On relationships and love

This was written mid-1998.


I have been putting off writing this for over five years, so a lot of the thoughts here are ones that have been brewing in my mind for a while. The reason I am finally writing this now is because I'm over a long (five year) relationship with someone I cared deeply about; I didn't really feel an urgency to put down my thoughts about relationships as long as I was involved in one. Unlike all my previous relationships (which were more than two handfuls, double entendre intended), this was a relationship that I didn't think would end and one that I didn't want to end. However, certain events (mostly screw ups on my part) occurred with the inevitable result, and now I am faced again with the prospect of not knowing whether I will be with someone I seriously care about. Thus this missive about my views on relationship and love which formed after a series of several relationships when I was a lot younger (I'm 26 as I write this). This is simply an addition to the rest of my philosophical missives. The major difference is that this one is written in first person, but like all the others, the goal is to put my thoughts on paper. The first person use may sound like I'm looking for someone, but you could in general replace all occurrences of "I" with "you" and might end up finding some truths for yourself in here.

A brief background: both people who know me and don't know me can easily see I have different passions and interests: science, philosophy, music, nature, and many many more. In previous relationships, I spent more time immersed in those passions than with the person I was in a relationship with. In an ideal world, I would go as far as to say that the person I was with didn't make me feel that she was primary and that my other passions were secondary. However that would be doing my own feelings and the person I was with a grave injustice. In reality, it is far too easy to be selfish and to take things for granted, without realising how short you come up in the relationship department. In the particular five year relationship that I didn't want to end, by the time the issue of me ignoring her was brought up, it was too late, regardless of what I did to save the situation. In fact, what I did, a sudden turnaround, only made it worse. For when you ignore and neglect someone over a period of months, whatever chemistry you had, even if it was the absolute best, gets lost and unhappiness sets in. The moment I realised what had happened, I promised to change, and I have changed, not just for the person I was with and perhaps will be with, but for my own self.

So the first lesson here is that in any relationship that becomes stale, there are underlying reasons. I think it behooves us all to determine what those reasons are, and if they have to do with you, think about why that is and what can be done for the next time. This sounds a bit preachy, but what I am trying to say is that it's all too easy to rescind the responsibility for one's actions and this is one of the biggest threats to a relationship.

When I was really young, when the idea of relationships didn't have any meaning to me, I was completely content with myself. I didn't need anyone to complete my life in any manner and there was never a time when I couldn't occupy myself. When I started getting into serious relationships, in my mid-to-late teens, I was completely content except for the brief periods during the ending phase of a relationship, but I had everything a person could want in life. Now I am single and I'm still completely content. This is partly the cynical side of me speaking, but it's true because I've always thought relationships to be a tradeoff between freedom in exchange for close companionship, i.e., exchanging one set of complications for another (to quote from Stigmata). (At one point this would include sex, but these days even though I enjoy it immensely, I think sex is overrated.) Ayn Rand (whose philosophies in general I think are completely trite and banal, but I'll quote her anyway) said

"Before you can learn to say 'I love you', you must first learn to say 'I'."

The problem, if you could call it that, has always been that I love myself way too much. I enjoy my own company. I can amuse myself for endless hours. This doesn't mean I'm not with my fears and insecurities that don't require support from other people, but assuming nothing is shaking my world, I'm perfectly fine hiking the Grand Canyon by myself or reading the latest comic books. In fact, I almost prefer it that way. I think this is the essence of a good relationship, wherein both partners are happy and comfortable with themselves, but taken to an extreme (i.e., if they're too comfortable with themselves, or worse, if one of them is comfortable and the other is not), it can lead to emptiness.

I say above that I changed for myself and now have decided to spend a certain amount of time with whoever I end up being with. Why? Because even given all my interests, I stopped doing (or didn't do) certain things that I enjoy doing. These are the simpler things in life that are less productive than solving a scientific research problem, writing software to fold proteins, writing a song, or coming up with a new scheme to thwart intellectual property. These include bubble blowing, kite flying, rollerblading, yo-yoing, playing on the swings in a park, listening to the ocean in the evenings/night, etc. (I suppose hiking would fall in that category also, though I'm more avid about hiking than I am about blowing bubbles.) These days I still do these things by myself, and I enjoy them, but I have come to realise is that it can be just as much fun (or more) doing these simpler things in life with someone else. Being with someone else forces you to do things you normally wouldn't do, which might be more fun than some of the things you do do. In fact, that's the best part of a relationship: the uncertainty, the random variable, that arises from not knowing and understanding another person completely. Being in a relationship makes life far more unpredictable and this is A Good Thing.

At the present moment, at the outset, I enjoy being with myself way too much to want to be in a relationship. However, I figure I will change my mind when I meet someone and certain sparks fly, as I have in the past. To me, the essence of a relationship lies in being close friends. This may sound corny, while I think physical chemistry is important, in the long term what matters are whether you can talk to your partner as you grow old. Thus it would be nice to share all the things I do above, the simpler things and the complicated things. Continuing on with this line of thought, I think it's not a great idea to get into a relationship for relationship's sake. That is, as the friendship develops, if stuff happens, that's great, and if not, that's great too. I think looking for a relationship generally is detrimental to ending up in one.

