Religion may be the opium of the masses, but romantic love might just be the greatest adventure there is. The rollercoaster of life seems to run on the rails of romance. The highs, the lows…how to attract that perfect someone, how to feel alive but not get hurt, how to be genuine, how to keep a hold of ourselves in the frenzy… Might anyone have the answer to our relationship needs? Ironically it seems the answers come, if we dare to listen, from a journey inside ourselves.
Who am I?
It’s mighty hard to find peace with another until we find peace within ourselves, in our own existence and what that means to us. I am me, an individual, with a uniquely valid experience. My feelings are my own; my past and future my own, my thoughts, fears and dreams all my own. I live through my emotions and I come to define myself through them.
Nobody else can define how I want to live, what my goals are, or how I might feel. We each hold a uniquely felt experience of our own organism. Nobody else has a solution that can be bottled and dispatched for delivery in the morning. Only you know what is most critical to you, but from my own life and from the readings and conversations that I’ve come to incorporate into my understanding, there are certain experiences that seem to be involved in becoming ‘you’.
If we allow ourselves the freedom to know and accept ourselves and the fluidity of our own lives, we permit ourselves to understand another. We have less need to defend our opinions rigidly and can freely accept a differing opinion as being equally valid for someone else. We are more open to that fluidity of perception and so the changes in an evolving relationship become slightly less threatening. How does this growth in awareness of what we are occur? It often begins with an awareness of what we dislike within ourselves, what we no longer want to be, or perhaps of what we have been taught we ought to be. This develops over time into an awareness of the difference between our public and private persona, an awareness that part of ‘me’ is being hidden in public: it is a growing discovery of the mask we hold. Once aware of that mask, we can begin our first steps towards self direction and autonomy, an awareness of the messages within us, a trust in our fluidity, and eventually an acceptance to be open to our own experience, no matter if it is different from yesterday nor different from our perceived identity of ourselves. We become a friend to our own experience, we trust in ourselves and permit ourselves to explore what we may be. We no longer define ourselves by what we were, we permit ourselves to play, let go of our static view of ourselves, and accept our flow as a process. We no longer please others for the sake of it because we no longer need approval: we understand what we are, in this moment, and accept ourselves.
Our intellectual brain, the one we expect to rationally know it all, doesn’t actually know it all. The more we trust our feelings and the totality of our body’s experience, the more we free ourselves to go towards things that feel right. We feel the flow we are on track, and whilst it may not be infallible, we can notice from our feelings when we are off track. With this openness to what we are, we need less to hang our hat on intellect and feel more inclined accept change within ourselves.
Make no mistake, this is rocky ground: I might have to change, and change is uncomfortable. But the result is doubly enriching. I allow myself a greater understanding of who I am and who others are. I become more responsive, more sensitive, and more accepting. And there’s an unexpected bonus: somehow, for reasons I can’t quite elucidate, others feel more open to change in the presence of one who has ‘done the work’. It’s as if they pick up on the feelings, and that awareness stirs the keys to freedom within them.
With an openness to discover our own awareness, we can start to see why we are drawn into relationships. Part of this ‘I’, when I listen to my heart, is to confront and accept my separateness, my aloneness. To take part in the magical opportunities of the world, to become what I am, I must choose and accept the consequences of my choices as an individual. I must make friends with where my limits lie and where my aloneness begins. When we accept our separateness, our creativity begins and we surrender to the richness of life.
What is love?
Love bridges the chasm of separateness. It drives us to greater heights and teaches us about ourselves, our choices, our attachments and emotional range. It supports the journey into self awareness that we crave. It might even be the driver at the heart of all our motivations. Love allows us to know and be truly known by another, to be united in admiration and intimacy. We show our true self, surrendering in trust and offering up our complete visibility. By exposing our self in such a way, we grasp a deeper understanding of what we are, mirrored in the eyes of our lover. We take a risk and experience being accepted by someone whose opinion matters: will you see the real me if I drop my mask? Am I free to be myself with you? And if I dare, what will you think of me? Will you support me and care for the truthful and vulnerable part within me, that part which I expose bare and naked? Will you reject me?
Love offers us euphoria in sharing the vitality of life. It’s intoxicating and unpredictable. We open ourselves to authentic companionship, validation, admiration, a true harmony of mind and body in sexual fulfilment, a refuge of nurturing, patience, kindness, trust, understanding and respect.
