Loving

I remember years ago reading a letter written as a spoof. It went something like this: "Dear Lass, I love you. With you I could climb the highest mountain, swim the broadest ocean, wrestle the biggest bear, fly above the clouds. Love, Harry.

"P.S. If it doesn't rain tomorrow, I'll be over."

Poor Harry, his euphoria wasn't matched by his weak reality; he was afraid of getting his feet wet or catching cold.

When we present ourselves, we present our best selves, not perfect selves. And what we wish for in return is not a perfect partner. Our hope is at once both simple and endlessly profound: that together we will make each other more perfect, that the partnership will strengthen our good qualities and lead each toward perfection.

In what started out as a casual conversation following a community meeting, a woman I barely knew asked if it was okay for a wife to give her husband a list of his faults. Fault listing was in vogue at the time, thanks to a number of misguided magazine and TV treatments of marital difficulties. When I expressed doubt that the exchange in and of itself would produce anything creative, she expressed her doubt as to my insight--or lack of it.

I offered my opinion that before being so openly confrontational there was substantial ground work to be done if the need to enumerate faults was present.

Apparently the need was present and outweighed the woman's doubts.

When the couple entered my office, both appeared apprehensive. That's not uncommon. Who wants to air difficulties in front of a stranger? They were civil, even congenial at times. They had, they said, agreed on two ground rules. They would be honest and what they said was not meant to hurt the other. Each wanted their marriage to continue; each acknowledged it had become stale and flat.

The wife wanted to read her list of her husband's faults. "Before you do that," I said, "I want you to make another list. I want you to list your own faults." I gave each a piece of paper and a pencil.

Reluctantly, they complied. Neither wrote much, I noticed.

I asked the wife to read from the list she had just written. Without allowing the husband to respond, I asked her to read the prepared list of her husband's faults. There were few real faults; most of her list were annoyances, a couple of which would have annoyed me, too.

Two or three faults she said she might possess were on the list of her husband's faults. I mentioned them.

Without further comment, I had the husband read from his list of what he thought were his faults. Some matched faults his wife found with him.

When I asked for his list of his wife's faults, he didn't have one. "I love my wife," he declared. "If she has faults, I don't see them. She isn't perfect, but I think she is."

That was the first time I heard that sentiment expressed. I've heard it a few times since but never often enough.

He went on, looking at the floor. "In my real estate business, everything is location, location, location. In my marriage, it should be I love you, I love you, I love you. The other side of it is, she loves me, she loves me, she loves me."

Now we were ready to deal with the faults, but the wife beat me to it.

She tore up her list. "There's only one fault," she said. "I don't hear the love word often enough. And I don't speak it when I should." She reached out and took her husband's hand.

We did talk, about imperfection and trust, openness and ego, communication and all the rest, what they had had once and had almost let slip away. They never returned. I suppose they learned to deal with her short temper and his squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle, his habit of leaving dirty clothes on the floor and her need to have help with the dinner dishes, his attraction to TV football and her attraction to more cultural happenings.

Only in the imagination are there "perfect" partners. Being in love should mean being aware of one's messiness and correcting it, or one's short fuse and lengthening it, or one's proclivity to annoy and ceasing whatever it is that annoys. Sometimes we get too comfortable with or take for granted the love we receive. Imperfect to begin with, we become more so. Love isn't supposed to work that way.

* * *

If you think love is for the young only, then you've died before you're dead. If you think old or older people cannot love, you don't deserve love. The whole idea of loving isn't for you.

If you think people will make fun of you behind your back, or be embarrassed for you, or be scandalized by your romantic relationship, or wonder if you have all your marbles, ignore them.

Ignore children who think you are insane, too. They won't love you any less, but they might ask if you're ready for the farm for strange folks. In no uncertain words assure them that you are not ready for the great pasture and that you have a whole life yet to live. They will understand.

What possible shame is there in loving someone? Sometimes children view their parent's new love affair as a betrayal of the deceased or separated parent. Unless there is something untoward in it, the problem is the children's, not yours.

Rest assured, while they may think you took too many coconuts to the head, they will continue to love and respect you. And they will support you because your happiness is important to them.

You will ask yourself questions, and you must answer honestly. If you love someone or have great affection for someone, if you hope for a lasting and romantic relationship, can you, for your part, establish and maintain a relationship without regret or remorse?

Let me give an example of regret and remorse, one that's more complicated than the above paragraph would suggest but illustrative of the kinds of problems loving the second time around can produce.

A man I had assisted years earlier called and asked if he could come to see me. Years before I had helped his family work through some problems involving his children. He sought my help again.

As his wife was dying, he said, she made him promise he would not remarry. He made the promise. Except when he was in the army, he continued, he and his wife made love every single night of their marriage, almost fifty years. They did not always engage in intercourse, but they held, fondled and aroused and comforted each other. The love they voiced in the daylight they expressed physically at night.

"My wife made me promise not to remarry; she said I could ...(go to bed with) as many women as I wanted as long as I didn't marry one of them."

The problem he brought was not complicated. He had found someone he wanted to marry. And he had made a promise.

"What do you want from me?" I asked.

"I want your permission to marry the woman."

"You don't need my permission."

"But I do."

"You want me to tell you it's okay to break your promise?"

"Yes."

"The woman knows you've made the promise?"

"She wonders why I can't marry her."

My friend's ethical problem, as he saw it, was dooming his future happiness. To live with his new-found love without benefit of marriage was a moral compromise. He didn't say and I didn't ask whether he was sleeping with her; that was irrelevant. He had loved his wife; now he loved another. There was one impediment: the promise.

I told him there was a concept of law that held deathbed conversations to be without legal standing, and I asked him if his late wife's request for his promise might have been more a need for the reassurance of his love than for prohibition.

He hadn't thought about that.

Permission to remarry? I wanted to give that even though my permission was meaningless. Anyway, I knew that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted support, absolution even, for breaking a promise. I could give support; I couldn't grant the guilt free conscience he sought.

"I'll help you find a rationale," I told him, "but the answer to your dilemma is somewhere in your own mind."

"If you break what you perceive as an ironclad promise," I continued, "you will never totally be able to love your new wife. Always there will be regret that you broke the promise, and remorse. Either solve the ethical question in your own mind or forsake marriage. If you don't come to terms with your (late) wife's demand, you will be miserable and your new wife will be miserable."

I recommended he see a psychotherapist who practiced in my friend's city. I urged him to make an appointment.

As he left, I told him, "Do what is right for you, in your mind and in your heart."

The injunction, "Let the dead bury the dead," is relevant here, part of the next step. Whatever my friend did, as I saw it, his decision and consequent actions neither helped nor harmed his late wife.

I understood his wife's request. In one form or another, it's a request made often by spouses who wish to die emotionally wrapped in an aurora of lasting love. And because of that, sometimes we make promises, not to keep but to comfort someone we love.

What concerned me most in that day's consultation was the great potential for harm to my friend and to his new loved one.

If, and a big if it was, his wife intended to dirty or soil any future love affair, she succeeded. I doubt she intended that result; I think she loved my friend enough to let him go, hoping that he would be fulfilled, sexually as she allowed, and in all other ways. That's what true love wants.

My friend did not remarry; he and his new woman did carry on a meaningful and fulfilling love affair. In that he compromised, and he kept his promise, sometimes choking on it, but with his integrity intact.

I assume, I do not know for certain, that because the second woman loved him, she accommodated his difficult indecision, loving him but never totally having him, her burden. For a long time I wondered if he ever revealed the reason he wouldn't remarry. I'll never know. He died just before I finished this book.

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