How does one write about something so intricate, so immensely intimate and seemingly irrational and fleeting as love without the risk of sounding pathetic? Simple answer: you do not. Better accept it right from the start.
I wanted to write an in-depth view about this topic for quite a while now, alas I lacked the proper inspiration on how to start it. I still have not found it, but at least I was motivated enough to begin writing, which is usually the better way of doing things anyway.
Note of warning in advance: this time there is a lot more personal stuff packed into the essay and not only clear cut, hard-boiled, alpha-as-fuck philosophy. As I said: you cannot avoid the pathos.
Whenever I start thinking about the concept of love and what it entails, I experience a slight flashback to my years in school. I think, I was in 8th grade or so and our ethics teacher started talking about this big mystery called love. He asked us on how we would define it and a couple of answers, including mine, later, he triumphantly told us what fools we were for even assuming we could ever define love.
What a smartass. His whole reasoning was along the lines of “Countless people before you guys have tried and didn’t find a conclusive answer, so you won’t either, since all of it is too subjective anyway. Me very smart, duh.”
Ok, he didn’t say the last part but made sure to make it sound as he implied it. Between then and now lies more than a decade of new experiences, many errors but also some successes, I was able to live through. Interestingly, my general stand on how I perceive this topic has not changed much. Which is a rarity among my points of views regarding most aspects of life. One could either say I simply stagnated or, the way I preferably put it, that I found a very useful idea as a fundamental principle and then used the next years to refine it step by step.
A Brief History of Love
Of my love, to be precise. But before I dive deeper into that rabbit hole, we need to lay some groundwork first. Remember my ethics teacher? I thought back then and still do think he was full of shit. Of course, you can define love. The individual experience might vary but the fundamental rules apply to pretty much everyone affected.
What people call love consists of two intertwined parts: an intense craving for physical intimacy with another being or object combined with the need for a deep emotional connection as well. For some people, mainly asexual ones, the first part does only matter to some degree, but we can still accept these two factors as the primary driving forces behind the experience people call love.
Before someone starts to write an essay about which important parts I might have missed in this definition and constantly asks “But what about intellect or shared experiences and time or an understanding for each other’s needs or yadayada?” – let me tell you this: you are probably right. About all of it, but you completely missed the point. My definition served a single purpose: to be as concise as possible and to provide the option of deriving almost every connected subjective experience from it. Deep emotional connections usually don’t build themselves by never sharing the same experiences or at least some common believes about the world around us and the different ideas we encounter. If I wanted to write a list of every possible variable which might contribute to someone’s idea of what love entails, I could quit my jobs, start writing 24/7 and would not be finished, even if my immortal soul reincarnated for ten generations straight, in order to keep that project going. I can think of better uses for my and your time.
Enough of the foreplay, back to storytelling.
I was, by all accounts, a late bloomer among my peers. In school, I was always that weird guy, who didn’t really fit in with most of the other people. I didn’t party with my classmates but mostly had friends a couple of years older than me, I couldn’t care less about their personal dramas and messed up relationships. Instead, I used my spare time to read, write and play video games. I was the poster boy of socially awkward. Too noisy and loud in class, the teachers despised me, most of my classmates decided I was to weird for them and after getting bullied for several years I accepted my role of being the outcast.
By the time I turned eighteen, a time in which most of my peers were already in their first or seventh relationship, I had never even kissed a girl, yet alone came close of being in a serious relationship.
But things were about to change. Drastically.
It started without any intentions. We met each other on a social media platform designed for young people who could share news, write articles and discuss ideas. Eventually we realized we had a lot in common with each other and started to write via DMs. But not the usual “hey, what’s up?” stuff. We shared countless pages of hundreds, sometimes even thousands of words about ourselves, our fucked up lives, our ideas and dreams. If there ever was a time, I would have believed that I found my soulmate, this would be it. None of us had ever experienced anything like that before. Being able to understand the other person on such a deep level, knowing about each other’s pain and finding words of consolidation without having met even once. I was sure, I finally found the one.
A couple of months after we started writing, we set up a meeting. The moment of truth, so to speak. For me, it was clear: we understood each other so well, we felt such an intense connection, there was nothing in the world which could prevent us from ending up together. Being so young and naïve can be a blessing – but also a cruel curse. We met, we talked a lot, cuddled together in the bed of the hostel we met in and eventually we kissed. It was the happiest moment of my life up to this point. It lasted only a few moments.
She began to cry and told me we cannot be together, I tried to calm her, tried to understand what was happening and after a while she told me the reason. Something I am not at liberty to discuss openly without her consent and which I still respect.
I cried a lot on this weekend. More than ever before. I tried to make sense of what just happened, of how quickly all my hopes and dreams just evaporated into thin air.
