[Publisher’s note: On the cusp of 2008, a participant in a forum challenged us all to write a short essay on love. I took up the challenge and this is what I wrote. I’ve lightly edited it at least a few times over the years, but the thrust is largely identical to what I wrote nine years ago. Do I agree with all of this now? Not entirely, but I do believe much of it. Enjoy.]
Understanding love (of any sort, but particularly romantic love) first requires an understanding of intimacy, which I define as a relationship characterized by a profound and mutual knowledge of the other. Real intimacy is something that must be built up over time, during which the parties to a relationship need to interact fairly consistently, particularly throughout the significant changes and milestones that life brings. There is no shortcut to intimacy: “Chemistry,” “rapport,” or even the nebulous concept of the “soul-mate” are no substitutes for a shared history in vulnerability, conflict/resolved conflict, empathy, support, and trust.
Intimacy is by its very nature mutual, symbiotic, reciprocal, and shared. There is no such thing as “unrequited” intimacy, nor is intimacy particularly accidental or uncontrollable. For intimacy to exist, both parties must desire not only to fully know the other but to make themselves known as well. A desire to only know the other, without making oneself known is obsession, while a desire to only make oneself known should be considered narcissism. Intimacy is at odds with both of these states.
Love, on the other hand, is best defined as the desire for intimacy with the other, which means that love is not dependent on reciprocity, trust, or even good sense. Our desires are not entirely voluntary, and as such, we can love (or worse yet, “fall in love” with) those who are unable or unwilling to know us and be known in return. Furthermore, desires can be fickle and are significantly affected by circumstances that can hinder, or encourage, their development. The end of love is characterized by a lack of desire for intimacy. One no longer seeks to truly know the other, nor does one strive to make oneself known. Eventually, intimacy disappears, along with love, thus bringing stagnation to (and possibly the end of) a relationship.
All this is not to undermine the importance of love. Love is clearly one of the most powerful forces that we know. Love as a desire, can itself be unstable, but its overwhelming power forges some of the most stable relationships. The love that a parent has for his/her child is that which keeps the exhausted parent from tossing a squalling newborn out the window. Likewise, it encourages new couples to overlook minor (and sometimes) major differences early on in their relationship, so that a allowing the solidification of a relationship. Love encourages friends, who have no legal or familial obligation to each other, to build strong relationships and support networks.
Love is that force, that power, which enables the development of a truly intimate relationship. Love does not define a relationship, nor is it the relationship itself. When we remember that it is a desire, nothing more, nothing less, we are better able to understand, channel, master and use it, rather than being dominated by it to no good end.