To the credit of my youthful self, I realised quite early on that the delirious experience of “falling in love” is not a process to be trusted with one’s heart, one’s credit card or a particularly well-written chapter in one’s long-term plans. Predictably enough, however, I generally ignored my own sage counsel, eagerly pulling on that romantic blindfold and carefully taping it round the edges to be sure that no light of reason could sneak in and wake me up.
The romantic-infatuation phase of falling in love seems to involve 50% giddiness over your idealised vision of the other person, and 50% rapture over their idealised vision of you. It’s not surprising that when both of these idealised views begin to migrate towards something resembling reality, the infatuation falls away and you’re left to find out what, if anything, remains.
One of the sorriest indictments of my common sense is that I’ve “fallen in love” with far more people than I’ve had true, deep friendships with – and even worse, plenty of those briefer romantic flings were with people I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to spend time with, because I didn’t really have anything in common with them. With dire regularity, a lethal conjunction of physical attraction and a needy addiction to the experience of falling in love completely over-rode any questions of actual compatibility and mutual liking.
I’ve come to see “love”, as it exists between long-term partners, as something conscious and deliberate: the effort that you make to be loving when the easy, heady romanticism has passed. That effort is to some extent self-rewarding, since it both makes you feel good about yourself and improves your interactions with your partner, but I think the thing that really motivates you to keep it up is mutual liking.
The whole idea of “like” is a cheapened concept in these days of Facebook button-clicks; Barack Obama even damned his rival with the faint praise “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.” We can say of an acquaintance “I like him” and mean simply “He seems nice enough” or “He’s a good laugh”; these are trivial uses of the word. Perhaps we need a new term – “True Like”, perhaps? – that describes that wonderful sense of genuine mutual affinity, of being on the same wavelength as another person, of really relishing and benefiting from their company.
In his book “blink”, Malcolm Gladwell describes the research of US psychologist John Gottman, who has filmed and then closely scrutinised the interactions of married couples, analysed the underlying emotions on display, and correlated these with the long term failure or survival of the relationship. Gottman now claims to be highly skilled at predicting a marriage’s eventual outcome, based on an observation of its interactions:
“Gottman… has found that he can find out much of what he needs to know just by focusing on what he calls the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Even within the Four Horsemen, in fact, there is one emotion that he considers the most important of all: contempt. If Gottman observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt towards the other, he considers it the single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.”
Interestingly, of all the Four Horseman, I think that contempt is the emotion most destructive of the capacity for liking, the one that settles most insidiously into the bones even after the argument is over. I don’t think it’s actually possible to feel both liking and contempt for the same person; it would be like frowning and looking startled at the same time.
I’m sure there were plenty of reasons why my teens and twenties were such an emotional trainwreck, but my halfwitted tendency to decide to fall in love with people I didn’t deeply like was definitely a part of it. Fortunately, I did Truly Like my husband before I ever fell-in-love-with and then loved him. I’m not big on all that St Valentine’s Day guff, but I think this year I might actually send him a card – and sign it “With all my like.”