Is it love, or a mutual strangulation society? Martha Beck shows you five ways to get a real grip on the real thing.
By Martha Beck
In a folktale that has been retold for centuries in many variations (one of which is Shakespeare's King Lear), an elderly king asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two older sisters deliver flowery speeches of filial adoration, but the youngest says only "I love you as meat loves salt." The king, insulted by this homely simile, banishes the youngest daughter and divides his kingdom between the older two, who promptly kick him out on his royal heinie. He seeks refuge in the very house where his third daughter is working as a scullery maid. Recognizing her father, the daughter asks the cook to prepare his meal without salt. The king eats a few tasteless mouthfuls, then bursts into tears. "All along," he cries, "it was my youngest daughter who really loved me!" The daughter reveals herself and all ends happily (except in King Lear, where pretty much everybody dies).
This story survived throughout Europe for a very long time because it is highly instructive: It reminds listeners that in matters of love, choosing style over substance is disastrous. It also helps us know when we're making that mistake. Salt is unique in that its taste doesn't cover up the food it seasons but enhances whatever flavor was there to begin with. Real love, real commitment, does the same thing.
Each of the following five statements is the polar opposite of what most Americans see as loving commitment. But these are "meat loves salt" commitments, as necessary as they are unconventional. Only if you and your beloved can honestly say them to each other is your relationship likely to thrive
1. I can live without you, no problem.
"I can't live," wails the singer, "if living is without you." It sounds so tragically deep to say that losing your lover's affections would make life unlivable—but have you ever been in a relationship with someone whose survival truly seemed to depend on your love? Someone who sat around waiting for you to make life bearable, who threatened to commit suicide if you ever broke up? Or have you found yourself on the grasping side of the equation, needing your partner the way you need oxygen? The emotion that fuels this kind of relationship isn't love; it's desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it invariably fails to meet either partner's needs.
The statement "I can't survive without you" reflects not adult attraction but infancy, a phase when we really would have died if our caretakers hadn't stayed close by, continuously anticipating our needs. The hunger for total nurturing usually means we're in the middle of a psychological regression, feeling like abandoned infants who need parenting now, now, now! If this is how you feel, don't start dating. Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person responsible for them: you. The "I can't live without you" syndrome ends when we learn to care for ourselves as tenderly and attentively as a good mother. At that point, we're ready to form stable, lasting attachments that can last a lifetime. "I can live without you" is an assurance that sets the stage for real love.
Most human beings seem innately averse to change. Once we've established some measure of comfort or stability, we want to nail it in place so that there's no possibility of loss. It's understandable, then, that the promise "My love for you will never change" is a hot seller. Unfortunately, this is another promise that is more likely to scuttle a relationship than shore it up.
The reason is that everything—and everyone—is constantly changing. We age, grow, learn, get sick, get well, gain weight, lose weight, find new interests, and drop old ones. And when two individuals are constantly in flux, their relationship must be fluid to survive. Many people fear that if their love is free to change, it will vanish. The opposite is true. A love that is allowed to adapt to new circumstances is virtually indestructible. Infatuation relaxes into calm companionship, then flares again as we see new things to love about each other. In times of trouble and illness, obligation may feel stronger than attraction—until one day we realize that hanging in there through troubled times has bonded us more deeply than ever before. Like running water, changing love finds its way past obstacles. Freezing it in place makes it fragile, rigid, and all too likely to shatter.
I'm a big fan of sexual monogamy, but I'm puzzled by lovers who claim that their romantic partner is the only person they need in their lives or that time together is the only activity necessary for emotional fulfillment. Humans are designed to live in groups, explore ideas, and constantly learn new skills. Trying to get all this input from one person is like trying to get a full range of vitamins by eating only ice cream. When a couple believes "We must fulfill all of each other's needs," each becomes exhausted by the effort to be all things to the other and neither can develop fully as an individual.
It amazes me how often my clients' significant others feel threatened when the clients revive childhood passions or take up new hobbies. I encourage people to bring their spooked spouses to a session so we can discuss their fears. The hurt partners usually come in sounding something like this: "How come you have to spend three hours a week playing tennis (or gardening or painting)? Are you saying I'm not enough to keep you happy?" The healthiest response to such questions is "That's right, our relationship isn't enough to make me completely happy—and if I pretended it were, I'd stunt my soul and poison my love for you. Ever thought about what you'd like to do on your own?" Sacrificing all our individual needs doesn't strengthen a relationship. Mutually supporting each other's personal growth does.
The way you can tell real love from spider love is simple: Possessiveness and exploitation involve controlling the loved one, whereas true love is based on setting the beloved free to make his or her own choices. How you use the word make is also a tip-off. When you hear yourself saying "He makes me feel X" or "He made me do Y," you're playing the victimized, trussed-up fly. Even more telling are sentences like "I've got to make him see that he's wrong" or "I'll hide what I really think because it would make him angry." You are not the victim but the crafty spider, withholding and using manipulation to control your mate's feelings and actions. Either strategy means that someone is being held too close, wrapped in spider silk.
Getting out of this sticky situation is simple: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Begin by taking responsibility for your own choices—including the choice to obey the spider man who may have you in his thrall. Then communicate your real feelings, needs, and desires to your partner, without trying to force the reaction you want. If your relationship can't thrive in the clear light of honesty, it is better to get out of it than to sink further into manipulation and control.
5. You and I aren't one.
I used to tune in so acutely to my loved ones' wants and needs that I literally didn't know my own. This denial of self ultimately turned into resentment, poisoning several close relationships. Then—once burned, twice shy—I went briefly to the opposite extreme. I found myself having a lot of lackluster lunches with folks who hung on my every word and agreed with everything I said. Narcissistic I may be, but Narcissus I'm not; hanging out with a human looking-glass, no matter how flattering, left me lonely.
If you're living by the "We are one" ideal, it's high time you found out how terrific love for two can be. Follow your heart in a direction your partner wouldn't go. Dare to explore your differences. Agree to disagree. If you're accustomed to disappearing, this will allow you to see that you can be loved as you really are. If you tend to dominate, you'll find out how interesting it is to love an actual person rather than a human mirror.
Buddha once said that just as we can know the ocean because it always tastes of salt, we can recognize enlightenment because it always tastes of freedom. There's no essential difference between real love and enlightenment. While many people see commitment as a trap, its healthy versions actually free both lovers, bring out the flavor of their true selves, and build a love that is satisfying, lasting, and altogether delicious.