[adapted from Four Legs: Building a Radically Humanistic Relationship of Love, P. Somov]
“What is love?” is one of these perennial questions that thinkers have been musing over since day immemorial. It’s a kind of question only fools dare to answer. I am one of these fools. So, here’s my attempt to define what love is. Love is an interplay of Physical Intimacy and Emotional Intimacy.
Love = Physical Intimacy + Emotional Intimacy
The interplay of Physical Intimacy and Emotional Intimacy flows in and out of each other like a seamless leg-knot of a tango pirouette, in an ever tightening double helix of bodymind feedback. But, if unsupported, this double helix of human connection frays and unravels. The task is to try to tighten the knot of your love by reinforcing the sinews of support.
Physical intimacy needs no definition. Emotional intimacy, however, is a bit harder to define. But, being the fool that I am, I’ll still try. Emotional intimacy: it’s a combination of Intimate Knowledge of each other and Validating Support:
Emotional Intimacy = Intimate Knowledge + Validating Support
Physical intimacy comes and goes, as formative as it is in the beginning of a romance, with time it tends to take the backseat to emotional intimacy. If sex (or erotic touch) goes, that’s not necessarily the end of an intimate relationship. But if emotional intimacy goes, love peters out without much delay. Emotional intimacy, as I see it, is the essence of love. Which is why emotional intimacy, when shared with someone else, can be perceived as a threat to the primary romantic relationship. So much so that being emotionally intimate with someone other than your primary partner has come to be culturally viewed as an emotional affair (a term that I personally feel is more toxic than useful). But emotional intimacy is no sin. It is a high-quality human connection that is built on mutual understanding and on mindful attendance to each other.
Intimate knowledge, the component of emotional intimacy, is not the carnal knowledge of what’s underneath each others’ garments. Emotionally-intimate knowledge is the knowledge of each others’ emotional interior, the knowledge of each others’ interests, the understanding of each others’ narrative. It’s a history of mutual self-disclosure, a shared courage of authenticity. The goal is to help you build (or rebuild) a radically humanistic relationship, a relationship that is predicated on fearless love, compassion and mindful presence. Put differently, the task is to rekindle an emotional affair with your primary partner.
Crutch of Attraction
Attraction is one of those crutches that can support an otherwise dissatisfying relationship for quite some time. Another such crutch is a sense of duty or loyalty for the sake of loyalty, i.e. the Crutch of Commitment. Another such crutch is Circumstance: people stay together because of kids or financial stability. Another such crutch is Friendship. I’ve seen quite a few couples that were coming to slowly realize that while they enjoy each others’ friendship and companionship they are long past being each others’ lovers.
There are many different emotional prosthetics of this kind, many different ways to prop up a dissatisfying relationship. But a crutch is only a crutch – a leg (of support) is better! The Crutch of Attraction is, commonly, a prerequisite for physical intimacy. Love trivially begins with attraction but has a way of running out even if attraction remains. Thus, attraction is not enough.
Attraction while not easy to define, is easy to tell. People “just know” if they are attracted to so-and-so or not. But what is attraction? To understand attraction you have to understand how mind works. Mind is an information-processing system that tracks patterns of interest. We get information about the world through our senses (eyes, ears, etc) and we organize it into patterns and we track the patterns of importance. Attraction is pattern-driven. Attraction is about the sensory patterns that offer us an enjoyable, stimulating experience. Romantic attraction is a complex pattern of interest: we don’t just fall in love with body, we also fall in love with mind, with style, with tone, with vibe.
As the relationship progresses, we are continuously exposed to the pattern of our interest – we learn to zoom in on it, we get really good at recognizing it. As a result, we are able to see some configuration of what we like long after the rest of the pattern is eroded by time, circumstance and relational dynamics. The physical aspects of the pattern are particularly enduring: a person can lose or gain weight, their face might age and wrinkle, yet most of us can easily find that echo of beauty, that trace of handsomeness, that Gestalt of cuteness or that elegant torso or leg silhouette that we have fallen for a long time ago.
We remain attracted even if we can no longer stand our partners. It is exactly for this reason that attraction can outlast relational satisfaction and can misleadingly hold and prop up the relationship way past its emotional expiration date. In my work with couples I have met quite a few folks that kept seeing (and projecting) the romantic pattern that no longer was there.
Breaking the Pattern of Oversimplification
Our ability to doggedly see and chase the pattern of attraction (even when it’s essentially gone) is one of the mechanisms that can carry a relationship for quite some time, way past its emotional expiration date. Since love trivially begins with attraction, couples often intuitively try to patch up the gaps of emotional intimacy with attraction-targeted solutions: they try to lose weight, get on Viagra or get a breast augmentation to spice up their sex life, have candle light dinners or have a romantic get-away, or buy each other lingerie or gym memberships. This is desperately misplaced. Sure, there is something to be said about trying to re-stimulate each other (after all, human mind does tend to habituate pretty easily). But, as I see it, these solutions are too tactical, too short-term, too naïve. Without addressing the deficits of emotional intimacy, better physical intimacy is just a refurbished crutch, rather than a solid relational leg to stand on.
In sum, the challenge is about breaking the pattern of oversimplification, about learning to wake up and learning to keep your partner awake – no, not in the middle of the night but in the middle of the waking hours. The grand task is validation and forgiveness. Or, as I metaphorically call all of this, about cultivating the legs of validating support. A pair of good-looking legs might have started off your romance but it’ll take a totally different kind of set of legs to keep this relationship afoot. The challenge is about standing up (asserting), standing with (empathy), standing your ground (boundaries), and understanding (emotional intimacy).