16 January 2012

The poison of "one true love"

A little while back I came across this image through StumbleUpon:

Now I'm the sort of person who could maybe be labelled as a romantic (perhaps even of the hopeless sort), but I can't stand cheesy crap so I'm immediately frustrated by this sort of thing. But this example in particular grated on me because I thought it spoke to and perpetuated a damaging belief that so many people seem to have about love. (It also grated on me because of its asinine punctuation. Period or ellipsis? YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE.) Being in the mood for a debate, I brought my grievances to Facebook. I linked to the above image and declared that anyone who preoccupied themself with the sort of fairytale BS it was peddling would be setting themself up for a lot of unhappiness. What followed was a pretty great conversation, but I don't think I made my points as well as I could have, so I'll try to make things clearer here.

(Like I said, I'm perhaps a bit of a romantic, and most of the points I make here are based on the assumption that the person involved is concerned with the concept of love and is interested in long-term relationships, and probably in marriage. I'm not saying anyone should conform to any of those assumptions, but if they already do [probably most people, myself included] I think the points I make in this post are things that are important for them to consider.)

I'll admit, there was a time when I, too, was rather preoccupied with finding "The One." I can't say experiencing love cured me of the obsession (in fact it probably exacerbated it at first), but reflection on my first experiences with love did. It's abundantly clear to me now that, 1) love isn't like it is in the fairytales and flustered romances, 2) it's for the best that it isn't, and 3) you're going to be less happy if you use that kind of shlock as your yardstick for romantic success. The supposedly-inspirational little blurb above, like so many darling love stories and Disney movies before it, makes the claim that having One True Love in your life is the pinnacle of romance. It suggests that leading a life in which you love more than one person would be falling short of some sort of ideal prescription for happiness. And it's total bullshit, on a couple different levels.

On Facebook I think I ran into problems because I effectively distilled my argument to a single statement—"You probably won't spend the rest of your life with the first person you love, and that's okay"—when there were really two distinct points I wanted to make: the first regarding the negative effects of expecting that your life will fit the One True Love fairytale mold, and the second regarding the positive effects of loving more than one person in your lifetime. The difference came to light when folks started pointing out that if someone was in fact lucky enough to spend their whole life with the first person they loved, there'd be nothing wrong with that. On the one hand I agree that if they were indeed that lucky (and I can't stress enough the luck involved) then yes, they might be able to avoid the negative effects which I'll highlight in a moment. But on the other hand I think that there are nevertheless some positive things they'll miss out on, which I'll come to a little later.

The fact is that most people will not spend their life with the first person they love; you'd be foolish to expect it to happen to you, and even more foolish to try to engineer it that way. But I get the impression that many people do both anyway. And in the process of trying to force their experiences into an unrealistic mold they stand to lose good and real parts of their lives and selves. Such losses are the negative effects I mentioned, and I think there are two main ways for them to come about.

In the first, you might find yourself with a person whom you don't actually love, or whom you do love but who isn't the right person for you to spend your life with. If you're under the impression that it's paramount to get things right on the first try, it might seem sensible to convince yourself that the other person is more "right" for you than they actually are, just so you don't have to endure the shame, frustration, or whatever it is that you think is involved in making more than one attempt at finding the person with whom to spend your life. In this case you're denying yourself happiness by refusing to seek out things that could make you happier than you are, and by enduring the unhappiness you may find yourself with.

The other way (which strikes me as particularly sad) would be actually loving more than one person in your life but feeling the need to reconcile your feelings for the person you've ultimately chosen with the One True Love concept. And to do that you'd have to rewrite history and—out of some misplaced guilt—trivialize aspects of your life that you once cherished. Because if you're supposed to spend your life with the first person you love, then what you experienced before must not have been love after all, right? That's crap, and in so doing you'd be denying yourself happiness by pretending you didn't really have it.

I characterize the above two effects as negative since I see them as actively removing happiness from your life. But even if a person is "lucky" enough to truthfully wind up spending their life with their first love (and thus avoids removing happiness from their lives in the above ways) I think there's still a matter of additional happiness that they'll not experience that would come as a result of loving more than one person in their life.

