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Relationships • Finding Love

What Do You Love Me For?

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.

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