Finding Love Archives - The School Of Life

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.

Matisse_La-pompadour_1951

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.

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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.

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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.

We are a practical species, and when we think of love, it is normal to focus on the sort that goes places, that is mutual, that leads people to form couples and perhaps one day households.

But the more peculiar reality is that the greatest share of humanity’s love stories have unfolded in a directionless form in the recesses of the mind of only one party. It seems that we are – in aggregate at least – committed first and foremost to the unrequited version of love.

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At any point, millions of love stories are quietly being spun by one person while the object of their adoration goes about their business blithely unconcerned. Someone watches someone else on a train, casts surreptitious glances at a delegate at a conference; carefully notes a fellow shopper’s manner in a grocery store – and the earth spins on undisturbed.  

Unrequited lovers are easy to dismiss as not far from pathetic. If we were better designed and a little saner, we would of course never develop feelings for people who were not prepared to develop them for us – nor squander our days on desires without logical or practical outcome.

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But, looked at more benevolently, there is something hugely salutary and noble about our capacity to entertain tender daydreams. It is a feat to be able to detonate powerful longings without causing any inconvenience to others. The ability to daydream is a significant human achievement. Rather than wishing that we stop doing so, we should be worried by what might happen to us if we couldn’t daydream, if we were faced with the choice of either accepting reality in all its barrenness or else of barging into the lives of others with unwanted desires. Daydreaming is a vital and artful safety valve, mediating between resignation on the one hand and uncontained effusions on the other.

Along the way, unrequited love provides us with an occasion to exercise our aptitudes for optimism in a highly salutary way. After a few decades on the earth, it is only too easy to start to hate our fellow humans for their mediocrity, selfishness and idiocy. But with our beloved in mind, we can, for once, give free reign to a boundless generosity that a god or the parent of a newborn might deploy. We can tell ourselves that we have found an angel, an exalted being, on the basis of nothing more than how wise their green eyes look or how delicately they open their yogurt for lunch. Our verdicts are a delusional exaggeration, but – given how much grounds there is to despair at the human experiment – perhaps a noble and forgivable one as well.

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It’s the privilege of unrequited love never to have to encounter the disappointment that follows from contact with reality. We are not after accurate knowledge of what it would be like to coexist with this person. We don’t really want to know how they might behave in the midst of a crisis at work or over a holiday with their parents. We’ve been through enough such trials – and the results aren’t edifying. Of course they would, after a time in our arms, prove less than ideal and a little more like everyone else we know. We may be denied intimacy, but we are granted access to something arguably far nicer: boundless hope. We can attach to the form and figure of the person we desire everything we so want to be true about human beings. The beloved becomes the repository of every desire: for a particular kind of intelligence, wit, temperament and outlook. The older we get, the more unrequited love brings us back into contact with a passion and hope that feels like an essential relief, like finding out that we can still run – or giggle. In meditating on our beloved, we’re not getting to know a real person; we are gaining an insight into our ideals.

One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, we’ll be surrounded by a thought police that will look inside our minds at will and ruthlessly condemn for us for all the phantasmagoria that goes on in them. But for the moment at least, we can have any thought we like with impunity: we and the beloved can go on holiday to Portugal, can have four adorable children together, can dance in the town square all night – and the armed guards will never know.

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It is hard to share with most acquaintances quite what we are going through. But those who do understand become the targets of particular gratitude. A true friend will indulge our folly and be generous to our melodramas. They will avoid the easy task of censoring and upbraiding us. They will have enough of an impression of our basic mental health to shepherd us only gently back to melancholic sanity.

Episodes of unrequited love force us to develop a sense of humour about ourselves. It is impossible to think too well of who we are in their aftermath. Unrequited love edges us inevitably towards a basic humility. We are at last confirmed as truly ridiculous.

With any luck, no one gets hurt, it is just that, for a time, the world seems a bit more wondrous, more exciting and more blessed than usual. A natural impulse is to try to convert our longings into something more sensible, either to start a proper love affair or else to dismiss our dreams as too silly to nurture. Maybe we should do neither, but rather let the unrequited love exist on its own, neither fully grown up nor wholly damnable, neither deeply horrible nor quite sane. It is just the mind, a very complicated machine, constrained by the narrowness of existence, turning its wheels, tantalised by a vision of happiness and sensing, quite rightly and quite hopelessly, that there could have been so much more to life than there ever will be.

