Love: an existential guide to healthy relationshipsAnja van Kralingen
I travelled to Vienna during May to attend an Existential Summit on Love. Presented by the wonderful and charismatic Dr Alfried Längle, it was an insightful and deeply meaningful experience for me. I want to thank Dr. Leslee Brown for organising this very enriching experience.
Existential Analysis is a very practical system with a lot of soul. The course contained soulful concepts and ideas as well as practical suggestions on how to implement these concepts in your relationship. In this article, I will share some of the key concepts that resonated with me.
Having had my heart broken recently, I felt that it was synchronistic that this specific summit was on love. I had questions after my experience:
- What is love?
- Is there a difference between romantic love and passionate love?
- What are the qualities of love?
- How does one love practically?
The course addressed all these questions for me, and I would love to share it with you.
The passion of love
So you fall madly, deeply in love. What does this experience look like; how does it feel?
There is a paradise on earth.
It is experienced when you fall in love. You don’t need food or sleep; you are in a beautiful state of excitement, and feel filled with strong feelings and attraction.
Love is divine, more than human, sublime and not from this earth.
As the saying goes, “Love is blind”.
We are blind to the reality of the other because we see them only as we dream about them and as we wish them to be; there is no shadow side – I see only what I wish and what is beautiful. I experience paradise through this projection, and my idealisations are manifest in the other; the other is a hook – a trigger – onto which I hang my fantasies. The other becomes enchanted to me; the things I have of theirs become magical and meaningful.
The sharing aspect of love brings tremendous happiness.
This is the experience that somebody is sharing themselves with me and I can share myself with them. I am invited by that person to be with him or her; I am invited and contained in closeness. I want to share myself with them and vice versa.
Love is passion which brings suffering.
Passion is the willingness to take on suffering – to take on anything at any cost, for this relationship. All the suffering that the other may be experiencing will be shared; I suffer for the other when they are feeling bad or experiencing trauma. By sharing in the other’s suffering, their burden is lessened. Loving means knowing and feeling what is hurting the other. In love we hurt – incongruences, mistakes, reactions are suffered; we suffer from our limitations, as well as the other’s limitations.
Love is a longing, a yearning for the other.
There is a deep desire to consume the other and absorb them. Being separated is painful -pain arises from the inability to be a union.
These are the qualities of passionate love, but where to from there? How does this then become a fulfilling, meaningful relationship?
The next step
There are three layers to a healthy love relationship:
- The relationship: the bed of love
- Encounters: the life of love
- Personal love: the intensification and realisation of love
The Relationship: The bed of life
A relationship functions on the second dimension of Existential Analysis. There is a connection between two people; an interaction. In a relationship you naturally change and adapt your behaviour to accommodate the other.
Let’s just clarify this idea of being in relatedness.
- Imagine you are standing in a queue. There is a very big guy blocking your view of the teller, so you shift to the left to see past him; you are in relatedness – adapting your behaviour.
- The woman behind you is standing just too close to you so you turn around and glare at her; you are in relatedness.
- Someone is talking loudly on their cell phone so you purse your lips and become ever so slightly restless; you are in relatedness.
You get the idea. We are always in relatedness to other people and our environment. This is a given. You cannot choose whether or not to be in relatedness; it happens, and it will happen throughout your whole lifetime. Without contact with others, we cannot be ourselves. But here is the beginning of existence; how you react to your relatedness. This is where you have responsibility, choice and freedom.
In the case of couples, you decide to take up the relationship; that you want to live with, but – take heed – you will be in this relationship forever. A relationship is like a box into which we put things; a box containing all that has been said and done. All your experiences are placed into this box and you cannot erase anything or take out anything; you will carry the box with you forever. This is true for all relationships, not only romantic ones.
But, if I take up a relationship it does not necessarily mean that the other takes it up as well. Perhaps the other is not comfortable with the intimacy that you are demanding, perhaps they are frightened, perhaps there is a wound which is preventing them from taking a step into love. In that case, you are not in a relationship, a relationship cannot be one sided.
A relationship is combined with a certain closeness between both parties. The closeness is related to how you experience the other and yourself. This “felt” experience is what makes the relationship real. You can’t really take up a relationship unless you feel touched and moved by the other; a relationship requires a desire to be touched, to feel the other, and to share and exchange. This is referred to as resonance. You experience yourself with full inner consent towards the relationship – you can, you may, you want to, you like to and you should. This acceptance of the relationship, with full consent, allows you to resonate with the other.
The Encounter: the life of love
When the “you” is not there, the “I” is helpless.
When we refer to an encounter we are explaining a type of deep relatedness. This refers to a meeting and exchange between two people. The difference between an encounter and a relationship is that an encounter is a conscious choice – both parties choose to be involved. There is a meeting between my essence and your essence. Our eyes are open and we are open to the other; interested in the other; who you really are and who I really am, meet. This is a fertile place, filled with creativity and ideas. This is not a continuous connection, but a mere glimpse of the other. Entering this space requires feeling, since we can feel more deeply and profoundly than we can perceive consciously.
