Monday, December 05, 2005

First love, forever love

Everyone knows Jewish men make the best lovers, but have you ever wondered why? Maybe it's because we get such great advice from our rabbis and matchmakers. Check out The Human Touch, a blog about love and romance authored by three rabbis and matchmaker Devora Alouf. Sure, they're a front for an online Jewish matchmaking service, but they offer lots of fine words, too. Their most recent post concerns reciprocal love versus unconditional love. Reciprocal love depends upon what we get from the other person. Is he handsome? Funny? A wonderful father to your children? A hell of a lover? Reciprocal love is conditional love, and while important, it's a fragile thing indeed: What happens when some of your spouse’s beloved qualities wane, or when they no longer appeal to you, or when you find someone who seems to profess superior qualities?

Often this marks the end of a romance. “Why should I be here for you if you can’t be here for me any longer?” This is a good question, one that has caused and continues to cause the death of many a marriage.

Unconditional love is an unquestioning, undemanding thing by comparison.

I love you not because of a particular “because,” an individual quality or many qualities that I cherish in you. Rather, I love the very “you;” not the “you” that benefits me, but the very core of your being. It is born from the recognition that we share an essential bond.

It is not that I love you because you are beautiful, but rather, you are beautiful because I love you. It is not that I love you because I need you, but rather I need you because I love you.

This does not mean one should not cherish and appreciate the fine qualities of their spouse. It means that your love is not limited or defined by their particular lovable qualities. Say, for example, you are blessed with a beautiful and talented child. You certainly appreciate these qualities in your child and you mention them to him or her. Yet your love to this child is not dependent on or limited to these characteristics. You may have other children who lack these gifts, yet you still love them with equal passion. Why? Because you feel that you are essentially and eternally one with them.

Read the whole post -- it's worth it.

I'm not going to blather on about the truth of these words; in my opinion, their truth is self-evident. Instead, I'd like to say a few things about first love.

Surely, there's something unique about first love. The intensity, the insanity, is unmatched by almost anything else; only the death of a loved one seems to generate the same sort of mind-consuming monomania.

Part of me looks at this mechanistically. We're no more than hunter-gatherers in suits, hardwired to fall for each other and fall hard*. First love is a forever sort of bond, or at least as 'forever' as it takes for the babies to get born and grow strong enough to escape the crushing statistics of infant mortality. Pair bonding is adaptive. First love helps us win the Darwinian Challenge.

But another part of me is a romantic at heart. It seems to me that first love captures much of what is good about unconditional love. Because you feel you are essentially and eternally one with them. Doesn't that sound like a smitten fourteen-year-old girl's diary entry? Doesn't that sound like one of your diary entries? You remember how it feels: I don't know where I stop and you start.

It's risky, lowering your guard like that; after all, only 3.2% of first loves result in marriage for life**. For the rest of us, first love ends in disaster.

Afterwards -- after the heart break, with the wounds that remain raw for years -- how many people reject that sort of plunge? And doesn't that rejection mean a substitution of reciprocal love for unconditional love?

Let me phrase that a bit differently. How many people avoid the emotional rollercoaster that burned them before, favoring instead a businessman's approach to relationships? Hmm. Let's look at that balance sheet. You make six figures a year, you're only ten pounds overweight, and you make me laugh, but you have bad teeth, you drive a Ford, and you still live with your mom. The hands do their balancing act: Six figures, lives with Mom. Six figures, lives with Mom.

Those of us with successful long-term marriages (knockingonwood knockingonwood knockingonwood) might prefer to think we've grown into a state of unconditional love, but I think reciprocal love is the default state for most of us. As Rabbi Jacobson says in his post, reciprocal love is not such a bad thing: "If all marriages required altruistic, selfless affection, it might spell the end of the human race as we know it. We are self-oriented creatures and we must feel that our relationships are based on a give-and-take dynamic."

Yet unconditional love has its merits, too. Unconditional love enables us to sacrifice for our mates, to be there for them when they need us most. And unconditional love feels good. Perhaps us old married folks ought to remember the madness of first love, that All I want is to die in your arms sensation, that vertiginous feeling, I don't know where I stop and you start.

It was scary and exciting, and above all else, you felt alive, didn't you?

Take it from a doc: alive is a very good thing***.


*I base this on my viewing of One Million Years BC, starring Raquel Welch.

**By now, I hope you all realize from what bodily orifice I produce my statistics.

***As one of my favorite patients replied when asked, "How are you doing today":

I woke up on this side of the dirt. I'd say that's a good day.


Blogger Robyn said...

Doug, you have perfectly articulated why a lot of women read romance. It's to relive that breathtaking, burning, all-consuming feeling while staying perfectly safe.

My husband and I are eighteen and a half years into our honeymoon. We're still just eaten up with each other, but I love romance stories to remember that first love ZING.

Balls and Walnuts suits you better than Shatter, I think. ;)

12/06/2005 06:58:00 AM  
Blogger mm said...

This is sweet and romantic, Doug. I don't necessarily agree with you though. Maybe it's just a question of semantics or interpretation, but unconditional love is something I've only felt for my kids. And I'm into my 16th year of marriage, so I don't say that lightly.

Unconditional? Bah. My love for my husband most definitely is conditional. It's conditional on him not turning into an ass. It's conditional on him not meeting other women in stinky motel rooms. It's conditional on him being a good dad. In fact, I can think of a dozen things that he could do that would make me walk away without so much as a glance backward.

Luckily, I couldn't imagine him ever doing a single one of them.

Unconditional love, or the notion of it, is the thing that keeps young girls tied to arseholes who treat them like crap 99% of the time, because they do something vaguely nice for that other 1% of the time. Or maybe that was just me.

On another topic, I'm interested to learn Jewish men make the best lovers. Why didn't anyone tell me this when I was young and single?

12/06/2005 09:04:00 AM  
Blogger Dean said...

I can only speak for myself here: I had a few minor crushes, but I was never involved with anyone where I got that huge rush until I was nearly 40. I was fortunate enough to fall for a woman for whom conditional and unconditional love would be very similar.

For me, that initial rush of lust has been tempered with trust, which has grown over the years.

Lust is great, but give me trust every time.

12/06/2005 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Interesting how y'all are seeing this in different ways.

Robyn and I are, I think, on the same wavelength. (What else would I say about someone who tells me I articulate perfectly?)

Maureen, no one questions that conditionality plays a big part in the relationship, but the unconditional angle kicks in when the marriage is stressed -- not by the spouse being an a-hole, but by health issues or other tragedies. I'm thinking, for example, of my patients who stand by their spouses after a stroke. Some of these folks are disabled to the point where they cannot possibly reciprocate -- and yet the love persists. What the rabbi is saying, I think, is that this kind of love lends us humans a degree of, for lack of a better word, godliness.

Dean, you horn dog, I'm not talking about lust ;o) Sounds like you dodged that teenage madness. By the time you got to first love, you'd reached a level of maturity denied most (if not all) teenagers.

Thanks, everyone.

12/06/2005 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger mm said...

If we can take arseholishness out of the mix, we're probably closer to agreeing than I thought.

Hey Doug - your posts have been a bit serious lately, so I'm sending you this link to lighten you up a bit.

I know you aren't a fan of Literary fiction. Now you don't have to be! Read this, and you'll be able to discuss great works with all your snooty doctor buddies.

You're welcome!

12/06/2005 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

Maureen has a point, that a sense of justice and ethics can underlie what you call "conditional" love.

12/06/2005 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger Mary Stella said...

I LOVE this post.

12/06/2005 01:22:00 PM  

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