I can't tell you how many times I've used affirmation and affection (from back-scratching to kissing; nothing too crazy) as a means of manipulating romantic feelings out of a guy. What's more tragic, is realizing how many times that kind of worked. Emphasis on kind of. It usually convinced them to try and date me (some even wanted to marry me) because they enjoyed how I made them feel, but it never did inspire them to respect, serve, love, or even really get to know who I actually am. It never provided me any feelings of safety or security because I knew there was no solid foundation for that relationship. I had figuratively built a house of cards that couldn't bear the weight of reality. I was full of seemingly genuine romantic gestures, but never felt the emotional connection and trust required for it to be real. And likewise, many of the guys who expressed grand feelings of romance never did really get to know me. Haha, I know. It's not really a mystery as to why I'm single.
So admittedly, I know nothing about love and romance. I'm more familiar with the 'not-love' category. At 26, I'm behind most people my age in experience, and admittedly lacking in many of those desires. It's something that has been on my mind for months, (okay....years), but all I've been able to form in that time are theories and observations. I've talked to countless people about it. I've asked endless questions. I've read, pondered, and prayed on the subject to exhaustion. As I age, I do feel like I'm starting to comprehend some things a little better. But my experience is still largely non-existent, and therefore my understanding rather narrow and naive. That frustrates me profusely because it's something I really want to comprehend. It's something powerful that I've seen shape, lift, and change entire lives, and I want to know how it does that.
In case it's not obvious by now, love is kind of my obsession. But not just romantic love. Though I do have desires to love, marry, and progress with my spouse for eternity, I find great fulfillment in just exploring the overall concept of love. Romantic love is just one aspect of that curiosity. In my mind, human love is a complicated topic with powerful implications. I find that, the more I learn about love, the more reverence I have for it and the happier I feel. In a way, I'm in love with love, and I feel blessed every day for the opportunity to practice that love in my family and friendships. But there are things about love that I constantly wonder about, and those questions often nag my waking thoughts. One of these, is why haven't we advanced very far, as a species, in comprehending, propagating, and promoting love? We've had centuries to learn, improve, and teach our children how to do it better. Why haven't we become experts in love? Why is it so difficult for us to create, communicate, and practice something that each and every human being seems to desire?
My first guess, is that very few have even been able to explore the possibilities of the concept - let alone master it. I look at those famous researchers, neurologists, and psychologists who spend their whole life obsessing about love, but can't maintain one single monogamous relationship or healthy family life. Sure, there might be something to be said for "those who can't do, teach," but moreover, I wonder if love is something so eternal and comprehensive, that our finite human minds can't focus on one of it's possibilities without excluding large portions of it from our perceptions. I wonder if the reason those 'experts' seem to fail in practice is because they've tried to narrow love down into a mold that robs it of it's eternally expansive essence.
In my people-watchings I'm always amazed by how many different forms and manifestations romantic love seems to take. Sometimes I see the incredible power and celestial possibilities of romantic love. Other times, I see the seemingly unromantic choices required to perpetuate romantic love. I've seen incredible acts of selflessness, kindness, and compassion, all driven by a desire to love, as well as the impossible made possible just because someone was motivated by love.
On the other hand, sometimes I see relationships that claim mutual love, but don't emit any of it's uplifting fruits. Often I've seen smart people do very stupid and destructive things in the pursuit of romantic love, and at times some abusive things in the name of that love. But, is what those people are professing as love actually love? Or is it an adulterated form of the word, far removed from the original and always uplifting concept? Is the man cheating on his wife really capable of feeling the love he professes for her? Is the abused woman who claims to love her abuser really able to feel love when she has lost the ability to love herself? Can either of those be capable of the love needed to properly raise children and teach them how to love themselves and others? From where I sit, it seems doubtful.
After all, love is an ambiguous concept, wrapped in a paradox, and often sold as a conundrum. The fact that the word "love" can be a verb, noun, adverb, and even an adjective just goes to show how intricate and involved the concept is. And that's just in the English language. Include all the different types of love described by all the different languages around the world, and you have a topic that all of humanity seems obsessed about and yet totally ignorant of as a whole. Based on the complicated and convoluted understanding of love being portrayed by most media outlets and even scientific studies, I feel pretty comfortable stating that we, as a species, haven't even scratched the surface on the true nature and possibility of human love, and that includes romantic love.
