The Love Doctor

A dozen excerpts from Dr. Cytowic’s essays on dating and romance from MetroWeekly Magazine

How to Flirt

PEOPLE DESPERATE FOR relationships work themselves into an all-or-nothing frame of mind. Always poised for the kill, they have completely forgotten how to flirt

Flirting is wonderful: it’s free, won’t expand your waistline, and ranks close to Prozac as a tonic for general mental health. The beauty of flirtation is that, by definition, it leads nowhere. It plays at courtship without serious intention. Because you hold no expectations of scoring a “hit,” you free yourself from win-or-lose anxiety. Love is like lottery: you can’t win if you don’t play. But flirting is its own end, a means of giving pleasure to hundreds without depleting one drop of vital energy. Not least, it expands your imaginative possibilities.

Let me explain.

A well-targeted flirtation is like a smart tap on someone’s shoulder. You have no control over how your object responds. You might get attitude, a nod and returned smile, or advancement to the next step of chatting someone up to closure, which means anything concrete like an exchange of phone numbers, a future date, or slinking off together. Flirting announces that you are socially approachable, not sexually available as is often misunderstood. (To think so would be a rude presumption even though possibly true, which is why sexual innuendoes label you as a slut rather than a flirt.) Other no-nos include demands, smart comments, and whining.

You flirt with whoever takes your fancy. It’s a spontaneous thing. If you complain that you can’t meet anyone to flirt with, you are confused; you’re not supposed to be trying to meet anyone, you are only flirting. “How to meet people” is a separate department. The answer to When to flirt is “right now.” What to say is guided by taste and restraint, understanding that flirting is done in regular circumstances, the more traditional the better.
Remarking, “What a firm handshake you have! It makes me wonder what your hugs are like” pushes the edge of directness, whereas the sidelong glance, sheepish smile, or plain saucyness is more subtle. At either end of the scale delivery is forthright, never tentative. Any sharp person will be able to develop your signal into something interesting in a jiffy. What you signal in your desire to make someone’s acquaintance is potential and a new realm of possibilities. Ambiguity allows you to deny your intentions completely if things don’t turn out as hoped.

The proper reply to no response is a puzzled look as if to suggest your recipient is deaf, the implication being that he is too stupid to realize he’s been paid a compliment by your attention.

Should you find yourself on the receiving end of someone’s interest, you must never act as if you are so socially desirable that admiration is your due. That someone is not your type is beside the point. Always be gracious to everyone, especially those who flatter you tastefully. “Thank you” or a slight nod is all that is required. Anything more, especially too surprised a look on hearing a compliment, encourages elaboration. Be prepared.

Terms of Endearment

ARE THE TWO OF YOU DATING? can sometimes be an impossible question. Whether you’re newly met or a longtime couple, terms of endearment can be a source of friction.

What to call those who are less than blood relations yet more than acquaintances? The correct term matters lest you imply that matters are more than they seem especially if unequal affection means that one of you is smitten while the other wants to move with caution.

You want a sufficiently direct phrase to suggest an early stage of courtship and warn others to keep their hands off, yet vague enough to save face should things not turn out as you hope. “We’re getting to know one another” will accomplish this. What this public phrase privately signals is an interest in exploring possibilities without either side announcing (or expecting) a commitment.

Precise terms can conveniently signal a lack of attachment just as well. You can introduce someone as “my neighbor,” or “an acquaintance” from work, church, or your bridge group as the case may be. As always, traditional ways exist to make your availability tastefully clear to astute listeners.

Boyfriend, dating, or seeing each other typically do announce a shared interest in some degree of intimacy. With a trick, your own needs matter rather than his. When another’s feelings increasingly occupy your imagination, however, you have entered the realm of romance wherein the possibility of “me” being a “we” takes shape.

The word “date” means different things to different people. Trouble arises when each side fails to communicate its expectations or when one side over-thinks the situation. For example, projecting a pleasant dinner into a happily-ever-after scenario is serious over-thinking bound for disappointment. After getting together a few times you can assume he’s interested in something, if only your conversation. Find out by revealing your own intentions. Just don’t be so vague that he has no idea what you’re talking about or so forceful that he feels he’s being taken prisoner.

