All about love…?

One of the oldest age-old debates – the tug-of-war wrangle between love and sex.

Love/Sex tug-of-war

E started talking all about sex (not literally).

And now it’s time to yank at the other end of the rope.

The thing about love is… What is love?

(I would like to briefly apologise for the perpetual questioning in my writing these few weeks.)

It got me thinking about how maybe it all boils down to the problem of the lingo and its deficiencies in how inadequate words are in expressing precisely the complex of one’s thoughts to another.

Sometimes the root of all trouble is simply miscommunication.

You don’t understand.

Miscommunication is more common than we think it would be.

You’d think most of us must be very communicatively competent and capable of avoiding miscommunication after going through nearly two decades of formal schooling where we learn how to use ancient systems of sounds and symbols to convey our sophisticatedly modern ideas.

But there remain many things in life that defy the capture of precise expressions.

It’s the cliches that cause the trouble. A precise emotion seeks a precise expression. If what I feel is not precise then should I call it love?
– Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

Sometimes I think this is what some people do. They think what they are feeling is love when it is in fact not. Do you still remember the warnings they dole out during those BGR talks towards the end of primary school – about how, despite the commonly heady sense of exhilaration pulsating through one’s vulnerable human mind, there are significant differences between a crush, an infatuation and the god forsaken true love? (My god, now I realise how formal indoctrination actually began way earlier than I’d thought.)

And that was important, because when one is young and just starting out in this world, one is naturally stupid by reason of a lack of knowledge and uninformed ignorance. And that, coupled with the exuberant surges of teenage hormones that predispose one to being restless and reckless, is reason enough for formal educational intervention.

Maybe this is what is lacking for us all. After we get past the teenage years and into the serious phase of young adulthood, most people assume that they have gotten it all figured out and many lose sight of the importance of introspection and what it means to redefine things in the new contexts of their older selves. That the ideals of love that our teenage selves would easily yield to might no longer work for our older selves who are concerned with different needs and demands.

Yet another bewildering aspect of the concept of love is that it is boggled down by many accompanying convoluted concepts like self-respect, human relations, sex, individuality, intimacy, freedom, family…it does not end. Basically it is everything and it is nothing. Like Susan Sontag said, it is a goddamn mystery.

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There seems to be an entire world lying in between the two ends of the love/sex tug-of-war – an entire world of societal expectations, communal and peer pressure, cultural ambivalence and stereotypes – all resulting in cultivating this sense of expectancy in us to look forward to that one final point in life to get to where everything will make sense, where finding love will make everything make sense.

We ask everything of love. We ask it to be anarchic. We ask it to be the glue that holds the family together, that allows society to be orderly and allows all kinds of material processes to be transmitted from one generation to another. But I think that the connection between love and sex is very mysterious. Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t. And why do people want to be in love? That’s really interesting. Partly, they want to be in love the way you want to go on a roller coaster again — even knowing you’re going to have your heart broken. What fascinates me about love is what it has to do with all the cultural expectations and the values that have been put into it. I’ve always been amazed by the people who say, “I fell in love, I was madly, passionately in love, and I had this affair.” And then a lot of stuff is described and you ask, “How long did it last?” And the person will say, “A week, I just couldn’t stand him or her.”

– Susan Sontag, quoted in Love, Sex and The World Between, from Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview

But, why?

Why is it that people, even those who might have been the most levelheaded, are so enamoured with getting that one love?

Our ideas of love are terribly bound up in our ambivalence about these two conditions — the positive and negative valuations of childhood, the positive and negative valuations of adulthood. And I think that, for many people, love signifies a return to values that are represented by childhood and that seem censored by the dried-up, mechanized, adult kinds of coercions of work and rules and responsibilities and impersonality. I mean, love is sensuality and play and irresponsibility and hedonism and being silly, and it gets to be thought of in terms of dependence and becoming weaker and getting into some kind of emotional slavery and treating the loved one as some kind of parent figure or sibling. You reproduce a part of what you were as a child when you weren’t free and were completely dependent on your parents, particularly your mother.