It took me about six years until I finally came to terms with what happened between us and that sometimes even the brightest dreams are nothing more but shining dust inside our clouded minds.
Does this experience qualify as love? Based on the aforementioned definition I would argue yes, but over the years I was told many times that I simply had a “crush” on that girl and “true love™” is only a result of long and committed relationships between two people. As if there was some magical button which would be switched after a certain amount of time, transforming that boring “crush” into the utopian sphere of “true love™”.
In my understanding, this kind of distinction is nothing but artificial. People are drawn to each other for the stated reasons, the intensity and duration might vary but does that make the experience any less real or true for the people involved? Why can’t an intense but short-lived connection based on emotional and physical intimacy not be declared as an interaction defined by love? Does the word get somehow diminished, if we include a broader description outside of a monogamous romantic relationship in the way Hollywood presents it to us? We will dive deeper in this idea at a later point, but first there is another story to tell.
A couple of years later, still in the wake of struggling with the trauma of the above-described experience, I encountered someone else. It was even less planned than before.
By that time, I was already miles away from that young, inexperienced and shy schoolboy (and I still had a very wild time ahead of me) I once were. After I started studying, I needed money and as many other young adults I wanted to work as a bartender. The coolest guys at all the places to be, obviously.
One day, I was asked by a friend if I wanted to be the bartender at his birthday and naturally, I said yes. The atmosphere was great, the people nice and I was having a blast. Until one of the many mood swings I was blessed with those days, hit me hard. I told my friend how I felt, and he just took me by his hand and dragged me into the kitchen where his girlfriend and a couple of other people were standing around and talking. He told everyone except her to leave. We all three talked a lot about how and why I felt the way I did (it should take me another couple of years to uncover the psychopathological reasons for my experiences) until he left the room, and I was left with her. Not long after she hugged and started to kiss me and naturally, I just went with it. I already knew they were in an open relationship, but I never experienced this way of romantic interaction as uncomplicated as in this moment. It just felt…pure. Genuine. She saw how much I was suffering; she felt my pain and she instinctively knew how to take at least some of that pain away. It is probably part of the irony of my life that I found out years later, that she was suffering from a borderline personality disorder as much as I had, which made our initial understanding so much more explainable. Mutual experiences attract each other.
After that night we saw each other on a few different occasions but eventually we lost sight of each other for about two years until I contacted her again. What followed were a couple of years full of exciting experiences shared, including vacations, parties, movie nights, long talks and walks and so on. Sounds pretty much like what most people would define as a traditional romantic relationship, right?
But although we were always emotionally and physically close to each other, we never labelled it as such and neither of us would feel comfortable, if we did. Still, we are both among the most important people in each other’s lives.
Does this interaction qualify as love? My answer should be pretty obvious at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised, if a lot of people are sceptical. Because, obviously, this kind of relationship isn’t built to last, especially since there is no option for children. Maybe that is true.
But maybe, just maybe, there are different ways of facilitating and maintaining various forms of relationships between people without constantly invoking the First Law of True Love™.
Maybe love is not so much what we think it should be but what we make of it.
Desire In a Web of Lies
Before we can explore the last thought a bit deeper, we have to take one last dive into the dark shadows of my past.
I said earlier that my life would change a lot after the initial traumatic experience. And it did. Believe it or not, I was not always this kind, caring and genuinely optimistic basket of sunshine and rainbows you encounter through these words. There were darker times. Much, much darker.
For many years I tried desperately to find ways of numbing my pain. I tried different paths of coping with the desperation I felt and the complete lack of hope for ever experiencing something comparable again. Eventually, I succumbed to a part of my character which was always there, lingering, but rarely had the opportunity to present itself to the world. I started playing chess with other people’s feeling.
What might sound like a cheesy statement from a badly written villain is simply an accurate description on how it felt for me. I became an expert in analysing and exploiting the feelings and weaknesses of women I wanted to get close to. In most cases I knew exactly what to say and how to behave to get what I wanted.
I was always there. The good listener, the insightful friend, the guy who was able to make you forget life’s many responsibilities and just dive deep into the rush of another night. Or the lost boy who experienced so much pain and trauma but fought daily to overcome it. Who even told you, how broken and fucked up he was, honouring you with his pure honesty. Maybe he was able to be saved? Maybe you could be the one to turn it all around and show him that life had more to offer than endless disappointments and pain? No, you couldn’t. If this thought crept into your mind, it was already too late and you were stuck in a carefully woven net full of deceptions, half-truths and lies. It’s only reason for existing was to lure you into a false sense of security until I got what I wanted.
