Finding Love Archives - The School Of Life

With one exception, no animal is capable of hating itself. That exception, of course, is human beings. It’s one of the strangest, and most regrettable, flaws in our condition. This tendency to self-hatred is not only destructive of our spirit; it constantly undermines our efforts to establish workable relationships. It is logically impossible to allow anyone else to love us insofar as we remain obsessed by the thought of our own loathsome natures. Why let another think better of us than we think of ourselves? If anyone did step forward and tried to be kind to us, we would have to despise them with the intensity owed to all false flatterers.

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It therefore turns out that one of the central requirements of a good relationship is — surprisingly — a degree of affection for our own natures, built up over the years, largely in childhood. We need a legacy of feeling very deserving of love in order not to respond obtusely and erratically to the affections granted to us by adult partners. Without a decent amount of self-love, the love of another person will always be prone to feel sickening and misguided — and we will self-destructively — though unconsciously — set out to repel or disappoint it. It is simply more normal and bearable to be rejected.

If we are at the self-hating end of the spectrum, we should not continue to imagine that love could be easy, even if the most accomplished person were to enter our lives, indeed, especially if they were to make the error of doing so. Our underlying disgust at our own being would only create a harrowing conflict. We would recognise that another was offering us their deep affection but, in the secret folds of our souls, we could only be certain of a mistake or delusion. We would have to reject, recoil, not follow up, push away and in a thousand small and large moves, ensure that a lover would eventually have to align their view of us with our view of ourselves.

To begin to counterbalance the hatred, we have to learn to extend compassion to ourselves for our self-lacerating impulses; and remember that how we feel about ourselves is — we can be certain — a bitter legacy of how other people, at a formative age, viewed and treated us.

The adult process of recovery involves gasping that we have indeed absorbed unduly harsh ideas about who we are, but that it is entirely in our power to begin to counteract them by imagining how a better care giver might have supported us in the past — and how a kind lover might help us in the future. An ideal, compassionate figure at the start would have known never to equate lovability with perfection, they could have cared for us despite out coming last in the race, our missteps and our confusions. 

The phrase ‘self-love’ misleads us when we imagine that searching for it would mean striving to acquire a conceited, pompous view of ourselves. True release from self-loathing tends to be a great deal more modest: we are only after a sane, fair and more accurate perspective on our ordinary earthly nature. We can with kindness and good humour accept that being silly is entirely normal; wasting opportunities is universal; average sexuality is to be expected. Self-love shouldn’t be predicated on the competitive idea that we must pull off extraordinary feats of courage or intelligence. True love is only ever the compassion of the fallen for the fallen; it’s the search by one radically imperfect being to express their tenderness at the sight of the struggles and pains of another. We should — henceforth — allow ourselves enough self-love to be able to endure a little kindness.

One of the most important preconditions of a good relationship is a satisfactory perspective on being single. The more we are happy to be on our own, the more we will be able to exercise the correct degree of caution around finding a new companion. The bedrock of true love is happy singledom.

Photo by Sasha Matveeva on Unsplash

Yet our societies do very little to help us to be calm or at ease in our own company. Singledom is framed as an involuntary, depressing and always hopefully temporary state. The notion that someone might want or need to be on their own, perhaps for a long while, terrifies a world shaped by legions of silently miserable couples who need confirmation that they have not chosen the wrong path. To enforce the idea of what single people are missing, advertisers can never have enough of showing off tantalising images of happy couples walking hand in hand on beaches — and most entertainment venues, holiday destinations and social occasions feel compelled to patronise, overcharge and otherwise demean anyone who has had the impudence to venture out on their own.

Unfortunately, being miserable while single fatally undermines our judgement about who we might get together with. When someone is starving, they will eat anything (Dostoevsky wrote a harrowing short story about a famished child who eats a candle made of pig fat). We’re equally liable, in emotional desperation, to run into the nearest nightclub to secure a chump we’ll be appalled to find beside us at daybreak. Eventually, we’ll learn that being in an unsatisfactory relationship is clearly worse, that is, even more lonely, than being alone. 

The central challenge of being alone is coping with the fear of what singlehood means: being alone is bearable in relation to how ‘normal’ (that highly nebulous yet highly influential concept) the condition feels to us at any given point. It can either be a break from an honourably busy life, or sure evidence that we are an unwanted, wretched, disgusting and emotionally diseased being. 

This is tricky but ultimately very hopeful, for it suggests that if only we could work on what being alone means to us, we could theoretically endure long periods alone.

To build ourselves a new mental model of what being alone should truly mean, we might rehearse a few of the following arguments. Despite what an unfriendly voice inside our heads might tell us, we are the ones who can chose whether or not to be alone. Our solitude is willed rather than imposed. No one ever needs to be alone so long as they don’t mind who they are with. But we do mind: the wrong kind of company is a great deal lonelier for us than being by ourselves. It’s further from what matters to us, more grating in its insincerity and more of a reminder of disconnection and misunderstanding than is the conversation we can have in the quiet of our own minds. Being alone is not proof that we have been rejected by the world; it’s a sign that we’ve taken a good look at the available options and have — with wisdom — done some rejecting ourselves.

