Saturday, July 28, 2018

What is love?

Last week, at the wedding of one cousin I spoke to another cousin who recently separated from her husband after 12 years of marriage. It was disturbing listening to her describe the events leading to the separation, all the more so as it reminded me of past experiences in my own relationships. She spoke of the dynamics of relationships between narcissists and empaths, a topic that seems to be all over the internet at the moment. This relationship dynamic does describe very well a relationship I had that lasted almost ten years. It was very painful and the fallout from those years left me broken, angry and disillusioned.

I went into the relationship soft, gentle and open-hearted. I saw that my lover was hurt and damaged by his parent's divorce and cruel treatment from his father. Naively, I thought I could heal him but his heart was closed. All I got in return was his contempt expressed in the form of criticism and sudden, unexpected angry outbursts. Nothing I ever did was good enough for him. I always felt lacking; unattractive, stupid, clumsy, inept ... he made it clear that everything about me was wrong. But the worst thing was that I believed him. I thought everything was my fault.

I broke up with him twice but he got me back by becoming the person I wanted him to be: kind, gentle, loving. I thought he must love me because he didn't want to lose me. But those honeymoon periods never lasted. He would always go back to his old self within a few weeks. When we finally broke up for good I had zero self-love and was in a deep depression. It took me many years to get to where I am today and I still have work to do.

In one article on the internet, Alex Myles describes the attraction between empaths and narcissists this way, "Here comes the empath, the healer. An empath has the ability to sense and absorb other people's pain and often takes it on as though it were their own. If an empath is not consciously aware of boundaries and does not understand how to protect themselves, they will very easily and very quickly bond with the narcissist in order to try to fix and repair any damage and attempt to eradicate all their pain."

It could be argued that both individuals are damaged in some way and that may be true. The empath may have suffered neglect or abandonment in the past and tries to heal by becoming indispensable to another. They do this for fear of seeing history repeat itself. The empath needs to be needed, to feel important to the other. They make excuses for the other's behaviour much as a parent makes excuses for the way a child behaves while they are learning to manage their emotions. But the narcissist is clearly no longer a child and must at some point take responsibility for their own feelings and behaviour and stop projecting it onto the empath. One thing that I've noticed is that these narcissistic types are incapable of being alone and often go from one partner to the other to avoid having to face themselves.

It seems as though these types of relationships are more common than I had realised and the definitions of narcissist and empath can be helpful to describe the dynamic that goes on between these individuals. But ultimately I am wary of the dehumanising effect this can have whereby the narcissist is portrayed as a kind of monster and the empath as the innocent victim. We are all adults and we are all responsible for the learning experiences we engage in throughout our lives. Creating victims and perpetrators is disempowering for both parties.

So how can we have healthy romantic relationships? The video above was sent to me by my son who recently broke up with his girlfriend. It describes the different experiences many of us go through as well as the modern use of dating apps. It describes the "once bitten, twice shy" reaction to a broken heart, that of shutting ourselves away and refusing to risk any more pain. It describes the idealised image of being in love as propagated by Hollywood movies and romantic fiction. This kind of popular culture sets up unrealistic expectations especially among young women who almost inevitably suffer disappointment.

In seeking to understand its nature, the narrator goes on to describe the scientific explanation of love as a biological trick designed to ensure the continuation of the species in the form of feel-good chemicals that are released when couples get together. He explains the belief that love is seen by some as nothing more than a series of preferences and behaviours that can be predicted by science. The algorithms for dating apps are now so good that they claim to find your perfect match in an instant therefore reducing the search for love to a mathematical equation. The modern approach to finding love appears to be as impatient as with everything else these days: fast food, fast service, fast love... It seems as though no one wants to wait for anything anymore.

During the second part of video, the narrator explains the teachings of the philosopher, Aristotle, on the subject of love. Not having studied much about classical philosophy, I found this part the most interesting. He says that Aristotle spoke of three kinds of relationships although on researching this a little, I found out that he called them friendships: the friendship of pleasure, the friendship of utility and the friendship of virtue or goodness. The friendship of pleasure is clear - one where the individuals come together for sensual pleasure, be that sexual or some other physical pleasure such as shared love of music or food. The friendship of utility is one where the other proves useful in some way, providing money, status or an ego boost. The third one is the one I relate to. The first two are superficial and temporary but the friendship of virtue is more permanent because it originates from the recognition and appreciation of the innate qualities of the other person. The friendship of virtue is the one where the two people are inspired by each other's intrinsic goodness which in turn kindles a desire in them to be the best version of themselves. Also called the noble friendship, I would ask what could be more noble than wanting to be the best you can be in the presence of one who cares enough to acknowledge your goodness? Doesn't that make life worth living?

The last part speaks of the fear of having this kind of love - the fear of losing it. I identify with the Nietzsche quote in the video, "I fear you close by, I love you far away." For me it is the fear of stifling each other, of losing one's identity or individuality, the fear of losing the beloved which provokes jealousy and the need for them to stay the same and not to grow and evolve as humans must do if they are to thrive. It is the equal fear of becoming the imprisoner or the imprisoned.

But if these difficulties could be surmounted, if Simone de Beauvoir's authentic love could be attained, it would be worth facing any fear for that. Perhaps if the two knew that "together they would both reveal values and ends in the world," they would be brave enough to try.

Attraction between narcissists and empaths
Empath-narcissist relationship