How We Love The People We Love

Posted by Aabha Gupta on May 11, 2018
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[During January's Gandhi 3.0 Retreat, Meghna hosted a special guest Awakin Circle, where Mandy Len Catron, Gary Zukav, Linda Francis, and Karma Lekshe spoke on "spiritual partnership". In 2015, Mandy authored a viral NY Times article on 'how to fall in love with anyone,' and she just published a book on the topic. Below are her insightful remarks on love. This was originally posted on Feb 13, 2018.]

I am going to talk about spirituality and partnerships, and I am going to focus more on the partnership side of things and specifically on romantic relationships. But I'm hoping that what I'm going to talk about will extend in interesting ways into other kinds of love relationships that are not necessarily romantic. And hopefully that will resonate with what the other speakers are going to talk about tonight.

As a little background, I grew up in rural Appalachia, Virginia, in the United States. It's especially an impoverished part of the country. And I come from a long lineage of Appalachian farmers and coal miners. It's also a really conservative and homogenous part of the country as well. And that hopefully will become relevant as I keep talking. So basically I grew up in a conventional American family.

When I was twenty-five, I moved to Canada; and when I was twenty-six, my parents told my sister and me that they were going to get a divorce. While I realize this is a very normal thing that happens all the time, it was really a challenging experience for me. I felt a lot of grief. I felt like a lot of the things that I understood about how the world works -- and also things I understood about love, relationships, my family and who I was -- were challenged by the experience.

Basically, my idea was that my parents were two people who were fundamentally good people. And I thought that if you were fundamentally good, and you loved and cared about someone else, then you would not have any real problems with your relationship, beyond the ordinary things. So it seemed impossible to me that these two good people, who made sacrifices for each other, who took care of each other -- who really modeled the kind of relationship that I aspired to have -- suddenly didn't want to be married anymore. And they weren't really able to explain why that was or what happened.

Aat the same time, I was in a relationship that lasted from about age twenty to thirty, so about a decade. And it wasn't a very good relationship. It was pretty turbulent. We argued a lot. I felt deeply in love with this person, but I often felt that I didn't like him very much. And so you know, I thought, "Well, if my parents can't make this work maybe I can; even though my relationship is a disaster. Maybe that's fine." But after a year or two I started to think, actually maybe I know absolutely nothing about romantic love. And I think that was true.

I was really starting from scratch. All I had was a lot of cultural narratives that I'd absorbed through things like popular culture, movies, music and fairytales. All of the sorts of narratives that I had grown up with -- my parents' love story, my grandparents' love story and all of these things -- sort of gave me a collection of scripts basically on how love was supposed to work. And suddenly it felt like those scripts weren't serving me very well.

So what I decided to do, because I teach first-year university students how to write research papers, I always said to them, "You can write about anything." Academics will take any subject, and if there's research out there on it, you can find it. So I thought maybe I should take my own advice and just do some research about romantic love.

I wanted to have a broad enough approach, so I went across a variety of different disciplines. And I wanted to think about love from a philosophical perspective, I wanted to know what psychologists have to say about what made relationships work or not work; I wanted to investigate sociological theories of storytelling. Why do we tell love stories? What kinds of love stories are compelling? How do those stories inform our ideas about relationships? What else? I looked into linguistics -- how language influences the way we think about love, and the neurochemistry of it. What's going on in our brains when we fall in love? What about when we fall out of love? I just want to collect as much information as I possibly could, and do so with the hope that I would be able to make better decisions when it came to love.

I think I was maybe subconsciously trying to figure out a way out of the relationship that I was in. I thought if I could get some good data then my brain would be able to override my heart. I could just make better life choices.

So that first turned out to be fairly fruitful in a variety of interesting ways. The thing that I thought would be most relevant to talk about tonight would be to think a little bit about the metaphors we use to talk about romantic love. My background is obviously going to be pretty American, or maybe North American, or maybe even Western. But I imagine that there are interesting metaphors across culture and I would love to hear from those of you from other places about your own love metaphors. They're really interesting.

A few years ago, in the process of doing all this research, I came across an article by two linguists: George Kaufman and Mark Johnson. The article is called "Metaphors We Live By". Basically, what they argue is that metaphors both reflect our experiences of the world, and construct our experiences of the world. Metaphors show what we think about something, but they also shape how we're capable of thinking about things. There is an interesting sort of circular logic there.

Before I found this metaphor, I had already started to think (because I'm an English teacher) about the metaphors that we used to talk about love. One of the things that I noticed is that most of them use language of illness or violence. Some examples of that: lovesick, heartbroken, love struck, even love falling in love, or head-over-heels, or crushed. There are so many. My favorite example of this is the word 'smitten,' which is the past participle of the word 'smite' and smite reminds me of the Book of Exodus from the Old Testament. And you know, God was smiling at the Egyptians, it was like a plague of locusts, you know just these horrible horrible things.

It's so interesting to me that this is also the language that we used to talk about romantic love and like the best, theoretically most intense, wonderful feelings of romantic love. And what all these metaphors have in common is basically that love is this force that acts on us that we sort of have to submit to. Right? So that puts us in a really passive position. As I was doing this research I began to think that, that passive position did not do me much good. And maybe that's true for other people as well. So, it really takes away a lot of our human agency. And you know that seems like a shame, especially for something that has such a big impact on our lives. You know, who we spend our time with, where we live, the kinds of things we do with our days. These are so often shaped by the people that we have relationships with and especially in romantic relationships.