– Susan Sontag, quoted in Love, Sex and The World Between, from Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview

Sometimes I think some people continue to idealise love long after their heady and blissfully ignorant teenage years are over, except that they don’t get told and forewarned anymore. Through the misty eyes of idealisation, it is easy to indulge in selectively believing only the pleasant bits of reality that one desire and blocking out the ugly scraps, by making excuses for their partners and making excuses for themselves. Perhaps this is why some people are capable of doing terrible things to get love and doing horrible things in the name of love.

It is very interesting how Susan Sontag explores one of the different varieties of love:

 I have loved people passionately whom I wouldn’t have slept with for anything, but I think that’s something else. That’s friendship — love, which can be a tremendously passionate emotion, and it can be tender and involve a desire to hug or whatever. But it certainly doesn’t mean you want to take off your clothes with that person. But certain friendships can be erotic. Oh, I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual. I think all my relationships are erotic: I can’t imagine being fond of somebody I don’t want to touch or hug, so therefore there’s always an erotic aspect to some extent.

Maybe we are all confused about the different gradations of intimacy.

Maybe sometimes some people fall victim to self-fulfilling prophecies and end up sleeping with people they hadn’t meant to, because they confused physical, emotional and sexual intimacy.

How do we pool all these things together and sort them through to put together and feel what love is?

Because unlike other human emotions, love cannot be felt simply. It has to be processed by our ingenious brain. There are many emotions that are associated with love, which are felt, but love itself cannot be felt. It has to be thought about. This is perhaps why people have to literally think about who they truly love. The whole listen to your heart business requires thinking and thoughts that one’s heart literally cannot conceive.

So can finding that love really be everything?

Maybe for some people, it can be. They can accept whatever is lacking in their love and their everything, and be content with knowing that all the accompanying misery and happiness go hand in hand.

For some other people, though, finding that love is nothing compared to everything they would have to give up for. To them, life is really not all about the love.

What exactly is a relationship?

(This post contains spoilers for the movie Her. I recommend that you watch the movie first.)

If you can overlook the fact that Joaquin Phoenix has been styled to bear remarkable resemblance to an Indian man (for reasons unknown), the movie Her is terribly haunting – not the striking Indian man resemblance, but its exploration of the complex essence of a relationship.

What is a relationship?

The plot summary of the movie sounds quite ludicrous – how can someone fall in love with an operating system? But, you know, it often takes the most absurd to draw out the most unsettling but much needed realisation from us, the fragile fickle humans that we are, and to force us to question what we thought we knew.

It took being in a relationship with an operating system for Theodore (the main character of this poignant tale) to realise what went wrong in his relationship with his wife (who is all parts human).

One of the most haunting parts of the movie is that it is not set in a dystopian/utopian world where humans are so reliant on everything high tech that they are all dating computers. It is not all that unbelievable if you consider how most people nowadays have gotten so comfortable with staring at screens and communicating through the virtual realm and gotten so uncomfortable with dealing with blinking human eyes in real time. It is really not that preposterous to think about people falling in love with artificial intelligence anymore. These computers, put together by humans, and their minds, programmed by humans – I mean, is it really an impossibility for people to create something that people will fall in love with?

Something capable of making human-like responses that they will come to love so much that they would want to be in a relationship with it?

Something without the dramatic mess of human emotions that always seems to complicate all human-human relationships?

Theodore: Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?

Amy: Is it not a real relationship?

Theodore: I don’t know… What do you think?

Amy: I don’t know. I’m not in it.

What is a relationship?

Does it have to be human-human?

Can it be between one mind and another?

Why does it matter that if there is no body?

What good would it be for a body to have no mind? Would you have a relationship with a body that has no mind? No? So then why not just have the mind if that’s what essentially matters the most?

What is a relationship essentially?

Why do we constantly feel the need to have to justify our love?

Amy: I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.

Theodore falls out with Samantha, his operating system girlfriend, after he learns that she is not exclusively his. Possession and love. Companionship and love. Is love about owning your companionship?

Samantha: And I thought, why do I love you? …And then I felt everything in me just let go of everything I was holding onto so tightly and then it hit me that I don’t have an intellectual reason, I don’t need one. I trust myself, I trust my feelings. I’m not gonna try to be anything other than who I am anymore. And I hope you can accept that.

