Alain de Button suggests a novel dating strategy. Instead of trying to impress the new acquaintance, consider asking this question early in the “getting to know you” period: “How are you crazy?”
We all are, don’t you think?
While Monsieur Button assumes too much courage and honesty from most new couples, the answer could enlighten us both by what is disclosed and what is not. Even then, however, we are dealing with someone who doesn’t know himself any better than we understand ourselves. As he wrote in the New York Times:
Perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us or can relax only when we are working; perhaps we’re tricky about intimacy after sex or clam up in response to humiliation. Nobody’s perfect. The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. As for our friends, they don’t care enough to do the hard work of enlightening us. One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with.
Our partners are no more self-aware. Naturally, we make a stab at trying to understand them. We visit their families. We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense that we’ve done our homework. We haven’t. Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.
Too often we search for something we didn’t get in childhood: stability, affection, or protection. Moreover, we make our choice of a permanent relationship while over-the-moon, in the middle of the most impermanent of things: a cocooned, gravity-defying, hormone-driven new romance.
Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, in his 1930 poem Square Dance*, suggests that relationships often work this way:
John loved Teresa who love Raimundo
who loved Maria who loved John who loved Lili
who didn’t love anyone.
John went to the United States, Teresa to the convent,
Raimundo died of disaster, Maria stayed for her aunt,
John committed suicide and Lili married J. Pinto Fernandes
who hadn’t been part of the story.
Make sense of your own wierdness if you can.
De Button’s imperfect solution to our feelings-dominated dating style is to choose someone who is realistic enough to recognize the misaligned aspects of every intimate pairing. Nonetheless, the couple must value what binds them and strive for its enhancement. Every relationship is forever a “work in progress.”
No stasis here, it always moves ahead or slips back. The lovers are like tandem metal sculptors who try to make art of an elusive object on an assembly line. In the best case, despite frustration, they never give up for long. The partners refine, hammer, shape, and reconsider. Overhead are separate mirrors of each worker and their work: the object of aspiration they have created together.
The companions strive to sustain good will in the midst of despair — searching for an enlarged devotion to making themselves — individually — better partners. Until then, as Percy Shelley wrote:
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates …
The job requires a mate with equal dedication, resilience, and patience. One who gives some allowance to the other’s tardiness in catching on and catching up, at least for a little while. We want a spouse who will cry with us, hold our hands, bind our wounds; one who will listen without instinctive defensiveness to the injuries he produced, and survive the desolation of the worst of times in return for delight in the best of times.
Neither one is a mind reader, but both must begin to penetrate the facial expressions, movements, and language we offer. Remember, though, you cannot disassemble the whole person, exchanging those parts that have become less than pleasing for something better. Love is all or nothing, take it or leave it.
Think of a support beam in your residence. If you remove that unsightly metal or wood, the house will collapse. Acceptance (within limits) is no small part of what you need to learn.
Out of such pessimistic realism and tenacity, beginning with the willingness to admit one’s own “crazy,” something worth maintaining is a possibility. When two people in unpoetic moods can search and struggle for poetry, they may get an occasional glimpse of the beyond; and the satisfaction of knowing they have given the best of themselves to someone worth loving.
Thanks to Rosaliene Bacchus for introducing me to the work of Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The top image is Kiss, by Richard Lindner. The next two are photographs by Man Ray. The first is called Black and White (1926), while the second is The Kiss (1935). All three are sourced from Wikart.org.