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Love, Actually: Dialogue 2

I have this theory about men and love.  Specifically, men and love gone bad.  I am no expert, but I do believe that for men, a broken heart signifies the genesis of many years of dark and dangerous behavior in romantic relationships.  A brokenhearted man once confessed to me that he had managed to “compress my feelings deep down into my stomach until they are merely a lump of coal.”  Another explained away his own heartache by joking that “no, I haven’t been in any emotional pain lately; I’ve simply been emotionally unavailable.”

Over the years, I have come to believe that unlike women, men often have a difficult time offering up their hearts to even the most sincere woman when it has been mishandled by a less than sincere one.  Case in point: My childhood friend, Tammy, got knocked up in high school.  The father of her son was abusive, crass and subjected her to years of emotional and physical abuse.  When she escaped his madness, spending a few months in a battered women’s shelter, Tammy met Peter, a worker at the shelter.  About a year later she was happily coupled with him.  My friend, Conrad, on the other hand, has had his fair share of relationship failures.  His biggest occurred when he was in his 30s.  A woman with whom he had fallen madly in love dismissed his intense feelings, choosing instead to marry a man who could provide her with an upper middle class life style.  Since that time, Conrad has made a conscious choice not to genuinely connect with another woman.  “I’m too jaded; I’ve failed too many times at love.”  Tammy, who endured emotional torture from the man she loved, was willing to take another risk at love even though logic would suggest love had been no friend to her.  Conrad, who endured a very painful failure, allowed such a common casualty of love to deter him from a real connection well into his 40s.

I am perplexed by the vast differences in Conrad’s and Tammy’s reactions to love gone terribly, terribly wrong.

My friend, Bernard, is not.  When I shared Conrad’s story with him, he did not seem bewildered at all.  As a matter of fact, he verified that Conrad’s perspective is shared by every man he knows.  “I have been him,” Bernard casually admits.  “Maybe not for ten whole years, but I am very familiar with the place he is in now.”  Bernard feels confident in speaking for most men when he says that failing at love is such an undesirable result of taking the leap to love in the first place, that if it does happen to you, the most logical response would be to do everything in your power NOT to put yourself in that predicament again.  “I guess a heartbroken woman would continue to seek love even though she might be carrying the same ole baggage into all of her relationships.  For men, we simply just don’t seek it – at all.  And for some of us, if the failure was so big and so humiliating as it obviously was for Conrad, then we stay in that extreme avoidance of love for many, many years.”  Bernard notes that it was the woman who left Conrad for a wealthier man that sent him into this downward spiral.  “Men already are insecure about not having enough to keep a woman’s interest.”  According to Bernard, if your failure at love stems from a woman not finding you suitable to love based on your bank account, then it prolongs that dark, dangerous period where a man simply sits across the table from a woman or lies in her bed, committing to nothing else but sitting across the table from her or lying in her bed.

Bernard is the first to admit this is not healthy.  However, he is also quick to assert that it is the only coping mechanism men have to deal with the pain of love letting them down.  “People think men don’t long for love as deeply as women.  That could not be farther from the truth.”  According to Bernard, young men fantasize about meeting that one woman who is everything they’ve dreamed of: beautiful, supportive, intelligent, willing to set and achieve life goals.  Bernard even asserts that men spend a great deal of time agonizing over a relationship in trouble.  “Earlier today, my boy called me to ask my advice about problems he’s having with his girl.”  When Bernard recited how the conversation went, it sounded identical to the conversations I have had with girlfriends over the years. “I think we long for it even more than women do.”  How else to explain the difficulty in moving on when the woman a man  loves chooses to no longer love him?

I have never been of the school of thought that men are adverse to love. That they only surrender to it when a determined woman refuses to accept anything less than their love and commitment. I have always wondered if the only reason we assume women are more willing to love is because our culture encourages men to take love – particularly romantic love – for granted.  To look at such an intense emotional connection to another human being as the antithesis to manhood.  If this is the case, how do men get to the point where Bernard is now?  Knocking on 40, he has recently fathered a child and is happily nurturing a fulfilling relationship with his son’s mother.  When I asked him if he felt he had enough love in his life, he beamed with laughter. “Oh…I have an abundance!”

So, how did Bernard get from that dark, painful place in which Conrad has permanently settled to a place where he has opened up his life to an onslaught of love?  Bernard actually thinks it has nothing to do with men’s inability to love after being hurt or our culture’s ad campaign about the beauty of love being pitched solely to women.  When he thinks about all that he has learned about love and how to sustain it, he sees one common thread between all the genres of love he is blessed to experience right now.  “Love with absolutely no expectation,” he advises, “and you will find that it not only makes you happier, but it also makes the love itself grow much deeper.”  When he was younger, Bernard had lots of expectations when he offered his heart.  When he loved, the recipient of that love was expected to respond in specific ways before he felt secure enough to love further.  His love came with an invisible contract.  He made certain that a clear signature was at the bottom before he gave 100%.

