Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Petey's dating manual: Cheap imitations

I believe that [she] ... could not bear to continue enslaving him by magical means. I believe that she made the choice to stop giving him the potion.

As a teenager, I remember seeing other boys who seemed to always have girls pining over them – often, the same girls I'd hoped would be interested in me. Naturally, I tried to learn what I could from those other boys. I hoped that by becoming more like them, I'd achieve some of the success that they seemed to enjoy without effort. I'm glad, of course, that I pushed myself to improve. I'm definitely better for having tried to make myself more attractive, regardless of how ludicrous my motivations seem to me in hindsight.

As I consider my adolescent ridiculousness, one particularly dangerous assumption stands out to me: I thought that if I somehow became attractive enough, I would cause women to become interested in me. Were this just an aberration of my own, I could let it die. But this idea permeates our stories and ideas about love. Protagonists choose to do something about a romantic interest and then are met with success, usually without any reference to choices made by anyone else. I'll discuss some of the ways this idea manifests itself today and some of the flaws in it. And I'll suggest a better way to envision and act on love.

The first (and perhaps worst) flaw in my juvenile conception of love was that it completely ignored the agency of the women in question. If my actions could cause them to love me (or to not love me), they wouldn't really be people but objects. What's more, their love would be only a hollow imitation, devoid of the characteristics that most make it transcendent. Love isn't love unless it's given freely.

There is, of course, a common imitation of love that does happen to people, often without their choice. We call it infatuation and often refer to it with phrases like "falling in love". Besides not being actual love (although infatuation frequently precedes actual love), infatuation's primary flaw is that it can end as it begins: independently of and sometimes in spite of our choices. Anything based on infatuation doesn't qualify as love, no matter how intense it is in the moment.

Although we cannot force love, we can coerce its semblance from people. When we do so, we destroy relationships and delude ourselves. Manipulation is never morally acceptable. What's more, it never works, even though it can appear to deliver what we want in the short term. But what manipulation delivers is only ever a shadow of love. And since coercion is diametrically opposed to love, manipulation is also an ineffective precursor to love.

Coercion is an easy trap to fall into if we have preconceived notions of what love looks like. That is, if Alice thinks that real love is manifest when he holds a door open for her or if Bob thinks that real love is manifest when she listens to his emotional concerns, both Alice and Bob are setting themselves up for failure. After all, if they interpret the actions themselves as love, they'll focus on getting other people to perform those actions. If, instead, they understand the intent behind the actions and invite (but do not force) them in appropriate ways, they could actually find what they're looking for.

Another reason we believe this narrative is our need for control. Some of us feel the need to be in control of every aspect of our lives. Others believe that something must be wrong, so they want to step in, take control, and fix it. It doesn't work but that doesn't stop us from convincing ourselves. Love is about trust and never about control, so anything that comes to us through controlling means isn't love.

Since love is a choice, it is up to us. Never try to force love from someone else; instead, choose to find the things you can do that will best contribute to your partner's happiness. Use your knowledge of what your partner wants to express how you feel. Invite your partner to do the same for you. Preserve your own autonomy and fight for your partner's. And then let go and allow love to come to you of its own accord.