Beau means you’re really serious but haven’t gotten around to moving in together. Private endearments and diminutive pet names like Honey Bunny or Mouse may sound silly but are normal elements of budding romance that foster regressive wishes which ultimately help enlarge your personality.

The usual terms for couples are unsatisfactory. Partner sounds like business, lover stresses sex, and significant other is insulting. Husband, spouse, and companion are all accurate and traditional. A rarely heard term due for resurrection refers to the beloved as is other half, though the self-effacing better half can’t be beat for graciousness.

No term is dearer than beloved, representing the singular one who tugs at your soul. Aristophanes recounts a myth wherein primordial man was round with four hands and feet, and two faces on a single head. Love was unknown because each creature was complete unto himself. After Zeus punished man’s excessive pride by cutting him in two, each half yearned for the other. When one half finds his other, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and intimacy.

The desire to melt in the beloved’s arms and become one rather than two is the very expression of this ancient need. This longing for wholeness and its pursuit is what we call love.

Broken Hearts

LOVE IS SELDOM ENDLESS and never perfect. Thwarted love creates a great deal of pain, and inconsolable longing can be Hell on earth when our attention is unrequited.

The devastation felt when love fails shows how much esteem is at stake, how tightly one’s self worth is wound with the beloved’s. The dumped lover panics at relinquishing his hopes and dreams, fearing that no one will again come close to fulfilling them.

In failed courtship, one party’s decision early in the game not to pursue the relationship is different from rejection, which occurs after emotionally letting go and after love is realized. We have yielded to the thrill and feel that our longings could be fulfilled, only to be unilaterally cut off at this emotional height by the very focus of our desire.

Two strategies are common. In the first, the lover presses his case, trying anything and everything: cleaning up his own act, alternating between accommodation and nonchalance, threatening a triangle in hopes of making the other jealous, or issuing ultimatums.

The second strategy is dropping the beloved. It is hard for the rejected one to accept that hopelessness looms on the horizon. Perhaps he can relieve some tension by letting friends know what the beloved was really like, reviewing every bad point and trying to convince them, but mostly himself, that the beloved was a poor choice with multiple faults from the start.

In the final days the lover is nearly helpless to stop tracking the beloved in places he knows he will be, finding “legitimate” excuses to telephone, and having friends report on his whereabouts and who he is with. This need to know shows love’s inherent obsessiveness. Men often need a concrete answer at the end of failed affairs whereas women are more content to intuit a reason and console themselves (He was a cad, he couldn’t commit). If there is any solace, it is that the disenchanted lover who does the rejecting is hurt, too. His decision to terminate is a painful moment.

The “lover’s reel” describes the special memory of a realized love affair. It is something like an old movie reel stored away in the mind that can be replayed and edited depending on current needs. Even when love ends, its memory is preserved and continues to enrich the lover as he plays back the reel during the rest of his life.

Thoughts of the former beloved are often involuntary and have the flavor of fantasy, nearly always a favorable, sweet memory. People with whom we have had relationships enter our stream of consciousness to become part of our personality. Once imprinted on the lover’s reel they remain with us forever, reason enough to give each interlude everything we’ve got.

Even the rejected lover can experience love’s affirming power by acknowledging his expanded personality that realized love always produces. This is partly why nostalgia for lost love is a powerful and moving theme in literature and film. Great tear jerkers are based on this idea of “what might have been.” The longing for what might have been confirms our belief in what still could be, which keeps alive our hope for perfect love in the future.

Are You Cute?

IN THE DAYS WHEN SALESMEN knocked door-to-door, housewives knew exactly what to do. They either let the guy in or blew him off. The brush off was, “No thanks, I’m not buying anything today.” That standard phrase was the salesman’s cue to move on to the next prospect.

Someone who tries to catch your eye or chat you up is playing the salesman, knocking at your door. Your job is to decide. You respond either with, “Well, yes, hello there!” or else declare that you’re not buying. Standard phrases exist to announce your decision civilly. The “how” of your resolve matters because it shapes your reputation. Good reputations are hard to forge but easy to shatter.

One often hears that it’s not pretty to appear “too easy,” or that it’s best to be vague with unwanted admirers lest you hurt their feelings. Such mistaken advice guarantees to hurt feelings because it forces others to mind read.