Another big thought is that we need to appreciate how long it will take to find someone, given how choosy we are (for very good reasons). We aren’t just looking for anyone. The right candidate will be no less easy to find than a great job or a beautiful house. It might take many months, probably years. Expectations matter. If we regard a decade as a plausible time frame, then six months will skip by. 

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There is no better guarantee of a successful relationship than knowing that we could — and can — manage perfectly well on our own. It means that we will only look for someone who can deeply contribute to our life, not someone who can do the laundry with us or keep us company on Sunday evenings. This gives us the strength to back out of unsatisfactory unions as quickly as we should. Being in a couple can’t and shouldn’t mean that we are utterly reliant on the other for our self-esteem, our daily self-management or for the meeting of our domestic needs. When we have under our belt a significant experience of thriving on our own, we will be able to cope with the inevitable points at which even a very nice partner can’t sustain us; we’ll be less demanding; more competent and more forensic in what we seek from a lover. It turns out that our willingness to stay on our own is what centrally predicts how likely we’ll be to find and bring to fruition a relationship with someone else. Being at ease with being single is the needed, secure platform from which to make a sane and wise choice about who to create a joint life with.

There is a particular kind of person who is always – it seems – unlucky in love. Despite their best intentions and efforts, they seem to move from one unsatisfying candidate to another without ever being able to settle. One lover turned out to be secretly married to someone else, another – after an initial period of enthusiasm – never called back, a third turned out to be alcoholic and violent… We can only express sympathy for what seems like so much bad luck.

And yet, if one examines the problem at closer range, we’re liable to find that bad luck can only explain so much – and that there has, in addition, been a process of careful curation at work. The unfortunate lover has not simply stumbled upon a succession of frustrating or mean-minded partners, they have actively sought these out and invited them in, while simultaneously ensuring that no kinder candidate could ever gain a foothold. They still deserve a lot of sympathy, but not for the problem they have ostensibly complained about.

It is logical to imagine that what we naturally want in love is someone who will treat us with respect and tenderness, with loyalty and thoughtfulness. But however much these may sound desirable in theory, in reality, such qualities are, in some, liable to provoke huge anxieties and – on occasion – feelings of revulsion.

It might seem uncomplicatedly beautiful if someone makes us breakfast in bed, gives us endearing nicknames, tells us how much they miss us, cries a little when we go away on a long trip and offers us a thoughtful-looking teddy bear to pack in our case. There could surely be nothing nicer, except that is, if we are in any way in doubt as to our own value.

For the self-hating ones among us, such attentions are likely to trigger acute discomfort and anxiety: why does our lover seem to think so much better of us than we think of ourselves? Why do they hold us in such high esteem when we, for our part, cannot bear our reflection? How have we come to be so heroic in their eyes when we are so despicable in our own? Why do they call us beautiful and kind, intelligent and thoughtful when we feel as if we are none of these things? Their attentions end up having to be met with all the disdain we accord to false flatterers. We are sickened to receive gifts that we are, deep down, sure we do not deserve.

It’s as an escape from this form of nausea that we may run into the arms of people who can be relied upon to be satisfactorily cruel to us. They aren’t delighted when we walk into a room, they have no interest in our childhoods or what happened to us today, they show no particular enthusiasm for sleeping with us, they flirt with others and give us no guarantee that the relationship will survive until tomorrow. It sounds appalling and in a sense it is, but it may feel a lot less appalling than to be showered by a kindness we are certain in our bones that we have never earnt. At least the meanness on display accords perfectly with our assessment of ourselves. 

Whatever we may claim, there are almost always a host of potential romantic partners ready to treat us very nicely; it is just that – without any awareness of the process – we have probably become experts at dismissing them at the first opportunity, tossing them aside with terms like ‘boring’ or ‘uninspiring’ – by which we really mean: uninclined to think as badly of us as we think of ourselves or unlikely to make us suffer in the way we need to suffer in order to feel we are receiving the sort of attention that befits us. 

In truth, these kind people are generally very far from dull or stupid. They have cleverly spotted something about us that we have not yet taken on board: that we are not appalling and that beneath our defences, we remain kind, sweet and worthy. These observers just frighten us because, with their kindness, they challenge a fundamental pillar of our psychology, the idea that we are owed punishment. 

We will learn to see many such kind lovers waiting for us in the wings, and will be far readier to let them into our affections, the moment we can accept that, for all our many (yet utterly normal) flaws, we don’t deserve to be treated badly for the rest of our lives.

Of course, we’re supposed to shrug it off. We’re supposed to have a quick look at a gallery of images – the kiss in the ocean, the breakfast on the veranda, the evening walk by the candle-lit restaurant – and move on. We’re meant to say it’s ridiculous and mean it.

