The Kind of Love That Lasts
Every now and then, while rummaging through our closet, I find a shoebox full of old letters. I know these letters. They are the love letters that Allie and I exchanged while we were engaged, and rereading them always makes me smile.
I proposed to Allie in the fall of 1977, less than 24 hours after our first kiss. Afraid of being judged for our reckless decision, we agreed to keep our engagement a secret until Christmas. But that plan fell apart in just a few days. Our friends weren’t fooled. I tried to act normally, but I was completely moonstruck, suddenly stumbling around campus in a fog, oblivious to normal conversations and unable to concentrate on even the simplest tasks. My college classmates nodded knowingly and said, “Nate is finally in love.”
I could only visit Allie on weekends, but I soon started escaping from campus on Friday mornings and returning late on Mondays, effectively reducing my class attendance to three days a week. This was long before cell phones and email. Too poor to pay long-distance phone rates, I wrote to Allie every day we were apart, and for every letter I sent, there was a letter from her in my mailbox.
Reading our letters today, I am struck by their childishness. Even though Allie and I were fully grown adults, our letters were playful and silly. Even our handwriting seemed to have regressed, and our constant repetition of affectionate phrases conveyed an emotional connection that was innocent and sweet.
I vividly remember the way Allie and I craved physical contact during our engagement. When we were together on weekends, we were as connected as Siamese twins. The description is an apt one, for I truly believed that I had found my cosmic twin. Blind to our differences, I could see only our similarities, and I marveled at the miracle that Allie and I had actually found each other. Fortunately for me, she felt the same way.
According to developmental psychologists, the intoxicating experience of “falling in love” has its roots in early childhood. As newborns, when we are completely dependent on adults for survival, we are prompted by oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” to connect with a primary caregiver—usually the person with whom we have already been intimately connected for nearly a year, our mother. We look to our caregiver for nurture, attunement, protection, and comfort. At this early stage in our development, we are not yet able to conceive of a separate self, so we see ourselves as mentally and emotionally merged with our caregiver – a “we” before we are an “I.”
As time passes, the normal child makes tentative moves toward independence. Early forays away from parents can be frightening, as any child lost in a supermarket knows, and some parents will actually employ the threat of abandonment to make a child behave. As we enter adolescence, however, the process of separating from our parents becomes less painful, and we begin looking to our peers for approval and acceptance. We want to grow up, to find our own way. We may not want all of the responsibilities that come with adulthood, but we long for the freedom to make our own decisions. The great prize of adulthood is independence. Its awful price, we soon discover, is loneliness.
But then, if we’re lucky, we meet someone who seems strangely familiar. Something passes between us, a flicker of recognition, and we feel an upsurge of longing. Could this be the one who will rescue us from loneliness? We move toward each other, cautiously at first, hoping that our feelings will be reciprocated. When they are, our ego boundaries collapse under a flood of oxytocin. Our loneliness vaporizes, and suddenly, magically, we are a “we” again.
According to Hollywood, this is “true love,” and its arrival is a signal that the two of us should get married, or at least move in together. But what if those feelings should one day disappear? If that happens, we were mistaken. What we thought was true love was actually something else, and we must now either resume our search for true love, or abandon it altogether.
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the delirious state of infatuation “passionate love.” Falling in love, he says, is a peak human experience, mind-blowingly powerful. It is also essential to the survival of the species since it motivates us not only to mate but to make extravagant promises to one another. Unfortunately, it is also temporary. On a neurobiological level, it is simply impossible for anyone to maintain this high level of emotional intensity forever.
Haidt says there is another kind of love, however, one he calls “companionate love.” Unlike passionate love, companionate love is durable, and the happiness it produces actually increases over time. If the best metaphor for passionate love is a hot flame, then the best metaphor for companionate love is two vines so intertwined that they are virtually inseparable.
When people ask my wife how she was able to forgive my infidelity after 20 years of marriage, she talks about friendship. Yes, she says, my behavior had killed all of her romantic feelings. Yes, she meant every angry word when she said, “I don’t like you. I don’t respect you, and I don’t think you can ever change.” But, she says, we had always been friends, and she could find it in her heart to give a friend a chance. Passionate love had died, but another kind of love, companionate love, might be strong enough to see us through the crisis.
Allie and I have now been married for 42 years, and we are happier today than we have ever been. Ours is not the giddy happiness of infatuation but something deeper and more satisfying. Passion still makes an occasional appearance, but we don’t rely on it. We revel instead in the safety of knowing that we are separate individuals who appreciate each other’s uniqueness and are committed to each other’s care. We have become intertwined. This, it turns out, is the kind of love that lasts.