One final point I want to make involves people being scared of caring about someone deeply or commitment (see thoughts on love below). I think passion is important, and I think one should "follow their heart", whatever that means. However, impatience (sometimes confused for intensity, but it really stems from being passionate) can indeed destroy a blossoming relationship since it goes against societal norms. I am an extremely impatient person and this is both a virtue and one of my biggest flaws. Rather than play the waiting game, I'd rather push things even if it means a certain negative answer. In particular, this makes long-distance relationships untenable. It is strange to me that society views "moving too fast" to be a bad thing, and perhaps this is generally based on some valid reasons, but applying this to every case I think is wrong: it's easier to push people away than to let them in, and I think taking the secure/easy path leads to emptiness. I think sometimes you can end up in a relationship like in the movies, and when you do, there's nothing wrong with being impatient and going too fast. So if you feel you're in one of those, my advice is to not hold back---that will determine whether it really is like in the movies or not. I think a passionate relationship, even if short-lived, is worth the pain. I love like I've never been hurt.


So what is love? The big picture answer is that romantic love is a biologically driven phenomenon. It has been selected for because it helps our genes to propagate, along with a complex set of other qualities, and they're not independent of each other, i.e., the state of "being in love", "lust", "jealousy", "anger", "trust", and many many others, are all tied together in a complex way and it's really not a clever thing to separate them out. It's a complex function of the interactions happening within us.

But what is the nature of that state from an individual perspective? That's more of a personal thing and it's hard to describe. To me, being in love has many components but at its core is the view that you will do anything for the person you're in love with (cynically, this could be viewed as "putting up"). Your passions, etc. are SO strong that nothing the other person does could be bad in your eyes (i.e., you become very accepting). All this means that you essentially give up control of your emotions, etc. to the other person. It's a scary feeling to most people (and most people who have issues with trust, etc. have a hard time falling in love) but to me it's very exhilarating. Essentially you give yourself over to the other person. Since the state of being in love is ultimately biologically driven, it has a strong sexual/physical component to it (i.e., what people call "chemistry"). But that's not enough to sustain the feeling and for that you need an intellectual and emotional compatibility (this is also discussed more below).

One experiences different kinds of love as one moves through life, but romantic love is an amalgamation of all or almost all of these other loves, and then some. For example, a romantic partnership might sometimes have characteristics of a parent/offspring or sibling relationship, and universally of a great friendship. This is usually witnessed as a romantic love-based relationship progresses over time.

There are a few quotes in my quotes page which would aptly describe "love" from different perspectives. I think the concept of love invented by society is fiction (Plato called it a grave mental illness), particularly the various idealistic versions of it. Sartre considered love and relationships to inherently be a cycle of sado-masochism. That is, a person caring about another person generally wants the other person to reciprocate, but yet any action that compels reciprocation will lead to dissatisfaction. In other words, the person who is doing the loving wants to be loved, but yet does not want force the love and wants it to happen on its own accord. So in any given situation, the person who is doing the loving will objectify the person who is receiving it, compelling them to reciprocate (sadism). However, the person who does the compelling is not content when the love is reciprocated because he/she knows it was because of the objectification (masochism). This begins an escalating cycle of objectification generally culminating when the relationship ends.

Objectification in a relationship I think is just as bad as emotional or physical abuse (and is possibly the cause of abuse in many cases). I am against objectification: every time I begin a relationship I always worry that I will end up objectifying or being objectified. I think it is possible to overcome objectification and I think it requires the cooperation of all the people in a relationship. I think successful relationships (in all walks of life, not just romantic ones) are ones that step around the objectification problem.

This theme is epitomised excellently (and humourously) in The Simpsons and Akbar and Jeff cartoons by Matt Groening. I personally see The Simpsons or Akbar and Jeff to be the most realistic portrayal of relationships and love. Obviously few of us are like Homer and Marge Simpson, but the general idea of why there exists such a deep commitment between the two of them I think is a valuable thing to pick up.

So ultimately love I don't think is an emotion or a feeling, but rather a state of existence for and between two people. That is, love is the interaction between the partners in a relationship. This may vary based on the type of the relationship---it could be dysfunctional, as in The Simpsons, or sado-masochistic (as in the play Quills), or consummate (as in Romeo and Juliet). In an ideal world, love is a Zen-like state, where two people are together as one. (While this description appeals to the romantic side of me, the cynical side of me gags at such a statement---perhaps this is how it should be.) But we don't live in an ideal world, and no matter what, there's bound to be an imbalance---if the imbalance/assymetry is too much (i.e., one person cares too much and the other person doesn't care enough), then it's bound to frustrate. In such situations, it's better to end it completely (cut your losses) rather than end up in an objectifying cycle which will inevitably lead to a bad ending.

