In college, I ogled over a smoky black-and-white photograph of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In their book-flooded study, Jean-Paul sits at his desk on one end of the room, and on the other side Simone sits at hers.
The photo of the French philosophical duo—however pent-up their appearance and however strained their relationship—promised that I could find a partner who would arouse my intellect as well as my body and vice-versa. Our tongues would rap about mortality and the human condition, we would make riotous love, and then we would each pursue our respective endeavors.
Ah, youth. I viewed myself a loner doomed to romance.
I relished being alone for hours or days on end, immersed in writing and in the woods. But I also savored the idea of being absorbed with and by a beloved—I say the idea of since, truth is, I did not have many, if any, lovers. I wanted it all: time to myself and an adoring and adorable partner. I remain an idealist.
“You are in relationship,” the Indian thinker J. Krishnamurti says. Who you are, in essence, manifests and emerges through how you relate to others. Those words, read several years ago, tore at what I had grown up believing: that I am I, and I am most “I” when alone! A good relationship would be an accessory, a tweed vest to a suit otherwise fine on its own but admittedly much richer with the vest.
That Thoreau-inspired staunch individualist had numerous rude awakenings in his thirties and is happy to report—after growing up about six times since he was 19 years old through a few relationships and a divorce—that Krishnamurti was spot on.
At 43, I adore my wife. I clean the house; she cooks. We practice yoga together most mornings these days. When she comes home from work, I ask her how her day went. Sheesh, I even like to talk about how our relationship is going.
I am in relationship to my wife, Hillary.
I can be moody and curmudgeonly, petty and judgmental, if I do not dose up on spiritual and creative solitude. And as my first wife would tell you, I am far from being a relationship expert.
I would like to say a few things, however, to the various lovers in the world—the immersed lovers and saturated lovers, the aspiring lovers, the broken lovers.
My years of experience and hindsight have, I hope, borne a few worthy bits of advice regarding how to negotiate our ideals of love, the need for solitude in relationship, and mutual support for creative passions when we, as psychologist Rollo May wrote, “stand in love.”
On Love and Spirituality
Several years ago, my girlfriend at the time, a yoga teacher, said, “I fear you have expectations of me that I can never live up to.” What expectations? That you’re the perfect goddess? That you complete me and make me whole? Within a few years, that relationship dissolved.
That’s one thing I’ve learned about relationships and idealism. Rather than projecting some unattainable “soul mate” tag on my partner, I try to see my beloved as she is—delights and disgusts, integrity and insecurities, beauty and bafflements—as one complex, and divine, package.
When we see our partner not as a singular god or goddess but as a veritable Hindu or Greek pantheon with conflicting passions and complex selves, we might more likely “stand in love” as our partner’s identity inevitably unfolds and changes.
Granted, I don’t want Hillary to become a sword-wielding, head-severing Kali every day, but she must be allowed her Kali moments just as I should be allowed my spontaneous Pan ones.
Other advice? Beware demanding your partner “be spiritual” the way you might deem yourself spiritual. When Hillary and I first dated, she no longer practiced yoga regularly even though she had been certified as an Integral Yoga teacher years earlier.
When I asked if she had a spiritual practice, she said, yes, the way she conducted her life.
When I asked if she meditated, she said, yes, when she is in the woods sitting and observing plants and light, animals and elements.
She respected my yoga and meditation practice, but I had to learn to curb my impulses to urge her to get thee to the mat every day. And yet she never demanded I get thee to the woods. I learned instead to relent and respect.
Years later, we each practice yoga and meditate each morning, not always at the same time. And usually once a week, we each spend a day outdoors in our respective sit spots, making notes and maps of our natural surroundings. Her words and ways daily teach me about what is real and true.
Demand your man pray more, and he might only damn you under his breath. Insist your woman sit on a zafu cushion beside you, and she might tell you to sit on it.
That my wife does deepen my spirituality is a fortunate outcome of a relationship built on mutual respect, adoration, passion, and support. When we establish a relationship on such tangible daily qualities through our words and actions, rather than on abstract ideals, a deepened spiritual partnership can follow.
On Love and Solitude
Nothing so wears down a relationship like feeling crowded and clung to.
It helps to have common ideals regarding solitude, but partners with different needs can support one another. A previous girlfriend was my solitude and social opposite. She thrived on new friendships and gatherings in ways I thrived on being alone with my ideas and my writing. We worked it out: I often stayed home writing while she saw friends and attended social events, and she also hosted a few dinner parties.
Years later, her butterfly ways have rubbed off. I’ve learned some social graces and can maintain satisfying friendships. And maybe she gained some of my solitary ways.
A few years ago, Hillary agreed to try a silent weekend. No phone. No Internet. And no verbal conversations with each other. We could signal one another in a sort of Charades-like way, but no spoken words.
At one point during the weekend, I arose from my desk, found her in the garden, and asked with my fingers if she wished to take a walk. For over an hour, we wandered through a meadow and woods where we had never been, the vibration of the tall grass, the crows, the wind, and the two of us charged. No words. We took meals together with smiles and gazes. But no words. The experience of being alone together, Hillary agreed, magnified our intimacy.
So, a third thing I’d advise to lovers is to discuss each other’s needs for solitude. And if you do not require as much solitude as your lover, don’t take it personally unless you’re jealous of his or her relationship to the divine or the woods or art.
Whether you two “cling” to one another or whether one or both of you has “too much” solitude, a silent weekend with natural daily activities together interwoven can reestablish trust and create healthy intimacy in ways no conversation can.
On Love, Creative Pursuits, and Sex
Each person pursues a passion, and each person supports the other’s passion.
That’s a simple adage drawn from my experiences and observations of what works in a relationship. It’s also what Hillary and I vowed to one another to do.
Each couple can figure out its own ideal. The idea of having a partner in my vicinity engrossed in her own passionate work while I likewise am immersed in mine still stirs many parts of me. It is as if each of our souls and imaginations has a reciprocal and tangible guardian angel somewhere in the not-too-distant background looking out for us. (Told you I’m still an idealist.)
Hillary’s passionate work is more attuned to the earth, gardening, and healing people than to the writing life—a happy separation of creative labor for us both.
To be her lover in part means I take direct interest in her passions even though they are not immediately mine. When, while standing next to a vernal stream, she waxes philosophical about how, from a Chinese medicine point of view, streams course through our bodies and are part and parcel of the waters we swim in, I swoon.
And what did she ask for for Christmas? A compost thermometer and a special knife to help her cut tough vegetable roots. I love that.
On our happiest days, we have breakfast together, and then I retreat to my study and she to her garden. We take breaks for lunch and conversation and, yes, sometimes on-the-fly render-vous indoors or outdoors.
Which brings me to the last and perhaps most essential topic for lovers: sex. When I flow in my creative work and when my lover flows in hers, we are both highly aroused. Through our own creative endeavors, we connect deeply not only to our physical selves but also to our seed selves that swirl with the same basic earth-stuff that shoots shoots in spring.
Perhaps the most salient advice I’d offer guys in love is their groins must have a direct line to their heart. Or else sex is mostly self-gratification and no relation.
This morning over breakfast, Hillary talked about how excited she was to plant garlic this autumn. Sunlight hit her soft cheeks, and my eyes saw her face freshly yet again. I wanted to make love to her right there on the farm table. It’s as if a bell in my heart awakens my groins.
At this moment, while I am writing, I can see her outdoors, her hands in the dirt, her heart full.
Jean-Paul and Simone should be so lucky.
Note: I wrote a version of this piece originally in 2009 for the editors of Kripalu Magazine. I am not responsible for any unchecked naiveté. -jbd