Establishing Love With an Imperfect Partner
The meaningful nature of romantic love.
Posted Sep 26, 2017
“Love doesn't need to be perfect. It just needs to be true.” —Unknown
“If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
The prevailing ideal of perfect love is a major obstacle to establishing enduring, profound love.
In his excellent book, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World (2017), Iddo Landau harshly criticizes the perfectionist presupposition that meaningful lives must include some perfection or excellence or some rare and difficult achievements, as well as the idea that lives that do not include this characteristic cannot be seen as meaningful. In this view, meaningful lives must transcend the common and the mundane. Landau persuasively argues that what marks perfectionists is that they fail to see the worth inherent in the non-perfect; they despise and reject it. Perfectionists are so busy searching for the perfect that they neglect to see and find satisfaction in the good. Landau concludes that the perfectionist view should be rejected in all spheres of life.
I believe that Landau is correct; in what follows, I implement a few of his insights to the issue of loving an imperfect person
Finding Meaning in an Imperfect Lover
“We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.” —Sam Keen
Landau points out the similarity between meaningful life and meaningful love. He notes that the romantic ideology assumes that the only acceptable love is the perfect one (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008). People who commit themselves to nothing less than this impossible ideal fail to recognize the significant value in normal, realistic love, with its inevitable ups and downs.
Certainly, it is not difficult or problematic to recognize that your partner is imperfect. Since we are all aware that no one is perfect, the fact that one imperfect person is in a romantic relationship with another imperfect person is to be expected. Many people even view their partners' imperfections with compassion and amusement, and consider them negligible compared with the partner’s profound virtues and their own flaws.
A constant active search for the perfect partner is a major threat to achieving long-term profound love. Since life is dynamic and people regularly change their attitudes and wishes, achieving profound love is not a one‑time accomplishment, but an ongoing process.
The Focus of a Meaningful Attitude
"Millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view — because I only have eyes for you." —A song for the movie Dames (1934)
Landau refers to a prevailing view of meaning, which assumes that if we consider our lives from an objective, wider perspective, they seem to lack meaning, since every life can have only a negligible effect on the universe. On some level, we are all aware that in the long run, if we had never lived, nothing much would have changed for the world at large. Though Landau does not deny the meaningful nature of the narrower, subjective perspective, he claims that the broader perspective can also be meaningful.
While I agree with Landau, in the case of romantic love, it is the unique, subjective perspective that is much more meaningful and romantically valuable than the broader, objective perspective. Romantic love, which is based merely on the overall objective qualities of the partner, can easily lose its romantic value, as there is always someone who has greater objective value. As Naomi, a widow in her early fifties, says, "I must accept that there always will be a woman who is younger, smarter, and more beautiful than I am. Losing a boyfriend or not getting the one I want is inevitable." However, when the romantic value refers to the value of the person as a partner, the value becomes more subjective in that it applies not just to the partner, but to the connection between the two. Here, the comparison with other prospective romantic partners is harder to make, since these people have not yet made a meaningful connection with the subject, and hence their value as a partner is unknown and often distorted.
In the broader perspective — that is, when taking into account all possible romantic partners — a given person is of little unique value, as there are so many others who might replace her or him. In the narrower perspective, when the value refers to the lover’s unique connection with the beloved, the beloved acquires a unique romantic value. The lover hardly needs a comprehensive perspective on the world in order to be satisfied with his or her beloved — it can be merely “just the two of us.” Although this ideal is basically correct, I would not reject the value of the broader perspective entirely. The lines from the song quoted above about having eyes only for you express indeed a great romantic ideal, but the loving heart is typically not completely blind.
Aspiring to the Better, Rather Than the Best
“Blow me a kiss from across the room...Touch my hair as you pass my chair, little things mean a lot.” —Kallen Kitty
Landau distinguishes between a meaningful attitude toward life that is based upon (a) aspiring for improvement, and (b) aspiring to be the best. He praises the first, which is associated with meaningful development, and criticizes the second, which is often associated with over-competitiveness and an endless, futile search for the best.
The same holds for love. Being romantically meaningful in the first sense mainly depends on the two lovers. In the second sense, it depends on external factors that have nothing to do with the connection between the partners; accordingly, the romantic value of this attitude is less meaningful and less stable.
Improving the connection between the two lovers, rather than finding the perfect lover, is the most meaningful task of romantic profundity. If our romantic aspiration mainly concerns the best, lovers will always be restless, constantly worrying about whether they might miss the perfect person, or perhaps the younger, richer, or more beautiful one. Landau’s criticism of making the perfect and the best the basis of a meaningful life relates to his emphasis on the importance of the ordinary as a source for such meaningfulness. Meaningfulness in life is not necessarily the objective overall value of the person, but rather the subjective improvement in her or his life.
The same holds for love. If the emphasis is on the ongoing connection, the role of the ordinary — the little things in everyday interactions — is of greater significance. When evaluating the partner is not comparative and competitive, love is more likely to be achieved and maintained for a long time. In these circumstances, we can speak about deeper love, but hardly about superior love.
Should We Work at Our Love?
“No relationship is perfect. You just have to know in your heart that the person you are with is truly worth fighting for, no matter what.” —Unknown
Landau properly notes that not everyone has to work equally hard in order to have a meaningful life. There are better and worse starting points, and a lucky minority that does not have to put in any conscious effort at all. Most people, however, have to invest at least some conscious effort in order to increase or maintain the meaning in their lives.
Similar claims are adequate concerning romantic love. While almost everyone should “work” on his or her love, not everyone has to work equally hard to maintain profound love. Further, working too hard sometimes does not work (Kipnis, 2003). If love seems like work, you are clearly not in the right workplace.
Today, many types of work are fulfilling and have an intrinsic value; hence, they can hardly be considered to be "work" in the traditional sense of being unpleasant, instrumental chores, such as cleaning the house or paying bills. We certainly do not want to make love to that kind of unpleasant work. However, not all romantic relationships start with love at first sight, and meaningful — and often, but not always, enjoyable — work is required.
“We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.” —Tom Robbins
People often search for the perfect partner by focusing on the qualities of a perfect person. The major flaw in such a search is that it fails to take account of the type of connection between the would-be couple, as well as the imperfect nature of each of them. The ideal partner does not constitute the perfect union of which you have dreamed; you are not soul mates who were always meant for each other. Rather, the ideal partner is someone who is compatible with you, who resonates with you, and is ready to invest a lot in developing and maintaining your mutual profound love. You cannot pretend that every frog will turn into the perfect prince, but you can be more generous in evaluating the positive aspects of your partner. In any case, an imperfect lover does not necessarily imply an imperfect (or at least non-profound) love.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.
Landau, I. (2017). Finding meaning in an imperfect world. Oxford University Press.
Kipnis, L. (2003). Against love: A polemic. Pantheon.