Mind reading is someone standing in a crowd fuming, “Why doesn’t anybody come up to me? Look how cute I am. Look what a great body I have.” It never occurs to them to get proactive. The flip side is dismissing a knockout with the assumption, “He’d never be interested in me.”

How do you know? Resorting to mind reading assures to make you more frustrated the minute. You simply cannot know a thing about someone’s inner desires through outer appearances. The only way around it is to communicate, and posing is hardly the clearest means of communication.

The fear of being judged “too easy” arises from confusing social promiscuity with sexual promiscuity, the former being well within proper etiquette. The sling hog who takes on all comers is sexually easy. Social ease, however, distinguishes you as approachable, affable, and gracious. Graciousness costs nothing and pays handsomely.

The nicer you say “No,” the more effective it is. Stock phrases are “Thanks for asking but I can’t; I’m sorry but I’m not available; I’m flattered by your attention but I can’t.” Even after a few dates you can declare your decision not to pursue with “Thank you, but I don’t believe I will be seeing you again.” Notice how it is unnecessary to offer a reason. Doing so only encourages others to suggest ways around the obstacle when the real point is refusing what you are not obliged to do.

“Yes” phrases include, “Why thank you; I would love to; I look forward to getting to know you better; that sounds like a great idea; why yes, what would you suggest?; did you wish to give me your phone number?; would you like to go someplace quieter?; that sounds like fun.”
Cuteness has nothing to do with your haircut or the physical arrangement of your face. It is a confident self presence that comes from developing your own style.

“Yes” and “No” are short words that require long thought. Delivered with grace they lend a clarity that everyone will gratefully remember. “He wasn’t interested, but he’s a nice man” is a remark that can’t harm anyone’s reputation. With time, the “how” becomes part of your style. In matters of style, focus on doing and leave saying to others. They will anyway.

Strangers and Friends

THERE IS NO ESCAPING the fact that a stranger is someone you know nothing about.

It is easy to mistake strangers for friends. You may think you know scores of people from the bars or the gym, but they are really no more than acquaintances familiar from a common locale. A moment’s reflection shows how little of substance each really knows about the other.

The company you keep can work wonders. With friends you feel that you belong and are a part, whereas you feel apart with the merely familiar because they offer no company to keep. People who unfailingly notify you of their latest life dramas and solicit favors while never reciprocating or supporting your own happiness are not friends but public nuisances.

What is a friend? Someone who does friendly things. Friends care. When you are with them all is well and you are as flawless as they claim. The way to your friends’ mouths is through their hearts. Remember to speak well of them and they will speak well of you. Just as nastiness wins disdain, so courtesy wins goodwill. You can give it away without losing a thing. Treat your enemies with courtesy and you’ll see how valuable it really is. Nothing captivates like kindness, and the best way to win friends is to act like one. Choose well and some will last forever.

Better to keep your friendships in repair than flit like a bee always seeking new ones that are no sooner made than dropped. What have you to show for your busyness but a string of disappointments and chronic isolation? You may be afraid to reach out to new acquaintances, reluctant to go first for fear of rejection, and so feel the need to posture and wear masks. This only encourages judgments based on superficialities. The root of the much-despised “attitude” lies in our readiness to judge something we know little about. We know nothing about strangers.

Those who identify themselves through external accomplishments rather than personal fulfillment face a repeated conflict with intimacy of all kinds. Boy toy trophies don’t become lovers; competitors never become friends. Life is full of risks and there are risks to opening up, but these are nothing compared to the emptiness that sets in when we habitually wall ourselves off. Holding back makes us feel alone.

Reaching out takes time and effort. Turning a stranger into a friend requires understanding what you want and are willing to offer in turn. This requires clarity and intent. Intent shapes life and gives it direction by making you examine and choose before saying “Yes” or “No.” You cannot know what you want without a plan. Without understanding your dreams and desires you are a feather in an impersonal wind. To do what everyone else is doing is to march a thoughtless stride like ants.

Because friends can last a lifetime you should seek practicality in them as well as pleasure. Few people make good friends and you will have even fewer if you put no thought into choosing them. Good living is an act of intelligence wherein we pick the agreeable over that which is not.

Time to Fall

TWO ENDURING QUESTIONS among love’s many mysteries are (1) Why we fall in love when we do, and (2) Why we pick whom we do.