My ability to craft these webs was so extensive, I was even able to make myself believe some parts of it. Which made the whole deception even more convincing. But in the back of my mind, I always knew it was only a con, there was nothing genuine about this kind of relationship. Nothing pure, yet alone honourable truths or even love.
In my eyes, they were nothing as prey and as soon as they served their purpose and I realized once more, that they too can’t help me to end my pain, I tossed them away. Told them they simply did not interest me anymore and I had better things to do with my time. Or that I suddenly felt disconnected to them and couldn’t re-establish said connection. Whatever fit the circumstances. That there never even was a connection in the first place – who cares. I certainly did not.
I engaged and slept with women who were in committed relationships, who even wanted to tell their significant other about me – either to break up or find some other solution to make it work. Just to wake up one day and find out that I was already gone and had left nothing but ashes.
With others I sensed their weakness, could understand their past traumas, provided an atmosphere of acceptance and that only mattered what they needed in this very moment. I was an artist and my instrument consisted of the whole range of human emotions. But barely anyone mattered during this time.
I did not care at all. Other people were simply a means to an end. They existed only to serve my pleasure and as my distraction. To feed my endless hunger and desire to finally feel something else than constant pain or emptiness. If you read my essay on cynicism and meta-ethics, maybe you understand now, when I wrote that I need to start from the depths of human depravity in order to make it work. I know what I was talking about. I have been there. Many, many times for several years. Valuing other people’s lives without abusing them can only work, if there is a system of ethical rules in place which provides guidance even in your most fucked up times.
But you don’t have to look so deep into the abyss that you find people like my past self, looking back at you.
People lie all the time. Most importantly, they constantly lie to their partners. Be it by using small, so-called “white lies” to spare them from embarrassment or trying to prevent pain. Or hiding bigger secrets like affairs, another family or a double life as a buffed-up crime fighter dressed in a bat suit.
Lies are a fundamental part of human nature. They are the social fabric which ensures the survival of human societies. A world in which all people tell the truth all the time? An impossible idea. Civilisation as we know it would crumble to its knees and vomit blood until it ceased to exist. Which makes the ideal of honesty in private relationships even more ironic. And myself an idealistic hypocrite at the same time.
If you asked any number of random people, most of them will quite likely tell you, that they value honesty in their personal interaction quite highly, especially in committed relationships. I am willing to bet on a significant discrepancy between idea and reality. Otherwise, we all would eventually meet another person who aligns with us quite nicely and stay together until death does part us.
The soaring rates of divorces, affairs, murders and abuses as a reaction to infidelity create a shining beacon which proves the proudly proclaimed commitment towards honesty nothing but self-deception and outright lies. I am not doubting that most people really want to stay truthful to their partners but eventually live catches up with them and they will find themselves in situations in which dishonesty is the easier and less painful way out. At least at first glance and maybe sometimes even altogether.
We all act upon our desires.
Not all the time, of course, but often enough to know that our rationale is not as absolute as we would like to think. It often starts harmless. A few friendly words, an easy flirt, nothing serious. One, two nights out together with a group of friends. Suddenly you find yourself alone together in a dark corner of a popular bar or nightclub. The music penetrates your brain and alcohol courses through your veins. A slight touch of your fingers, the everchanging light of the club illuminates both of your faces for a short moment before everything turns to black again. You can feel your fingers on your faces, on your lips. None of you is capable of creating a clear thought, you just flow with the moment. Eyes closed, your lips find each other, the heat of the moment, the unknown and forbidden flushes your bodies with adrenaline. You take each other’s hands, run into the night and the rest is history.
A simple depiction of how many affairs and love triangles may have started. Nothing uncommon about that image. It just happens. It’s a part of human nature and we trick ourselves into believing we would always be able to resist the temptation of such moments, simply because we made a promise to our partners. People make promises all the time. And break them shortly after. This as well is part of our existence.
Maybe it is time to acknowledge our inability to continuously act against our desires. Maybe there is another possibility. Maybe the truth still has its place not despite of our desires but because of them.
Consent, Truth & Power
I can already hear them. The people who will tell me “But we don’t always have to act upon our desires. Keeping promises and staying faithful might be hard, but nobody said being in a committed relationship would be easy!”
Over the years I heard it many, many times. I think it is as lazy and boring as it is ignorant. Many people have this idealistic idea in mind of getting to know each other, share experiences, fall in love and promise to be honest and faithful.
Well done, Hollywood, you ruined people’s ability of actually creating stable and healthy relationships.
I am aware that a lot of what I wrote up to this point might sound very cynical or even downright nihilistic. But it gets better, at least that is what I firmly believe based upon my own experiences and observations as well as conversations I had with people who subscribed to similar ideas.