Should relationships be about the love or about the people?

Why do people continue being in relationships that make them feel like crap all the time?

Why do we continue to love people who repeatedly hurt us and treat us like crap?

Why does it seem so difficult to get people who are in mutually destructive relationships to get real! and get themselves out of harm’s way?

Theodore: You feel real to me, Samantha.

Is that enough? Is this in essence what falling in and out of love is merely about? That in those moments of being in whatever you are in, you are real and you feel real and that is all that matters. That is, until the high tapers off gradually and eventually and you spend days, months and years trying to chase back that feeling of how powerfully real it had once felt.

I think one of the most important reasons why Theodore was having all those problems with his relationships with other people was because of his deficient relationship with himself.

What do you want from me? Why are you doing this to me? Why are we making each other feel like shit all the time? The questions that people yell in agony at their partners when things begin to fall apart.

And then they have to break up and ask themselves, What do I want? Why am I doing this? Why am I feeling like shit?

What is in a relationship? Your body or your mind?

Can you dance without a body?

Will the piece of music always be enough?

Will you only accept a photograph?

The double sex standards

Sex equality still remains a concept that has not materialised in many areas.

More women are able to enjoy access to more rights in life now because of the foremothers who fought against sexual discrimination. There is not much dispute, at least in our society here in Singapore, that women are as deserving as men to receive education, work opportunities, etc.

History will not be erased simply because there is progress. Practical concerns are easier and neater to tackle. The mentality of the people, however, is not.

Coincidentally, after I read E’s previous post talking about love and sex and cheating and what it means to be married and having to accept the commitment of monogamy, I read this article written by one Silpa Kovvali about what sexual exclusivity means to her.

Imagine the rich, successful former outcast who’s now struck it big and is at the height of his career. Imagine the triumphant expression on his face; think of the descriptors onlookers might use. “Eligible bachelor” springs immediately to mind. Now imagine a woman in a comparable position, and think of the sympathetic looks she will no doubt have to undergo if she shows up without a ring on her finger. Or, worse still, the whispers of the feminist-minded, who might comment in hushed and rueful tones, “Wow. I guess women really can’t have it all.”

– Silpa Kovvali, Sexual Exclusivity Means We Overvalue Physical Beauty (Thought Catalog)

This is something that is literally manifested in real terms in language systems.

There is bias in some linguistic systems against women. (I don’t know about the other 6000 languages in this world that I have not heard of. I only know three.)

There are many gender-neutral words that have gender-specific associations and there are generally more derogatory terms for females than there are for males.

Take the term ‘bachelor’. It enjoys this shiny connotation of being some happily uninhibited carefree dude who can’t care less about being tied down by marriage. The term ‘bachelorette’, however, is more often used to describe the party for women who are about to get hitched than to conjure up the image of some happily uninhibited carefree lady who can’t care less about marriage. More people go straight for the ‘spinster’, a word that alludes to the sad stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed.

Somehow the male equivalent term for the term slut doesn’t sound as bad as slut does. Wait, what is the male equivalent term for slut? Womanizer? Philanderer? Casanova? Don Juan? They all sound so much sexier and romantic compared to the livid vehemence you can chant slut with. Or contemporary inventions like man-slut and man-whore that attempt to make up for the disparity but doesn’t take away the fact that there was no such term to express the same kind of sentiment?

There is a fair deal of unequally derogatory terms to describe men and women. In some way, this linguistic imbalance seems to reflect that there seems to be greater moral imperative placed on women to stand by an all-or-nothing principle about sex. If you’re a woman and you have sex with different people, you’re a slut/whore/etc etc. If you’re a man and you have sex with different people, you’re just being a man.

Who took away women’s rights to have free rein over our sexuality without being judged unduly harshly as compared to men? Why does it seem as if there is some form of a double standard for women and men when it comes to expressing our sexuality?

When you marry you are, after all, consigned to sleep with one person and one person only for the rest of your life. Meanwhile, you can always join a book club. It’s outrageous to pretend that such rigid definitions don’t lend themselves to an outsize emphasis on sex appeal when we evaluate potential partners, and that such an emphasis wouldn’t have a subtle spillover when we evaluate people generally.

