Recently one of America’s favorite singers, Rihanna, reconciled with her on and off again boyfriend, Chris Brown. You’ll remember he had beaten her up several months earlier.
In a similar vein, about a year ago I got to know a girl in her early twenties who complained of her uneasy, abusive relationship with her boyfriend. While she didn’t tell us of any violence, she made it clear she was undergoing daily verbal abuse. All of us, puzzled by the dynamics, wondered why she didn’t bang the door shut on the guy.
When it comes to this kind of thing, I can be pretty sensitive. My mother, after all, endured an abusive relationship with my father across the years that sometimes included violence.
The poet Sylvia Plath, shortly before her suicide, wrote famously of the masochism underlying such manacled couples as “a love of the rack and the screw.” As a professor who taught this poem for many years, I take it she had in mind the role of culture in nurturing feminine subservience in a patriarchal world, the “for better or worse” syndrome of the traditional marriage vow. Women, however, were the only ones taking it seriously, as may still be the case.
But I think Plath’s conclusion errs in its reductionism. In those days, few women had access to employment and thus independence. And then there is evolution’s maternal instinct that still kicks-in, the children to be protected at all costs.
Today’s scene, however, is vastly different and still changing as women have secured options earlier women perhaps never thought about, since they were precluded possibilities. And yet a good many women, and some men, still cling to demeaning liaisons.
The truth is that many relationships should never have had their genesis. We live in a culture that dilutes love by conceiving it falsely, with our movies, harlequin novels, and music playing out the theme of lovers “as the luckiest people in the world.”
Romantic love, or ”being in love,” has a fixity about it, a must have it now and abundantly; a possessiveness centered in emotional absolutes. Root bound, it cannot grow and lacks a future. At best, it turns habit.
“Loving,” on the other hand, is like a fine vintage that gets better with the years. Here lies the advantage of postponing life choices until the grapes are ready. I was raised in a world that told me that first love was true love. This may be so for some, but I think not for many.
Unfortunately, a good many relationships pose a latent psychological component, or dread, that the late psychiatrist Reuven Bar-Levan nailed down persuasively when he wrote that “what holds people in destructive and humiliating ’love’ relationships, and what makes them plead and even beg to be ’loved,’ is extreme fear of abandonment. The force of this fear is so great that people degrade and humiliate themselves to avoid it” (Thinking in the Shadow of Feelings, p. 145).
This dread, overwhelming and prevalent, primarily traces back to our parents and whether they succeeded in making ourselves feel lovable. When missing, it pursues us, like a shadow, all of our life and through mistrust we prove quite capable of driving genuine love away in wanting rather than giving, demanding and not allowing.
Again, authentic love lacks stasis or rigidity. As such, it maturates and transcends love’s vicissitudes because, with time, it grows in wisdom, acknowledging flux in all relationships, and allows even for exits, since loving abounds in the context of freedom, or ability to sometimes let go. Genuine love has its ending ultimately in our mortality if from nothing else; but whatever its source, its loss results in sadness, not fear or anger. Free from fear, love thrives.
Removed from anxiety, love is, indeed, “a many splendored thing.”