Let’s recapture the main problem we all face: people have desires, they often act or want to act upon those desires, and they are rarely honest about those feelings. Meaning, they lie to others or themselves or both.
I want to argue in favour of acknowledging these desires, embrace and integrate them into our lives.
How do we get there?
First of all, we need to understand a key concept: nobody belongs to anyone.
Every single traditional romantic relationship is defined by possessiveness. Every. Single. One. Yes, even yours.
Why else would you impose rules on each other to ensure emotional and physical faithfulness and exclusivity? You mark your territory and make everyone aware that the other person literally belongs to you. Pet names like “precious/gem/treasure/etc” are not a coincidence. People are greedy and they want to secure another person’s resources like time, intimacy and wealth exclusively for their own good.
I am aware this sounds very nasty and self-serving but bear with me. Of course, most people will argue that they just want security and if you truly love™ each other, there is no need to get close to other human beings.
If only it was so simple. It is highly unlikely that one person will always satisfy all your desires and needs. Be it intellectual, emotional or physical. Even if it might seem that way for a certain period of time. People will change. That’s a given. You, your significant other, the people around you. To assume your needs will always be perfectly met by the person you have been dating for a couple of months or even years, is nothing but delusional.
To argue, the imposed rules of exclusivity are there to provide security and stability in an uncertain world is an even heavier breach with reality. Nobody can predict the future and no promise, however certain both of you might be about it, will ever change that.
Set each other free. Break those chains of self-imposed rules. Acknowledge your individual values as independent human beings with different needs and desires. Sometimes these will align between the two of you, which will be an amazing experience, but this is probably not always the case. Be honest about those feelings.
Neither of you own the other person’s resources, let alone their whole personality. We abolished slavery for a reason. Can it even be called slavery if both people agree on it? Then you simply built yourself a golden cage, trying to ignore reality’s grasp as long as possible.
When you are truly able to finally accept each other as independent individuals, the time has come to implement the next key component into your interaction: consent.
When I was at my darkest places, I used my knowledge, my skills to gain advantage over other people whenever possible. I abused my position of power to get what I wanted. Over and over again. I never asked, I just took. Not forcefully, but by constructing a false narrative, which is only slightly less reprehensible.
I never actively provided the other person with the option to say no.
Some people might ask, what the big deal is. But many social interactions, especially between men and women are characterized by some sort of power asymmetry. If it’s not because of wealth or status, it can be merely a discrepancy in physical superiority. Even if you don’t actively make use of it, the simple possibility that you could, can create an atmosphere of intimidation in which rejection and something like saying “no” are no valid options. Or at least it might appear like that to the other person, which is usually enough.
You may wonder why a lot of women come forward only years later to speak about their sexual abuse or even being raped? This is one of the many reasons. The experience of feeling powerless and not having the option to say no, even if no physical force was exerted.
Quite likely, I was among those people who created these kinds of intimidating atmospheres without ever using physical force, simply because I valued my desires and needs infinitely higher than the ones of the women I engaged.
Now I regret every single moment of discomfort I may have caused, but this late acknowledgment probably won’t do any good to right past mistakes. Now I can only work on preventing more of them for myself and others.
Which is why consent is such a powerful tool. It enables the other person even in situations with some sort of perceived power asymmetry. One of the most liberating acts you can do for another human being is to provide them with the option to say “No!” whenever they feel like it. By making them aware that this is indeed a valid option, you shift the balance of power dramatically. Provided, you respect said “no” but at this point that should be a given.
Hollywood movies and other media imbedded the idea in our brains, that it is a very romantic and lovely idea, if two potential partners are not sure about each other and, quite often, the female character starts to walk away when the male lead suddenly grabs her tightly and kisses her with all his male prowess. I heard from many people who find this idea of a first kiss very romantic and engaging. I think it’s repulsive and conveys a wrong standard on how people should treat each other in social, and especially romantic interactions.
Have you ever tried to just…ask?
During the past couple of years, I put a lot of emphasis of asking potential partners or even the ones I haven’t seen for quite a while, whether it is alright for them to interact with them intimately.
“May I kiss you?”
“I would like to go further than just cuddling and kissing, if this is what you want?”
“Just tell me, what you would like to do or as soon as something is wrong.”
I am sure you will find your own words fitting the context you find yourself in.
But I wanted to provide you with an impression that it is really possible to simply talk to your partner and figure out what their desires and needs are.
Your goal should be to create an atmosphere in which the possibility of saying “No!” is always a valid option.
Remember: you don’t own your partner, you just happen to share some time and experiences together.
Love is the desire to feel emotional and physical intimacy with another person while acknowledging their individual boundaries and needs. The avoidance of possessiveness and obsession can only strengthen this bond.
Love without consent will wither like a flower deprived of air.