I’m not sure there are ever any absolutes in life – least of all when it comes to Love – but if anyone can help with this sort of problem, then it is the deeply thoughtful Maria Popova and her fantastic Brain Pickings website …
A social media link yesterday led me to a deep dive into some of her writing and book reviews, which revealed an essential paradox that exists in all great love affairs … the contradiction between our desire for intimacy, and our need to maintain independence. As Maria writes:
“It becomes an act of superhuman strength and self-transcendence to give space to the other when all one wants is closeness … and yet this difficult act may be the very thing – perhaps the only thing – that saves the relationship over and over.”
It’s an idea I first came across in Kahlil Gibran’s simple – but profound – book, ‘The Prophet’. Gibran says:
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you … for the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
The same thing was expressed a couple of decades earlier by Rainer Maria Rilke:
“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
For me, Rilke’s use of the word ‘solitude’ – which the dictionary defines as ‘the state of being alone’ – is perhaps a little extreme. But if we replace it with the word ‘individuality’, then I think we might be getting somewhere.
More recently, Esther Perel has talked about the same ideas in her book ‘Mating in Captivity’:
“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.”
As so often seems to be the case, it seems that we somehow need to find a balance between these two ideas – sharing enough of ourselves that we develop meaningful connections with the people we care about, but not so much that we cease to have an individual identity. We all have conflicting needs – at times we want security and intimacy, at others we need freedom and space – and when we are looking for security at the point our partner craves freedom … well, that’s when it gets challenging … but perhaps having an awareness of the paradox of Love can help us in these moments?
No one is saying this is easy … but plenty of people think it’s important. Rilke again:
“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
What – who? – are you preparing for …