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Love in Romantic Relationships: Cultivating Self and Other through Friendship

Change is a dynamic engagement – a process of unfolding. I spoke about this in a recent post. Some of the best “life philosophies” offer insights into self-cultivation to live a more fulfilled life. Cultivation is growth, and self-cultivation is forming one’s own growth into the best version of yourself that you can be. I don’t mean this in the ways of modern self-help books of the business/marketing variety, although not to completely dismiss those either; rather, I’m trying to focus on how does one live a wise life? A compassionate life? A connected life?

This question may seem at odds with the abstract ideas of philosophy ranging from Plato’s forms to ideas of différance from Derrida. However, philosophy hasn’t always been abstract conceptual play. The best of it for the average reader has had a grounded concern about how to take care of yourself and your life. As Socrates famously said in Plato’s Apology: “For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.”

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This issue of taking care of self-cultivation comes up perhaps most strongly in our relationships with others. In grad school, we discussed Sartre’s famous line “Hell is other people” from No Exit, and the instructor countered with the idea that Heaven is other people. I think that this is simplistic to some extent, but there is a complete facet of our being that is revealed, enhanced, and informed by our interactions with others. In other words, if others are the set of forces that restrict and objectify us (“Hell is other people” — the point that Sartre is really making), then they are also the opposite — an interaction that opens possibilities and propels us beyond our limits (we might compare seeking advice from others in Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism). We are born into a world with other people and are the result of millions of years of evolution as well as a long development of human cultural groups. We are born into a long history and are part of it. Our possibilities as well as the horizons of our comprehension (what I can and cannot see, understand, and think) are shaped by this historicity — for example, no matter how much I read about the ancient Greeks and how well I might understand the norms of ancient Athens, I cannot live or see the world as one of them as a modern-day, American, heterosexual male. My “prejudices” (as Gadamer would call it) give me another understanding, another interpretation of life that I cannot simply fully replace by reading up on an alternative one. In any case, all of this and more are the set of extended corollaries to Heidegger’s lines in Being and Time: On the basis of this with-bound being-in-the-world, the world is always already the one that I share with others. The world of Dasein is a with-world. Being-in is being-with others” (trans. Stambaugh, p. 115-116).

Our modern ideals of romantic partnership are the most intensive of these possibilities. This is because modern romantic partnership has come to be conceptually formulated as a complimentary partner, a “soulmate”, who is meant to act in more or less all the standard ideas of friendship and more. Even if you laugh at my usage of “soulmate”, you probably have some view of romantic partnership as an idealized friendship and communal exchange of energy, support, and resources for achieving life goals and projects, and it’s important here to point out that this modern paradigm was not always the case — this concept has changed over time due to various pressures — and that again, the muddy concept of “love” comes into play here, a point I will touch on below but feel it worth linking another post I’ve written previously now.

With this in mind it’s worth looking at these things from a slightly different perspective — taking some old ideas and seeing what they can reveal for us about the difficulties and opportunities of romantic partnership — how it can be a restrictive hell or an opportunity for self-cultivation, heaven.

Aristotle discusses philia — friendship but also a particular kind of love, and isn’t friendship an instructive thing for us to consider regarding love? — near the end of his Nicomachean Ethics. His discussion is too nuanced for me to go over in-depth, but there are some key points I’d like to point to:

  1. Aristotle argues that there are 3 different forms of friendship, and furthermore, 2 of the 3 are only pale cousins of the form that is true friendship. True friendship is between good, excellent people (people who have developed excellent qualities through effort and deliberation — what the rest of the book is about), and it is based upon their recognition of each other’s excellence and their attempt to support that excellence. In other words, it’s friendship based on good in itself. The other 2 forms are: friendship based on usefulness and friendship based on pleasure.
  2. Friendship is an engagement, an economy of giving and receiving, and friendship is in the act of loving, not in the act of being loved.
  3. Friendship is akin to justice, which Aristotle discusses at greater length earlier in the book. As such, equality is an issue in friendship’s stability. Inequality only belongs in certain friendship dynamics (such as between a parent and a child), but that’s due to the specific roles at play, and these are arguably not the standard of friendship in general.

