She and I woke up a couple of hours ago. Most of our morning so far was spent in bed, not cavorting but caressing. Tenderly, lovingly, longingly. I’m now languidly preparing breakfast. A third person joins us and comments on some baked buns, the fruit of last night’s culinary labours. I thank them and considering offering a bun, but then change tack: the buns are so tasty, and so few, and I’d rather keep them for others. My omission is conspicuous. When the third person has gone, my companion gives me a look that makes it clear that the bun I gained came at a cost to how she estimated my character. For all my savoir-faire, my ability to sail smoothly, I’ve once again run aground on the shoals of my own appetite.
Before my examples create too rigid bounds, let me expand this discourse a little. I’m interested in the relationship between love and ‘fixing’ or ‘improvement’. To what extent does loving someone include wanting them to change or, more so, wanting to change them? The above anecdotes are somewhat trivial and largely relate to differences of social convention. However, examples abound of love as a process that changes those involved in deeper, more fundamental ways. Is it healthy to want to change someone that you love? Is it healthy to change for someone you love?
Inasmuch as I have been shaped and changed by those I’ve come into contact with, there are changes more valuable and more essential to who I am than the changes to the frequency of my linen-changing. Quite organically, my first love awoke in me a consummate musicianship, a delight in the sensuality of musical collaboration. This has stayed with me, indeed, it has become part of who I am. From loves of mine I have learnt the benefits of excess, of spontaneity, of pleasure. Thanks to others I have grown in equanimity, in introspection, in tenderness, in self-awareness. Not only would I be a different person if not for these inputs, I would be a lesser person. I’m grateful for how each lover and each relationship has changed me for the better.
Now, I wonder to what extent these various change were organic or intentional. If I date someone more contemplative than I, inevitably some of that rubs off, inevitably I myself become more contemplative. Is it possible, too, that my partner might intend the same? That they might love me as I am but have in their mind a desire to make me more contemplative?
I know of times when a partner tried to change me bluntly, forcibly, in a way that was less about my becoming a better person and more about my becoming a more acceptable person for them. I resent this. I largely like who I am. I appreciate when someone, anyone, helps me to become more like who I want to be. But I’ve felt invaded and manipulated when I’ve felt somebody’s trying to make me who they want me to be.And what about my behaviour? What effect have I had on others, intentionally or not? Well, I’m probably the wrong person to ask. Where I have been privileged enough to fall in love, to fall into an affaire, I hope I’ve played a facilitatory role, supporting each beau to be their best self, to gradually become more as they themself wish to be. I daresay, however, I have at times overstepped the mark, and I don’t doubt there are stories that could be told of my being invasive or manipulative, of refusing to accept people for who they are, of trying to wreak unwanted change.
In The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman describes “real love” as “the choice to expend energy in an effort to benefit the other person, knowing that if his or her life is enriched by your effort, you too will find a sense of satisfaction…”. I tend to agree, feeling that real love isn’t about complaisantly maintaining the status quo but about growing as individuals and as a unit, learning from one another and from one another’s example, and becoming better people through the process.
This love requires a degree of emotional intelligence: whence comes my desire to change this person? Do I want to make them fit my ideal? Do I want to make them more acceptable to my peers? Or do I want to benefit them and enrich their life by my effort? Whose needs am I meeting: theirs? Or my own?
This love requires an ability to love another for who they are, as they are, not for who they could be once you are through with them. It is collaborative, accepting who somebody is while wanting to support them to mature as they themselves desire. It’s a love grounded in actuality, and a love deepened by possibility. As opposed to a love of possibility, undermined by actuality.
So, be gracious in letting your love improve others, in sharing your qualities, in lovingly seeking to benefit others. Be wary of trying to ‘fix’ others, of seeing love as an excuse for rejecting who somebody is in favour of who you want them to be. Be wary, too, of letting a lover ‘fix’ you, of internalising their perception of your flaws or shortcomings. Ensure, if you are to be loved, that you are loved for who you are. Finally, be grateful for how love has improved you, for the times a lover’s qualities have become your own. Be awake to the possibilities of love. And share your baked goods.