Except that in some moods we’re no longer capable of such sangfroid. We start to follow what they are wearing every day; we go with them on their plane; we know what dog they bought; we stop talking to our family so that we can look up their new partner; we watch them making a juice in their kitchen; we look in on their exercise sessions. It’s as if they were right here, with us, all the time. We can almost taste the sea salt drying on their tanned legs; we trace the fine hairs on their arms; we are intensely knowledgeable about everything they’ve seen and eaten in the last six months.

Photo by Pietro Luca Cassarino on Flickr

Not only this, we know – deep down – that it could have worked with us. We’ll make light of this in public, but in our heart we know that we are their spiritual twin. If things had worked out differently, if we’d lived in Paris or New York, if we’d been the right sort of age and looked slightly better and had more convincing careers, we might have bumped into them at a gathering and the connections between us would have grown undeniable. We’re soulmates dumbly separated by a sequence of arbitrary barriers – over which the media nevertheless allows us to peer.

On certain days, the scale of the missed opportunities grows unbearable. How ugly, mean-minded, joyless and loveless our lives are. How ugly and unappreciative are our partners, how little of what we are will ever be noticed. Why do we even exist?

The celebrity stalker isn’t simply ‘mad’, their principal error is credulity. They have been unable to resist the suggestions of desire and communion that have been artfully embedded in the infatuating work of the media’s army of paparazzi. A vulnerability in their psyches has meant that they have taken seriously what the more defended and contented among us have had the wherewithal to resist – and treat as a sophisticated fantasy. Their unhappiness has made them helpless before a cruelly devised fiction – and opened them up to a distinctive kind of torture.

But what is evident is that the celebrity crush isn’t a simple inanity; it’s a serious prism through which we glimpse, with rare clarity, certain of the agonies of modern existence: Why can I not become who I really am? How can I both know the life that I should be leading and be so unable to lead it? Why do I never meet particular people whom I am convinced – perhaps not wrongly – I could have loved properly and who would have redeemed me?

There are no good answers to such questions. They are among the most melancholy and grave we can raise. That we may be nudged towards them by an actor or singer on a beach is no argument against them. Right now, in a luxurious bedroom a few hours’ flight from where we are, the person we suspect we could understand without limit is sleeping with somebody else and will in a few days go back to a life from which we will always be excluded. If we existed in a different era, we might at this point get down on our knees and pray for our wracked souls. We should now at least be afforded an opportunity to let out a cry up to the indifferent cosmos. What we should never be forced into is the belief that this constant ache might merely be a joke.

There is a particular kind of romantic pilgrim whose love life attracts a high degree of sympathy. Despite their best intentions and apparently ceaseless efforts, they seem fated to move from one unsatisfying candidate to another without ever being able to settle. One lover turned out to be secretly married to someone else, another – after an initial period of enthusiasm – never called back, a third turned out to be alcoholic and violent… We can only express sympathy for what seems like a run of exceptional bad luck.

And yet if one examines the problem at closer range, we’re liable to find that bad luck can only explain so much – and that there has in addition been a process of careful curation at work. The unfortunate lover has not simply stumbled upon a succession of frustrating or mean-minded partners, they have actively sought these out and invited them in while simultaneously ensuring that no kinder candidate could ever gain a foothold. They still deserve a lot of sympathy, but not for the problem they have ostensibly complained about.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It is logical to imagine that what we naturally want in love is someone who will treat us with respect and tenderness, with loyalty and thoughtfulness. But however much these may sound desirable in theory, in reality, such qualities are in some liable to provoke huge anxieties and – on occasion – feelings of revulsion.

It might seem uncomplicatedly beautiful if someone makes us breakfast in bed, gives us endearing nicknames, tells us how much they miss us, cries a little when we go away on a long trip and offers us a thoughtful-looking teddy bear to pack in our case. There could surely be nothing nicer, except that is, if we are in any way in doubt as to our own value.

For the self-hating ones among us, such attentions are likely to trigger acute discomfort and anxiety: why does our lover seem to think so much better of us than we think of ourselves? Why do they hold us in such high esteem when we, for our part, cannot bear our reflection? How have we come to be so heroic in their eyes when we are so despicable in our own? Why do they call us beautiful and kind, intelligent and thoughtful when we feel as if we are none of these things? Their attentions end up having to be met with all the disdain we accord to false flatterers. We are sickened to receive gifts that we are deep down sure we do not deserve.

It’s as an escape from this form of nausea that we may run into the arms of people who can be relied upon to be satisfactorily cruel to us. They aren’t delighted when we walk into a room, they have no interest in our childhoods or what happened to us today, they show no particular enthusiasm for sleeping with us, they flirt with others and give us no guarantee that the relationship will survive until tomorrow. It sounds appalling and in a sense it is, but it may feel a lot less appalling than to be showered by a kindness we are certain in our bones that we have never earnt. At least the meanness on display accords perfectly with our assessment of ourselves.

