Nothing like a pop song to get to the heart of the matter. “What Is Love? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me!)” may not have been the top of the charts, but it had a good beat and you could dance to it.
Is that what love is, though? Love is just not getting hurt? Certainly that’s an implicit understanding in relationships — but don’t we also sing along with the equally catchy pop song with the chorus: “You only hurt the one you love”?
Many of you know that I am a big fan of the work of theologian Henri Nouwen. Recently I was reading his book Reaching Out. In it, Nouwen defines love as creating a safe place for another person to be fully themselves. What a thought! In this context, love is a gift you give with no promise of anything in return. And, no expectation of how a person must change to “win” your love. You remain an individual in a relationship, merely giving space to another individual in the same relationship.
Nouwen’s idea becomes very clear to me when I think about the love between a parent and a child. If my job as a loving parent is to make a safe place for my child to be fully herself, then I have to hear her opinions, tolerate both her purple hair and her messy room if that’s how my child expresses herself. This week.
In terms of romantic relationships, too, Nouwen’s definition has heft. To truly love someone, it’s imperative to let them be themselves. Not to ask them to change to meet your particular needs or your etched-in-stone expectations. If you have banked on marrying a guy with a fat wallet, are you really loving when you try to turn a poet into a corporate attorney? Or when you try to make a quiet, shy child into class president? Is that love?
If someone is destructive, reckless, negative or otherwise hurtful, the safest place for you might be to give the person an awful lot of room to be fully himself. Remember, our life’s mission is not to change or save someone — if their choices are destructive to us, we can lovingly step back and give them space.
In the seminal book The Art of Loving, psychologist Erich Fromm suggests that we are motivated by the anxiety caused by our inherent separateness as individualized human beings. Of course, this relates to our relationships with our mothers, as do most psychological theories. But don’t get me started on that. And how mothers are systematically eliminated from nearly all Disney films. That’s a whole other topic…
Back to the point. If our quest, as Fromm puts it, is to achieve union as a remedy to our anxious feelings of separateness, how do we find love as meaningful as in Nouwen’s definition? How do we manage the twin drives toward individuality and separateness?
Sometimes, frankly, we don’t manage them too well. For people who have unresolved issues around abandonment, or control, or separation from their parents, or personality disorders, or other blocks, the idea of being separate in an intimate relationship is scary and confusing. They may lack the tools to go within to resolve these problems, so they crave merger to salve their inner wounds. Aided by the popular culture which says, “Two Become One” (wasn’t that a Spice Girls song?), some people find it truly difficult to remain an individual in an intimate relationship. Experts say that it’s precisely this merger which threatens the health of our most intimate relationships.
So let’s reframe what relationships are supposed to be, shall we? Dr. Michael Gurian, who wrote What Could He Be Thinking?: How a Man’s Mind Really Works, is an expert on brain biology. Bottom line: men’s brains and women’s brains are constructed differently so we act differently. It may not be that the man hogs the remote because he’s a self-centered jerk — he may just be wired to be territorial. Women aren’t weak and silly just because they like talking about stuff — it may be just that she feels bonded when she does so.
If I make a safe place for you to be a guy, and you make a safe place for me to be a gal, what have we got? Dr. Gurian’s theory of “Intimate Separateness” holds that there is a natural ebb and flow between the male brain’s need for independence and the female brain’s need for closeness. Merely understanding this nature-based fact can allow couples the freedom to be individuals and to move naturally between the two states — distance and closeness — without either being “right” or “wrong”. This helps couples move away from destructive expectations of merger which can’t be met anywhere except on the silver screen.
To love is to give. To love is to give a safe place for another person to be fully themselves. With no thought to what you’re getting in return. It’s a gift. It’s so much more than romance. It’s bigger than a crush. Yet, it’s simply a gift. A gift that enlarges the lives of both the lover and the loved.