What makes love?

A very liberal friend of mine is married to a conservative Republican. Most of my other friends who know this couple–also liberals–scratch their heads and ponder how such a relationship can possibly work. As our political leanings are largely a reflection about how we look at the world and, in some cases, how we practice our faith, it is really hard to fathom having a relationship with someone with whom you don’t share the same basic philosophical outlook on life. (I will add, however, that this couple does share the same religious faith.)

I have always been the most skeptical because in the one relationship in my life that worked, my husband and I had the same political leanings, even to the point of coordinating our voting efforts, and we were in the same place religiously (which is to say, we weren’t). Yet, I look at this couple and I see the love they share. They’re about to have their first child and, though they joke about swaying her toward their personal political persuasions, I can tell they are going to make caring, loving parents. Though their child may absolutely hate politics when she grows up.

For years, I looked at their relationship and I thought, “Well, that works for them. But it would never work for me.” I had different standards, more passion. I could never cross the line of falling for someone who did not meet my criteria of age (within 5 years each way of my age), financial stability, politics (liberal), religious beliefs (liberal and really only recently found). Age, religion, and politics, I thought, were my most important requirements.

A friend of mine, amidst a huge argument in which he accused me of being an “age-ist” because I declared that I would never date someone who was older than 39, said to me, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.”

I was so angry with him. Yes, you damned well can! I wanted to scream at him. I have control of my emotions, I thought. I don’t have to give into my baser emotions. I can be attracted to someone and not follow through because I know it won’t–it can’t–work. I felt I was above the absent-minded choices people make in their love lives.

But it’s all not so simple as you think things will be when you look at them through a telescope eyepiece from afar. Sometimes situations, especially when it comes to feelings of desire and love, just kind of land in your lap when you aren’t looking. Sometimes, it seems as if events happen just to mock words you spoke a moment earlier, taunting you, “Ha, ha. Let’s see if you really can follow through with your theories.”

When we dream of love and romance, we think of it in terms of the ideal. Seldom do we actually get all of our desires fulfilled when compared to our vision of the perfect person. In our wistful day dreams, our lovers don’t fart or have body odor; they don’t leave all the lights on in the unoccupied rooms of the house; their kisses make us dizzy all the time, every time. Our dream lovers never fight with us and they tell us we are beautiful all the time. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone to meet this vision and yet, I think, most of the time, we still try to find our image of perfect.

But people aren’t perfect. And when you’re dreaming of Mr. or Ms. Right, you’re probably really creating a counterpart to your own personality, someone exactly like yourself only in the gender you’re attracted to. You’ll never find someone exactly like yourself, and if you did, it would be an awfully boring relationship. Dating myself would probably drive me nuts, I am sure. (As many of my ex-boyfriends could probably attest.)

It’s those differences that add the spice to the relationship, those little perspectives that make you see the world through the eyes of your lover. Mike viewed everything as if through a fun-house mirror; he always had a slightly bemused grin on his face as if he wasn’t literally seeing everything around him the way everyone else did. Sometimes he kidded too hard. Other times, I just couldn’t believe the words that fell out of his mouth. He often took the opposite side in an argument just to, as he said, “see if I had thought out my points.” I always hated that. Yet, when I think back on our relationship, that little annoyance makes me smile.

At the same time, we shared a passion for climbing and camping. We used to sing the soundtrack of Cabaret to keep us awake on long road trips. We listened to Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday nights and we thought we were ever-so intellectual. We weren’t the same, but we were very much alike still. My relationship with him has become my vision of perfection. Because it worked.

When someone’s philosophies are so opposed to yours, it’s very hard to find their view of the world as “cute.” You end up having to avoid the subject because you don’t want to cause waves and, maybe, you just don’t want to see the world the way that person does. You’d rather just close your eyes to that aspect of his or her personality. If you are avoiding an aspect of their personality, can you really love them? In the case of my husband, I loved everything about him–even his quirky theories and ideas, even the opinions with which I did not agree. Nothing he thought was scary per se. Our philosophies never crossed.

There is also the theory of “yin and yang”: opposites attract. In Chinese philosophy, two opposing forces compliment each other to make a whole. It’s a nice theory. Does it work in real life? It always seems to me that the two sides would always be struggling against each other, breaking apart the unity. The couple mentioned above are the only ones I know who seem to cooperate well as opposites. Most of my other friends have similar-minded mates. In fact, I feel a pressure from them to not date “outside of our mindset” because I’d be sacrificing some vital part of myself. I fear they’d be disappointed in me for spending my time with conservative. One friend, upon learning that I might be seeing someone from the “other side,” tisked me and shook his head sadly.