But first: there seems to be this notion that if you only love one person in your life, your love is more "pure" or something. What absolute bullshit. "Purity" is irrelevant to love because love is about life, and life is messy and complicated. (Intentions can be impure, but I'm limiting myself to talking about people operating with a reasonable amount of honesty with themselves and each other.) Nor is love a finite resource that a person uses up. It's the sustained experience of a set of overlapping emotions (happiness, trust, respect, appreciation, desire, astonishment, excitement, intimacy, understanding, belonging, and so on) plus a conscious commitment. Love may wane between two people, but that doesn't mean it was "spent" and is no longer "available" for another person. Rather than an object given, love is better thought of as an art honed; the comparison is still far from perfect, but much closer. If you ask me, if any person could be said to have a more "genuine" love than anyone else, it's not the wide-eyed neophyte who's never loved before—it's the person who's seen the ups and downs and has come to know what they want and need and what they should give.

But in addition to being better at love, I think loving more than one person has straightforward benefits for you as a person. An argument could certainly be made for the notion that "variety is the spice of life" and that loving different people will bring you different kinds of happiness. But more than that, I think loving more than one person helps you grow as a person. I think most would agree that spending time with others leads you to discover new things, and I think that the deeper the connection, the deeper the things you unlock. I've personally felt that I've been able to make positive changes in personality, emotions, empathy, communication, and interests through the people for whom I've cared deeply. Sometimes it struck me as uncovering parts of myself (that were present but untouched) with their help, and other times I saw myself borrowing a piece of their self and adopting it as my own. I think it's beautiful, and I hope I was able to return the favor.

And so I've gone from being someone who was rather preoccupied with finding "The One" so that I could spend the rest of my life with them, to being someone who is excited by the chance to be with many different people to see what parts of myself I might be able to unlock, again with the hope of returning the favor. That's not to say I'm encouraging myriad flings; I think quality is more important than quantity. Indeed, I still consider myself someone who favors long-term relationships over short-term—now I'm just less concerned with any particular one of them being my last. As of now I still see myself as the sort of person who'd like settle down with one other at some point, but I'm in much less of a rush to get there. And I think it's a healthier outlook, and one that has made me and will continue to make me much happier.

If by luck you find yourself with someone on the first try that you think you could spend the rest of your life with, then power to you. I'm not saying you can't be happy that way—far from it. I am of the opinion, though, that a person might be happier having loved multiple people in their lives; at the very least, a different kind of happy. And if you haven't been so lucky, don't you dare go thinking you've lost the opportunity to be happy. To relate it to the negative effects I dealt with above: you can also deny yourself happiness with a preoccupation for finding your "One True Love" from the outset by simply not experiencing happiness you otherwise might have.

Overall, I hate the thought of people rejecting large parts of their life and happiness in an attempt to live up to an asinine fairytale ideal. Like I've said, I'm not here to say that my particular relationship goals are the best ones. I suppose on the surface I seem a bit old-fashioned: I'm interested in long-term relationships, can't see the appeal of casual sex (at least in practice), and would probably like to get married someday. But that doesn't mean I don't understand that other people want entirely different things out of life. And I wholeheartedly encourage them to seek out those things, without giving a fuck what society at large has to say about it. As long as it's safe and consensual, do what makes you happy. But if you do happen to be like me, and are looking to foster long-term, loving relationships, I think the reality-based mindset I've outlined is the best way to get happiness out of such an approach.

You may well realize that your life won't turn out like a fairytale, but I think there's still a chance you may want it to, and perhaps even have a small lingering expectation. And I'm strongly of the opinion that a fairytale romance isn't something worth wanting, and that the expectation can wind up denying you happiness. Love can be hard enough without setting unrealistic expectations and without nullifying some of its rewards. I see it as a reciprocal process: loving grows you as a person, and growing as a person makes you better at being in love. So if you think love will make you happy, just go out there and do it and get it. And don't waste your time concerning yourself with the false ideal of having only "One True Love" in your life.

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