We don’t just fall in love with anybody, any time. Rather, life has moments when we are ripe for romance and, subsequently, through it are receptive to the dramatic change it precipitates in our circumstance, our attitude, even our physical appearance.

Love comes when it does. Though feasible to wall our feelings off and keep love at arm’s length, it’s impossible to do the opposite: We can never command love into existence. We are struck by it as if by lightning. Whether we credit love’s sudden appearance to cupid’s arrows, lightening bolts, love potions, or to the beloved’s irresistible charms, the would-be lover never fails to attribute his new-found feelings to an external cause. This is an illusion, however.

In reality, the impulse to love always springs from within and seeks its target. Love is a creative act of our own imagination that, in struggling to fulfill our deepest longings, winds up renewing and transforming us. Romance is the greatest agent of change ever invented. It rearranges our psyche, shuffles our priorities, and plops us on a new path that leads who knows where. The choice of who we love shapes a large part of our destiny.

Clues about the “when” of love are found in observations such as the natural capacity for sequential or even simultaneous infatuations, suggesting windows of psychological readiness when we are ripe for romance even when nobody appropriate looms on the horizon. If a would-be lover appears fickle, it is only the hopeful search for someone to reciprocate that makes it seem so. Being the most important person in another’s life is a defining axiom of love. Family, friends, or career can never supply the reciprocity and understanding we seek in a beloved, nor hedge against how alone we can feel when our missing half is what we long for.

Life circumstances that foster falling in love generally involve anticipated or actual separation. For example, affairs and marriage happen at the conclusion of college; after moving or leaving home; toward the conclusion of psychotherapy, a job, or military service; or on the heels of a break up. The latter is especially common and known as “love on the rebound.” Falling anew after the death of a beloved is likewise more common than usually thought. The alacrity of a bereaved spouse to recouple quickly signals not callousness but the devastation of their loss.

Separation from the practical constraints of daily life facilitates romance by loosening inhibitions. A free conscience presets new possibilities as seen by shipboard romances and flings while on vacation or at business meetings. When the moment is right and one or more plausible candidates nearby, circumstances can conspire to synthesize your heart’s desire—to your friend’s surprise as much as your own.

Often, the psychological and life situations that will catalyze romance for a given individual are unknowable. But knowing that windows of opportunity exist, you should leave the house whenever you feel sap rising. When the iron is hot, you will be too.

Rejection Is . . .

A SHY ACQUAINTANCE we’ll call Jack recounted how awful he used to feel from instant rejection. As a late bloomer, he felt doubly vulnerable given his little experience in chatting up those he found attractive. No sooner would he say, “Hello,” or ask someone to dance than they would turn away or abruptly shout, “No.”

Rejection made him wary of approaching anybody else, so he held back, felt worse by the moment, and left. He didn’t want to risk rejection twice in one evening. Luckily, Jack later looked at his situation more closely. “You can only reject something you know,” he thought. “These strangers know nothing about me, so whatever they’re doing,” he concluded, “it’s not rejection. Maybe they’re just as frightened as I am.”

By choosing not to take some stranger’s quick dismissal personally, Jack felt much better—so much so that an obvious plan unfolded. Each time he went out he would give five people the opportunity to dance with him. He started optimistically, but by the time he heard his fourth curt refusal Jack decided that he wasn’t going to let his fifth prospect off the hook so easily.

“Did I ask to fuck you?” he bellowed to Bachelor Number Five. “We’re in a bar, not your bedroom. I only asked to dance!” He eventually got so good at making his recipients feel guilty for answering, “No,” that escape was out of the question. Not only did they relent and realize that they wanted to dance after all, but later confessed appreciation for Jack’s persistence. Turns out that they were just as frightened as he was. The evening ended well once the two learned something about each other.

Aside from showing what can happen when you take matters in your own hands, Jack’s story clarifies what rejection is. He was right to conclude that we can reject only that which we know well. With that in mind:

Barflies and gym bunnies who won’t say hello or even look at you aren’t rejecting you. They are more likely shy people hiding behind walls or jerks with attitude. Rather than feel bad and take their unresponsiveness personally, why not have some fun and push until you get a reaction? They’ll either drop their facade or blow up. Either way, they’ll show their true face.