Tony Robbins talks of the six fundamental human needs being security, variety, significance, connection, personal growth and contribution. We try our best to fulfil these needs despite them pulling in different directions. At its peak, romantic love can meet all six of the human needs and so it is small wonder that we are drawn to it. We feel secure, have an incredible sense of adventure, feel unique, have connection beyond our wildest dreams, learn about ourselves in every moment and a joy of contribution pours from our heart.
In a mature romantic love, our human needs expand and incorporate those of our partner: we grow our sense of identity. Our sense of self, even our very acts of selfishness, incorporate the wishes of our lover because we have a shared sense of life. Our separateness dissolves, two becoming one yet remaining two.
Our process of self discovery grows in leaps and bounds in the presence of our love when we open fearlessly to the experience. We learn what is most valid in our experience from the response of our lover; intimacy combines shared visibility into a euphoric emotional magnification of all that is good within us. Our lover perceives in us our true self and, in that moment, comes ecstatic freedom.
Am I ready for the rollercoaster?
Romantic love may be the greatest adventure there is, but it takes nerve and composure to ride the rollercoaster. The thrill of romance can be such an effective distraction to the realities of life that we can be tempted to draw on it like an addiction, subconsciously manipulating others in whatever way we can to placate our fears or discomforts. But this is certainly not the love we really seek; at best it is a comfortable delusion. At worst, it brings an existential despair. The holy grail of romantic bliss without manipulation requires us to first acknowledge our deepest responsibility: to discover what it is to be ourselves.
Independence, self acceptance and self esteem seem to be at the nub of our existential conundrum. We find harmony with another human being only when we make friends with our intrinsic aloneness and grant our partner their freedom. If not, a strange need-based dependency or co-dependency can arise involving masks, avoidance, delusion and pacification. There is no heroism in locking away feelings, being the little soldier. By faking ourselves, we ask our partner to be complicit in our lie. When we don’t express ourselves authentically, we turn in on ourselves and bury our emotions. We alienate that which is good and our mask becomes a monster that controls us: we dare not surrender to love for fear that the truth might emerge. Instead, we compound our denial, add another layer to the mask, and increase the distance we are so eager to bridge. In time it can result in self loathing and sabotage. The mask exacerbates our loneliness and, if you find a partner with a similar wish to deny their uncomfortable feelings, an unspoken dance of avoidance can continue between you for years, where each knows exactly what is going on but prefers not to name it. The healing balm is discovery and acceptance through visibility: being the authentic you.
At the source of any great relationship, romantic or otherwise, is the peeling away of our layers. This takes courage. In many cases, we’ve spent our whole life building those layers of defence around our true self. There’s a raging torrent of who-knows-what on the other side of the wall. Ever since childhood, we have built ways of coping which centre around alienating ourselves, disowning our feelings to please an authority figure, until it’s hard to tell what is ‘me’ and what is mask. Sometimes the mask is all we have left to hang on to. But we have to be ready to discover our feelings, even if it feels scary as hell, because there’s so much on the other side of that raging torrent: so much goodness and a sense of being alive that is unparalleled. A mind expanded, once opened, can never snap back. This is awareness. We are open to discover the unknown sides of ourselves, to celebrate the relief that we don’t need to know everything, that left to themselves the pieces will fall together. We can’t work everything out about ourselves, we can only discover. The process is ongoing, and in accepting that we get out of our own way and stop trying to impose.
To encounter ourselves as a couple, we must each be willing, and so we each need a similarly high sense of self esteem. We need to be able to say, “I’ve got this, I can handle it”. People often expect to take courageous steps in life the moment that those steps become comfortable, as if the fear will miraculously disappear with sufficient willpower or time to think. But in reality, fears reduce only after we take the first step, never before. We feel a surge of self esteem from having taken action, a lifting of tension from the relief that the world is still standing and we really are handling it. With each step forward, each experience, the fear subsides. Mature, emotionally open love is marked by a willingness to take those small steps, to lighten up, play, and see what we might discover. The higher our self esteem, the more transparent we are eager to be, flaws and quirks included. Love celebrates our own self esteem and that of our partner, it does not create it.