I mean, if you think about it, what is romantic love? Is it an extension of familial love? A product of developed attraction? A subset of God's love? Or is it in it's own category altogether? Is physical attraction really requisite for romantic love to exist? Is romantic love spiritual in nature or is it just the product of physical attraction mixed with our reproductive dispositions? Does sexual attraction exist on a spiritual level? Or is it just a product of our genetics and social programming? Well, from everything I've read, including all of the brain scans, psychological testing, and studies done, they really only agree on one thing - it's complicated. For those not familiar with academia, "it's complicated" is the academic's way of saying "we don't really know."
I'm not a psychologist, a neurologist, nor any kind of expert in romance, but in my studies and efforts to find answers to these questions, I've made a few theories of my own: 1.) that love is a spiritual concept and property, and 2.) that part of what makes romantic love so complicated is that it is one of the few areas of our human experience where our physical and spiritual appetites meet, interact, and start to have eternal impacts.
"Spiritual appetite" may be a strange concept, but I feel pretty comfortable making the assertion that the desire to be loved is very much a spiritual appetite. It's why we as women are so paranoid about 'being loved for our body.' It's why statements like "he/she loves me for me" are so cliche. Our spirits desire love. We crave the deep spiritual connections that fill us with peace and a sense of purpose. We desire the safety and security that comes from knowing another being cares about you, (the real you, not the perceived you) deeply and unconditionally.
Why do we crave that? I'm sure there are plenty of psychologists who would jump on that question and try to answer it with a laundry list of neurotransmitters. But personally, I'm pretty sure the reason we crave love is because, as spirit children of a Heavenly Father, we once knew and felt the infinitely wonderful feeling of divine love. We continually knew of it's comfort, warmth, safety, and security. Coming to an earth where that feeling isn't always felt or perceived would be like coming from the Garden of Eden to the Tanezrouft Basin. Spiritually, we are starved for that love, and though we don't have access to the feast we once did, our relationships with one another, romantic or otherwise, is our only way to tangibly access that manna.
Just to be clear, I'm not saying the love of God is not felt here on earth. I'm proposing that without our relationships and the love we feel for one another, we would never be able to comprehend nor reciprocate the love God is feeling for us. The two actions, loving God and our fellowmen, are eternally connected through the whole Plan of Salvation. Love is the power behind creation, the Atonement, and our eternal progression. Families are the social structure of the eternities. There's a reason families are a 'laboratory of love,' and it goes far beyond evolutionary advantage.
I believe the whole reason we came to this earth is to gain a body, and learn to love one another with that body. I'm not just talking about sex, though that does play a role. Imagine how easy it is just to feel love for all of humanity after a good meal. Now think about how much more difficult it is to show love for all of humanity when you're starving and somebody just asked you for your last piece of bread. The act of love, again both romantic and otherwise, is a difficult investment of time, effort, and sacrifice. And like most things, it takes endless practice. The work required to create and nurture love between two people is both spiritually and physically intensive. We needed bodies to appreciate, practice, and understand the depths of love those investments can offer. And, yes, I think that is just as true for romantic love as it is for any other kind.
So how does one reach that kind of connection without the fight? How do you achieve that kind of intimacy throughout your sex life? A very smart friend of mine once described sex as "the physical expression of your entire emotional relationship." She explained that her experience, great sex can be heavily correlated with a selfless, compassionate, and respectful courtship (both before and during marriage). She discreetly expressed her own observations of how things like patience, respect, and faith played a role in her desire and ability to please her husband and vice versa. It was an enlightening conversation, and I appreciate her frankness and honesty. It was a long conversation, but overall, it still always seemed to go back to selflessness. Everybody I've ever talked to about sex does seem to agree on that. Well, with the exception of those who are trying to sell something.
That does bring me to my next point. Have you ever thought about how much money is spent trying teach people how to get love rather than give it? It's quite genius if you think about it. Create or exacerbate an appetite in your target audience, mislead them just enough that they never find satisfaction, and you have a bottomless pit of profit to look forward to.
Just consider for a bit, why do I need 346 ways to convince someone to want me? Why would I want to 'make someone fall in love in 90 minutes'? I'm not saying people can't learn a trick or two from those articles, but so often they seem to miss the point. Selflessness, kindness, patience, and respect is the foundation of love. Not sex. Why do we so often ascribe sexual satisfaction as a prerequisite to love, when in actuality, love is the prerequisite to sexual satisfaction?
