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On Romantic Love

I’ve heard from a student that it would be interesting to discuss how Buddhist teachings can shed light on romantic love. This is a tricky subject, not least because it is far too easy to sound dogmatic when talking about such phenomena, which are never experienced in exactly the same way by different people. I take this as an opportunity to reflect on my own experience of romantic love, and to use Buddhist insights as tools to illuminate the more intuitive experience I have had of it so far.


I’ve now spent almost half my life in a single, monogamous relationship. In that sense, I don’t have much experience of the dynamics of seeking, building and breaking relationships, but I can comment on more long-term types of relationships. Looking back over the past seventeen years, I can identify at least three main phases.


The first phase was the coming together. There is a kind of repulsive, centrifugal force that more or less secretly keeps people apart. It is encoded in moral and social norms, in culture, in ideas, in the whole process of growing up as a relatively independent individual. Love (and sexual attraction) is a powerful centripetal counterweight to this repulsive force. I remember feeling deeply lonely when I was about 20 years old. There was so much pain and hatred in my life and no one with whom I could really share it. Or rather, no one to show it to. When I met my partner, I felt seen for the first time, and I felt that I was finally being rescued from my loneliness.


The first phase of our relationship lasted about five years. Of course, we got to know each other quite deeply, and I now also see how this relationship was shaped by a number of inherited habits and patterns that crept into it from my own family history. I was definitely reproducing certain patterns in our relationship that I had learned from my parents (who didn’t have a happy relationship, as far as I can remember). Much of what was happening at this time could be summarised in classical Buddhist terms as ‘appropriation’. I needed to take possession of my partner, and I wanted to see a full commitment to myself in return. This took the form, for example, of daily struggles to stay together as much and as long as possible, possibly even to live together. But it was also about imposing habits, forms, decisions, and trying to enforce coordination between two people who hadn’t been so close before. This phase was also very much about discovering and channeling sexual desire, which acted as a very powerful fuel that drove us forward and, in part, kept us together.


Still in our twenties, much of our lives were relatively open, undecided about the future. We teamed up, supported each other, went through the ups and downs of life together (studies, challenges, work, deaths). We often fought each other.


The second phase began after one of these fights, where I gave an ultimatum that in order for our relationship to continue, we had to live together in the same place. I was willing to move out of my hometown, so we compromised: I left Genoa and moved to the province (Chiavari) to accommodate the fact that my partner didn’t really want to live too far away from his parents.


This second phase was quite paradoxical, because only eight months after moving to the same place, I got my first postdoctoral position in Groningen and thus moved to the Netherlands myself. So, for the next eleven years, I’ve considered my situation in the Netherlands as a ‘transitory’ step, trying to find as much time and flexibility as possible to return to Italy, while at the same time trying to develop my career in another country. Like Odysseus, I’ve been haunted by the desire (or perhaps even the sense of duty) to return ‘home’. At the same time, I inevitably put down some roots in the Netherlands, resulting in a rather peculiar and rather strange situation in which I never really felt at home on either side of the European continent.


Living with 1300 km between us required new adjustments. We had to rely much more on each other, and my need for appropriation and control in turn led me to try to create very material and concrete ways of keeping each other closer. Over the years we bought two apartments (mostly by selling other things), joined them together and tried to renovate them as one. The whole process took ten years. It was a long-term project that kept us busy and engaged in a common goal for a long time, and also created a sense of common purpose in our relationship. It cost a lot of money, energy, time, struggle and frustration, but in a way it did its job in keeping us going and together.


The third phase began with the first lockdown at the start of the pandemic (February 2020). This was a time of seclusion and distance, but paradoxically also the time in which we spent the longest period together (14 months) as we lived through the second lockdown in Chiavari. I have covered some aspects of this period in a previous post (here). But the bottom line is that this third phase was definitely a crisis phase. First, I began to process a number of aspects of my own personality that I had never had time to really listen to and digest. This took time and a certain amount of seclusion and distance. When I came out of that period, I found myself quite different, and I’d say changed for the better. A lot of the worries and concerns that had driven me in the past were gone, much of hatred and aversion was gone, and also many of the fears that used to hold me back seemed to have dissipated.