So what is my ideal of a great relationship? Everything I say below is except-able. That is, there are no absolutes and this isn't a box. In fact, I almost refrained from writing this because I've learnt that people aren't perfect (d'oh!), and more importantly, to not expect perfection. This is a good thing, because it would make a relationship very boring. But I'm going to say what my ideal is anyway. For now and always, I want someone I can do things with. I want someone I can see myself growing old with, someone I can be with when I am sixty. Such a statement requires the ability to think quite a bit ahead into the future, because for all my talk above being content alone, I am not convinced I'll feel the same way thirty years from now. I want someone who will be what they are and not change (personalities) just to make a relationship work. I want someone who knows what they want.

Exclusivity is also important to me personally. I'm a passionate person and I give a lot of my time and energy to the person I care about. In the end, all of it comes to naught if there's nothing to sustain and nourish it (i.e., if it's not returned). If someone isn't willing to be exclusive to you, and you are to them, then it ends up in a assymetric/objectifying situation. But besides some health-related reasons, the primary reason I think exclusivity is important is because of the energy you put in. For me also, it is how I fall in love.

However, I'm also a firm believer of the adage that you can't force a relationship, and so I think I want someone who, when they're unhappy for whatever reasons, even if the reasons are unfair, will work through it with me instead of bottling it up or pushing me away when things get tough. I want someone who is not afraid to trust or to get too close. I want someone who'll question me, who won't let me get out of line, who will correct my mistakes regardless of how stubborn I am, who will continually challenge me and will be able to deal with being challenged. And most important, an ideal relationship would be one where it is extremely casual and intense at the same time, much the way it was with my friends in first grade when I was five, possessing both passion and naivete.

Keep in mind that the moment I say I want these things, I'm beginning my objectifying process. So in reality, I just believe in going with the flow and seeing what happens---this has led to some incongruous relationships, but, as they say, 'tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and either you're in a relationship that makes you happy, or you're not. While it hurts each time you emotionally commit yourself to someone and that commitment is lost, I think those feelings enable you realise that you exist in this world. Also as I say above, I think it's not likely that one can find a relationship by looking for it.

This is corny (and extremely over-used), but the song Somebody by Depeche Mode, although demanding in tone, captures many of the things I've written above lyrically.

I want somebody to share,
share the rest of my life,
share my innermost thoughts,
know my intimate details;
someone who'll stand by my side
and give me support.
And in return
she'll get my support.
She will listen to me
when I want to speak
about the world we live in
and life in general.
Though my views may be wrong,
they may even be perverted,
she'll hear me out
and won't easily be converted
to my way of thinking.
In fact, she'll often disagree.
But at the end of it all,
she will understand me.

I want somebody who cares
for me passionately
with every thought and with every breath.
Someone who'll help me see things
in a different light;
all the things I detest
I will almost like.
I don't want to be tied
to anyone's strings.
I'm carefully trying to steer clear of those things.
And when I'm asleep,
I want somebody
who will put her arms around me
and kiss me tenderly.
                          ---Depeche Mode, Somebody


People have written and asked me about the current status of the five-year relationship. I'm happy to say that the person I was involved with and I are extremely great friends now. Five years is a long time to know each other (it's now over eight) and I personally feel it's great to be able to continue building the history, albeit differently. And I've been in a couple of other cool relationships since then, though I didn't necessarily feel that way when they ended. (:

My upcoming album Twisting in the Wind features a two songs about love and relationships.

A more cynical viewpoint as to why relationships are screwed up...

Metaphorically speaking, before I get involved in any relationship, I am sitting under this beautiful tree with tasty fruits, enjoying the sun and whatever I am doing. I'm at peace with the world. Then along comes someone who tantalises and attracts you and so you run after them so they can sit under the tree with you. But then as you start running, you get caught up in the chase and forget about your beautiful tree. As they lead you into dark alleys and unfamiliar and strange places, you no longer want to be there but yet you're unsure about how to get back and since you have come this far you keep going in the hope things will get better. And then things come to a head where you lose them. Slowly you recover and find your way back to the three, but then the cycle repeat. Was it worth it? (: It's amazing to me how much the biology is so influential in why this cycle repeats (and why we feel the desire to be with someone).

But there is hope...

Perhaps though the person you're supposed to be with is the one you find when you are coming back to your tree (or a new tree) and you realise you've been under the same tree all along but were always chasing other people to be able to connect with each other.

The three components to a relationship

I believe these three components are necessary for a relationship to work: physical compatibility (this not only means you need to be physical attracted to each other, but desire a similar amount of closeness together, from hugging and cuddling to sex), intellectual compatibility (this is more elastic, but you definitely shouldn't have world views that pit you against each other), and most importantly, emotional compatibility (this is a personality match---two hot-headed people will have a hard time getting along; a person who's not ready for a relationship will have a hard time being with a person who is; etc.). This is in my mind is what leads to asymmetry in relationships. The three components are not mutually exclusive and play off of each other.

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org