In letting go and allowing the pieces to fall into place, we relax. Life is such a relief. Our perceptions become our own. Others have a different view, and when we value them as individuals then their opinions and perceptions are equally valid. The moment I can tolerate ambiguity, I no longer need to prove my rightness and my beliefs are no longer rigid. I’m not attached to my point of view. I no longer fight myself, I’m on my own side. I’m sensitive to myself, I listen to myself and keep myself on track. I permit my whole being. I experience through my total organism and I can differentiate, I’m free to choose and be myself. I trust myself and look after myself; being selfish takes on a whole new meaning and I am secure. I decide the value I place on my experiences, and I take responsibility. I am potential in a process of becoming. It’s a fascinating and vivid process, a little uncomfortable at times, but wildly alive. This… is what life is. In accepting that nothing is fixed, that everything is in flow, we take steps towards our own peace.
The essential ingredients to wonder
Once we accept the intrinsic nature of life, we can embrace our self awareness and self assertion by simply being open to it, checking in on our feelings and perspectives: how do I feel about myself, my body? How do I view the opposite sex? Am I at peace when I’m completely alone? Am I happy to be my own person, individuated? Do I approve of myself or do I seek approval in others? Am I happy to be sexual? Will I allow myself to delight in the body of a partner? Do I deserve pleasure? Dare I discover myself in another? Am I willing to accept myself unconditionally? Can I surrender to another, expose myself and share my highest needs without judgement or manipulation?
Once we are happy in our skin and can own and explore our feelings in the presence of another, we can release our ego. This means acknowledging and releasing guilt, revising our perceptions of our past, and dropping our armour. Never again will the hollow soldier speak on our behalf. Love becomes an action to be demonstrated as free as a bird, no longer suffocated with insecurities. You, my love, are welcome in my private world. This is all I am and I hope you like it. I trust you with my feelings and I risk myself to build something bigger than the both of us.
Without surrender there is no love, but with it comes the risk of loss. We are powerless because we need this surrender and so the only long lasting solution is to trust in ones self. Own and embrace the intoxicating feelings of fear, need, pleasure, frustration, surrender, visibility, intimacy, union, growth and celebration.
Life affinity: who might help bring me to myself?
For our visibility to be meaningful, we need to find affinity with our lover. But often we don’t even know what is motivating us in our section of a mate. Ovid was wise enough to observe that man, with the right motivation, could probably fall in love with a cat that happened to cross his path at the right moment. When we experience life changes such as moving city or taking up a new career, when our income changes substantially or when we simply have too much spare time, we are ripe to fall in love with whoever is close at that moment. In fact, almost any emotional arousal makes us more likely to fall in love.
To thrive and endure, romantic love requires passion, intimacy and choice. Each of these elements is an independent swirl of energy that ebbs and flows. Only when our lover shares basic fundamental views about life do their views truly count; only when we admire and respect their way of life as sharing an affinity with our own do we encounter ourselves. Whether we find synchronicity in our attachment styles or in a similar level of self awareness, we look to share and sense each other’s feelings and approach to life. We find harmony in complimentary levels of energy, openness and self assuredness. We feel it in iur body, heart, soul and mind. When we find these aspects of life affinity, we can confidently declare: “You see life as I do. You see me as I want to be seen. You experience being alive in a similar way to me.”
Their admiration and understanding is deeply meaningful. And yet, to return to our understanding of human needs, too much familiarity bores us whilst mystery and uncertainty excite. We teeter along a fine line between harmony and variety. To grow, we look for differences with our partner that might magnify our discovery of ourselves. We feel alive sharing stimulating and challenging experiences that act as a doorway to our magic. We magnify our emotions.
Psychologically and emotionally, this may be love. But there’s also an autonomic, chemical cocktail to love: the “pleasure messenger” dopamine, stress hormone norepinephrine and mood stabiliser and reward motivator, serotonin. These act without our conscious control, sending waves of emotion coursing through us. When our passion is reflected and returned, we tack on extra emotions like elation, hope, lust and desire; when our love is spurned we feel despair and rage. These reactions seem to be universal across culture, sex, age and ethnic group, even across animal species. Many psychologists look at romantic love as an addiction, as indeed the chemical responses associated with dopamine are unnervingly similar. MRI brain scans confirm that the classic symptoms of tolerance, withdrawal and relapse are as appropriate to love as they are to cocaine; the response in levels of dopamine follow a similar path. Love is, it seems, chemically inbuilt.
