Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Two Ways of Life; Two Ways of Love

The difference between true romance & true love in yourself and your partnership

1. Romance

Life is stressful, challenges to our self-esteem around every corner, threatening to weaken our confidence that we are good people already, well on the way to the ideals we aspire to. 

So you deflect the threats, hold on to that vision of yourself as good—exceptionally extraordinarily good, unusually kind honest and upright. When challenged you counter and dispel them by any means possible lest they infect your system. Hold firm to your ideals and your sense that you’re reaching them. By identifying with your ideals you prove to yourself and others that you are on the side of good. And if they aren’t convinced, they’re wrong.

When people suggest that you might have some of the negative traits common in others, be indignant. Defend yourself. Shame them for accusing you of such traits. Don’t give an inch on the slippery slope to self-doubt and despair. Be ever-vigilant because people will try to attack you, always for their own malevolent reasons.

It doesn’t matter how you defend yourself, since yours is the cause of righteousness. You can accuse your critics of just trying to win, being too blunt, not using the right words, being too picky, trying to control you, making a mountain out of a molehill, misinterpreting you, having a hidden agenda, bullying you, nagging, complaining, whining, not accepting you--whatever stops them from challenging you. 

Turn the tables on them. Accuse them of whatever they accuse you of. And if they say you’re being defensive, deny it. If they persist, accuse them of having provoked your defensiveness. 

At all costs remember you are good, and anyone who doubts your wholesome motives is wrong. You are a victim of their vicious attacks.

Whatever you do, don’t let their feedback settle on you even for a second. Brush it off swiftly like and ember that alights upon your skin. If you sit with their challenge, it will burn and bore its way into you. It will kill you, crush your spirit. Keep up appearances of receptivity since it’s a virtue you claim for yourself.  Say a brisk, “I hear you, but…” and change the subject to any and every reason you don’t have to listen to them.

In a word, hold on to a romantic vision of yourself. And seek romance in your relationships too.  Fall in love only with those who see you as exceptionally good.  Form a pact of co-dependency, a mutual admiration society, romancing each other forever.  Define love as such romantic devotion. Call all departures from such devotion “unloving” to keep your partner in line.  Only fall for someone who holds that promise of idealizing you forever. 

Then live together as wise people in a world of fools, the two of you always right, no matter what. If you bring home a story about people who challenged you, your romantic partner must automatically be on your side against them. Your challengers were clearly in the wrong; you were clearly in the right.

Most romantic relationships start with that kind of mutual admiration and flattery. You though, must hold a high standard for sustaining it. If it turns out your partner can’t hold up his or her part of the bargain, a partner who can’t regard your self-esteem as sacred, beware. You are in a risky situation. Your partner is a turncoat, disloyal to your mutual pact and here you’ve brought him or her in too close.

Tell your partner you expected one who knew how to be true. Condemn him or her and get out of there quickly. Your standard for relationship is high. You want true romance, a partner who sides with you always through thick and thin, no matter what. 

Go out and try again. Find someone who really believes in you, not just that you can change but that you’re already practically perfect. Without that, how can it be real romance?  You need a partner who flatters, and shows true devotion always. None of this stuff about the honeymoon period passing. True romance sustains the honeymoon forever. It’s the two of you aligned forever around your high sense of yourself, or not at all.

2. Realism

Life is stressful, challenges to our self-esteem around every corner threatening to weaken our confidence that we are good people already, well on the way to the ideals we aspire to.

You’ve experienced a lot of these threats and little by little have gotten used to them. It hasn’t been easy.  Your identity crises have sometimes been terrifying and paralyzing. Still you’ve gotten through them, though not unscathed. You’ve been changed by feedback. Sometimes a lot; mostly in incremental ways, since you have your limits. You admit that you change slowly if at all. 

By now you know in your gut the virtue of receptivity to such challenges, not merely to extol the virtue of receptivity in principle. Sure, the challenges to your sense of self are sometimes unfounded, sometimes motivated by other people’s attempts to put you down, but not always. Often there’s a grain of truth in them or more. You’ve grown alittle through hearing them.  More importantly, through repetition you’ve grown somewhat inured to them. By now, you know the failings of humankind by introspection.  You know you are not exceptional, that whatever other people do, you do too. 

By now, you can call yourself a buffoon, pompous, a jerk, a fool, without flinching,  your pulse increasing, you looking for someone to correct you. You can sit with the prospect that you too do that stuff you laugh at in others. 

When looking at the folly in others, you no longer say “There but for the grace of God go I.” Now you say, “There go I” in that you too have the tendencies others have.

As a result when people call you on stuff, it’s not the first time you’ve heard it. It doesn’t scare you like it used to, and therefore you can consider their opinions with a calm you didn’t always have, a calm that keeps you from being tipped by it either into demeaning “you got me” surrender to their accusation, or into flailing self-romancing self-defense. You know your inner-weasel.  You’re plenty familiar with it and don’t assume there’s any way to exterminate it.

Embracing your shadow doesn’t mean you accept your folly—you’re still working on curbing your tendencies to be petty, manipulative, unfair, defensive, stubborn, egotistical and all the other things people can be. But you’re no longer scared by evidence that you might be expressing such human flaws. You embrace your faults as the human condition, to which you are no exception. You have gained an easy fluency in self-deprecating honesty and humor.  Reluctantly, slowly, you’ve joined the human race.

Like everyone, in partnership you relish the romantic honeymoon. It’s nice to bask in a lover’s deep appreciation for the saint they take you, at first to be.  Still, you don’t let it go to your head--neither praise nor blame has much power to sway you off your imperfect center these days.  You know that the honeymoon doesn’t last forever, that sooner or later you both will have sampled enough of each other to know the fleas with the dog. 

So yes, you fall in love at first, leaning into visions of the idealized other. Such mutual idealization is the flux that in the heat of love enables you to solder, heart to heart to each other, the lies that bind.

But you know the flux passes, and don’t hold out for it lasting. You don’t take offense when your partner sees you sooner or later as his or her chosen conflicted primate, one from among us. Little by little you right yourself, no longer fallen in love, but now standing in it, two imperfect people in it for the long and sometimes messy haul. 

When push comes to shove as it always inevitably does in relationship, you stick with it. You let go of that honeymoon phase of constant praise and adoration, and enter the sustainable phase, honesty seasoned with occasional heartfelt mutual praise.

Your partner’s chidings aren’t signs that you’ve veered off course or chosen wrong. Even during the honeymoon you had your eye on the prize, lasting intimacy with one who knows you, warts and all.  And you’re prepared for it because you haven’t strained against credibility to maintain your pristinely romantic self-image.

You like yourself plenty. You’re good enough for a human. And you make a study of the full inventory of human traits, the bad with the good, the inventory that is in us all and can’t be escaped, only muted. 

This is true love, not true romance, which cannot last. You concede that neither you nor anyone else can sustain a romantic vision of you forever without intolerable cost to credibility. To ask others to romance you is to try their patience, to beg them to dismantle their BS detector as you would have to yourself to believe in your romanticized self. 

Inured to your flaws you’re easier to love, more receptive when your intimate partner challenges you on things. You may still flinch a little, say a huffy “how dare you insinuate that I’m at fault?” But it doesn’t last. Within minutes you’re able to let that burning ember of alights upon your thickened skin, calloused by years of healthy practice chaffing against news that you are far from ideal.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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