So, in Metaphors We Live By, they (George Kaufman and Mark Johnson) examine several different metaphors in the article about all kinds of different things, and several that they look at are metaphors about love. And so these are just metaphors that exist in the English language. Love is patient. Love is some form of illness or sickness that is one they talk about. Another one they talk about that's really interesting is love is a physical force, like gravity. So this is like falling or being love-struck. It's this powerful force that acts on us that sometimes takes on the characteristics of nature or physics. Love is a journey which is a more constructive positive one perhaps.

But all of these metaphors are fairly limited, and one of the things that they're interested in doing in the article is trying to create new metaphors. And what they say about new metaphors is that, in order to create a new metaphor, it has to already fit within the ideas that exist in the culture. So you can't say you know love as a food. Maybe we could make some love food metaphors, but that's more of a stretch for us. They don't necessarily match a lot of the ideas that we have in the English language, at least about how love works. But they did come up with a new metaphor for love. And I really like this metaphor and I found it really useful for me, personally, in thinking about my romantic relationships.

I think it also extends really nicely into all of our intimate relationships and so their new metaphor is: "Love is a collaborative work of art." When they talk about metaphors, they say metaphors have entailments. These are ideas that are contained in a metaphor, or implied by metaphor. So like love as a sickness, that metaphor implies, for example, that love is a really powerful force that we have to submit to, something that we don't necessarily have control over. So the entailments for love as a collaborative work of art, these are entailments that already sort of fit with our ideas about love. But the metaphor as a whole can kind of reshape or maybe influence the way we practice love in interesting ways. The intelligence of love as a collaborative work of art are things like love is an aesthetic experience. So it can be beautiful. Love is creative. I really like that idea. Love is collaborative. So it's not something that one person necessarily does alone. You have to have somebody else, or maybe multiple people, to do it with. Love is a sort of process that's ongoing, it takes time. There's an element of figuring out. What this aesthetic collaborative thing will be, and all of these things are contained by love as the word, "love". Love as a collaborative work of art.

I really think this is a useful metaphor, and one of the things that I really like about this particular metaphor is that I think it enables us to not only have a lot of agency, but to have a lot of collaborative agency and flexibility when it comes to our relationships. So you can think about it in terms of a romantic relationship first, let's say. But, if you're creating a work of art with another person in a romantic relationship, that might be a two-week fling at the beach. And it might be this beautiful collaborative, interesting, surprising, very short, very intense work of art that you created with someone when it's over. Or, it might be a 50-year commitment to raising a family and creating a community of people and, you know, growing together and changing over time. That could be a collaborative work. Or it might be one person who has multiple romantic partners, more than one, right? Have a polyamorous version of a collaborative work of art. It could be a relationship that is romantic, but not sexual. It could be a relationship that is long distance. All of these things are possible as long as the people who are participating in the relationship are doing so in a way that is intentional and they're sort of figuring out the terms of that collaborative, creative process together.

I think it gives a lot of the agency to the people who are doing the loving. It takes away a lot of the power that these scripts that were handed convey. My idea was that I had to practice love the way my parents did, and then when they divorced, I was suddenly freed from that script. And I thought, "Okay, I can do whatever I want." Turned out that wasn't necessarily true. It didn't work for me in the long term to have a relationship with someone I loved but didn't always like.

So, we can sort of take these scripts and say, "How are they working? What from this script do I want to keep? What sort of ideas from my culture and my community about how love works? Do I want to keep and enact with my partner?" And we can also say, "What are the ideas and scripts that I don't necessarily want to enact?" What are the things that don't work for us and are not necessarily important to us? One of the really appealing things about this collaborative work of art is that you have a chance to take your values and exercise them in really intentional ways within your relationship. So, to me, I thought this metaphor was a really constructive and useful way to think about romantic love.

But since I've been sort of doing that with my partner, we do it in a lot of really specific ways. So one of the things we do is we have a relationship contract and we sit down every year and we talk about, for example, "Okay, who's going to take out the trash and who's going to walk the dog on which days?" And it also covers other things like, "Is our relationship monogamous and do we want to keep it that way?" We talk about things like "How do we want to spend money? What do we want our relationship to be like with our friends? What are the things we want to be able to do separately? What are the things we want to intentionally do together?" And I really like this. This works really well for us.

I've also been thinking about the ways that I could practice this with the other people in my life. With my parents, for example, I like the idea that we, my parents and I, are continuing to collaborate on a relationship. And one of the ways that that's happened with my dad, for example, is that, when I was younger -- similar I think to many fathers and daughters -- we had a relationship where he was an authority figure. As I've gotten older, we've become more like peers. And, my dad has now been divorced twice and he's got a new girlfriend. And he was visiting me in Canada over Christmas and talking to me about his girlfriend. It was so exciting to him that we could have a conversation about a personal relationship and talk in a way that was really meaningful.

I really like this idea that we as individuals get to re-calibrate or readjust or recreate or re-imagine how we want to love the people that we love. That can be an ongoing process and then the relationships we have can change, and we can influence how they change. We can do so with intention and kindness and compassion, and hopefully love in a way that is more egalitarian; more purposeful than the narratives were about how love should work.

Posted by Aabha Gupta | | permalink

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Comments (2)

  • Vasco Gaspar wrote ...

    Wonderful to read this in Valentine's day :) Thank you for sharing!

  • Audrey Lin wrote ...

    Thank you so much for these insights Mandy! :) That's a great lens on "love as a collaborative work of art". And thank you, Aabha, for all the efforts in scribing and making this available to all of us who weren't able to be there in for tht special immersion week Awakin Circle! :)