Monday, October 15, 2007

Love - it's not all about you

Globe and Mail

We were seated in a restaurant that had big barrels of peanuts and bowls of lollipops by the door. It was our neighbourhood haunt, where families routinely took their kids on a Friday night.

My three boys, then in the blur years, ranging in age from 6 to 11, rarely sat still. But they were now, and so were our friends' children, for the half hour it took to eat their chicken wings and fries.

As soon as they were finished, up they got all at once, like a flock of geese, and took off to the back where the video games were.

Adult conversation ensued. My friend was talking about a weekend trip she was about to take to New York.

"And David agreed," she said with some pride, explaining that she was going to leave her husband with their four children in Toronto while she went on a Prada hunt.

"I bargained with him."

She allowed a pause.

I leaned forward. "And he gets?"

"Three blow jobs whenever he wants them," she informed us, laughing.

Her husband, a Bay Street financial type, smiled sheepishly from across the messy table.

Such is life in the picture-perfect world of tony Rosedale, I thought to myself. It's all about what you have (or appear to have) and what you get.

Later, when we got home, my husband said he thought this kind of contractual arrangement was a cool solution to marital happiness.

I won't say this was the beginning of the end of our marriage - there were far more serious issues - but it did make me wonder: Is all love contractual? And can a marriage last if it is?

If we were honest, we would admit that romantic love begins with some narcissistic intent.

"Darling," you might say, if you dared to be honest. "When I look deeply into your eyes, I see my new Audi."

And it doesn't have to be just a material gain on offer. I often hear my single friends say about a prospective partner, "He's not what I need." Do we seek a partner who will fit our lifestyle, like the perfect sofa, where we can relax after a long day at work?

It's also about finding someone who serves as a flattering mirror. One great dating story came from a young woman I know who was speaking about her sister. "She went out with this guy she really liked. They ordered pizza. When his slice arrived, he folded it into a wedge, like an envelope, and ate it in his hands. For her, that was it. No more dates."

If you were with a pizza folder, what would that say about you? That you have questionable standards? That you wear day-old underwear? That you aspire to live in an Ajax, Ont., suburb and drive a gas-guzzling pollution-mobile?

Lynn Darling, in a well-known essay called For Better and Worse, first published in Esquire magazine in 1996, expressed the narcissism of marriage best: "I married the man I married because I liked his version of myself better than my own. ... I was pleased by the person I saw reflected in his eyes."

Even Sigmund Freud understood the subconscious exchange of what one partner gives to the other. In his 1914 paper On Narcissism: An Introduction, the famous psychoanalyst mused about the nature of romantic love. He believed that falling in love is a self-sustaining redeployment of energy.

It's about giving in order to get.

Love is an extension of erotic energy - Dr. Freud used the term "libido" - to another person, an action that depletes the narcissistic investment in one's own ego. Having love returned, however, restores one's self-regard.

Sorry, but the love I like to contemplate and which I think sustains true relationships is more selfless.

And that's where Phil Reinders comes in. He is a pastor at First Church, a Christian Reformed Church in Calgary. A 44-year-old father of two children, he wrote me an e-mail recently about lessons from his own 20-year marriage.

"Marriage is about growing us up, a context designed not only for our happiness but also for our emotional/spiritual formation. I'm learning to see marriage, loving another person, as a call to serve that person. I think when I got married, I was mostly thinking, 'What am I going to get out of the deal?' instead of, 'How am I called to give myself selflessly?' or 'How can I serve my spouse instead of first thinking about how she can serve me and my agenda?' I got married with some incredibly self-absorbed notions. And in marriage, I have experienced a dead end ... but I have found it to be the end of my self-absorbed heart."

In conversation, when I phoned him, he elaborated on his idea of marital love by calling it "a covenantal relationship - a sense that you enter into it not for yourself but for the other's best interests. It is very different from a contractual relationship."

The closest I have come to this kind of powerful love is with my children. The desire to have babies may begin with some narcissistic intent. I used to think of raising them as a way to perpetuate my philosophy. It's hard, at the start, not to think of each as a version of mini-me, especially when others exclaim how this one has his mother's eyes, that one has his father's mouth.

But soon, and especially when they grow to become fascinating young adults, you see how expansive that unconditional love is. They might get tattoos you hate. They don't always follow the career path you envisioned for them. They may even fold their pizza slices. They make mistakes. Sometimes, they embarrass you.

But you adore them through it all. And you learn the most beautiful lesson about love: that it is about allowing that beloved to become the individual he or she needs to be.