It wasn’t easy for me to understand how to reconcile this new state with my relationship. The ascetic way was, of course, simply incompatible with it. But something happened that made me doubt whether this was my way. Here, more orthodox and intransigent practitioners (of whatever tradition) can easily see me as weak or inconsistent, but my intuition is that the real challenge is to make this finite life work and flourish as such. The Absolute (however it is conceived) does not really need ‘me’ to discover about itself. The Absolute only needs me to be ‘me’, this tiny little thing trying to express something in its life. And making this ‘me’ work is a much greater challenge than simply dissolving back into the universal matrix. But even when I decided to put aside ascetic ideals, it wasn’t easy to return to my relationship. In fact, it has become less and less easy.


I don’t feel the sense of appropriation and desire that I experienced in the first two phases. I can say this with a good degree of certainty because I know how it feels in the mind-body-heart, how it tastes, and I don’t experience that taste anymore. I’ve also learned to get closer to people, and especially in the last few months I’ve discovered how intimate you can be with a stranger through very simple gestures and ways of being present. Strangely, though, I can’t connect in this way with my partner. It is as if that door remains closed and we must continue to interact on the much more superficial level of our stories, representations and words. Too often I now find this level unsatisfactory. Of course we have both changed over the years, but it is quite obvious that as we have changed we have also drifted apart.


As I write these reflections, I’m at home in Chiavari. I’m surrounded by things from various previous houses (three generations or so). They’ve all been gathered here in a sort of Noah’s Ark. I feel the weight these things can have. They help to create an atmosphere of comfort, but only at the price of a subtle kind of blackmail, demanding that they be kept, cared for, held close, indefinitely. I see my partner very much absorbed in this business of ‘rescuing’ things from time and dissolution, secretly trying to stop the flow of time in a sempiternal moment in which nothing would change (a concern also shared by Proust and Mann). I feel this as an immense inertial weight and an old accumulated momentum that still propels us forward and holds us together, for now. But I’ve never been so doubtful about this continuation as I have been in recent months.


Where has the love gone? Of course, after spending so many years with someone, I can’t say that I suddenly became indifferent to the same person who shared half his life with me. Is that still ‘romantic love’? If romantic love is about appropriation, desire, covetousness, fear, possessiveness and the like, then that’s not what I’m experiencing anymore. I can make a comparison with the previous two phases I described, and I can see both how they contributed to my growth (I have no regrets) and that I do not miss their drama at all.


What does this tell me about the nature of ‘romantic love’? Not very much. I’m quite convinced that it is possible to cultivate a form of love based on a deep connection and sharing that is rooted somewhere beyond and below the level of words, representations, stories, dramas. I see how the strength of this kind of connection is inversely proportional to the range of people with whom it is shared. In other words, it’s quite unique and most likely only occurs in connection with very special people. I’ve had glimpses of this myself (although I haven’t followed them up for one reason or another). I would also say that sexuality can be integrated into this kind of relationship without having to be the main cement and basis. Sexual drive can add another dimension to intimacy without being the only way in which intimacy is experienced (and I think that is all that is needed to allow sexuality to be present and to express itself like everything else, while at the same time letting it go without clinging to it or remaining in its grip).


However, I can’t say that this applies to my own relationship at the moment, mainly because, having removed the cement of appropriation that held it together for so many years, I don’t seem to be able to find any other way of accessing that level of deep connection I’ve just described—at least not with my partner, and connection is something that can only be built with another. What seems to be keeping us together at this point is more the inertia of the past and the momentum we have gained from being together for so many years than anything ‘new’ and ‘deeper’.


In this sense, my own experience offers only mixed insights into the question with which I began. Yes, if you remove Appropriation&Co. from romantic love, you undermine its ordinary foundation and ultimately jeopardise it. But in the process, I’ve got a glimpse of something else (regardless of how you wanna call it) that is possible, even if I can’t say I’ve developed it, yet. If I will, I’m not sure. But if I do, it won’t just be a fourth phase, it will be a completely new one.

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