Not to demonize capitalism, but I'm pretty sure it's because sex sells. Get people to think that getting love is the path to happiness rather than giving it, and they'll perpetually gorge themselves on emotional junk food in an attempt to find just a hint of the fulfillment real love can offer. We are becoming economically and emotionally bankrupt in the attempt to stave off malnutrition, and the irony is, the ingredients for real spiritual nutrition are all there, free of charge. It's just that few people have ever learned how to create it, and even fewer are willing to work or sacrifice their energies into mastering the task. The cupboards are full of good food, but we are still trying to subsist on oreos and ice cream.
And just like junk food, that messes with your brain chemistry. Arousing those sexual and other selfish appetites in the absence of solid, time-tested, respectful love just makes building that foundation more difficult. At least, in my limited experience, my selfish desires for affection and companionship have done little more than distract me from the work of actually building a foundation of love. I get the rose colored glasses. I start seeing them how I want to see them, and disregard things they do or say that challenges my desired vision. I start wanting and try to manipulate specific things from them, regardless of whether or not it's good for them to give. I lie to myself and at times to them, in an effort to maintain the 'twitterpation high' those appetites offer when satisfied. But none of that leads to love. None of that ever really can. Marriages that start out this way have rough time trying to reinforce their weak foundations. So much so, that many start to crack and crumble within just a few years. Likewise, marriages that once had a solid foundation often cave after relatively short periods of neglect. Family is a massive weight. An incredibly powerful and wonderful one, but massive nonetheless. Unless both parties are willing to buckle down, serve, sacrifice, and work at that foundation continuously, their family falls apart. And the consequences of that are never pretty.
But what is the role of sex in that foundation? Better yet, as we age and become less attractive to one another, what is the role of sexual attraction in that foundation? All the experts say a healthy marriage requires a healthy sex life right? So then wouldn't sexual attraction be an essential part of marriage? Isn't a strong, if not overpowering, attraction requisite to spending the rest of your life with one person? Why else would you choose to give up the total freedom of the single life if not for something that's so strong it makes you feel like you have no choice in the matter?
This is probably where I'll start making people angry. It's not my intention, but I do want to offer an alternative point of view. So often we ascribe our experiences as "the way things are done," but never really ponder other possible, perhaps better, options. Since I have no such experiences when it comes to actual love, I have no such attachments, and I'm going to suggest a few things that may reach beyond people's comfort zones. You're welcome to disagree with me, especially since most of what I'm going to offer is total speculation. But before criticizing or getting upset, just do me a favor and think about it.
To illustrate my point, I'm going to go back in time. It'll take a bit to explain, but bear with me.
My close friends and family know of my affinity to gay men. Ever since I hit puberty, I have found myself surrounded by them wherever I go. My involvement in music and drama played a big part in that growing up. My distaste for arrogant, oblivious, and disrespectful men later in life probably added to it. Because of my junkie-like addiction to non-sexual affection (hugs, snuggles, etc.) and my incessant need for intimate friendships, I've become quite close with and developed a deep love for many gay men in my life. They all have such wonderful, perceptive, loving, and compassionate hearts. I'm pretty sure it's impossible not to love them.
Anyway, from a young age, one of my greatest struggles with LDS doctrine and the church, has been the role of homosexuality in the Plan of Salvation. Nothing in the plan specifically addresses what happens to a human being who is attracted to someone of the same gender. Nothing in the plan actually explains how a man with those attractions should live his life. All that is taught was that same-gender attraction is not a sin (I do believe it to be either genetic or somehow tied to development in the womb), that those who deal with it are loved of God, that they shouldn't act on those attractions, and that sexual activity, of any kind and between any genders, outside of marriage, is wrong. Also, that building families are a sacred part of our eternal progression, that marriage is ordained of God, and meant to be an covenant between a man and a woman. As a teenager and even now as an adult, my heart ached for these men, not because I considered them damned, but because I didn't know what to tell them when they asked me how I felt about it. I had no doubt in the truth of the gospel, and I had no doubt that they were loved by God, yet I couldn't seem to find any peace about this particular subject.
Fast forward a few years, many prayers, and countless conversations later, I'm prepping to give a lesson on Mormonism to a group of would-be yogi's in Rishikesh, India. I'm going over the Plan of Salvation when it finally hits me: There is no spiritual adoption. For those of you who aren't Mormon, that probably seems really pointless. But one of the essential parts of Mormonism is eternal families and the belief that each individual, when married, is capable of becoming like God (who is married). We believe that one day, we will be able to create our own worlds (with our spouses), populated with the spirit children we will create in the next life (just as God did for us in this life).