Whatever we may claim, there are almost always a host of potential romantic partners ready to treat us very nicely; it is just that – without any awareness of the process – we have probably become experts at dismissing them at the first opportunity, tossing them aside with terms like ‘boring’ or ‘uninspiring’ – by which we really mean: uninclined to think as badly of us as we think of ourselves or unlikely to make us suffer in the way we need to suffer in order to feel we are receiving the sort of attention that befits us.

In truth, these kind people are generally very far from dull or stupid. They have cleverly spotted something about us that we have not yet taken on board: that we are not appalling and that beneath our defences, we remain kind, sweet and worthy. These observers just frighten us because with their kindness, they challenge a fundamental pillar of our psychology, the idea that we are owed punishment. We will learn to see many such kind lovers waiting for us in the wings, and will be far readier to let them into our affections, the moment we can accept that, for all our many (yet utterly normal) flaws, we don’t deserve to be humiliated and frustrated for the rest of our lives.

Sometimes, and it often happens in bed, we face an acute test at the hands of a lover to whom we have pledged our affections. We are asked, with little warning, and in a serious tone: ‘What do you love me for?’

Few moments in a relationship can be as philosophical as this – or as dangerous. A good answer has the power to confirm and enhance the union; a bad one could blow it apart. As we try to make headway, we immediately recognise that we can’t simply say ‘everything’. We’re being asked to make choices – and our love will be deemed sincere to the extent that the choices feel accurate to their recipients.

The fundamental assumption behind the enquiry is that there are better and worse things to be loved for. It isn’t the brute fact that we are liked that can count; the liking has to target certain of our best characteristics as we define them. Which in turn implies that there are parts of our minds and our bodies that feel as though they better contain our ‘essential selves’ than others. We are – if we can put it like this – not equally present in all parts of ourselves.

When it comes to the body, there appears to be more of ‘us’ in our hands than in our heels and, when it comes to the mind, more of ‘us’ in our sense of humour than in our knowledge of the seven times table. If a malevolent demon were to force us to give up a bit of our minds, it might be better – from the point of view of maintaining the continuity of our essential selves – to surrender our ability to speak a foreign language than to wipe out our taste in music – just as it would be more bearable to suffer a change in the shape of our big toe than in the profile of our nose.

To be told that we have a ‘loveable mind’ may be a good start, but not much more. There are likely to be many things that this mind can do quite well: lay a table, drive safely down a motorway, prepare a household budget, remember geographical facts. But such talents seldom feel gratifying when singled out, because of their intrinsically generic nature. Someone who loved us for these skills alone would have few reasons why they might not equally well wander away and love someone else at another point, which is the very risk we are trying to ward off and are looking for the right compliment to appease. 

The skills it’s touching to be praised for are those in which some of our uniqueness can be observed, for example: in the way we prepare the icing of a birthday cake, pick songs for a drive through the desert, analyse a historical novel, discuss a friend’s love affair or lightly tease a frustrating colleague without ruffling their dignity… If someone has started to notice such details, then he or she starts to feel like a reliable candidate to whom to get attached. Their love has become specific rather than generic. It is in the end a good deal more gratifying for a lover to pay us a small compliment about the deft way we are able to dislodge a relative from a sulk than to be declared a sensational human for knowing the capital of New Zealand or the way to calculate the diameter of a circle.

But, to add further complexity to our demands, it isn’t enough just to be admired. We also want a true lover to feel well disposed towards our vulnerabilities. Whatever our degree of competence, we are never far from moments of fear, ignorance, humiliation, childlikeness and sadness – and it is these moods too that we long for a lover to have the strength to feel generous towards. It may be pleasant to be found impressive, but it is more reassuring to discover that our vulnerability is ready to be treated with generosity; that we are with someone who will allow us to be sad, discomfited and weepy, who has spotted that we sometimes bite our nails and worry about work late at night. We don’t bluntly want to awe a lover, we want permission to be, every now and then, at wits end. We want them to have sufficient faith in our powers that they can be unfrightened by our periods of fragility. We need to know that the child in us has been seen and won’t appall. ‘I love you for being a hero,’ would be an eerie pronouncement. ‘I love you for being a child,’ would be equally alienating. But ‘I love the sad child I occasionally glimpse in you beneath your resourceful adult day to day self’ comes as close as one can imagine to the epicentre of love.

Our hopes for what role our body will play in eliciting love follow a comparable pattern. Here too, sweeping generic praise feels like the work of someone who might not notice if our body was replaced by that of another in the night. It might be true that we have ‘lovely eyes’ or ‘soft hair’ but exactly the same words could be said with accuracy to millions of others, just as a host would not want to hear thanks for a ‘nice dinner’ but rather praise for the hint of dill in the lemon sauce or for the seating arrangement that allowed political opposites to be reconciled. In the detail lies proof that someone cares.