Maybe all of our romantic confusion boils down to hormones. For some reason or another, there are certain people we find ourselves inevitably attracted to, sometimes even when we know it’s fatally wrong. It’s the curse of our ceaseless urges to procreate–an urge that has not subsided despite our move to civilization, stability, and family. We always return to our baser instincts.

Yet, is it all as simple as hormones? Sometimes you just have to admit that despite the utter illogic of it, you simply enjoy the company of another person, even when he or she don’t meet all of the important criteria on your list. It’s not desperation because you’re fine and stable and quite happy on your own. Desperation implies staying with someone who is bad for you just because you don’t want to be alone. But finding contentment with someone else who you know you could let go at any time, if you really wanted to–someone who treats you with the respect and gentleness you deserve–is not desperation. It’s genuine affinity for someone.

What makes you have an affinity for someone with whom your philosophies are so drastically adverse? Perhaps there are other things you enjoy doing together. Maybe those religious and political differences you thought were so important aren’t really so high on your list. But how could that be? And, are you flirting with a relationship that is inevitably doomed to failure? While these things are not so important when you’re dating, their weight might increase if the relationship progressed, for dating is much less serious than day-to-day contact.

How do we know which of the choices we make in life are the right ones? Sometimes, I really wish the path of my life would unfold before me so that I can see where it leads. I know that every day I make choices that affect the outcome. Once in awhile, though, I long for some internal compass to guide me in the “right” direction, the road where the terminus is somewhere I always thought I wanted to be. I’m afraid that I’m going to waste my life, fumbling around in the dark for my flash light, and when I reach the end, I’ll haven’t fulfilled any dreams and all I’ll have is a life of dirt roads that cut paths like spaghetti, all random and criss-crossing and intersecting.

I’ve been in love many times. I had a great love once. I still know nothing about love or what it means or how one finds it. I’m just as confused as everyone else. As I get older, I start to wonder about the checklist I made up a long time ago that catalogued the qualities I was looking for in a husband. Perhaps my devotion to this list causes me to discriminate against otherwise worthy men. It’s hard to find someone this way because we don’t wear a patch on our sleeves that states our philosophies outright. Sometimes I wish we did. That way, I could immediately avoid–before even having a conversation to lures me in–those men who might not meet my sacred criteria.

But I suppose that would cause more problems than it helped, for we would all become isolated from each other, avoiding conversations with all those people with whom we did not agree. Our society’s problems would only get worse when we ceased to communicate.

I’ve always been told by therapists that my Checklist for Mr. Right was a very good, organized way for finding the right guy. I had done what they felt so many other people needed to do to help them sort the flowers from the weeds. However, my checklist only results in one type of flower. In the garden, there are many different kinds of worthy plants, not just flowers. Maybe it’s not so important that someone be the same religion as me or have the same politics, but that they treat me the way I always expect a lover to treat me.

What is love, anyway? What really makes you love someone for real? I’ve always thought it was having almost everything in common with just some minor differences (as it was with Mike). How can you love deeply, as you would have to in a committed relationship, when you don’t love every single thing about the person? Maybe I have a stupid, foolish idea of what love is all about.

My friend’s words still haunt me. You can’t help who you fall in love with. Is this true? And if you can’t help who you fall in love with, should you always follow through with those feelings? At what point do you take a chance on someone whose qualities don’t match every item on your list, and just let go enough to see where it leads?

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5 thoughts on “What makes love?

  1. You kind of argued yourself around to what you really know is the right thing, didn’t you? Throw out your punch lists and let go enough to see where life leads.Bob Whittington

  2. Yes, I did argue myself around. I think it’s called the conflict in my head: I feel pressure to follow “logic” and yet I can’t help about how I feel about someone… Maybe a lot of my fears are external, like fearing what other people close to me will think, rather than just doing what feels right to me.

  3. I think I mentioned this once before, my Philosophy of Relationships – do you feel like you can breathe in this relationship, or do you feel like you have to hold your breath? If you’re holding your breath waiting for things to change, chances are they never will. But if you’re able to breathe easy, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

  4. I agree with Diane. My relationship w/ KT was a definite “breathe holding”, but w/ Shawn, it’s easy breathing :). I started a snail last weekend, meant to finish it this week, but time got away from me.

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