Lifelines

The truth about life and love.

Love

Most surprises that await us are likely to be bad news.

     It is in the nature of love that it eludes explanation. After all the attempts to rationalize it in terms of mutual need and shared interests, we still lack the ability to describe why two people feel themselves drawn to each other in a fashion that defies rationality but is, while it lasts, the most powerful force in the universe. In an attempt to explain the unexplainable people speak of "chemistry," that indefinable variable that separates friendship from love. Like all forms of experimentation with chemicals there is the risk of mistakes, which can sometimes be explosive. If what we are hoping for when we join our life to another's is an enduring commitment, statistics suggest we will be wrong more than half the time.
     What can we do to improve the chances that the attraction we feel when young will persist when the sex becomes routine and the flaws of our beloved have all been exposed? When our good looks have fled and when the dreams of our youth have dwindled, how can we keep our disappointment with ourselves from spilling over onto the person who has been witness to all of it, who is a constant reminder of the losses we have suffered, and who may have turned out to be less persistently enamored of us than we had hoped.
     The bond that appeared so romantic in the early stages of our relationship has changed into a kind of open-eyed realism that the longing we felt has been replaced by some combination of obligation and convenience that seems more like a contract for services than a promise of undying delight. Perhaps it is the sense that our future lacks anticipation, that most the surprises that await us are likely to be bad news.
     Am I being unduly cynical about marriage? Look around you at people who have managed to stay together for more than 20 years, whose children are grown and who now are confronted with 30 or 40 years with only each other. I read recently the obituary of a man who died at 76. Among his survivors was his wife of 55 years from whom he was divorced the year before he died. Did he complain too much about his final illness? Did she fall in love with someone else? Or did they do something they had been contemplating for decades but had kept putting off?
     And yet we all know of good marriages that have both endured and remained satisfying. The nature of the attraction may have changed, but what remains can legitimately be characterized as love and the ties that bind them together consist of a sense of shared fate that has endured through the pleasure and pain that the years together have contained. These are mature attachments that depend in equal parts on the character traits of both parties, especially kindness and loyalty. Were these values discernible when they first met? How were they astute enough to see in the other person this capacity for commitment? Perhaps they were just lucky.
     We stumble through life without the owner's manual that we should have been issued at birth. We try to learn what it is we need to do, how we should act, to get our physical and emotional needs met. We attempt to learn from our frequent and painful mistakes. We suffer the sting of rejection and loneliness. And through it all we try to discover whom to avoid and whom to cherish as if our very lives depended on it.
     We also struggle to a greater or lesser degree to make sense of our existence. I have listened to many people talk about the ways that their searches for happiness and meaning have gone awry. Most often, they have been trying to answer important existential questions having to do with why we are here and what it is we must do to meet our responsibilities, live honestly according to our best conception of the truth of our existence, and increase the ratio of pleasure to pain in our lives.
     This I have come to believe is the human condition: uncertain, confusing, often absurd, and full of anxiety in the face of an indifferent universe that can, and frequently does, crush our best hopes and dearest loves. Still we push on into a future we cannot imagine nor control, with nothing to guide us but some words we share with each other and a faith that we are not alone.

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Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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