I enjoy reading “Dear Abby.” Though her answers are often insipid, the letters are a window into human psychology. Not that they’re necessarily representative; but certain themes recur so regularly, they do tell us something.
Marriage and Love problems loom large. Inevitable when two people try to mesh together. But what I see, again and again, is one not even trying to mesh with the other. Taking them for granted. Most strongly manifested in “controlling,” a word that comes up a lot. A controlling spouse is assuming the partner is there to be controlled.
Perhaps fortunately, my own dismal romantic history barred such attitudes. Relationships were elusive, and by the time I finally succeeded, at forty, it was the most important thing in the world to me. I once read how the “surprise and delight” newlyweds typically feel about their marriage normally dissipates. But I still feel surprised and delighted after 33 years.
It helps to have the perfect spouse. Well, she does have her idiosyncrasies. As do I. But we’re both very mindful of, and grateful for, the bigger picture of what we mean to each other.
I do see other good marriages like that, but also some like the “Dear Abby” cases. I think the taking-for-granted syndrome is often key. People seeing their partner as a kind of entitlement, as opposed to “surprise and delight.” As though the partner is an accessory, like a handbag. You don’t have to do anything to satisfy a handbag.
One might suppose that if you love someone, you wouldn’t treat them that way. Certainly true up to a point. But it’s also true that the feelings of romantic love, often intense, that precede marriage, dissipate too, evolving into a different set of emotive operators. Love of another kind. Hopefully. Yet even that mellower kind of love should surely still mean treating a partner, well, lovingly. Not callously.
However, love can also actually turn into hate. Grievances build up and obliterate whatever positive feelings you began with. That’s fatal to a relationship.
But what is “love” anyway? Seemingly it’s in relation to the other person. Yet it’s a fundamental truism of human existence that we live only inside our own skulls. Limited to experiencing only what happens in there. Your brain is the sole mediator of your reality. Of course, the other person does exist, outside that, regardless; but can exist for you only as a construct within your own mind. The matter then becomes one of instantiating your own behavior in such a way as to shape the interplay with the other person so that what consequently obtains in your mind is most conducive to your own sense of well-being.
Sure, if you love her, you want her to be happy too. But again, saying “you want” indicates that it is really all about what’s happening within your mind. You want her to be happy because her happiness, and your wanting it, make you happy. Otherwise you wouldn’t want it.
And some people really don’t — as in many of those “Dear Abby” cases. The idea of one’s own happiness being somehow served by the other’s gets lost altogether (if it was ever even there). Their feelings just stop mattering to you. It’s solipsism; a short-sighted selfishness that actually disserves one’s own interests. Obviously, if the other person gets angry and lashes out, creating unpleasantness, that matters to you. It’s not their feelings per se that do. It’s the results.
I think the answer, in any case, is to treat your partner as if you love them. Leave aside the fraught issue of whether you actually love them — and whatever “love” actually does mean. This formulation works even under the paradigm suggested here, wherein “love” is really a matter of what’s conducive to your own sense of well-being. Many of those “Dear Abby” problems would be resolved if the people just treated their partners as if they loved them.
Like with free will. Another very fraught conceptual issue. But our modus vivendi is to operate as if we have free will. That works, and renders irrelevant, for practical purposes, whether or in what sense we truly have it. So too with love. Behaving as if you love the other person makes moot the issue of what love is — and the issue of whether or in what sense you truly do love.
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