Love relationships follow observable trajectories. They are dynamic. They evolve. If not, then, to be sure, they devolve. True love will not for long stand still or remain silent in the face of inertia. Especially a stubborn, willful inertia.
“I met someone,” a man or woman will say to me. And, however dramatic or ordinary the meeting, something has given pause: “Who is this? What is this?”
I often invite couples in therapy to take a breath, to close their eyes, and to travel through time to the exact moment when each first laid eyes on the other: What are you wearing? Where are you standing? What happenstance is the occasion of you crossing paths at all? What is drawing you to tarry, to keep the conversation going? What are your first impressions? When and how do you first notice chemistry? Who makes the first move to secure another time to be together?
It never fails. Even couples who have come to therapy in the wake of serious conflict will pause. They will look at each other and smile, touching together a time of magic that each remembers and cherishes.
At this point in the trajectory, there’s really only one goal: fun! Dating is fun, or at least it should be. Coffee. A drink. A restaurant. A hike. A movie. You see the inside of your new friend’s house. Low key. Low risk. Not much at stake, except to enjoy – or find we don’t enjoy – the swirl of energy we are offering and receiving. At some point here, you find out if this person can kiss.
Ooo, big move. The first face of commitment. The first tie to obligation. The first glimpse of the ‘we.’ Now there is an ‘us.’ And we agree to owe each other something. Specifically, we agree that we’ll not be dating anyone else, and that we owe the other keeping that promise, or, at minimum, a clear communication that we have changed our mind and would like to resume dating other people, too.
The chief difference between dating and courtship is that, while dating is largely a social/recreational activity, courtship brings an intention. Now we are not merely and spontaneously exploring a budding relationship, we have chosen to explore. Intentionally. We think there is something here worth developing. You admit to yourself there is potential.
In courtship we hear a more complete story of the other’s history. We are privy to the chapters of great joy, great victory, and great loss. In courtship we begin to see telling signs of character, or its absence. We begin to inventory what we can live with, and what we can live without. We negotiate ‘dealbreakers.’
Now you take commitment to the next level. Now you see that permanence is more than a mere possibility. You want it. Now you are not merely exclusive; you would not and will not even allow a passing chemistry or flirtation any quarter with anyone else. Now you are nurturing and growing a relationship towards a definitive goal. It is here that people propose to spend their life together. For most, marriage. You are betrothed. You make a promise to make a promise. You stop saying, “When x, y, and z are resolved, I will choose this love with my whole heart and life.” No; instead you say, “I choose this love with my whole heart and life, because that’s the only way x, y, and z will ever be resolved.”
You gather before your Maker and the whole world and make covenant. And now life can bring any variable, any joy or suffering, because everything you do begins and ends with your unwavering commitment to ‘we.’ Never again will there ever be, strictly speaking, any such thing as “your own business.” Never again will it occur to you to pursue a happiness that does not cherish and guard your mate’s happiness.
See, there’s no escaping that, when it comes to matters of the heart, all of us must be a fool for something. Everyone ultimately chooses a course. We choose our highest value. And we live it. We are a fool for the passionate, headlong surrender into great love. Or, a fool for the fiercely defended autonomy of self. Or, a fool for the sorta-but-not-quite committed dabbling in great love.
And to all of those people, my message would be the same. God speed. Go. Embrace the fullness of everything you have chosen.
Though I would encourage you to choose carefully. Because what you choose is exactly what you will receive.
(Steven Kalas writes a regular column for the Sparks Tribune. He is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal Priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org).