And where is sex in this chemical cocktail? In the fusion of bodies as well as mind, our total being is exposed. We are a source of pleasure for ourselves and our partner, each acting in self assertion, celebrating everything alive within us. We please our partner by being totally ourselves in uninhibited bliss. To bare one’s soul takes confidence in our right to pleasure, in our intrinsic goodness. I deserve this. I embody love. I am what I am, nothing more and absolutely nothing less. I desire you, and that is a wonderful thing. I celebrate you and I celebrate my freedom to be myself with you. You are the pinnacle of my experience, I surrender in utter fascination of you. And so it is the partner with whom we can be most visible, most honest and most true, that is the most thrilling sexually. Visibility is itself sexual; it magnifies the power within us in ecstasy. Our bodies fuse in a more complete oneness as physically, as well as emotionally, our self interest grows to two. Love is not selflessness: it is incorporating our partner into our concept of self, and so in serving our self interest we naturally take into consideration everything of our love.
But keep your head about you when all about you lose theirs. Sexual desire is easily stimulated by things that have nothing to do with love: the anxiety of aloneness, the wish to conquer or be conquered, self loathing and the implicit need to be obliterated or even the wish to hurt others. Sexual desire can be triggered by almost any strong emotion and so can easily be an illusion, a distracting antidote to uncomfortable emotions which leaves two partners as far apart afterwards at they were before. Sex may help two egos find solace and passion in each other, uniting to protect each other against a harsh world, but it is only one element of the authentic visibility we seek.
Keeping on track: can love endure?
Firstly, the good news: feelings of love don’t change with age. Scientists confirm that we feel love as strongly at sixty-five as we do at sixteen. But let’s be honest with ourselves: when the first couples entered the institution of marriage and uttered those words ‘till death us do part’, they didn’t expect to live beyond their late twenties. And we are each entitled to our own choices of what we look for in a relationship. These days many people prefer to identify with a kind of serial monogamy and accept that as life evolves, we may evolve within our relationship or out of it, depending upon how open each partner is to the possibility.
Personally, one of my founding beliefs is that people are intrinsically good. We may pick up bad behaviours that provide us temporary relief from pain, but a voyage of discovery within invariably reveals a person who, deep down, longs for happiness and goodness. Life may get in the way and as we suffer those inevitable knocks we are liable to be led off track. Chemically, the hormonal triggers to love and anger are frighteningly close and our limbic brain’s fight/flight/freeze response can drive even the most emotionally mature of us to sudden actions that we later regret and need to take ownership of. Romantic love is indeed an adventure for the courageous. Yet a large proportion of people still seek to marry, and the majority of people who divorce go on to subsequently remarry. On average we prefer, it seems, to feel the deep, secure connection that comes with an exclusive love relationship.
The possibility of long-lasting love is certainly real. As our lives unfurl and we each grow, there is always more to discover of ourselves and our partner if we choose to pay attention. Love is an action, not a word, which we can nurture, appreciate, and re-examine at will. We re-examine by trusting in the experience of our whole organism. Only in being ourselves completely can we thrive in a relationship with an absence of manipulation or fear of abandonment. So these are the types of questions I tend to ask myself to see if I’m on track, perhaps they might be helpful:
What is alive in me when I’m in the presence of my lover?
If I were to bring a higher level of awareness to my relationship, I would….
What parts of myself do I come into contact with, when I’m with my lover?
Take a step back: what perspectives do I share with this person? What is our private world? Are we creating something greater than ourselves? Is our relationship built on fears and weaknesses or strengths and valued differences?
Is my self esteem my own, or is it tied to my partner’s actions?
Are my boundaries intact and my needs being honoured, or is there an imbalance?
Am I experiencing love as an action, or as a word?
In summary, we are all enough. We may be bombarded by messages that tell us the contrary, but we are absolutely, definitely, enough. Every single one of us is loveable. Painful past experiences may wear down our self esteem but deep within our hearts the fire of love burns brightly. Submitting to the flow of life and the complete range of our feelings, both light and dark, provides us with peace. It is the richness of our experience that leads us to who and what we are right now, what makes us the fascinating, loveable individuals we all are. Sometimes, to love others, we must forgive ourselves and accept we are only human.
So what is my suggestion for life, the universe and everything? Open up. Free yourself. Take a risk. Love blossoms in truth and self acceptance; if not, we perish as individuals and society aches. Have faith and accept that we learn and grow from leaving our comfort zone and by being authentic. Live. Life is social, not exclusive, and we all deeply need each other. We recognise what is fake and what is real, so let the world see what an amazing, fascinating person you truly are: that’s what being human is all about. Pain and disappointment might possibly follow but when we leap with passion, with the joy of purpose and truth, we feel what it is to be truly alive.