(last edited on April 29, 2014 at 1:26 am)
Although I was born in New Jersey, I spent a formative part of my youth was as a missionary kid overseas. As soon as I got back to The States for college, I stopped going to church because I didn’t like the petty political aspects of organized religion. Over the past several years, however, I’ve been noticing that many of the “good” people I’ve been coming across are Christian, are not boring, and are not trying to recruit my soul so my body will pad the pews. A few nights ago I had a really excellent time chatting with a Christian friend of mine who is active in several churches, so I thought I’d brush up on my understanding of Christian fundamentals via Wikipedia. Serendipitously, I came across the mention of C.S. “Chronicles of Narnia” Lewis’ book The Four Loves, which “explores the nature of love from a Christian perspective”.
It wasn’t Lewis’ opinion that I found interesting; rather it was the Greek source material regarding the nature of love. In today’s usage of the word, “love” is used as a kind of catch-all phrase. The Greek philosophers (modern Greek too, for that matter) have more words for it, describing a range of human emotional connections from the superficial to the sublime. Browsing through the concepts of agape, storge, philia and eros was very educational. And I saw answers to one of the current great conundrums of my life: the lack of a romantic partner:
what I believed
Like many single guys, I’m searching for “romantic love”, but have of late been rather discouraged at the seeming impossibility of finding that magic combination of attraction, excitement, compatibility, and contentment. Part of this despair, I suspect, has been the worry that I don’t really know what romantic love is. At some point I decided, like many people do, to have faith, create situations that I can enjoy and share, and above all trust my gut. However, while the gut may react strongly, it’s still up to the brain to figure out what to do about it. On top of that, I think there are at least two components of my gut:
- The emotional gut, which I don’t question–I’m either intrigued or I’m not.
- The thoughtful gut, which I think of as intuition. Intuition, however, is a kind of crap shoot based on what we’ve experienced before (finding patterns) and what our beliefs/expectations of how things “should work”. Having browsed through these different love descriptions, I can see the nature of my own limiting beliefs about what “true love” is, and perhaps can now grow beyond them.
I tend to believe in authentic connections between people; a great deal of my design work and emphasis on story-based inquiry is my professional attempt to create them. Naturally, I want my partner and lover to also possess a “true connection” with me, and I very strongly identify such connections with the spirit of friendship. I have fantastic, amazing friends, and I wouldn’t be a tenth of the person I am today if we didn’t have that critical mutual inspiration, respect, and support. My exploration of the topic of love led me to Aristotle’s deconstruction of friendship into three types: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure of company, and friendships of the good. The latter, which is described in English as “true friendship”, is friendship that is based on the enjoyment of each other’s character. This is really what I look for in people and in myself; everything else that is positive flows from that. As I have been blessed to have many true friends throughout my life, I expect my romantic partner to also be my true friend. Together we will create the story of our life as characters in a book of our own making, testing our mettle against negative forces and overcoming multitudinous obstacles together, secure in our love and affection for each other, and passionately living. This is the baseline of interaction I already have with my best friends; how can I settle for anything less? It seemed like a no-brainer to make friendship a precondition for romance. “It will just happen”, I told myself, some 25 years ago, “if I continue to pursue my path. Whatever the hell that is.”
As it turns out, there is a love style called Storgic Love that actually describes how I thought I would fall in love. Storgic lovers are “friends first” and hey, THAT’S ME RIGHT?!
I read on with great interest, frowning slightly as I read the final paragraph:
Some advantages of storgic love can be the level of friendship, understanding, and intimacy in the partners, while disadvantages can include potential boredom and lack of passion in some couples.
That boredom part didn’t quite fit…I don’t want to settle down and live in a cottage for the rest of my life. I want to become something greater! However, because I value friendship so much, I had naturally settled into this pattern and ran into a massive internal conflict: because I value “true friendship”–that is, friendship based on character–I perceived other love styles as a failure of motive .
Let me explain myself: There are a lot of women who I find sexually enticing, cute, and so on, but to me character is everything. I am just not interested until I see the evidence of it. Once glimpsed, it takes time to draw out the subtleties across multiple interactions. Interests, behaviors, and physical appearance are somewhat secondary in importance; and it’s the inner beauty and idiosyncrasies of a person’s character, as I perceive it, that finally draws me close and captivates my heart. The giant insight is that my romantic interest tends to express itself as explorations of character, and I suppress the other “love styles” to “maintain the purity” of my quest. That tends to exclude such pleasantries such as flirting, winking, swooping in, sweeping away, and so forth. What most people would regard as the fun part of getting to know someone, but in my snobbery I thought EVERYBODY already does that…I’m looking for something more, and I’m doing things my own way! Or so I would tell myself, as I battled myself internally. My logic was that if I liked a girl because she was cute I wasn’t living up to my own character values: true connections and good character above all else, because I believe everything is possible through this. It never occurred to me that I could think both. Yes, I’m dumb…blinded by principle, yet again. Maintaining such an attitude, however couched in idealism, is ultimately boring and dispassionate. This can lead to a good friendship, but not romance.
And so I come back to my two guts:
- My “emotional gut” is 100% accurate at telling me when I like someone and find them attractive.