Some of the best kinds of praise about the body are psycho-physical, that is, they praise a physical aspect in order to highlight a psychological quality. They reassures us that our physical envelopes have been connected up with the most loveable sides of our personalities. A perceptive lover might say:

I like the way your smile is slightly different on each side of your mouth. One side is warm and welcoming, the other is thoughtful and a bit melancholy. You’re not merely smiling, it seems like you’re thinking deeply as you smile.

Or: There is a charming thing you do with your eyelids when you are listening, half bringing them down in a quizzical way. It feels like you’re saying ‘I don’t totally believe you’ but it’s really an encouragement; there’s an invitation, as if you were adding: ‘but come on, give me the real truth, I know you’re holding back the best bits because you worry you won’t be understood… but you will be. You’re safe with me.’

Or: There’s this great thing you do with your thumb and middle finger when you get excited by an idea. It’s as if you’re feeling the quality of a piece of silk … as if you’re touching a thought with your fingers.

Or: I’m slightly in love with the freckle on your upper left arm. It’s a bit like you, quietly saying ‘here I am, I’m me; nothing special but I’m happy with who I am.’ It’s poised and unshowy but confident of its power to attract those who get it. I love that it was there when you were little and that it’s been with you every day since.

In the art of caricature, an artist looks closely at the face and body of a politician and then carefully pick out details with whose help we can be taught to forever hate and mock them. The caricaturist will spot a slight jump at the end of the nose, a pair of unusually large earlobes, a somewhat wavy curl of hair or knobbly set of knees. They will then place such emphasis on these details that we will never be able to overlook them again – nor cease despising the unfortunate politicians who possess them. One way to think of love is as a comparable yet entirely compassionate process, whereby the lover studies their beloved minutely and latches on to elements – an index finger, the inside of a knee, a shoulder blade or a way of closing the eyes – that become the touchstones of affection, part of the many apparently tiny but in reality hugely sound reasons why one person has come to admire and love another.

We can add that, just as with the mind, it is frequently vulnerability in these bodily details that charms. It is the little toe and the little finger that seduce more than the thighs or thorax. It is the hand that curls up as it must have done in childhood. It is the thin nape of the neck normally hidden behind a confident mane of hair. It is a delicate wrist through which run intricate greenish veins. Within an otherwise mature body, we are seeing hints of an endearing and more fragile earlier self, to whom we offer our sympathy, protection and reassurance.

The question of what we have found to love in someone should not frighten us. We simply need to give ourselves the time to trace back our enthusiasms to their authentic sources, while remembering that love is liable to collect with particular intensity in the most vulnerable and improbably small nooks of the self.

From the start of adulthood, we have been waiting. We understood love intuitively long before it was ever a practical possibility. We knew that it was bound up with a sense of being profoundly understood and finally able to say everything, without fear of judgement or censure. Love was a two-person conspiracy against everyone else too dumb or leaden to get ‘it’, the true nature of being alive. It had to do with fancying someone totally and the amazingness that they might fancy you back, to the extent that you could do anything with them, like rest a finger inside their mouth and ask them to bite it hard. We imagined from the first that love might be the best part of life – and we were not wrong.

In the name of love, we put ourselves in extraordinary situations. We went out far more than we would have wanted. We bought fancy clothes, we thought about our hair and worried about our spots, we drank intensely coloured cocktails, we ended up at small hours in alien parts of town, in the bedrooms of people we knew weren’t right but that seemed at least in some way to be an advance on the cause. We accepted dates with people we knew were problematic because we wanted not to ossify or grow too peculiar. It wasn’t always right, in fact, it was mostly always wrong, but we kept our spirits up and told ourselves it would eventually be OK, as they kindly assured us it would be.

But time passed; decades went by. We got enmeshed in some very troubling situations that looked like love from the outside but were anything but. We spent far too long extricating ourselves and finding our voice. And at a certain point, we started to apprehend something whose terror we are still grappling with, probably late at night, because such things aren’t easy to look at in daylight: the probability that love isn’t, after all, despite our efforts and insights, ever going to come right for us. We are going to die without ever having known the love we long for. 

The reasons are multiple and in their ways entirely banal. Because our past is too complicated; our lack of trust too deep; we are too ugly; we are too unconfident; we don’t meet the right people; our luck is too slim; hope feels too risky. Though we try, harder than we try at anything else, we can’t do this thing. It won’t work out for us.

The ambassador for this sombre grand truth might be an objectively rather innocuous disappointment: perhaps one more date that didn’t in the end – despite a very hopeful stage around dessert – go as it should, or one more person who didn’t call back. They, the angel of romantic death, couldn’t have known what they were doing to us, and certainly didn’t mean to (we can’t hate them for a moment, unfortunately), but through their lack of desire, they initiated us into an idea which now threatens to blow our sanity.