When someone decides not to continue seeing you after a number of dates, it isn’t rejection, but failed courtship, whether the interlude lasted a few weeks or a few months. Time alone never makes a relationship; only joint emotional commitment does. Hopefully, each side learns something from failed courtship.

True rejection can only occur after you have let yourself go emotionally and the other knows your intimate details. For example, if your spouse of seven years ever announces that it’s over and that you are no longer loved—now, that’s rejection. It hurts and delivers a shattering blow to self esteem than only time can repair.

Everyone endures superficial judgments in daily life—at work, when socializing, while running errands, and so forth. None of it is genuine rejection. Knowing this, arrange conditions so that those whom you wish to know get to know the real you.

Lie Back and Weep

IN TIMES OF DIFFICULTY, people often need either a good cry or a good fucking. Though it doesn’t seem so at first, each is an instance of love. Indeed, one of my oldest aphorisms observes that everything is either an act of love or a cry for love.

Let’s start with a zesty Anglo-Saxon fornication, shall we? It’s the more familiar of my offbeat examples, each of which has to do with letting go. In difficult times it is nice to feel wanted, and what better reassurance than another’s desire to possess you? If you are wanted for your body, then a craving for your soul can’t lag far behind. The force of physical appetite so often goes hand in hand with emotional need.

Letting go is often excellent advice. Preparing to administer a treatment in the blues song bearing his name, Doctor Short John says, “lie down, stretch out, and please don’t look so sad.” That prescription is known to work wonders. Letting go physically can be a prelude to letting go emotionally, an inescapable step toward trust.

Because we commonly try to control what we really can’t, yielding can be an enormous relief. The struggle to govern life’s every detail is like sailing a boat in a storm. The harder we force the rudder and yank the rope the more likely we are to tip over. Good sailors know that letting go of the rope lets the boat right itself. Everything becomes okay.

Controlling our emotions to avoid feeling them is a lost battle. Feeling always wins over stoicism, even though it may take years or even a lifetime for emotion to crumple barriers. A good cry is a biological safety valve. This excellent release is an act of loving ourselves while we abide the disappointment that things aren’t going to turn out as we wanted.

We live an endless cycle of craving, action, and discontent. Discontent with our current situation prompts us to mold matters more to our liking. Here begins the exertion of self-will. Life would be wonderful if everybody behaved like actors in a play whose action, dialogue, and plot we controlled. But others have separate lives that we can’t live; we can only live our own. This includes knowing when to accept matters as they are instead of forcing them to be what they aren’t.

Our lives are finite but our longings are infinite, which is why craving and discontent are facts of life. Without them, how can we recognize happiness when it arrives? How will we know when longing is fulfilled if we don’t understand what we long for?

The first step in coming to terms with our heart’s desire is to feel it—acknowledge its presence, listen quietly, and see where it wants to lead. If we do, the pent up forces may eventually demand one of the remedies outlined here.

Instead of waiting for the dam to break we can learn how to let go and open up when given the chance. We challenge our bodies with sports and test our wits with puzzles, but where are the training routines for our feelings? It’s up to us to invent them ourselves, and practice them at every turn.

Love me Now!

IN THE MOVIE “Carrington,” Ralph Partridge speaks of trying to possess the heroine and “make her his property, absolutely.”

I think not. Predictably, Partridge doesn’t succeed. He’s understandably smitten and wants Carrington to respond in kind. Trouble is, she won’t no matter how hard he pushes.

Some of us have the natural makings of a control freak. It’s obvious to us that things would go better if other people followed our directions like actors on a stage and did things our way. What isn’t so obvious is that manipulations of any kind, especially in the realm of romance, rarely succeed; sooner or later they are self defeating. To think it possible to make someone else our property is a delusion.

It should be evident that the only life we can live is our own; yet look how much effort some exert trying to make other people’s choices for them. Neither friendship nor love can be forced. We can only offer with an open hand and see if it is eventually accepted. If so, wonderful; if not, we need to move on and try our luck elsewhere.

“Important” people who “work so hard” perhaps feel entitled to affection as some kind of payback. If we demand to get love, however, we really want a support system. When we’re ready to give love, we are open to growth.

