What is love? Though we often imagine love is restricted to the romantic arena, there are many kinds of love: there’s the helpless obsession a young girl has for her first crush; the tender, unconditional love a parent has for their child; the deep intimacy shared between a brother and sister; the miraculous mutual understanding of friends who’ve known each other since they were 12.
Love can be romantic, platonic, erotic, familial. It can last a single night or persist over a lifetime. It can be as red-hot as an affair in Paris or as routine as folding laundry, as fun and frivolous as flirting or as serious as cosigning a mortgage, as giddy as a middle school crush or as steady as a 25 year marriage. As Cheryl Strayed so beautifully said, love “can be light as the hug we give a friend or as heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children.”
Love is easy and effortless and hard and steep; love is rapture and torment; love is ecstasy and agony. Love is everything and nothing. Love is both in the small moments and grand gestures, the open doors and “good morning” text messages, the string quartets and bouquets of flowers. Love touches our tenderest branches and shakes us to our very core.
In her lovely, large-hearted book Conversations on Love, Natasha Lunn explores this mysterious element of the human experience. Determined to shed light on this oft-uttered, but often misunderstood concept, Lunn asks artists and writers, philosophers and psychologists, sex experts and advice columnists to share their experiences. Her conversations focus on 3 central questions: how do we find love? how do we sustain love? how do we recover when we lose it? Part personal memoir, part reportage, Conversations on Love features interviews with wise, wonderful minds along with Lunn’s own musings and meditations.
One of my favorite chapters comes from Britain’s beloved philosopher of love Alain de Botton, whose work I cherish and write of often. Botton, who himself has written extensively on the subject, argues the trouble with love is we romanticize it: we think our significant other should be our soul mate, a divine, consummate creature— not an ordinary mortal with difficult flaws and displeasing habits.
With the cynicism that is characteristic of his British heritage, Botton suggests we’d be better off if we adopted a more realistic attitude and patterned our romantic relationships after the less rose-tinted love between children and parents:
“One of the best models of love is how parents love their children. At the same time, sometimes they don’t like them— they get bored of them, they think they’re awful, they want a break from them. And all those things go on in the love that an adult might have for another, too; sometimes we’re fed up and aware of someone’s glaring faults, but still very much on their side. They annoy us and we still love them.”
Botton defines love not in terms of what it is but in terms of what it is not. Despite the romanticized portrayals of love in cheesy rom-coms and sappy Hallmark cards, love is not idealization— it’s seeing (and accepting) someone for who they truly are. As Botton observes,
“No one really wants to be idealized— we want to be seen and accepted and forgiven, and to know that we can be ourselves in our less edifying moments. So to be on the receiving end of somebody’s idealizing feelings can be alienating. It looks like we’re being seen and admired like never before, but actually, many important parts of us are being forgotten.”
For those of us who have yet to find a life partner, how do we hold on to hope, especially when our society expects us to “date in our twenties, find the ideal partner by twenty-eight, and have children by thirty one”? Botton maintains we must let go of timelines and relinquish control.
Sometimes we’ll love someone and they won’t love us back.
Sometimes we’ll endure countless dull conversations in dimly-lit bars and go home alone to an empty bed.
Sometimes we’ll sign up for every dating app and go on date after date after date and still not find someone.
Our fates are a convergence of choice and chance. The idea that we’re masters of our fates is a reassuring but ultimately untrue myth. We can’t control if we’ll meet someone— or when. We can only create a Tinder profile and put ourselves out there again and again.
No matter what our society says, there are no “right” partners, no “right” choices, no “right” ways to live. We can follow the well-trodden road— get married, have children, buy a house with a white picket fence— or forge our own path. We can find the love of our lives in college or when we’re 77. We can choose to commit to one person or stay single. We can get married in a poofy princess dress in a formal ceremony or barefoot on a Brazilian beach in front of only a few people. Our dream life can contain toothaches and play dates and Play-Doh or world travel and boundless freedom. When asked what he’d wished he’d known about finding love, Botton says:
“To be calmer about the whole process. And that things would work out or they wouldn’t, and even then, that would be fine too. This black and white model of ‘it’s got to be like this and then it will be perfect’ just doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter who you meet or when you meet them; there’s pain and joy on each side of the ledger. So don’t stick rigidly to one story about what your life means, because it’s likely to be wrong. In fact, there are many ways of living this life.”
When a relationship ends, we often find it difficult to move on because we imagine the life we could’ve had is infinitely better than our life as it actually is. We’re haunted by the phantom of our other possible existence. What if we could have actually worked things out? What if I/they finally changed? What if we suddenly reconciled all our issues and fundamental incompatibilities: our dissimilar taste in movies, our contrasting views on marriage, our completely opposite political beliefs? What if we finally moved to our dream city and built our own life in our own house?
In a poetic, profound passage, Lunn suggests it’s unproductive to romanticize what could have been. Would we be happy if we didn’t end our relationship? Perhaps, but that doesn’t negate the possibility for happiness in our lives as they’re currently constituted. Every choice involves gain and loss. If we chose the other path, our lives wouldn’t necessarily be better— just different. As Lunn writes,
“Alain made me see the situation of being alone not as an unflattering reflection of my ‘less impressive sides,’ but as an unimaginative story I was telling about connection.
All the times I had been casually rejected, I realize now were either future blessings or facts to be accepted, rather than resisted. I had wasted energy trying to keep these relationships afloat; there was no need to waste more asking why someone didn’t love me, what I could have done differently to change the outcome. The only outcome was the one that happened. And as Alain pointed out, ‘There’s pain and joy on each side of the ledger.’ If I’d stayed with someone I’d met in my early twenties, moved to the seaside, got a dog and had a baby at thirty, there would have been wonderful and mundane chapters to that story, just as there were wonderful and mundane chapters to the life I lived in those years instead. For every depressing date, there was a precious friendship formed. For every lonely Sunday, a new ambition discovered.”