing in their wake but charred ashes and shattered dreams.