My “intuitive gut”, however, did not have the breadth of experience and self-knowledge to see me playing out the same pattern over and over again, and instead assumed that “if I thought up the idea, and the idea affects only me, it must be right”. Well, no, probably not. The idea in this case was: “true friendship is based on true character, therefore my romantic search will be strictly dictated by the parameters implicit in this directive.”
p>I still feel kind of dumb right now, but at the same time I feel a sense of relief because I’ve identified a limited thought pattern. Now that I know it, I can break it and replace it with something less boring.
I know what my real romantic directive is: It’s far better to live in character than to merely search for it. This follows naturally from my belief that when you put that energy out there, people can actually tell that you have it. After all, attraction of character needs to work both ways.
The role I want to play in the world is as a connector of true passions, to have the freedom to let allow random aspects of life catch my eye, and create the situations where passion and living can express themselves at a higher level. That’s what great design is. That’s what productivity is. That is what inspiration and empowerment mean to me. And next time I see these qualities embodied in a pretty girl, I will need to remember that although character is super sexy, it’s just as awesome to tell a woman how beautiful she is in a meaningful, creative way. Even if she already knows it.
If you were paying attention, you might have noticed that I said there were TWO great conundrums in my life. The other one is the missing sense of mission, but I think I stumbled upon it while writing the previous paragraph. And I feel that I have to give Christianity some props for that; the entry for Holy Spirit, a concept I used to have difficulty accepting when I thought it meant a literal ghost flying around inhabiting people, had this tidbit (emphasis mine):
The first overt appearance of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology is in the words of Jesus, speaking to his disciples (John 14:15-18) shortly before his death. He characterizes the Holy Spirit to them as the ‘Spirit of Truth’.
Further reading leads right back to the notion of agape, which is a kind of love that benefits the world we live in. It starts with you and me, and perhaps it can be expressed through the creation of more awesome design and the telling of each other’s stories. Everyone, I believe, has a true way to express this kind of positivity and joy, if they can only find the means through which they can see just how possible it is. The trick is finding it authentically, but that will be a post for another day.
I like how you said
“My “intuitive gut”, however, did not have the breadth of experience and self-knowledge to see me playing out the same pattern over and over again, and instead assumed that “if I thought up the idea, and the idea affects only me, it must be right”.”
I’ve had a sort of “aha” realization that my reliance on my intuition and creativity can make me unintentionally closed-minded. When I demand that I only learn from my own experience, I waste a lot of time. It ends up meaning I’m constantly re-inventing the wheel, but also, more insiduously, it means I’m failing to trust other people’s methods. I value my own experiences, but I’m trying to strike a balance, somewhere.
Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post!
I wrote about love to my son recently. He is too young to read it yet. Hope it is somehow helpful to you…
Touching words can reveal so much truth. Thank you for always being so honest and thoughtful to your readers.
P.S. Be sure to read Chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians when you have a chance.
I am interested in your posts like this because I find a lot of connection to your writing. I find a lot of similarities in my ideas, approaches, and struggles. With that in mind, I wanted to say that tell you about my experience that concern your post. I just got married a few months ago.
I am 43 and started out early in life thinking I would never get married. I feel this mindset can lead to a much different path than someone who thinks they want, or should, or will get married. Perhaps finding the right partner is made a little easier by having some pressure to get married driving you?
I was of course at various times be on the lookout for a partner. Someone that I could be friends with and was attracted too. I had a few long term relationships (one more than 5 years). Ultimately they were not right and ended. About a decade ago marriage become something I could at least imagine as possible for me- if I found the right person. I have also thought a lot about love in the last twenty years. Part of this was spurred by my recovery from addiction. I feel that love saved my life and that it is an important force that has a lot of power to create positive things – good changes, powerful partnerships, etc. It can fuel passion in some great ways, e.g. I love x, hence I am passionate about it.
I met my wife over 4 years ago. I immediately liked her and was attracted to her. As our relationship developed it was soon very different from any I had been in – some of my reactions and perceptions were almost strange to me. It was a little hard to be sure this was really different though. I do have enough experiences to know that “falling in love” can be powerfully blinding. This strange, wonderfully newness lasted through that period. There were also many of those things there that were what I would want and expect. Friendship, love, passion, interest, etc. Almost what I could think as my baseline relationship standards…is this some of what you are struggling with discussing here? I never thought of this in that way but it seems to make sense.
Yet there is so much that I did not expect. This relationship gives me the sense that I had no idea what I should really have been after in thinking about being in a relationship “should” mean. I would have sold myself short. I can’t even explain how different this is in any simple way. I know it must be a combination of my own changes (maturity, priorities, etc.) and finding that special right-person for me. Is that fate, the hand of God, Grace, or what? I cannot say. I can say that if I had just wanted to get married, if that was a primary need and want of mine from adolescence, then I don’t think I would have this type of getting-married/finding-the right-person-thing happen.
As a part of this, I guess it really struck me in what you wrote about the passion versus boredom part.