Marriage is prerequisite to creating those children, and the laws of the universe require both a man and a woman to create. The reason Mormons want to keep marriage between a man and a women is because we believe it's more than an affirmation of love or just a contract you sign here on earth. It's a covenant whose sole purpose it to set you up to become like God and spiritually create other beings for time and all eternity. It's central to every single other doctrine taught and a crucial part of the purpose of life. It's never been about discrimination. We just have a different definition of what marriage is than most. And since the creation of children is the central tenant of that institution (whether in this world or the next), its composition is meant to comply with the physical/spiritual laws that create children.
So, back to Rishikesh. It dawns on me, that as much as a man might love another man, he can't create children with him, and would therefore be halted in his progression and efforts to become like God. God does not do anything out of malice. The reason He teaches us marriage is the union between a man and a woman is not because he wishes to punish those with same-sex attractions. He does it because He knows, in the eternities, this is the only union that can create. Since 'sin' is anything that interrupts our path to become like God, homosexual relationships are therefore considered a sin. Not because they are dark and evil, but because no amount of love between two men, or two women, can create a child. And since there's no such thing as eternal adoption, then a homosexual man (or woman) would therefore have to choose between the partner he loves and his eternal progression.
Considering how powerful romantic love can be, that would be an excruciatingly difficult choice. One that many may choose the former in, and therefore choose to halt their own progression. And as merciful as I know God is with his children, I also know He deeply respects our ability to choose and halt our progression. And I think it's why developing homosexual relationships is considered a serious sin, because it leads to us putting at odds two very crucial parts of our progression, love and children. As much as this broke my heart, it finally helped me understand how a loving God could ask for his children to do something as difficult as forgo romantic relationships in this life. At the same time, it sparked a whole new hunger to understand eternal love. The kind of love God experiences with His wife. What kind of love is that? I'm assuming it's different from the type he feels with His children. What is the role of attraction in that love? Does it even exist outside of these temporal and imperfect bodies?
After about a month of intensive efforts to better differentiate human love and divine love, I happened upon a post about a unicorn. It was written by a man who is exclusively attracted to men, but is married to a woman. As a couple, they've known each other since they were children, and his wife has known about his homosexuality since they were teenagers. They spent years building a friendship of respectful and selfless love. As adults, they did love one another, and he expressed his desire to marry this girl and start a family with her. Though he wasn't physically attracted to her, he knew her perfectly, respected her fully, and loved her very deeply. He wanted to start a family with her - something he knew he couldn't do with another man. She was hesitant. She wanted to marry a man who found her attractive, who could appreciate and desire all the feminine parts of her. She did love him, but everything she had been taught about sex revolved around the idea of physical attraction being essential. After trying to date others and realizing this gay man was everything she wanted to be with for the rest of her life and death, she gave up on that notion, and together, they began to nurture the idea that real love goes far beyond the boundaries of attraction. It was a fascinating read.
After reading this post, I really started pondering the questions I had asked earlier. Does sexual attraction actually exist in the eternities? Or is it possible that attraction is just a temporal means of getting selfish human beings to start families so that they can then learn what selfless love is all about? Is attraction just a product our physical development? Is it just something that's meant to push us toward creating a family, wherein we learn to love as God loves (and this includes the partner-in-deed kind of love God feels for His wife).
To be clear, I'm by no means advocating for gay men to go find a woman they think they can tolerate and marry them for the sake of getting married. Honestly, unless they felt as strongly about it as Josh did, I think staying single and celibate would be an easier and perhaps better option, though still very difficult. I would just like to make space for doubt about sexual attraction being a fundamental part of our eternal identity. I personally don't think it is. I'm betting it's like hunger or fear; all necessary impulses to perpetuate our mortal bodies, but with glorified and eternal bodies, they are no longer impulses we feel. I'm sure food and sex would still be enjoyable (Well, I'm obviously not sure about that just yet). But either way, the more I learn, the more likely it seems that all the weight we put into attraction is largely...overrated.
My time in India only added to this. India is one of the few places that still regularly practices arranged marriages, even amongst educated and developed classes. Once you get to know a few people who have been together for several decades from an arranged marriage, you see the framework of love they've built for their family. It doesn't take much exposure to make you start questioning the western model of romantic marriage quite a bit.