Behind closed doors, the scenes aren’t pretty. Thank goodness for privacy to shield a moralistic world from scenes that need to be forgotten. There will be hours of the most unedifying desperation: tears, bitter denunciations of everyone and everything, self-pitying and vengeful rants: this is too much, I can’t take it any more, this is unfair beyond measure. In the night, we smash through the crash barriers of ordinary hope. We’re going to do away with ourselves. They’ll regret us, they’ll miss us now. But we won’t, of course, do anything silly. It’s just the mind doing it’s normal work, adjusting to yet another yawning gap between the way we would want things to be and the horrid way they are. We settle. We are – after all – creatures who know how to die. We think we don’t know how to, but we invariably do, whatever the fierce rage. We can digest pretty much any verdict. We tell ourselves we’d never endure not being able to speak or losing our bowels, but then the doctors tell us what has to be and we put up with a feeding tube and a bag and being able to communicate only through a quivering eyelid. It’s always better than the alternative.

So of course we deal with the cataclysmic lack of love. Dawn comes, chilly and severe and yet reassuring in its sober bleakness. We make the bed, clear away the despair, and get on. 

There are a few consolations. First and foremost, a ravaged incensed defiance, a fuck you to the universe and all those who peddle sentimental nonsense that doesn’t fit our reality. A certain kind of art works too, the sort created by unflinching genius realists who went through as much loneliness as we have, who understood our sadness ahead of time, grief-stricken masters like Baudelaire and Leopardi, Pessoa and Pascal, who can express our petty domestic sorrow in mighty transcendental terms and induct us to the most dignified kind of regret. They were there too and, in the most abstract accomplished ways, tell us ‘I know’. And we have friendship, not the kind that obliterates the loneliness, but that allows us to commune around it. We can’t help each other directly, we’re more like a group of the dying in a hospice talking circle who won’t be able to eradicate the end but know they are at least not alone with it. We get better too at understanding statistics: that this is normal for a benighted group of us. We belong to an important minority party in the parliament of human suffering. 

Lovelessness will have been our major burden, a grief that endured from adolescence to the end, a problem that was meant to go away and never did. On our secret gravestone, it should say: Love didn’t work out for them, and how they longed that it might: an epitaph to frighten children and reassure our emotional successors. What was meant to be a phase turned into the truest thing about us: that we longed for love – and that it never came, a truth all the more redemptive for being expressed at last with a rare calm unflinching honesty.

© Flickr/Hokuloa

You are introduced to someone at a conference. They look nice and you have a brief chat about the theme of the keynote speaker. But already, partly because of the slope of their neck and a lilt in their accent, you have reached an overwhelming conclusion. Or, you sit down in the carriage – and there, diagonally opposite you – is someone you cannot stop looking at for the rest of a journey across miles of darkening countryside. You know nothing concrete about them. You are going only by what their appearance suggests. You note that they have slipped a finger into a book (The Food of the Middle East), that their nails are bitten raw, that they have a thin leather strap around their left wrist and that they are squinting a touch short-sightedly at the map above the door. And that is enough to convince you. Another day, coming out of the supermarket, amidst a throng of people, you catch sight of a face for no longer than eight seconds and yet here too, you feel the same overwhelming certainty – and, subsequently, a bittersweet sadness at their disappearance in the anonymous crowd.

Crushes: they happen to some people often and to almost everyone sometimes. Airports, trains, streets, conferences – the dynamics of modern life are forever throwing us into fleeting contact with strangers, from amongst whom we pick out a few examples who seem to us not merely interesting, but more powerfully, the solution to our lives. This phenomenon – the crush – goes to the heart of the modern understanding of love. It could seem like a small incident, essentially comic and occasionally farcical. It may look like a minor planet in the constellation of love, but it is in fact the underlying secret central sun around which our notions of the romantic revolve.

© Flickr/Mircea

A crush represents in pure and perfect form the dynamics of romantic philosophy: the explosive interaction of limited knowledge, outward obstacles to further discovery – and boundless hope.

The crush reveals how willing we are to allow details to suggest a whole. We allow the arch of someone’s eyebrow to suggest a personality. We take the way a person puts more weight on their right leg as they stand listening to a colleague as an indication of a witty independence of mind. Or their way of lowering their head seems proof of a complex shyness and sensitivity. From a few cues only, you anticipate years of happiness, buoyed by profound mutual sympathy. They will fully grasp that you love your mother even though you don’t get on well with her; that you are hard-working, even though you appear to be distracted; that you are hurt rather than angry. The parts of your character that confuse and puzzle others will at last find a soothing, wise, complex soulmate.

© Flickr/Mircea

The answer to life

In elaborating a whole personality from a few small – but hugely evocative – details, we are doing for the inner character of a person what our eyes naturally do with the sketch of a face.