Here are a couple of quotes that strengthen these points:

Affection seems like a feeling, but friendship seems like an active condition, for affection is no less present for inanimate things, but loving in return involves choice, and choice comes from an active condition. And people wish for good things for those they love for those others’ own sake, not as a result of feeling but as an active condition. And by loving the friend, they love what is good for themselves, for when a good person becomes a friend, he becomes good for the one to whom he is a friend. So each of them loves what is good for himself, and also gives back an equal amount in return in wishing as well as what is pleasant; for it is said that “friendship is equal relationship,” and this belongs most of all to the friendship of the good. (trans. Sachs, p. 150)

So the friendship of people of low character becomes corrupt (for they share in base activities, not even being constant in these, and become corrupt in becoming like one another); but the friendship of decent people is decent, and grows along with their association, and they seem to become even better people by putting the friendship to work and by straightening one another out, fore they have their rough edges knocked off by the things they like in one another. Hence the saying “[you will learn] from what is good in the good.” (trans. Sachs, p. 180)

All of these points are crucial to what I’d like to say about long-term romantic relationships. These relationships, in our modern version of them (please watch the video I posted above), have grown to be a particular life venture that is both for our personal happiness and the success of personal home-life (the word “economics” is actually derived from ancient Greek as welloikonomia meaning “household management” and is discussed in other ancient philosophical texts), not to mention the usually monogamous relationship focused on sexual pleasure. In that sense, this relationship is meant to be a one-stop-shop for all three different kinds of Aristotelian friendship.

However, there’s a problem with this. Aristotle’s delineation of the excellent person describes a difficult life. Even if we aren’t purists and allow that other sociological formations could engender more or other key virtues, the problem remains that it requires a very practically engaged and examined life to be aware of these, value them, and develop them over time. In a sense, the likely mistranslated/mistaken Aristotelian quote of “Oh, friends! There are no friends!” is accurate: it seems impossible to be a “good” person up to the standards of the text, nevertheless to come across another such impossible being. As such, let’s take Aristotle’s ethical engagement that leads to excellence as an ongoing work in progress that cannot be said to have been successful until others look back on your life after death. It’s an aspiration for how to live a good life with others and how to become the best person you can be within that world with others (this is another possible reading that I take of Aristotle, personally). In this regard, a romantic partner should be interested in you in recognition of this project for happiness in this life: enhancing one’s personal excellence and becoming the best you can become. This would be loving the good as good in another person, and it would be recognizing that people change in relationship to the challenges and periods in life that they face — a process of engagement rather than a static entity. There’s a couple of popular misconceptions on romantic relationships and identity that I’d like to address before returning to the other two types of friendship.

You’ll often see memes on social media, or hear others speaking, about finding someone who accepts you for who you are, who deals with your insanity, or who loves your flaws, etc. There is some amount of truth to this. There should be compatible interests and styles in a romantic relationship, including patient support and acceptance, but the wording of many of these positions indicates that people think that a partner should give the speaker a blank check so to speak, allowing them to dig into these flaws as much as they want and just accept them as is. Furthermore, it assumes that these are core, permanent aspects of who we “are” that cannot be changed or should not be changed. There’s no talk in these of becoming a better person, working to treat the accepting partner better over time, or anything of the like. One could say that this emphasizes being loved over loving, almost to the extent of complete exclusion of the work entailed in a relationship to love the other back. That’s where these sayings become maladaptive and toxic, rather than good, and that’s not even real friendship based on my points above from Aristotle — failing to emulate true friendship (i.e. no interest in one’s excellent qualities or those of the partner), to emphasize loving as the key of relationship rather than being loved, and to engender equality in a relationship’s dynamic. While these sayings might sound nice in a sense of self-acceptance, Aristotle would tell us that we should focus on selfishness in relationships insofar as we choose our self-enhancement through relating with people who push us into our best, boosting up our excellencies, rather than passively looking for identity stasis in being loved without any need to change.

There are a couple associated problems with this that are also common misperceptions. Love isn’t just a passive feeling, and everything is not solidified and completed once it’s there. I’ve read recently a couples therapist’s advice that love is a verb, and Aristotle would concur. It’s an ongoing effort. That’s part of the exchange in the dynamic: the effort of showing up to the relationship and doing one’s part to honor and continue it. As Buddhism would tell us, all composite things are impermanent, and this especially holds for relationships that have no effort going into them. If love is a verb, then there’s action involved, and if friendship is in the loving rather than being loved and is about exchange, then one must do the action of love in order to maintain friendship/relationship.

This brings me back to speaking about the other types of friendship. They are both considered unstable because as we and our situations change in our lives, what brings us pleasure or is of use changes. Aristotle even relates these to lovers as examples, so it’s clear that it fits. There can be no stability of friendship in these types, and as such, a romantic relationship built predominantly on one or the other will struggle more to endure over the years. The only stability in friendship to be found is in the engagement with the good in another person as such. Ironically, seeing another person for who they are and accepting them is stable in them doing the same for you to both enhance your strengths and mitigate your flaws, not to simply “accept” them. Think on it: the most powerful and enduring friendships have a dose of tough love to push you beyond your faults, not those that endlessly enable them.

