Towards a Quaker View of Love

Department: 

[The author chose the title of this article to honor the ground-breaking 1963 pamphlet from Friends in England, Towards a Quaker View of Sex.]

It is common to hear Friends speak about love – love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemy – love in its many abstract senses. But for Friends who are dating, partnered, or married, the most recurrent and mysterious questions about “love” are questions of a different kind. For most people, finding and keeping romantic love is a pressing and practical concern.

Unfortunately, outside of our clearness committees – which can be helpful – committed relationships are not well served by Quaker culture. The vague marriage advice in our Faith and Practice fails to address concrete issues adequately. In fact, it remains uninformed by the findings of modern counseling.

One pitfall in the way that Friends generally do Quakerism is a tendency to foster soothing platitudes (a pitfall that is not unique to Friends). Even those of us who can recognize the fallacies do not feel free to openly challenge such crowd-pleasers. The worst of such platitudes concerning relationships is the popular “unconditional love” cliché. “Unconditional love” is a contradiction in terms and a degradation of what love really is. Suppose that, out of spite, your lover deliberately slashes your tires or drowns your pet parakeet. After several such vindictive incidents, any reasonable person would ask what it really means “to still love” such a person. Loving someone cannot be constrained by a solitary act of having decided to love them. Love is less of a noun and more of a verb; and where it is a noun, it is an evolving noun, less of a contract and more of a covenant.

What follow here are some practical, Friendly points of advice about love. These should begin to take us beyond the bounds of soothing platitudes and toward a Quaker view of love.

Date like a Friend: If you are single, yet wish to enter into a loving relationship, the first thing to do is reject the superstition that says if you haven’t found the right person, all you need to do is stop looking, and the right person will come to you. On the contrary, if your search isn’t working, search smarter. Pause to consider what a romantic date really is. As crass and unromantic as it may sound, a date is a job interview – an interview for the position of intimately sharing your life. Research on on adult attachment indicates that the most important question for you to consider when dating is not “Does this person love me?” but rather, “Is this the right person for me?” Even though there may be no such thing as a “perfect” person for you, that doesn’t lessen your need to be careful in choosing a truly suitable partner from the pool of frail humanity.

Dating should therefore focus on really discovering who this new person is. At the beginning of your romance, avoid distractions from that goal, such as viewing a movie or premature sexual encounters. Each moment spent in the bedroom is one less moment to determine how your lover handles it when someone forgets to take out the garbage.

Given the emphasis that Friends place on mindful listening, you will hopefully devote less time, when dating, to talking about yourself and more time to asking questions. And don’t be too shy to ask personal questions – even extremely personal ones. The usual taboo against “prying” is incompatible with the need for interpersonal discovery. If you touch on a sore subject or one that is not relevant to your partner, then they should let you know gracefully; if they handle it poorly, there may be a problem. And while you clearly owe your date a succinct but faithful description of your own past relationships, try to strictly limit your criticisms of your former partners.

Proceed not rapturously, but cautiously. Just because a person is unknown to you doesn’t make them a mere blank screen onto which you can project your premade images of the ideal partner. Psychologists refer to the impulses of infatuation as limerence – the strong involuntary desire to have one’s feelings reciprocated. A truly mature and stable love, based upon authentic partnership, can only flourish once the illusions of limerence fade.

When you dine together, pay close attention to how your date treats the wait staff. Other things to pay close attention to are the kinds of self-defeating behaviors that unfortunately plague the whole human race. Paramount among these are addictions: alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, gambling, work, or escapism. If your date is likely to engage in some of these addictions, in a certain sense, they are already married, and in the case of some addictions, you can never be more than a mistress. Also, certainly be mindful of the fact that at any moment, a sizeable percentage of the human race is walking around under the burden of mental illness. Sometimes it is masked so well that it doesn’t appear for quite some time.

Even if none of these difficulties arise, once you plunge into the modern dating scene, the most common difficulty you will encounter will be self-absorption: your date’s obsession with his or her own life, concerns, and agenda – to the exclusion of seeking substantive rapport with your life, concerns, and agenda. Granted, perhaps your date is shy about asking personal, revealing questions, or talks too much due to the anxieties that attend meeting someone new. The Friendly things to do in these cases are to encourage a shy date and forgive a nervous date. But if the pattern of I/me/mine persists, beware. The sad irony is that the more self-absorbed a person is, the less self-aware. Also sadly, the process of getting older magnifies these tendencies. Older people are generally more set in their ways, and less willing to change or compromise.

Most of us can never be happy with a person whose capacity for true empathy – true mutuality – is limited. This is what we mean whenever we talk about narcissism. The usual diagnosis for this problem is “too much self-love,” but in reality, all love – from love of nature to love of God – must be firmly premised in genuine self-love. It’s impossible to love anyone else if you do not love yourself. True self-love acts as the most effective vaccine against narcissism.