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We don’t see this as a picture of someone who has no nostrils, eight strands of hair and no eyelashes. Without even noticing that we are doing it, we fill in the missing parts. Our brains are primed to take tiny visual hints and construct entire figures from them – and we do the same when it comes to character. We are – much more than we give ourselves credit for – inveterate artists of elaboration. We have evolved to be ready to make quick decisions about people (to trust or withhold, to fight or embrace, to share or deny) on the basis of very limited evidence – the way someone looks at us, how they stand, a twitch of the lips, a slight movement of the shoulder – and we bring this ingenious but fateful talent to situations of love as much to those of danger.

The cynical voice wants to declare that these enthusiastic imaginings at the conference or on the train, in the street or in the supermarket, are just delusional; that we simply project a false, completely imaginary idea of identity onto an innocent stranger. But this is too sweeping. We may be right. The wry posture may really belong to someone with a great line in scepticism; the head tilter may be unusually generous to the foibles of others. The error of the crush is more subtle, it lies in how easily we move from spotting a range of genuinely fine traits of character to settling on a recklessly naive romantic conclusion: that the other across the train aisle or pavement constitutes a complete answer to our inner needs.

© Flickr/Derek Midgley

The primary error of the crush lies in overlooking a central fact about people in general, not merely this or that example, but the species as a whole: that everyone has something very substantially wrong with them once their characters are fully known, something so wrong as to make an eventual mockery of the unlimited rapture unleashed by the crush. We can’t yet know what the problems will be, but we can and should be certain that they are there, lurking somewhere behind the facade, waiting for time to unfurl them.

How can one be so sure? Because the facts of life have deformed all of our natures. No one among us has come through unscathed. There is too much to fear: mortality, loss, dependency, abandonment, ruin, humiliation, subjection. We are, all of us, desperately fragile, ill-equipped to meet with the challenges to our mental integrity: we lack courage, preparation, confidence, intelligence. We don’t have the right role models, we were (necessarily) imperfectly parented, we fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analysing our worries, we have a precarious sense of security, we can’t understand either ourselves or others well enough, we don’t have an appetite for the truth and suffer a fatal weakness for flattering denials. The chances of a perfectly good human emerging from the perilous facts of life are non-existent. Our fears and our frailties play themselves out in a thousand ways, they can make us defensive or aggressive, grandiose or hesitant, clingy or avoidant – but we can be sure that they will make everyone much less than perfect and at moments, extremely hard to live with.

We don’t have to know someone in any way before knowing this about them. Naturally, their particular way of being flawed (very annoying) will not be visually apparent and may be concealed for quite long periods. If we only encounter another person in a fairly limited range of situations (a train journey, rather than when they are trying to get a toddler into a car seat; a conference, rather than 87 minutes into a shopping trip with their elderly father) we may, for a very long time indeed (especially if we are left alone to convert our enthusiasm into an obsession because they don’t call us back or are playing it cool), have the pleasure of believing we have landed upon an angel.

© Flickr/Justin Houk

A mature person thinks, not, ‘There’s nothing good here’, but rather ‘The genuinely good things will – inevitably – come mixed up with really terrible things’

Maturity doesn’t suggest we give up on crushes. Merely that we definitively give up on the founding romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of relationships and marriage has been based for the past 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can solve all our needs and satisfy our yearnings. We need to swap the Romantic view for the Tragic Awareness of Love, which states that every human can be guaranteed to frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. This is a truth chiselled indelibly into the script of life. Choosing who to marry or commit ourselves to is therefore merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for, rather than an occasion miraculously to escape from grief.

We should enjoy our crushes. A crush teaches us about qualities we admire and need to have more of in our lives. The person on the train really does have an extremely beguiling air of self-deprecation in their eyes. The person glimpsed by the fresh fruit counter really does promise to be a gentle and excellent parent. But these characters will, just as importantly, also be sure to ruin our lives in key ways, as all those we love will.

A caustic view of crushes shouldn’t depress us, merely relieve the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon long-term relationships. The failure of one particular partner to be the ideal Other is not – we should always understand – an argument against them; it is by no means a sign that the relationship deserves to fail or be upgraded. We have all necessarily, without being damned, ended up with that figure of our nightmares, ‘the wrong person.’

Romantic pessimism simply takes it for granted that one person should not be asked to be everything to another. With this truth accepted, we can look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of life beside another fallen creature, for example, never feeling that we have to spend all of our time with them, being prepared for the disappointments of erotic life, not insisting on complete transparency, being ready to be maddened and to madden, making sure we are allowed to keep a vibrant independent social life and maintaining a clear-eyed refusal to act on sudden desires to run off with strangers on trains… A mature understanding of the madness of crushes turns out to be the best and perhaps the only solution to the tensions of long-term love.

If we tried to put a crush into practice and settled down with this individual (as our fantasy prompts) we’d find all this out soon enough. In order to enjoy a crush we have to understand that that is what it is. If we think that we are in fact encountering a person who will make us happy, who will actually be the ideal person to live and grow old with we are – inadvertently – destroying the specific satisfaction the crush brings. The pleasure depends on our recognising that we are imagining an ideal person, not really finding one.