It seems, then, that for a relationship to succeed and for happiness to be found within it, love must be based in seeing the best that the person has in them — both already developed and as potential — and helping them to fully become that person; however, it must also balance this with the give and take of the other key aspects of this particular kind of relationship — going through the give and take and negotiation of what’s fair in terms of usefulness and pleasure. In this case, these will gravitate around income, spending, chores, pastimes, shared endeavors, and of course, sex (even whether sex and other particulars of these aspects of usefulness and pleasure will be completely exclusive between the couple or not). If over time, one partner feels neglected, taken for granted, or overlooked for usefulness and pleasure, the exchanges of these aspects of the relationship need revisited, discussed, and addressed, or growing resentment and feelings of inequality will doom the relationship: friendships cannot endure inequality unless its a specific dynamic that has been discussed and agreed to, for only then is it just and equal. These agreements could even be cultural in some cases: some cultures see the roles of man and woman in a relationship to be quite different, and it can even vary from region to region within parts of a supposedly hegemonic “Western” culture. For instance, some cultures would see it as the man’s role in such a relationship as to provide with the woman to look pretty, do chores, and offer emotional and sexual support. Those gender roles within a relationship are hardly so clear in more progressive cultures/regions, requiring a lot more discussion around how partners should support one another regarding the stresses of money, work, health, and sex. We could note here that these cultural differences of roles are where Aristotle’s evaluations of friendship in marriage differ from these, as he has dramatically different historical and cultural understandings of these roles, but even then, these analyses that draw from him fit his position that what is expected in a relationship of friendship depends on what is just for the roles in that relationship.

Love in long-term relationships is an elaborate balancing act of all the aspects of friendship with the deepest aspiration to change together with another person over time to the best potentials that each has within them. This is a tall order and yet a beautiful aspiration. One of the problems in relationships is that we don’t clearly perceive it as just that project, treating others merely as one or both of the two inferior forms of friendship (aiming to just pass time together as companions with someone else is not enough. That’s also a form of usefulness and pleasure without necessarily reaching the act of symbiotic self/other-development). If one is not able or willing to approach a relationship with these practical engagements with change, work, activity, exchange, and equality, a relationship will likely not last long and may not end well. If there’s any hope of inverting Sartre’s gloomy maxim that Hell is other people, it requires this emphatic activity of a friendship that manages life together and improves the excellence of each partner together.

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Gratitude and Affirmation During Times of Loss and Pain

In recent weeks, I’ve received aspersions to my character, questioning of my intelligence, and other undeserved negativity. I’m a radiant, awesome, deep, heartfelt, kind, and insightful being, always pushing myself to improve, learn, love, and grow. I’m working through all this and trying to move beyond, despite all the loss that circles through my life.

I feel that this is an opportunity to affirm and express my gratitude:
I’m grateful for seeing that we all are lost from time to time but that the way out is to admit it and work through with humility and vulnerability, to reach out to any involved and those you hold dear. Self-righteous proclamations and stubborn intention just continue a lost path. I feel the call here of Socrates saying that he is wise for knowing that he knows nothing – question what you know. Don’t assert it. Being reminded of this is one of the greatest lessons.
I’m grateful for friends and being reminded that they are those who challenge you to be virtuous, i.e. live up to your excellence (à la Aristotle). They are willing to point out the things about yourself that you aren’t willing to hear and love you in spite of yourself sometimes (as we all sometimes struggle and act poorly). They do so much more than just support you. They are partners in your life’s changes. As such, they keep you honest and authentic to yourself and your path. If you are not open to their criticism, your friendship is not as empowering and vibrant as it could be.
I’m grateful to be reminded that you should not make decisions out of fear and pain. Even when life throws you hard challenges, choose from a place of love, hope, faith, and intention for what you want to work toward. Do not choose from a place of fear, desire to numb pain, and what you want to run away from. Choose hope, not despair.
I’m grateful for all the self-care routines I have developed over the years. Loving others and the world starts with taking care of yourself.
I’m grateful for my personal strength. It’s amazing what you can make it through if you’re willing to face it.
I’m grateful for my health, my heart, and my short time in this mysterious and beautiful existence. It’s really difficult to affirm our lives at times, given the struggles we undergo. It’s so easy to want to escape it all, but in the end, I choose to stand tall and proud, and like Sisyphus, I aim to affirm my lot and love my fate.

Be Well!

Gassho!

I couldn’t have said it better myself.