Still, it is women who bear the majority of this burden, for it is beauty which they, by and large, are perceived as bringing to the table. Exclusivity is the closest you can come to ownership these days, and monogamy is a means by which men can lay claim to the power a woman might otherwise be able to obtain via her beauty, and resultant sexuality. Simultaneously, men are left in complete control of their most valued commodities, and can deftly wield them to their advantage without fear of judgment or reprisal. It is a grand delusion, then, that men, and men alone, find this whole mess unsatisfying, when it is women who are so clearly getting the raw end of the deal.

– Silpa Kovvali, Sexual Exclusivity Means We Overvalue Physical Beauty (Thought Catalog)

The onus to undertaking the commitment of monogamy in a relationship or marriage lies on both parties, but sometimes I think that people tend to judge the woman more harshly than they do the man.

Is this just because of the difference in expectations that are founded on the persisting aged bias mentality of the past? Do love and sex really go together as mutually inclusive requisites for women or were women just taught and conditioned to think that since a long time ago?

In theory, it’s always going to be neat to think that that would be the case, because that’s what, in theory, people should go for expectedly – go for the love first then have the sex, not the other way around. But in reality things sometimes don’t happen neatly in sequence. There are factors of attraction, fortuity and circumstances that come into play that end up testing the strength of your composure, especially when you meet someone that induces the thought in your mind that (s)he is more The One than the one that you previously thought was The One.

And also, in non-theory, like E mentioned in the previous post,

You can be with someone who gives you all the attention and love that fills you up emotionally, yet he or she simply cannot satisfy you in bed. Where does that leave you? Deprived certainly. Is the problem with you, or with your other half? Is it love if there is no physical attraction?

So what if you got the love but the sex is horrible despite remedial efforts to rectify the deprivation? (Which might put you in a very susceptible position to being seduced by external temptations.)

Is the love worth chaining the person as your one partner by your side if there is no physical attraction? How is that different or more satisfying than just having a good platonic friend?

Will it make you a horribly shallow person if you decide that you want to seek out physical attraction first?

Who should THE ONE be?

Reading Anais Nin recently has got me thinking about the question. Even though she remains one of the most prolific (? I don’t know how to describe her precisely) lovers documented in literary history, she was very often confused and bewildered by the most perplexing question in the world of relationships – the grand question of Who Should The One Be?

I am Hugh’s refuge and he is mine. Is that the love that makes one less alone, the loyal secure one, or the passion that fuses bodies, or the tender love, devotion, desire, intellectual harmony? Which one am I closest to? Henry, yet not close in the trusting way. Closeness to the Father, to the lover, to the brother. So many kinds of closeness! What is it that annihilates loneliness?

– Anais Nin, Nearer the Moon (The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin 1937-1939)

The huge question of Who Should The One Be is of course related to what kind of Relationship one is looking/searching/yearning for. Of course, I don’t think someone that is the loyal secure one cannot provide you with passion or intellectual harmony at the same time. They are not all mutually exclusive concepts. But they are characteristics and facets of relationships that have to be weighed according to one’s needs, wants and priorities in life. Some prioritise a sense of security above all else, some can’t care less about that intangible passion, while some would rather die than suffer with an intellectually uninspiring partner in life.

Somewhat like religion and philosophy, I feel that there are these three main principles of faith that people follow when it comes to deciding Who Should Be The One for them.

Some people believe that the most critical factor in making things work is realistic compatibility. This is the Keep It Real school of thought. They’re well aware that the thing that happens in romantic comedies – where the good looking guy and the good looking girl meets, go through dramatic life-changing events and then go on to live happily ever after – is a reality that will never work in reality. They believe that life is about managing realistic expectations. They are just looking for a good honest companionship to offer them security in going through life humbly and be offered with the possibility of not having to die alone. They look for partners with sensible expectations, similar life goals and the probable capacity of being contented to live life that way till the end. That certainly sounds like a good way to live life.

On the other side of the mating pool, some people believe that the most crucial factor when choosing romantic partners is that they need to be people whom they feel attracted to – physically, aesthetically, sexually, psychologically, chemically, pheromonally, whatever etc. This is the Attraction Is Most Important school of thought. Because to them, the sparks are what sparks off the throes of romantic passion, which is the point of having a special someone, right? And also because they think, well, the difference between a friend and a boy/girlfriend is the additional act of interest, which makes sense.

And then there are the people who believe that above everything else, the most important factor to consider is the soul connection. This is the Soulmate school of thought. The one that posit that your mate for life should be your mate of soul as well. The people who marry their best friends to be their spouses. The other half that will complete them, make up for what they lack in and compliment each other in ways mutually beneficial and awesome. The people whom they claim understand them extremely well, which makes sense that they would want to connect them in their lives for good.

And of course, last but not least, there is the Wishful school of thought with people who want all three.

However, putting the joking aside, sometimes I really wonder whether relationships have got more to do with the people in them or the love.

The dreadful truth is that you don’t just end up with a love that is passionate and mutual at the same time. You’re never lead straight to the ones who could love you back, the ones with no buts, and the ones with whom you can actually be happy.

…Life would be so much easier if we were all capable of finding that mad, mind-blowing, all-consuming, extraordinary, lasting, and reciprocated love in a sea of about seven billion people on the first try. …Sometimes the external factors are just too exhausting that a love independent of space and time would be nice to imagine.

– Hazel Venida, We’re Not Supposed to Understand Love (Thought Catalog)

Many people would claim that the Soulmate school of thought is the least shallow one of them all. I disagree. I would love to claim some moral high ground and say that I am all for defending all shades of singlehood before I can find that one Soulmate that will complete my somehow purportedly lacking life as an independent single human being. Unfortunately, I think all schools of thought are equally valid and respectable as life choices that one may make.

Because maybe like religion and philosophy, there is the leeway to make wrong choices in relationships as well. Some people grow up and realise that the religion that they were born into were not the right fitting faith for them and they converted. Some people grow older and realise that YOLO is really not the philosophy that is beneficial for their aging hearts and they make some lifestyle changes.

Maybe this is why people have been going on and on about the pains of having met the right one at the wrong time or the wrong one at the right time.

Maybe it is all about meeting the ones who will never be before meeting The One.

And that for some people we might only get to meet the ones who will never be because we end up dying before getting to meet The One.

But that’s okay, because life would still be lived out anyway.

Life is what should always matter the most.

40 Days Postmortem

So, the exciting project that was 40 Days of Dating.

Lots of food for thought, because, let’s face it, there’s not that many people out there who are willing to try out literally in a social experiment the very trying notion of platonic friendships. Many people are willing to just accept the alleged impossibility of it. And some people use it as a basis for establishing romantic relationships. You know, the whole my-spouse-is-my-best-friend business.

I was very glad to read that they did not ruin their friendship by the end of the forty days, though in the long run, I’m not so sure if their previously untainted-by-the-experiment friendship would show signs of having been affected somewhat. I was also very glad to read that they did not end up together, because that just would have been incredibly cliche and might become unwholesome fodder for more pairs of good friends to try the experiment out themselves.

But, just like the adage goes, the most important point of the 40 Days is not about the ending.

It’s about the process. It’s about the wealth of self-affirmative knowledge, self-analysis and introspection that is drawn out throughout the days of reflecting upon the days. It’s about being serious and taking the time to deliberate an issue that by its very nature involves someone else, but oddly enough most of the time explodes out of proportion singlehandedly by one party. If you get what I mean.

Many of the issues that were raised through their daily reflections are typical ones that we hear about all the time and they certainly reflect the crazy complex of stressors in everyday life itself that exerts inescapable pressure on relationships.

I think the most crucial issue though, as raised by E in the previous post, is one’s family background.

Just like how people are always saying, the past will always come back to haunt us.

It is just like how people always talk about the way many kids, who were abused in their childhood, grow up to become abusers themselves or get trapped as resigned silent victims in another vicious cycle of abuse. When you grow up in an environment of abuse, an environment with abuse is all you know about. Comfort comes from a sense of familiarity, and if abuse is familiar, then that would be comfort. I suppose it is part of human nature that when we encounter something new, we always try to, consciously or not, source for something familiar to ground ourselves in, before we can feel alright enough to venture forth and drive the new and exciting unfamiliarity by its reins. In trying to make decisions about our future, we fall back on knowledge we’ve gained in the past.

I have always wondered if my family background is the reason why I am extremely opposed to wanting to start a family of my own. Growing up, every other day was spent listening to crazy ass arguments and heated bickering, all dripping generously with my father’s blatant disrespect for my mother. (Which I think might be the reason why I really hated guys when I was younger, but that’s another point for another day.) I didn’t understand (still don’t) why two people would want to stay together, for the sake of kids, if they were filling each other with so much resentment and unhappiness. To me, our own individual selves should always, always, always come first. Kids follow you, for goodness’ sake. How happy can your children be when they see you behaving miserably all the time?! (I also think this might be a reason why I definitely shouldn’t have kids of my own, but that’s also another point.)

I was the kid (still am) who wished everyday that her parents would get a fucking divorce to end everyone’s misery once and for all. But it never happened, though not because there were no threats made or no attempts made to do so. I honestly think it was because they got to a point where they are so filled with fucking indifference that they can’t care less about doing something about it. So they just left it as it is, like people leave dead leaves on a pile of dirt to disintegrate into compost and reintegrate as earth and morph into the nothing that they never were. I think this is perhaps one of my greatest fears of relationships. Not just for myself, but for everyone. I’m sure no one, except perhaps extreme pessimists, starts out their relationship with the belief that one day it would all fizzle out and die miserably. People begin with the yearning faith that their love will last and persist, even if it may get less intense and impassioned over the years, but that it would always be there – that’s what got the whole thing started in the first place, right? But to have witnessed so many failures of others and one very close to home, the depths of bitter resentment and wretched unhappiness that plagues many marriages just hollow out any wells of belief or faith that I have, not just in the institution of marriage, but also the notion of romantic love.

It is a fact of life that beauty in nature does not last, because part of the beauty that forms life is its transience. That’s cool with me, go ahead and die. Immortal beauty is not as precious anyway. What terrifies me is the very real prospect of relationships that could have appeared to be as promising as it could get, end up spurting jet black streams of toxic sentiments. It’s not the dying, but the breeding of hateful apathy, which I think is worse than dying.

It makes no sense to me why some people are so up for constantly seeking for the one and throwing themselves into relationships over and over again and still do it even after getting hurt or disappointed repeatedly.

I’m aware that asshole-ness is not genetically inheritable, but I believe that asshole behavior can be acquired and learned through environmental exposure. A part of me is perhaps fearful that I might end up like my parents – an abusive jerk or a gutless chump. I guess a part of my psyche is retrospectively fatalistic, that I don’t know how this whole hopeful-for-relationship thing works because I haven’t grown up knowing it.

Many people think that having an awareness of such a possible pitfall is one of the best ways to prevent falling in. Sure, it could be. But I don’t think it teaches you how to get out should you fall.

And what if you don’t even survive the fall in the first place?

Not alone in this – this is how we should live

This is in essence what I have been trying to describe.

Mr. Roman Krznaric has put things so much more eloquently:

We can navigate these difficulties of love — and enhance its joys — by grasping the significance of two great tragedies in the history of the emotions. The first is that we have lost knowledge of the different varieties of love that existed in the past, especially those familiar to the ancient Greeks, who knew love could be discovered not just with a sexual partner, but also in friendships, amongst strangers, and with themselves. The second tragedy is that over the last thousand years, these varieties have been incorporated into a mythical notion of romantic love, which compels us to believe that they can all be found in one person, a unique soulmate. We can escape the confines of this inheritance by looking for love outside the realm of romantic attachments, and cultivating its many forms.

– How We Should Live: History’s Forgotten Wisdom on Love, Time, Family, Empathy, and Other Aspects of the Art of Living

One of the most affecting articles I’ve read this year.

Realised that the very vital bits in our humanity rest on their hinges with our past, our history, the forgotten, those who were older than we, and our (in)sanity.

Make some sense of it before it’s too late after joining ranks with them and having no crap significant enough to contribute meaningfully.

What is but all a congealed mess of bright and shine fizzling out following the illumination of the night.