And what can we give? We can offer ourselves and our affection to those whom we choose. We don’t lure them into a spider’s web or the clutches of a Venus fly trap, but rather invite them into our private circle. Everyone, including a would-be beloved, is free to enter or leave as they choose; how they feel about us is a separate issue from how we feel about them. Why should our affection be contingent on whether or not they respond?

Isn’t this a little weird, you wonder, even debasing? Not at all. This attitude is realistic, doesn’t grovel, and refuses to manipulate. Manipulation would demean both parties because to suggest that we have any control over how others respond reduces their free will to a function of our own. All persons in their right mind should find this insulting. The flip side is that a lover who succeeds in getting another to submit to his wishes must inevitably realize that the prize was forced and therefore inauthentic. As “Carrington” showed, attempted possession not only demeans the beloved but ultimately shatters the lover’s self esteem also. Only affection that is returned freely is genuine and carries the psychic value that enriches human life and makes it bearable.

Never clutch in matter of romance. When we are open and invite what we want to come to us, perhaps it will. By forcing, grasping, we risk creating the very opposite situation from what we desire. Anxiety tempts us to escalate our demands. If we’re in a rut, we can start by accepting what company others do offer instead of dictating terms. We can never control what people are willing to give us, but we can make ourselves deserving recipients who eventually get what we deserve.

Alone at Last

AS WINSTON CHURCHILL SAID to his beloved Clementine, “We are going to have a successful marriage, my dear, provided we never see one another before lunch.” Those who would remain together should schedule time apart.

Though sometimes lovers seem unable to get enough of one another, or constantly long to be in each other’s arms, they do themselves a favor by taking a break. Time off from one another’s company works wonders for relationships both new and old.

Absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Early-stage couples are famous for being nearly inseparable. Crowbars can rarely pry them apart, and goo-goo eyes seem forever locked on the other’s adoring gaze. Their affectionate but possessive actions play out the hope for perfect union that torments all lovers. Paradoxically, however, a little time apart actually helps cement romantic feelings. It does so mostly by illuminating what those feelings are, both to yourself and to your honey who, don’t forget, is likely going through the same thing. At it’s most sublime, love is mutual hell.

When the stuff sloshing though your veins is the chemistry of genuine romance, you will unavoidably start realizing, during even the briefest spells of absence, how much you enjoy your dearest’s company. Their every absence makes you think on their presence. Though it might be only a few days since you last were together, the feeling grows increasingly clear: You miss the beloved. Contrary to what you might expect, however, what you miss isn’t sex so much as the simple fact of the other’s presence: Their physical company, the sound of their voice, their wit, or the smell of their hair. When this realization hits, you have passed another hurdle and are on the path to a solid relationship.

A central paradox of love is that the ultimate union that all lovers hope for is impossible to achieve in real life because it is the longing to unite with another, not its actual achievement, that drives romance. If we succeeded, there would be no “other”; the goal we strive for would vanish.

Still, we try, following our instincts like salmon swimming up stream. Happily, our efforts get rewarded. Lovers can achieve moments of merger, though the sweet joy of that exalted state is necessarily brief. But its pleasure makes us want it again. In enduring relationships it recurs often enough to bestow deep satisfaction.

Established couples understand the back and forth dynamic of we-and-me quite well. They alternate between taking the beloved and leaving them alone, being together and spending time apart. Above all, successful lovers understand the need to maintain their own personality, and know they have an emotional relationship that doesn’t require the other’s constant presence to maintain. They have trust instead of uncertainty.

Being certain of what we’ve got, we can let the other go off with fishing buddies, visit relatives, or have hobbies that don’t include us. We can do likewise, without anyone feeling hurt or abandoned, because coming back together means we are returning home.

Home is more than a place. It is a feeling of not just comfort, but security. Security grows not from physical relationships, but from emotional ones.

Arithmetic of Love

DURING A RECENT VISIT to Vancouver I came across an AIDS quilt panel that bore, as part of its embroidered farewell, the following equations:

1 + 1 > 2

2 – 1 < 0

I wept. Anyone who has been part of a pair understands how perfectly these simple lines capture the calculus of coupledom. That abstract numerals could serve as a heartfelt inscription about a survivor’s sense of diminishment is remarkable. Lovers long to be together because love is a re–finding, a remarkable continuation (despite every contrary appearance) of early emotional life. All unfulfilled longings get bundled and transferred to the beloved, who becomes seen in our imagination as a source of everything that is potentially good.

