Of all the challenges of defining love, maybe the most significant is how the squirmy word “love” can change its romantic shape and meaning over a lifetime.
Consider it this way: When we are young, the fall into the bewitchment of love feels like a force from outside our universe that claims us and won’t let go. We are occupied — taken over as if by a foreign power.
It carries us everywhere as we pass through time. While the train of life moves forward, the romance whirls, touches, enlarges and plays with us.
We might notice a weightless quality, a lightness to our being if the rapturous madness arises in the bloom of youth.
If the lover departs, we believe we’ve lost an irreplaceable creature without whom we will never be complete. In agony, such broken ones wonder what happened and what they did wrong, hoping for a chance to fix the crumbled attachment. The mood darkens to deep sadness and tears.
The largeness of love is too big a topic to address in a short essay. Instead, I’ll concentrate on heterosexual men in love, based on the stories of male patients and friends.
Within this limited group, their voices will focus on initial encounters with endearment and the arc traversed by this fondness from early to late. Simply put, how they and their experience of affection changed over their lifetime.
This information is not something easily shared. Most men don’t want to think or talk about it. In my case, as an “old friend” in both senses, a dedicated listener, and a retired clinical psychologist, I’ve heard more than most.
First, what is a man’s experience of love under 30?
If we break it into parts, several come to mind.
An honest young suitor admits he is led by his body. Call it passion, desire, or lust, but let’s add some other qualities of love after putting this one at the top. The remaining items appear in no particular order:
- Passion, Desire, or Lust
- Admiration of the partner
- The other’s Admiration of You
- Affection evocative of Poetry (though men live in a world of prose)
- Care or Concern for the lover’s well-being
- Respectful or Kind behavior toward the cherished person.
- Enchantment to a state of Idealization, as in the phrase “love is blind.”
- Companionship: the wish to share encounters, events, and ideas, the better to enhance their enjoyment
- Thinking of the loved one when separated
- The Joy of meetings
- Displaying Generosity in non-material and material ways
- Consideration of the beloved’s opinions and thoughts
- The Expression of Fondness in words
- Gratitude for the sweetheart’s presence
- Sharing in the work of keeping a romantic connection and a household functioning well
- Devotion “in sickness and in health”
Time works its will — in small steps. The body’s capacity and interest in “the sex of things” achieves an incremental decline from its teenage peak.
By middle age and beyond, fatigue, medication side effects, pain, and sleep difficulties often jump into the bedroom and stand between the once indefatigable lovers.
When I asked couples in marital therapy about what first attracted them, the answers became predictable and identical in long-married twosomes:
My wife and I laughed a lot, and my partner was hot.
Twenty years on, neither of these were as present as they once were.
Here is an old joke:
If you put a penny in a jar every time you have intercourse in marriage’s first year and take one out each time after that, you will never empty the jar.
An exaggeration for sure. Yet, in the best marriages, there are changes in the loving tie, less preoccupied with the physical element of attraction.
Or, in still other words, here is a bit of humor offered by a fellow in his early 50s:
I’m not the man I once was, but once — I’m the man I was.
As those words suggest, the decline in male sexual drive and capacity contributes to the relationship change. To the good, one of the possible alterations is surprising and joyous.
According to those with whom I spoke, when the erotic thirst diminishes enough, it stands aside, revealing the fullness of the person they thought they knew. The man might recognize the importance of characteristics underappreciated before.
His gratitude grows if he simultaneously comes to terms with the inevitable irritations between any two roommates or lovers.
Libido remained alive in those I talked to, but not so much their master, no longer compelling and narrowing their focus to one dominating thing. Their appreciation of the partner depended less on expectations of everlasting beauty.
There was an ease to the togetherness thus produced and a lack of pretense, bravado, and a young person’s sense of being judged or needing to prove himself.
For other men, however, as erotic physicality slips lower in the ranking of what is essential, so does the need for regular female companionship. Since he is no longer so prone to becoming” crazy in love,” he finds romantic partnership less essential to his being.
But let’s end with a return to the lucky ones in love and their fortunate mates.
The transformation of craving is captured in Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Liar.*
The couple’s son asks himself questions about the relationship between his mom and dad:
I wondered if they’d had a good marriage. He admired her and liked to look at her; every night at dinner he had us move the candlesticks slightly to the right or left of center so he could see her down the length of the table.
It pleased him to behold his no-longer-youthful wife. Not pleasing to the world, perhaps, but beautiful to him.
No one else’s opinion mattered.
*”The Liar” comes from Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. The second image is from an Engagement Photo Session by Arash Hashemi. The last shot is called Old Couple in Love by Ian MacKenzie. Both come from Wikimedia Commons. The phrase What Love Tells Me was part of the original programmatic title Gustav Mahler gave to the finale of his Symphony #3.