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Learning from the First Lovers

A Q&A with author Bruce Feiler

Penguin Random House, used with permission.
Source: Penguin Random House, used with permission.

Prior to The First Love Story (out today!), you published several books that link biblical stories to the present day. Can you share a bit about what prompted you to write this one in particular?
The conversation around my kitchen table! I have a working wife and adolescent daughters. And like everyone else, I’m just terribly confused about what are the rules for how men and women relate to each other these days. A lot of the writing about this focuses on the latest research or app. But like many, I can’t help wondering whether there’s any wisdom from the past worth preserving.
Then, a few years ago, we were on a trip to Rome and I had the brilliant idea to take my sleep-deprived daughters to the Vatican. It didn’t go well. We made it to the Sistine Chapel, and one of my girls glanced at Adam and God and said, “Why are there only men?” Then her sister said, “Is that Eve under God’s arm?” 
And that’s when it hit me. Since antiquity, Adam and Eve have stood at the center of every conversation about men, women, and sexuality. Yet instead of celebrating them, history has blamed them for bringing sin, lust, even death into the world. It’s the greatest character assassination ever. My question was, What can history’s first couple teach us about relationships today? 
What do contemporary couples lack that a knowledge of Adam and Eve’s narrative can foreground or restore?
This story has been the primary weapon keeping women down for the last 3,000 years. But that reading is simply wrong! Adam and Eve are formed in complete equality, and have a relationship that is remarkably contemporary in its back and forth of power, leadership, and care. Re-equalizing their partnership is incredibly important. 
What we lack, I believe, is an appreciation that the foundational story in Western civilization is one of love, not sin. It’s the story of two people, each of whom affirmatively chooses, forgives, and depends on the other. Today, when relationships have become commodities and our lives are filled with hookups and breakups, it’s critical that we have positive role models at the bedrock of our culture.

Shutterstock/Everett Historical
Source: Shutterstock/Everett Historical

You have an interest in the idea of twinning and independence vs. interdependence. Please share some advice you learned from Adam and Eve on maintaining individual identity within a profoundly enmeshed relationship.
A pillar of modern psychology is that being emotionally healthy requires a high-degree of self-directedness. Sure enough, this is a major theme of Adam and Eve. Edward Deci, of the University of Rochester and the founder of this line of thinking, indulged me in a close reading of the story. Adam and Eve are originally crazy for each other. Eve is “the one,” Adam enthuses. But Eve craves independence, wanders off and eats the fruit. Since the text says she gains knowledge with this act, Deci thinks she’s seeking more meaning. “For Eve, eating the fruit appears to be an autonomous choice.” The same applies to Adam, who when given the option to eat, chooses companionship over duty. “He makes the autonomous decision to be with Eve,” Deci told me. 
To me the lesson here is that we can’t be interdependent with our partners if we each don’t feel independent. I think of the Kahlil Gibran quote, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you.” Love is the answer to loneliness, as long as there is aloneness within it.

Related to above, can you say more about the idea of seeking in a partner that which is missing in ourselves? 
This is one of the central ideas of love – that each of us carries a lost other half around within us – and it was introduced by Adam and Eve. In Genesis 1, God creates a single, un-gendered human in his image, then divides it in two. Early religious leaders all believed this creature was a hermaphrodite, which is fascinating given all the talk of gender beyond the binary today.
More important: This is the first representation of the idea that we all yearn to be whole by reuniting with our lost selves. In Rumi’s words, “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere / They’re in each other all along.” In Jerry Maguire’s, “You complete me.” 
What is the most surprising idea about relationships that you discovered in researching this book? 
That’s easy: Love is a story we tell with another person. It’s co-creation through co-narration. I had never seen it so clearly before working on Adam and Eve. Piaget coined the phrase “collective monologue” to describe how preschoolers play, meaning they gather together but talk only to themselves. Love is the opposite of this. It’s “collective dialogue.” 
I talked to specialists in resilience, in mending breaches, in getting over the loss of a child (which Adam and Eve experience) and they all taught me the same thing: At each turn or setback in a relationship, the most successful partners write a new chapter in their shared story. Because the biblical story and one god and two people at the start of the human line, Adam and Eve must figure this out for themselves. Theirs is the first joint byline, and we’re all still doing the same.

Penguin Random House, used with permission
Source: Penguin Random House, used with permission

What would you like to see happen for contemporary couples as a result of this book? 
I interviewed a lot of people who work closely with couples and heard the same thing over and over: They’re constantly looking for new ideas, positive examples, “homework” if you will, they can give to individuals and couples that will open up new avenues for conversation and growth. They were eager for Adam and Eve to play that role, and for my book to help catalyze a conversation.
So I reached out to Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson of The Couples Institute in California, and the three of us spent months putting together a discussion guide. It’s called “Return to Eden: The Adam and Eve Guide to Improving Your Relationship” and contains four, curated sessions that can be done individually or in groups. Our goal is allow people to take the ideas in THE FIRST LOVE STORY and help people use them to strengthen and deepen their relationships. 
If nothing else, it reinforces the central idea of my work: If you want to improve your own romantic life or just learn more about love, come on this journey. I think you’ll be surprised, learn something, but ultimately be uplifted, because if Adam and Eve can succeed, we all can. They are the role models we need.