So how does love make 1 + 1 add up beyond two? By expanding one’s sense of identity. The power of romance comes from a double identity. Passion requires an exaggerated idealization of the beloved. But it is not the physical or spiritual person per se who gets idealized: It is the beloved’s potential ability—as imagined by the lover—to gratify him.

That the lover wants to gratify the beloved as much as he wants to be gratified in return is readily apparent in his desire to provide for the beloved: Wanting to please him, care for him, and give him pleasure of body and soul. Love is an agent of change insofar as it prods us to act for another instead of our self, moving us beyond ego to embrace the needs of another as equally important.

A trite instance of mutual identification is the Binky and Buffy phenomenon wherein members of a new couple sport the same haircut or clothing, or finish each other’s sentences. More profound examples occur within the psyche. And why do we feel less than nothing when the beloved is gone? Lovers come to relinquish the boundaries of a singular self and believe in an autonomous “we.” A paradox that needs explaining, however, is that the self is not smothered in mutual identification but, strangely enough, enlarged. In incorporating another’s identity, we expand yet maintain our own. The ego of one becomes the ego of two. Love quite literally gives life a sense of direction by steering us away from our own ego. We are no longer bound by old patterns and rigidities of character—one reason why falling in love is accompanied by spurts of energy and creativity. It is not free love or anonymous sex that is exciting, but the vow that is daring. To dare to pledge our whole self to another is the most remarkable thing most of us will ever do. This exhilarating agent of change and direction dies when 1 gets subtracted from 2. Mementoes of loss remind us of what we could be enjoying right now. Fear of “losing” one’s identity is mistaken. The equations from the quilt speak of a simultaneous quality of mingling with the beloved while expanding the self. No freedom is lost; everything is gained. This reality is what sustains our belief in love as life–enhancing and, when we are without it, feeds our hope for gaining it once again.

No Escape

LONDON—TRAVELING WITH YOUR BELOVED is fun and loaded with opportunity for argument.

Where togetherness at home is treasured as intimacy, close quarters while traveling make a crucible that heats stylistic differences to their flashpoints. Away from your routine and with no escape from one another, it is easy to trigger holiday meltdown. On the other hand, refusing to react unthinkingly might let you discover an unpredictable treasure in the combustion.

The secret is understanding how easy it is to argue over absolutely nothing. As my beloved and I reminded each other in Paris during these inevitable clashes, relax-vous; or, since we’ve since crossed the channel, let’s say it in British, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”

In London, we saw a play called “Art” about a man who buys an expensive all-white painting. The owner is enthralled by his new purchase, whereas his best friend is appalled at squandering a fortune on what he sees as “junk.” In a flash their decades-long friendship is savaged by insults and hurtful truths while the qualities that held it together all those years are forgotten.

The dialogue sounded way familiar.

It was impossible to watch the play without thinking on how common it is to become petulant with friends, lovers, and family by arguing over things that simply don’t matter. The way out is to learn—through mutual practice—that most things couples suddenly clash over are not worth the energy. The sooner we can see such squabbles as ridiculous the sooner we can return to reality. The argument is nothing but a diversion.

The reality is that coupled partners love each other and have made a commitment. The unpredictable lessons glimpsed during flare-ups have to do with discovering yet another way in which you react with the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with. It’s a mutual lesson.

In the play, the relationship is restored through an act of trust when the friend who thinks the painting worthless is invited to drawn on it with a magic marker, thus ruining what the other person sees as his priceless property. Real life may or may not be so dramatic, but next time you feel like killing your other half, take care you don’t kill yourself as well.

Lovers are a mix of similarities and differences; it is equally true to say that opposites attract as it is to call lovers peas in a pod. I said before that the beloved is a magic mirror who tells us we are the fairest of them all. But they are a dark mirror, too, that also reflects our faults. It is easy to get angry and annoyed when we see our bad parts, but there is no escape from the mirror.

Your heart knew what it was doing when you fell in love, but it takes time for the mind to catch up. Until the ego learns to get out of the way and relax-â-vous, it’s always being surprised. The mind is slow to learn what the swift heart beholds at every turn, and from this truth there is no escape either.