“The same reason I lovingly hold my son because he is fussy is the same reason why I lovingly hold his mother when she is upset.”  Although I would argue that it is much easier to take such a diplomatic approach to loving your child than to loving a romantic partner, Bernard is convinced that there really shouldn’t be any distinction.  “Love is pure,” he explains.  When it becomes convoluted, it is because people sully it with their own agendas and expectations.  “I love my son because it makes him happy.  I love my girlfriend because it makes her happy.  I love my mother because it makes her happy.”  Bernard has managed to make the GIVING of his love uninfluenced by his RECEIVING love.  “I might get the love back the way I want it; I might not. I still give my love either way.”

Perhaps, this is why his feelings are not compressed into a lump of coal.  Sounds like a much easier and more energizing place to be.

Love, Actually: Dialogue 1

I am a very smart cookie.  I have only been on this planet for 34 years and in that time I’ve figured out several of life’s indecipherable mysteries.  I have solved a few of those puzzles the universe throws our way simply to confuse us beyond our senses while it points and chuckles over in the corner.  For instance, I have already realized (and accepted) that no matter how much you love your chosen profession, you will still spend EVERY Sunday evening fighting depression, dreading whatever mayhem your boss snuck onto your desk as soon as you left the office on Friday evening.  I have figured out that even if you have the kindest, most supportive and nurturing mother, there will STILL be moments when you see her number on your cell phone and you will press mute, pretending that you involuntarily missed her call.

For all my enlightenment, however, there are still many things I don’t get.  Many mysteries in this life that leave me flummoxed.  Signs in subway stations that read: Northeast corner.  People who enjoy cleaning, cooking, doing laundry.  Algebra.  Living in Iowa, Ohio, anywhere in middle America, actually.

The biggest mystery that continues to elude me is this loaded word we humans call love.

For all I think I know about love, there are a host of questions that sit on my psyche as I, like most mortals, go about living a life in which I am daily faced with the challenge of loving.  So, what does it take to love another human being?  Do different genres of love require different skills from the lover?  Is love a passive emotion or does it require as much energy, as much determination as hate, happiness, anger?  Do most of us feel we have an adequate amount of love in our lives?

I took these loaded questions to my friend, Katrina.  Since she is an even smarter cookie than me, I figured she’d have something profound to say.

Katrina waxed poetic, explaining that even when she lacks romantic love in her life, she still feels surrounded by love.  I expected her to supply the requisite admonishment of confident single gals the world round: “I have my friends, my family…I have LOTS of love in my life.”  Katrina surprised me, however, by voicing an even broader view of love.  “The universe is full of love,” she pointed out.  She spoke of first coming to this realization when she went camping.  While resting in a hammock and gazing up at a tree whose bare branches blew in the wind, she realized the tranquil peace that she felt was, in fact, love.  “When I stop myself from being driven every which way by anxiety and worry and really just sit and look at a flower or even a regular ole tree, it becomes clear to me how much love the universe has at its disposal.”

Katrina is of the belief that we are all one with the universe.  Therefore, if there are copious manifestations of love in the cosmos, then there has to be just as much love (if not, more) within us.  “Some people see that love in the eyes of their children or they feel it when they are with their partner,” Katrina went on to explain, “but, I think even without such concrete representations, each of us already has love in our lives.”  According to Katrina, the only reason why many people don’t feel that love within themselves is because they either don’t know how or choose not to access it.

I’ve known Katrina for a very long time; I was not aware she was such an enlightened, thoughtful soul.  When I jokingly asked, “Dude, can I start calling you Buddha,”  Katrina blushed and waved off my compliment.  She explained that it took her a while to figure this out.  Like all of us, when she was in her late teens/early 20s, there was only one type of love worth thinking about: romantic.  There was only one goal: to get it.  There were many reasons you thought you wanted it, but after much self-reflection, it is now clear that the real reason you fought so long and hard for it was: you believed it validated you in some way.  “Friends had boyfriends.  They fell in love. It looked like fun.  They seemed so happy.  So, I wanted all of that, too.” Romantic love would give you a husband and nights snuggled next to him.  Romantic love promised you a life of less loneliness.  It promised you a future.

“I, obviously, don’t deny my desire for romantic love,” Katrina went on to explain.  In her mid-30s, marriage and family are very important to Katrina.  She does view her search for love a bit differently now, though.  Unlike when she was in college, Katrina realizes that romantic love has its limitations.  “Universal love doesn’t.”  When she contemplates this statement further, Katrina is able to express why universal love is really the foundation for any other type of love.

“Not only are we one with the universe,” she explains.  “Each of us is one with each other.”  I am not merely similar to the man who sits next to me on the train reading his book.  I am that man.  And that man is me.  According to Katrina, when we are able to tap into the love that exists within us, we naturally relate in more loving ways to the fellow mortals we encounter in our daily lives.  If we are unable to acknowledge this universal connection (love?), then how can we truly sustain love with a romantic partner?

I went into my conversation with Katrina hoping she would answer if not all of my questions, maybe one or two.  I went into my conversation with Katrina hoping to learn something. Oddly enough, the conversation taught me nothing; it really only confirmed the ONE thing I was 150% sure of about love: it comes from within.  Love, in its purest form, has little to do with the person whom we choose to love.  It has more to do with us and our ability to tap into what is the natural state of the universe.

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