There are things I do that am very passionate about. That passion does not sustain itself through everything, everyday. I also get into bad ruts that sap me of my drive for longer than I would like. So I have to work at keeping things the way I would like. Sometimes the passion fire has to be fed and nurtured to get it burning brightly. I don’t think, nor have I felt for a long time, that my friendships and how I approach being loving to others is anything is any different. They are powerful and important but sometimes I have to do stuff to make stoke them to be all they can be.
I realize I will not indefinitely maintain a pink cloud in my relationship with my wife. I may at times be bored, distracted, and feel less than great about this commitment I am in. The important thing is what do I do about that? I have thought about this more than just a little. I took the idea of making a commitment to my wife, to spend the rest of my life with her, very seriously. This means I have to be willing to work at things at two important junctures – when I do want to and when I don’t want too! That is Ok. My life has taught me that there are incredible dividends for paying attention. When this attention involves love, and passion, and other good things – well the payoff is even greater. I even somewhat welcome and feel good about this aspect of my marriage – and that is somewhat strange for me to believe or fathom.
I would say, to close this out, that I did not expect nor was I looking for love when I bumped into my wife for the first time. Some might say I am very lucky. I don’t know about that. An interesting last aside is the film Shadowlands. It is a portrayal of C.S. Lewis’ marriage and as I remember, is partially based on the notion that he did not know what love truly was until he was enveloped by the experiences of this relationship. It is fictionalized, to be sure, but I know it made a strong impression on me when I saw it. I was reading some Lewis at the time, even though I am not a Christian, and exploring my understanding of life and spirituality (as I still am).
Nicely thought-provoking. I assume you are aware, but in case you aren’t, many of us can identify with this.
It sounds like you were avoiding relationships with cute girls because you assumed they wouldn’t fit the rest of the requirements. That’s not fair to the cute girls!
Besides, what you find cute and interesting and attractive on first glance is likely the visible part of what you find fascinating and compatible in the long run. You can enjoy the what attracted you at first while learning about the rest.
Don’t discount “such pleasantries such as flirting, winking, swooping in, sweeping away, and so forth.” Those “pleasantries” are what shifts the relationship from “coffee partner” to “potential date” to “steady date” and onwards, and keep a marriage thrilling. I still swoon when my husband of 20 years compliments me. We don’t ignore the serious bits, making sure we’re in agreement on the important things, and we truly are best friends, but those alone aren’t enough to make a marriage great. I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the things you need to be compatible in, so you may as well work on it from the start. You need to know what makes the other feel like a teenager in love even after 20 years of being together.
If you want to date, tell your friends. If they like spending time with you, they probably know others who would be compatible with you.
I don’t recommend friendship first. You have too many old patterns to rewrite. Also, there’s more at risk if it fails. Friendship is vital, but it can develop as you get to know each other.
My husband and I started out as dates. We weren’t friends, but had friends in common. I was on the rebound, and decided to just have fun for a while. (I’d heard that the person you date on the rebound is usually not a good long-term choice.) I knew from mutual friends that he didn’t have any marks against him as marriage material, but I had no clue if we’d be compatible, and didn’t really care. I told him, “I’m not looking for a boyfriend, just someone to get me away from my studies every Friday.”
Yes, he was cute, in a shy, nervous sort of way. He was trilled to be with me. Without the pressure, we had a lot of fun together. It turned out we were compatible, and we’ve changed and grown together for 20 wonderful years.
I always wanted to find someone with whom I could be friends first. And it happened, so don’t give up on that ideal. Being attracted to someone seems to be the result of a whole raft of things coalescing, many of them unconscious. It could be nature’s way of helping you identify the people you will find interesting. So just because you think she’s cute it doesn’t mean you won’t love her mind and soul too :)
the thing is, Dave, you can have it all – cute, smart, driven, genious. you don’t have to choose one over the other. my mother always tells me “just look at yourself!!!!”, meaning I need to change my outfit, haircut, make-up, etc. when my husband says it, it means I am cute, smart, successful, and just plain adorable. it all about your own perception.
in many situations, you won’t see the real beauty of the person till you are friends. it took me some time to understand that the notions of “love at first sight” and “instant attraction” don’t work for me at all. it just doesn’t happen. till I know the person well enough, there is no attraction. so all those things (guts, intuition, feelings, attraction) need time to come together. it doesn’t happen at the same time or parallel to each other. it happens when it happens. give time to your intuitive gut to develop.
and yes, boredom happens to everyone. it’s not bad. it’s just a sign you need to start something new and engage each other again, just like in any friendship.
David, your posts are always intriguing in an authentic way. Your concept of a “connector of true passions” reminds me of Marcus Buckingham’s latest work. I saw him speak the other week and think some of his stuff might be a helpful compliment to your continual search for self-understanding and expression. His basic premise is that we need to focus on our strengths, which he defines as those things that make us feel strong and fulfilled.
His newest book, The Truth About You, explains his basic perspective in practical terms and suggests an interesting exercise. It consists of merely taking little notes on what makes us feel strong or weak throughout the week (in terms of our passion and energy levels). Then at the end of the week we can look at those notes and see patterns of activities that reveal real-life clues to our true passions. I just thought you may be interested in giving the experiment a try, or maybe even checking out Marcus’ work. Thank you again for the thoughtful posts!