The common-sense explanation for long-term singlehood directs the blame firmly outwards, it isolates the problem to one of mechanics: one is still single because one hasn’t, perhaps on account of having moved to a vast and anonymous new city, been invited to enough parties, or because the constant requirement to fly to the Singapore office leaves no time for the right sort of socializing, or because one is holed up in a remote village high in the mountains connected to the more densely populated lowlands only by an irregular bus service.

These may be solid enough reasons, but when the problems persist over an extended period, their power to explain our situation weakens. Without anything remotely persecutory or unkind being intended by this, one is forced to cast around for psychological rather than procedural explanations. The problem must lie in our minds rather than in the world.

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And in the recesses of these minds, two issues – diametrical yet complimentary – can often be identified: one is suffering from an excess of self-hatred. Or from an excess of self-love.

Self-hatred is the more poignant of the pair. On being approached by someone, however initially attractive and competent they might be, we begin to wonder why they should be so naive, so desperate, and so weak as to be drawn to someone like us. When we are inadequately convinced of our own likeability, the attentions of another person must forever seem illegitimate and peculiar, and reflect poorly on their donor. Love feels like a gift we haven’t earned, don’t deserve – and must therefore take care eventually to throw away.

We might, under the pressure of self-hatred, accuse our admirer of naivety. The only possible reason they can have to approve of us is that they are poor judges of character. That is why they have missed all the more disturbed and darker aspects of us. They like us only because they are blind – and therefore a little stupid. However, because they are bound to spot their error eventually, it is surely wiser to run away before we are exposed and abandoned. We end up alone because, despite our longing for affection, we don’t in essence feel there are any good and lasting reasons why anyone would properly see us and like us.

We may also, in the face of the gifts, text messages or hugs we receive, start to feel that our admirer is, to a sickening degree, needy. We feel repulsed by their need when we don’t see ourselves as appropriate targets of anyone’s need; we reject their nascent dependence because somewhere inside, we are sure that we are not people to depend upon.

And yet, of course, none of these spectres need to be real in the world outside our touchingly troubled minds. The person who is keen on us is almost certainly not naive. They can no doubt see us for what we are: they have noticed many of our less admirable sides. It is just that they don’t consider these fatal, because they know that being not quite right is what all of us are and is no barrier to a mature relationship. They know we’re not exactly who we think we should be, but they also grasp that this doesn’t place anyone in the category of the damned. We might be a bit perverted, a little silly and not as nice as we make out – but so is everyone else. It’s not that they are naive about us; we’re ultimately naive about them. They know that every human has shadow sides. They’ve made peace with theirs (probably as a result of a fortunate childhood); they would like us to make peace with ours. Ahead of us, they understand that a person can be ordinarily imperfect – and worthy of being cherished.

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Then, at the other end of the spectrum, comes excessive self-love, which really means a hesitation around fully acknowledging what a challenging proposition one is – and therefore how much we should rightly be grateful for when someone, anyone with an ordinary share of strengths and weaknesses, looks our way. Perhaps because of the legacy of doting and forgivably biased parents, we are operating with an unhelpful sense of how lucky someone might be to end up in our arms.

After having been alone for a long time, we may also have lost the knack of spotting what peculiar, demanding and compulsive people we are. With no one to hold up a mirror, we have forgotten to give due weight to the rage, the anxiety and the moments of vindictiveness.

At the same time, we are travelling the world with our imaginations switched off, imagination defined here as the capacity to look with energy, compassion and curiosity into the face and character of another person in order to search out what might be desirable and good therein.


Imagination means sensitivity to the less obvious things; one scans past the surface and wonders about what might be worthy inside a fellow human, whom it would – of course – always be so easy (yet ultimately so unrewarding) to criticise.


To awaken the dormant faculty of the imagination, we might more regularly – perhaps in the street or on the train to work – look at the faces around us, especially the less distinguished or obviously sculpted ones, and ask ourselves what there could be to delight in. There is always going to be something, for we were all once love-worthy children and remain as much in our depths.

Practising imagination is not a compromise, it is the key to love, for we all have to be considered imaginatively in order to be tolerated and forgiven over the long term by anyone. By thinking imaginatively, we’re not being disloyal to the true ambition of love; we’re stumbling on the essence of what love rightly has to involve.

There will always be practical reasons why it proves hard to find a partner. But if we have worked on our levels of self-love and attenuated the ravages of self-hatred, an absence of parties or a difficult bus ride to the next town need never condemn us long-term to a life devoid of tenderness and connection.