The Human Condition:

Love and Freedom – December 11, 2016

Holding hands

It is a plain fact that human personal relationships are almost never completely reciprocal nor symmetrical. In any communion between two people one partner will almost always feel more, give more, or demand more.

This doesn’t much matter when the relationship is based on negative feelings like loathing and hatred. Those relationships are practically unilateral. One can hate a person without knowing or caring whether the antipathy and disdain are returned. We hate one on one, but we must love—if there is to be any relationship at all—two by two.

It is a curious fact that, while hatred is unipolar, love is always bipolar. That is, what you feel and want for the loved one is certainly different from what you feel and want for yourself. To love a person—to really love and form a lasting relationship with them, and not just engage personal feelings of admiration, desire, or lust—you must be willing to give up a portion of your freedom for their sake. And to make the relationship work, you must be willing to give the other person their freedom in return.

But you cannot give up everything for love. That makes you weak and powerless—not to mention resentful. Some things in our traditional culture you are supposed to give up, like the opportunity to have romantic attachments with other partners, or the sense of personal ownership and entitlement that lets you criticize and abuse the beloved person for not meeting your own high standards. Some things you are advised to give up, like the freedom to plan your life for your own protection and benefit, or to spend your non-working hours however and with whomever you wish. And some things you would be a fool to give up, like your strongly held beliefs and the positive elements of personal taste and choices—hairstyle, wardrobe decisions, food preferences, innate body language, and other noninvasive qualities—which define your sense of self, your character, and your public image.

At the same time, you grant the person you love the freedom to make all these choices for him- or herself. But you do not—and really cannot—grant another person total freedom to be entirely selfish. You may want that person to be free to make choices, but if there is to be any relationship at all, you want at least some of those choices to include you and involve your perspective, advice, understanding, and commitment. Without this involvement, you are engaged in a one-sided affair—a romantic crush, unrequited love, or some form of hero worship—and not in a relationship at all.

What every couple must learn to do is compromise. This means knowing where the warm hearth stones are laid, what and where the boundaries lie, and where extend the distant lands full of brambles into which you do not want to venture. Entering into a romantic or personal relationship is a back-and-forth testing between two people—like two male stickleback fish pushing out from their safe nesting grounds into foreign and other-dominated territory—until they establish zones of comfort, lines of approach, and areas of avoidance.

And still those zones and areas will be asymmetrical in any relationship. For the partner who feels more and gives more, the home ground will be narrower, the freedoms feel shallower, and the danger zones extend farther. For that partner, the developing relationship will reach a point of sad resignation. The beloved person has become a known and tested quantity. More caring and more giving from that person are simply not forthcoming. The choice is then to live with—and under—the unspoken rules of the relationship or to throw them over, seek a new partner, and start fresh.

For the partner who feels less and—either consciously or by default—demands more, the relationship might seem perfect. This partner has broad freedom mixed with rich levels of attention. The home ground is broad, and the danger zones are diminished, if not entirely gone from mind. And yet this partner, unless they are a total emotional and moral zombie, will have a sense of unease. The ground beneath their feet will feel slippery and unstable. They will know, even if unconsciously, that the emotional universe has a rent, a dark spot, with the cold vacuum of space waiting beyond it.

At one extreme—just a step shy of the relationships built on hero worship and unrequited love—exist the marriages so lopsided that the husband can beat his wife and still demand her respect, or the wife can humiliate and demean her husband publicly and still expect to receive flowers. These relationships are doomed, waiting only for the submissive partner to rise up, make a life-changing decision, and leave.

At the other extreme—in relationships built upon mutual frankness and understanding—exist marriages where the partners know and respect the other’s choices and wishes, laugh at the same jokes, mourn the same losses, and despise the same iniquities. These are two people who will finish each other’s sentences. They will decide at the same moment to walk out of a bad movie. And they dance through life in a flurry of small, thoughtful gestures, favors, compliments, agreements, amnesties, and absolutions. These relationships endure, not because they are perfect, but because the sharp edges are all worn off, and life is more rewarding and stimulating in that other person’s company than it could be with anyone else.

These are the dynamics of human love and freedom, as I understand them—at least for the world that goes around two by two. They are the creeks and forks of the rivers that lead to great and endearing love stories, tense dramas, and bitter tragedies. They are the tools of a novelist who hopes to understand the human condition.