I think this is one of the greatest strengths of arranged marriages. Many feel like love happens to them, that they don't choose it, or that they can't help their feelings for another. So likewise, when love goes, they can't help that either. I've long been suspicious of this claim, because in everything I've observed, all things worth while always seem to require conscious choice. You may be completely infatuated with someone, adore every bit and morsel about them, but at some point, you have to consciously decide whether to love them forever or not.
Many don't make this decision while things are good and the euphoric feelings of love are strong. Rather, they wait until things are so bad, that choosing to love this person seems impossible. They sever and discard salvageable relationships with hopes of a better future upgrade. So often, we are amputating relationships that could be healed with a renewed investment in the basic principles of love: faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.
Bringing that concept back to the world of attraction, if you talk to any couple who has been happily married more than 30 years, the vast majority don't have sex with their spouse because they are intensely attracted to them, but rather, because they love them and are strongly attached to them. That attachment is what fuels their sex life. Helen Fisher, one of those 'love experts' has done several studies on the difference between sexual attraction, romantic love, and long-term attachment, and this is what she's found. Take it with a grain of salt, but she did a study in 2005 that agrees with many things I've found in my observations. In brain scans, the part of our brain that signals lust/libido lights like a Christmas tree for the first 12-18 months of a relationship, but then quickly fizzles out. The part that signals romantic attraction lights up longer, but slowly starts to fade after only a few years. In contrast, the part of the brain associated with attachment (a region responsible for feelings of peace, safety, and unity) develops more activity as time and the relationship develop.
As to what makes up the kind of love that exists after 30 years of marriage, my observations (and Dr. Fisher's) definitely point to attachment (the healthy kind). In one of her later studies, Dr. Fisher found that this region has a more powerful effect on behavior and long-term perceived happiness than either of the other two. So why do we spend so much time obsessing over and trying to find that short term high? Why do we put so much weight in attraction when it's only going to last a few years?
Perhaps that's counter-intuitive to most singles, but it makes sense though doesn't it? What's sad to me, is how often singles, in an effort to gain the favor of the opposite sex and experience the thrills of attraction, compromise more promising attachments for faster and more...exciting...options. And when so few people are educated or experienced in what makes a more promising/healthy attachment, it's not surprising. Qualities like 'committed, responsible, kind, nurturing, humble, etc' are rarely sought after until experience teaches of their value.
This is where I wish to make a case for romance. Real, enduring, romance. The kind of romance that can't be captured in the flowers and sonnets, but rather the kind that's created through sleepless nights with sick children. The kind that's created while the one they love holds their hair back during morning sickness, or holds their hand while they wait for bad news. The kind of romance that encourages and supports during the most unromantic times of trial. The kind that reminds us of our own divine nature and potential to become like God.
And, like any good soldier, each is more concerned with protecting than being protected. That mutual selflessness pays off, and they know that together, they'll be able to conserve their energies, weather those storms, conquer threats, and endure countless hardships. And I don't think it's because they just feel so attracted to and giddy about the other person. No, both of those things fade over time, and I think they are meant to fade over time. As we push past and work through the drama of our every day lives, each of us is striving for some kind of peaceful and uplifting equilibrium (aka happiness). That equilibrium becomes more achievable and even more fulfilling when both members of a marriage desire it for themselves and one another.
That's a powerful bond, and I wonder if that's the kind of love we should be searching for more furtively in all of our relationships. Imagine how strong a network of friendships, families, and marriages would be if everybody involved had a heartfelt respect for one another and reliably loved and supported one another, no matter how difficult it may be. Imagine how protective and powerful those attachments would be. I may not be an expert in love nor marriages, but I have been incredibly blessed to be a part of such a vessel. I can testify to the incredible resilience and safety of such a ship. I've seen the kinds of storms it can endure and it endows me with the courage to take on whatever challenge life may bestow.
I don't desire the emotional roller coaster. Haha I'm getting too old to enjoy that. I desire to respect someone so much, that I can trust them with my vulnerabilities, my choices, and my life. If I ever get the chance to find it, I hope to do everything in my power to nurture it. If I ever get the chance to have children of my own, I hope to teach them that as well. I hope to teach them a version of 'the birds and the bees' that illustrates not only what sex is, but what it can be. I hope to teach them to look past the glitz, glamor, and selfishness of what most media portrays as love. I hope to teach them to enjoy, but also see through the thrill and stress of attraction and dating. Maybe then, they will make wiser marital choices and stronger families. Maybe then, we will start to access the infinite depth and possibility of human love. Just maybe...