How Big Is Your Love?

What we most deeply want is to know that we won’t be abandoned.

Posted Jun 22, 2016

Recently, The Atlantic published an article about the state of relationships in America. It rounds up somewhat confusing data suggesting that Americans are becoming more traditional in some ways and less so in others.

The article cites a 10-year comparison of surveys by the online dating site OkCupid, whose 12 million current users have a median age of 29. The results show a dramatic drop in willingness to sleep with someone on the first date: 69% said they would in 2005, but only 50% said they would in 2015. On the other hand, the percentage who said they would consider having a friendship based primarily on sex, with no intentions for love, romance, or long-term commitment, jumped from 50% in 2005 to 61% in 2015.

The statistic that’s hardest to believe originally appeared in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. It compares the average number of lifetime sexual partners across generations. Americans born in the 1950s will have sex with 12 people on average during their lifetimes, the study says, while Millennials will average only eight partners. Among other perplexities, it’s not clear to me how this figure could be known already.

Be that as it may, the statistic that’s perhaps the most interesting concerns the relationship between sex and love. When OkCupid asked respondents whether sex or love was more interesting to them at the moment, 75% of them said love — both in 2005 and in 2015. The overwhelming preference for love over sex remains unchanged.

With this preference in mind, advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, in a posting on the New York Magazine blog “The Cut,” describes how committed relationships manage the transition from sex-obsessed romance to something more profound. In the early years of a relationship, she says, what we call romance is a thinly disguised search for proof. She says, “Our dumb culture tricks us into believing that romance is the suspense of not knowing whether someone loves you or not yet, the suspense of wanting to have sex but not being able to yet, the suspense of wanting all problems and puzzles to be solved by one person, without knowing if they have any time or affinity for your particular puzzles yet.” 

In a good relationship, Havrilesky goes on to say, the search for proof eventually comes to an end. She says, “After a decade of marriage, if things go well, you don’t need any more proof. What you have instead—and what I would argue is the most deeply romantic thing of all—is this palpable, reassuring sense that it’s okay to be a human being. Because until you feel absolutely sure that you won’t eventually be abandoned, it’s maybe not 100 percent clear that any other human mortal can tolerate another human mortal.” 

On these terms, enduring love is nothing more—and nothing less—than a durable commitment not to abandon someone. To be sure, some relationships need to be abandoned, especially if emotional or physical exploitation or abuse is present. But if the relationship is reciprocal and mutually beneficial, then love signals the willingness to be present with the other person, no matter what. As Shakespeare says in sonnet 116, love is “an ever-fixed mark / that looks on tempests and is never shaken.”

Because constancy of this kind typically eludes human beings, love has often been described down through the ages as a divine quality. In its ultimate form, love is a commitment to be attentively present always and everywhere—not just to human beings, but to all beings and, indeed, to everything whatsoever.

As a means of encouraging us to expand the scope of our attention, the 20th-century philosopher Bernard Loomer liked to pose the following question: “What is the size of your soul?” Does your soul have the ability to stretch and grow, to take in whatever astonishments come your way, along with whatever contradictions enter your experience?

When Loomer spoke about soul size, he typically wrote the word S-I-Z-E with capital letters and dashes in between to emphasize its importance. He explained S-I-Z-E in the following way:

By “S-I-Z-E” I mean the stature of a person’s soul, the range and depth of your love, your capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive and insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature.

Love is a commitment to expand the size of our souls to include everyone and everything. It is a commitment to be attentively present always and everywhere. In its ultimate form, love is divine—the commitment to open ourselves to all that is present in our lives and our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible.