by ANALISA LEE
and BRANDON ADAMS
In this season of Valentine hearts, Hallmark cards and molded chocolates, it may seem strange to willingly consider love’s more difficult but constant companion – loss – as a pathway to more fulfilling love.
But to really have total love, one must also accept the raw truth that love inevitably holds within it large and small losses: mostly the endings of different relationship phases, and of course the final loss when one or both lovers part in death. In mainstream American culture we do not often happily walk with death as a companion in our thoughts or musings. Some might say we’re even a little phobic of it. We would rather focus on the more optimistic sides of life. But when we let the reality of death and loss become a welcome part of our relationships, instead of depriving us of life and love as we fear it might, it can actually bring us toward a more conscious and delicious savoring of love’s sensuous and deep experiences.
If you ever need some perspective on a relationship and how you’re tending it, consider that one day the person you love (and you) will die, and there will be a final goodbye to the relationship as you’ve shared it in this life. How would you act, speak, or love if you weren’t sure how long you had with the other person? The truth is that you aren’t sure how long you have. By letting an awareness of mortality be somewhere in the milieu of our relationships, it can be a swift and definitive teacher and motivator.
Sometimes it can even hasten the end of a relationship that is destined to end, because it asks the question, “With only so much time, how will I spend my life, how will I love?”
For those who are committed for the long haul, embracing the reality of human mortality can help soften the calcified barriers to intimacy and love. Instead of remaining in a habituated pattern of withholding intimacy, as if time was going to go on forever for the relationship, a partner might realize that indeed time is precious and limited, and then reach across the table and touch the other person’s hand or face.
Or ask an important question, or tell an important truth about their feelings. Ask anybody who has nursed a spouse or partner through to their death, and they will tell you that death has a way of prioritizing the things that matter, and also hastening the expression of the things that need to be expressed. Rarely do people at the end of life regret, “I loved too much!” But rather a sentiment of regret usually tends toward something more like, “I wished I’d loved more openly, and not waited until the end to realize it.”
Besides the larger question of final mortality, there are also smaller losses within a relationship which, when embraced, can bring a couple closer and more fully into presence and love. Sometimes couples find themselves in the midst of small endings within their relationship, and when they resist those endings rather than embrace them, they often suffer from the painful contractions of the relationship pushing to grow.
The most common first significant loss is the transition out of the infatuation phase, where opiate hormones course freely through the in-love couples’ brains like a delicious stint in an abundant palace.
Biologically speaking, this free dose of in-love hormones is purported to last up to three to four years, without much effort on the part of the individuals. After that, the partners have to actually do things to make those feelings conjure again, like wooing each other and sharing positive feelings and experiences. When a couple can embrace the natural ending of the infatuation phase, then they can begin an adventure of deep proportions.
The here-to-fore assertion, “This is who you are,” becomes the adventure of, “Who are you?” The difference might be likened to getting out of a bubbly swimming pool and walking into the ocean. In order to enter those depths, the couple must be willing to risk leaving the old waters behind.
Another fairly common loss in many relationships is when a couple finds themselves new parents, and the old life of being a duo is gone. As much as they might love and want their new family, there is also a loss: the loss of their solitary coupleness, which might not be regained fully for 18 years or more.
In our mainstream culture when a new baby is coming, the emphasis is on the birth and new beginning, and little is formally in place to acknowledge the loss of the couple’s old life. Sometimes the longing for the old life can create a powerful tension within the individuals, because one or both people are not really willing to let the old life go.
How powerful it might be for a couple to symbolically and outwardly acknowledge the ending of solitary-couple time, grieve the loss of it, and then embrace the next phase with all its adventures. And perhaps years later, the same couple might re-birth their solitary coupleness as their active parenting years come to a close.
As modern psychology becomes increasingly fixated on creating a medical model for human experience and relationship, it can be rather refreshing to return to the ancient equalizer of all existence, death, as a guide and teacher. This Valentine’s Day, let the knowledge of your limited time on earth to love as yourself inspire and extol you into the intimate depths of human love.
Analisa Lee, LMHCA, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Mt. Vernon. Brandon Adams, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist in Eastsound and Mt. Vernon. They live in Eastsound.