What Makes a Love Last?

For a new love to last is nothing short of remarkable. Love might be conceived in an instant, but its gestation takes time and is fraught. For a zygotic love to go to full term is exceptional – far more loves miscarry than don’t. What forces might affect the prospects of a new relationship? I’d like to suggests three: individual presents, futures, and pasts.

No time like the present

The present situation of each lover – their ‘life circumstances’ or ‘context’ – significantly affects the prospects of an affaire. It’s simple: do the situations/circumstances/contexts of the lovers facilitate the growth of a bond? Or are they a barrier? It is easier for love to take hold when two people go to the same school, or work at the same place, or live in the same suburb. It’s easier if they are at the same ‘life stage’: they might both study or both work, they might both be new to the same city, they might both have just graduated. Why might this be the case? Firstly, a relationship is easier to conduct when circumstances make it easier to spend time together. A second factor is that similar situations results in shared experiences. These shared experiences make it easier to relate to one another. Easier relating aids shallow conversation, but also deeper conversation, as a greater understanding of a lover’s context – due to one’s own familiarity with the context – would make it easier to empathise or offer support. For these two reasons, one influence upon the success of a new love is how present situations overlap between potential lovers.

I think this can be seen by the way that one partner’s graduation might affect a relatively young relationship. The lover that is in the workforce while their partner is in uni, or in uni while their partner is in high school, loses from that relationship their partner’s ability to relate to their own experience. The newly-graduated lover’s horizons expand, and they need someone with similar horizons – which may not be the same person who met their needs previously! Another example: I once dated somebody living in a sharehouse at a time when I had never lived in a home other than my parents’. Not only did I lack an understanding of her sharehouse context, I also (I realise now) lacked an understanding of sharehouse culture, which meant that I was less sensitive to her housemates’ and her needs in relation to this. Bummer.
a picture of a grape growing on the vine, like a love, one that will hopefully last!

What the future holds

The future of each potential lover is also significant: what they envision as their future. When two lives intersect, each of those lives already has a certain trajectory. There may exist plans to travel, to study, to work a certain profession. Ultimately, we each have our own plan to be a certain person. If these two plans are too unaligned, it’s hard for a love to last. If two people aren’t headed in the same destination, the progression of time itself will inevitably separate them. Why? If people have unaligned life plans, a love has to have incredible pull in order to sway their life goals towards alignment. This can happen. People can decide to live in a different country, to pursue a different career. But because this demands a trade-off, the love has to be exceptional to warrant this. More often, people decide the love is worth less to them than their pre-existing life goal. Thus the goals of each lover, each lover’s future, affects how a relationship unfolds.

In Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik (I’m referencing teen fiction here, not ‘literature’), Anastasia’s mum Katherine tells her a story about a time she was in love with a young lawyer. The two of them went on a spur-of-the-moment trip together and, after a romantic dinner, read each other’s fortunes. He told Katherine she would be a good painter, and, in her words, “that he could see me ten years in the future, and I would be barefoot, with a smudge of paint on my ankle and another on my nose”. She then tells his fortune as a “very successful lawyer”, being important, smartly dressed, up-and-coming, and with a big house. Says Katherine, “Then we looked at each other and I started to cry.” And really, that’s it. This is very honest. Two people can readily enough fall in love, but when they do each of them already has an idea of what they want to happen in their life. If the love compromises that, or jeopardises it, it has to be very special to sustain itself. Normally, it isn’t.
a person looking optimistically into the sky. They are actually at an activist training camp, although it's not clear in the picture.

Past the point of no return

Thirdly, the past has huge power over an individual’s ability to craft a lasting relationship. Your past experiences of relationships affect how you engage with a new relationship. This influences what you ask for, what you fear, what you hide, what you offer. This is due partly an awareness of what has or hasn’t worked in past relationships and, most likely, a tendency to overcorrect in a new relationship. It’s also the more subconscious ‘stuff’ which we carry with us from past relationships, including non-romantic ones. While I spoke earlier about present “situation” as what is external, your past is immanent in your present internally, in you, on the inside. You carry your past with you into every relationship, and every relationship is affected by it.

I’ve seen this. I’ve been the naïve lad determined not to repeat the mistakes of a past relationship, and making the opposite ones. I’ve been the man baffled by his lover’s fear of intimacy, gradually discerning its roots in her past. I’ve seen friends whose relationships have been shaped by traumatic events in their lives, who seek from each new relationship something they’ve been missing for so long. And you know, it’s sometimes even small things, like realising that a particular lover’s mannerism came directly from their mother, or father. Sometimes, however, these small things make all the difference. The big things often do. Each one of us is the aggregation of each past experience, thought, feeling, memory. We can’t help but bring it into our present, and into our relationships.

a photo of two teenaged girls with their baby faces glued over their own

Your past never leaves you.

Lasting love: a perfect storm?

Two caveats: I don’t think people have to have a lot in common for a relationship as lovers to endure. While studying at the same campus might facilitate a romance, so too might the spicy variety of having different situations. It’s not unheard of for lawyers and painters to conduct perfectly fulfilling relationships. The three factors I’ve identified aren’t the only factors. And they don’t act one-dimensionally. When I talk about commonality, I’m not talking about having ‘things’ in common. I’m not talking about whether or not people like the same bands, or have the same opinion of Andrew Bolt. I simply think it is more likely for things to work out when more of these stars align.

Secondly, I’ve very deliberately avoided making a value judgement about relationship longevity. A long relationship might be a failure by other measures, a brief one an utter triumph. We want relationships to continue, of course – but there are cases where a relationship shouldn’t continue, at least in its current form. So, sometimes things won’t last, or endure, or work out. And sometimes that’s the right thing.

Still, it is a magical thing when it all works out. It’s rare, and correspondingly precious, for a fleeting spark to result in an enduring flame. It’s rare because there are so many variables. Each person has a unique present, a different context, dictating their daily doings as well as the dominant experiences for them in the present moment. Each person has a unique path into the future, ideas of where they will go, which needs to be considered when investing in a growing love. Finally, each person has a unique past, a distinctive set of defining experiences, influencing how they are in relationships. These three forces interact through a relationship. Often, because of some point of discontinuity, it isn’t to be. In rare cases, one way or another, it is.

2 Responses to “What Makes a Love Last?”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

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