To crush well is to realise that the lovely person we sketch in our heads is our creation: a creation that says more about us, than about them. But what it says about us is important. The crush gives us access to our own ideals. We may not really be getting to know another person properly, but we are growing our insight into who we really are.

One of the most important principles for choosing a lover sensibly is not to feel in any hurry to make a choice. Being satisfied with being single is a precondition of satisfactory coupledom. We cannot choose wisely when remaining single feels unbearable. We have to be utterly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to have any chance of forming a good relationship. Or we’ll love no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us being so.

Unfortunately, after a certain age, society makes singlehood feel dangerously unpleasant. Communal life starts to wither. People in couples are too threatened by the independence of the single to invite them around very often – in case they are reminded of something they might have missed. Friendship and sex are, despite all the gadgets, remarkably hard to come by. No wonder if when someone slightly decent, but not quite so, comes along, we cling to them, to our eventual enormous cost.

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When sex was only available within marriage, people recognised that this led people to marry for the wrong reasons: to obtain something that was artificially restricted in society as a whole. Sexual liberation was intended to allow people to have a clearer head when choosing who they really wanted to be with. But the process remains only half-finished. Only when we make sure that being single can be potentially as secure, warm and fulfilling as being in a couple will we know that people are choosing to pair up for the right reasons. It’s time to liberate ‘companionship’ from the shackles of coupledom, and make it as widely and as easily available as sexual liberators wanted sex to be.

In the meantime, we should strive to make ourselves as much at peace as we can with the idea of being alone for a very long time. Only then do we stand a chance of deciding to be with someone on the basis of their own and true merits.

One of the paradoxes of the dating game is that we know that by coming across as enthusiastic at an early stage – if we ring them the next day, if we are open about how attractive we find them, if we suggest meeting them again very soon – we are putting ourselves at a high risk of disgusting the very person we would so like to get to know better.

It is in order to counter this risk that, early on in our dating lives we are taught by well-meaning friends to adopt a facade of indifference. We become experts at deliberately not phoning or sending messages, at treating our dates in a carefully off-hand manner and in subtly pretending we don’t much care if we never cross their paths again – while privately pining and longing. We are told that the only way to get them to care about us is to pretend not to care for them. And, in the process, we waste a lot of time, we may lose them altogether and we have to suffer the indignity of denying that we feel a desire that should never have been associated with shame in the first place.

© Flickr/Petra Bensted

But we can find a way out of the conundrum by drilling deeper into the philosophy that underpins the well-flagged danger of being overly eager. Why is detachment so often recommended? Why are we in essence not meant to call too soon?

High levels of enthusiasm are generally not recommended for one central reason: because they have been equated with what is a true psychological problem: manic dependence. In other words, calling too soon has become a symbol of weakness, desperation and the inability to deal adequately with life’s challenges without the constant support of a lover whose real identity the manically keen party doesn’t much care about because their underlying priority is to ensure that they are never alone without someone, rather than with any one being in particular.

But we should note that what is ultimately the problem is manic dependence, not high enthusiasm. The difficulty is that our cultural narratives have unfairly glued these two elements together with an unnecessarily strong and unbudging kind of adhesive.

Yet, there should logically be an option to disentangle the two strands: that is, to be able to reveal high enthusiasm and, at the same time, not thereby to imply manic dependence. There should be an option to appear at once very keen and very sane.

The ability to do so depends on a little known emotional art to which we seldom have recourse or introduction: strong vulnerability. The strongly vulnerable person is a diplomat of the emotions who manages carefully to unite on the one hand self-confidence and independence and on the other, a capacity for closeness, self-revelation and honesty. It is a balancing act. The strongly vulnerable know how to confess with authority to a sense of feeling small. They can sound in control even while revealing that they have an impression of being lost. They can talk as adults about their childlike dimensions. They can be unfrightening at the same time as admitting to their own fears. And they can tell us of their immense desire for us while simultaneously leaving us under the impression that they could well survive a frank rejection. They would love to build a life with us, they imply, but they could very quickly and adroitly find something else to do if that didn’t sound like fun from our side.

© Flickr/Pedro Ribeiro Simões

In the way that the strongly vulnerable speak of their desire for us, we sense a beguiling mixture of candour and independence. They don’t need to play it cool because they have found a way of carrying off high enthusiasm which sidesteps the dangers it has traditionally and nefariously been associated with.

What is offputting is never in fact that someone likes us; what is frightening is that they seem in danger of having no options other than us, of not being able to survive without us. Manic dependence, not enthusiasm has only ever been the problem. With this distinction in mind, we should learn to tell those we like that we’re really extremely keen to see them again, perhaps as early as tomorrow night, and find them exceptionally marvellous – while simultaneously leaving them in no doubt that we could, if the answer were no, without trouble and at high speed, find some equally enchanting people to play with and be bewitched by.