Other common difficulties you will encounter when seeking to form a new relationship result from faulty attachment styles. Most people have the capacity for secure attachment – that is to say, they are committed to finding love, but are not very distressed when it hasn’t yet appeared. Once they have forged a trusted bond, they do not feel insecure about it, nor do they tend to be innately jealous. When two such people bond, their love tends to be stable and long-lasting, and this draws secure-attachers out of the pool of available singles. Logic suggests that, as a result, the singles scene is over-represented by the remaining two faulty attachment styles: anxious and avoidant. An anxious-attachment personality may be frequently plagued by doubts about the partner’s respect and commitment, or may suffer from groundless jealousies. An anxious lover constantly tries to strengthen the bond of commitment, but frequently in self-defeating ways. As for avoidant personalities, research shows that even avoidant people want love, but the irony is that as soon as they have found it, they begin to feel increasingly trapped or smothered.

The pairing of two avoidant personalities can provide plenty of conflict, but the ultimate absurdity is the common situation in which an anxious person falls in love with an avoidant type. The scene that ensues might as well be a clip from a Pepe Le Peu cartoon – the amorous and odorous skunk pursuing a cat that is desperately trying to escape. Even if the conflict fails to entail slapstick physical pursuit, the avoidant person nevertheless finds ways (often subtle) to sabotage the intimacy, and to gain relief from emotional claustrophobia. Like Pepe, the anxious lover remains mired in frustrated lovesick pursuit. In some cases, the avoidant person – who, after all, wants love also – may sometimes turn up again once the chase is called off. . . But then the flee/pursue cycle begins again.

When someone accepts your invitation to date, of course you will feel grateful; but paradoxically, whenever a person you’re seeing decides to stop seeing you, you should feel more grateful than disappointed. Maybe it hurts, but try to appreciate that if this person was wrong for you, and if you had made the mistaken choice to live together, you would have been cheated out of meeting the right person. For that reason, even a breakup means the dating process is working precisely as it should.

Commit like a Friend: If dating is the appetizer, commitment is the main course. A committed relationship is more rewarding, more challenging, and much more complex than courtship; and to discuss commitment in the detail would take a book at least. So here I will offer only a few hints about a Quaker view of committed love.

The first thing to say is that the suggestions above about dating continue to apply throughout marriage. Lessons that were not learned early, when less was at stake, can come back to haunt you more intensely after you have pledged to share your life with someone.

One of the most surprising things I have learned from my previous relationships is also quite simple: When you commit to someone, if you both don’t each give as much as you get, then over the long term, the situation becomes unsustainable. I suspect this will shock some – particularly those who believe in the fallacy of “unconditional love” – but a loving commitment is not a blank check. Of course, it is true that life is unpredictable and unfair, and sooner or later your lover will encounter a rough patch that requires from you copious giving, nurturing, healing, inspiring, and support. But as the years drag on – particularly if you are not getting some of your needs met by close friends and family – the injustice and deprivation will wear you down and make your marriage less a cause for celebration and more a quagmire of resentment. The grim truth is that a great many people are simply not suited for committed love because they can’t find in themselves much to give.

On the other hand, there are cases when an apparent failure to express love is actually only a matter of two people speaking different love languages. According to one influential theory, marital conflict often results from one partner’s inability to communicate love through the specific modes or “languages” understood by the other: (1) exchanging gifts, (2) dedicating time to emotional intimacy, (3) bonding through engaged conversation, (4) cheerful service such as washing dishes or fixing a faulty lamp, or (5) affectionate, erotic touch. Sometimes the resentful partner doesn’t recognize that love is being expressed copiously by their partner through one of these modes because their own native mode differs. These are misunderstandings that can be resolved, and the
luckiest couples connect through all five languages.

The last insight I can offer about commitment stems from the latest application of attachment theory to adults. Traditionally, a conflicted couple was viewed as being engaged in a power struggle. But some of the most common and most heated arguments are not, in reality, about the overt propositions that couples argue about – such as whether the dog can sleep on the sofa or whether to adopt a child. If the quarrelers can set aside their superficial disagreement and open themselves to the frightening decision to truly reveal their innermost fears and desires, they can finally recognize that what they are really fighting about is someone’s feeling of abandonment. A simple failure to smile, to communicate, to touch, to compromise, to change, or to respect can all quite easily trigger fears that love doesn’t last and can’t be depended on. The heat of the argument ultimately comes from the intensity of that fear. All arguments about anything but abandonment just lead to vicious cycles of blame and counter-blame.

I know that some Friends today turn up their noses at the “SPICE” formulation of the Quaker way (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality); for instance, evangelical theologians warn that it might lead us away from God’s will and towards our own. However, I find the SPICE formulation to be a helpful point of departure for more nuanced thought; something pithy, which can be unpacked with great reward. Similarly, I am wondering whether Friends might develop another simple formulation that combines the best of modern psychological insights about committed loving relationships with the Quaker way.  Such a SPICEy attitude could offer more than empty platitudes to the lovelorn and the love torn, it could further Friends towards an authentic Quaker view of love. ~~~

Mitchell Santine Gould is the curator of LeavesOfGrass.org, which publishes critical analyses of the works of Walt Whitman. He is a member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).

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