The encounter presupposes the relationship; I must be in a relationship to experience an encounter. It is important to have encounters in our relationships. It is the highest level of connecting.
This experience of being present with the “we” allows for both parties to be seen and to see the other.
When there are dynamics in the relationship whereby the individual feels a sense of resignation, this is most often the downfall of the relationship.
The relationship is the stable element, and the encounter is the fluid element, in couple dynamics. If there is dialogue and encounter, the relationship can change. If one of the partners is blocked, there is no chance for change.
In a relationship, everything needs to be negotiated – love is not enough – because with freedom of choice will come instability and insecurity.
It is very important in relationships to have mutual respect. You must be clear on your boundaries. You don’t need to share everything – take personal space for yourself.
The following questions are some guidelines to what one needs to consider in a relationship:
- What do I need from my partner?
- What is the quality I want from my partner?
- What are my expectations from my partner?
- What is the value of the relationship?
- Is there shared value? (This is the attractor.)
- What is my worst fear in the relationship?
- What is my anxiety in the relationship?
- What type of relationship would I like:
- Secrets (no secrets or some privacy)?
- Time (live separately or together)?
- Privacy (how much time for myself)?
- Money (this often discloses the attitude towards the partner)?
- Roles – who does what?
Personal love: the intensification and realisation of love
Further to the information shared above, is the important aspect of personal development. The art to having a true, loving relationship is to remain yourself in the presence of the other. You are with them, but at the same time you become more yourself. The value that you place upon yourself in the relationship is directly related to your ability to be centred in yourself.
There are two elements to personal development.
- The first is to respect and allow your partner to be who they are – their autonomy.
- The second is a certain renouncement of expectation; my love is not linked to what you do. Tension is either in the relationship or in me. This tension is what brings about personal growth.
Dialogue brings movement in a healthy relationship. To be able to be open to the other and be touched by the other is a key factor to effective dialogue. Each person needs to take a position – to the other and to oneself; what is it that I think and feel? This intensifies the connection.
Characteristics of personal love
There are five characteristics of personal love: value, resonance, freedom, reality and continuation.
Value is felt. It is feeling based. You can only connect with something if you can feel the value of it, e.g. you can only stop smoking if you feel the value of stopping. Feeling value is nurturing, it feeds me. My being is touched, moved and experienced as an inner experience
“To love someone means to see them as God intended them.”
Resonance is an intimate experience, not experienced as being a pressure or a need. “I” am in resonance with the “you”; it is experiencing the essence of another; it is a spontaneous act in which you perceive the other; it is a recognition of the maximum value of the other and what they can become. If you accept the person just as he or she is, then you reduce them; only through seeing their potential can you recognise what they can become. In love you see the being in their full potential; who they really are; their essence. This seeing is the capacity to love. Irrationality can feel more deeply; the heart is much more sensitive than reasoning is sharp; feeling is inaccessible through thinking. To love means to see the human being as God meant him or her to be. It opens up intimacy towards the other and yourself.
In love you can’t choose to love or stop loving. To be myself is true freedom; freedom of my essence. This allows me to take action or make decisions, and my attitude is from a place of inner consent. When you are in touch with your truth, you act without choice. When love is reciprocated, I experience joy at the existence of the other and the other experiences joy for my existence. This is shared joy.
St. Augustine said that the first act of love is to want that you are. My freedom of essence becomes active in choosing that you are. The second act is that I choose to do good to you; to improve, enlarge and support you. Concern for the other is the fruit of love. Love is generative – a continuation. In love, I want something; I want you to be, to have a good life and to become more. Love contains a decision – a willingness – to say yes to the other the way they are, and to connect with them – I connect with you, I see you, I say yes to you, you are good and I am interested in you. The spiritual element of love is this desire to connect and be close. I can be more myself and you can be more yourself, when we are “we”.
4. Love wants reality
Love wants to be lived, be realised and give deeply. It wants to be expressed through doing things for each other. It wants to be real. It can be expressed through sex, or – if this is not possible – creating a poem, a picture or something concrete. Love desires truth; it is a description of what is real. Love is exclusive and needs to be able to rely on the other. I want to be with you and experience truth, in confidence and trust. Infidelity is not real, true or stable. To believe in the other, what I feel is true and becoming real.
5. Love wants continuation, a future perspective
Love wants to be lasting, safe and ensured. I want to live with you and for you. I want to engage myself to you and this relationship. Love wants a tomorrow. Love is transcendent and tends towards becoming fruitful and generative. There is a desire to create something. This is the most fruitful ground for art and, of course, a child.
And finally, I want to leave you with the Existential approach to relationships:
The Four dimensions in Existential Analysis applied to relationships.
- Dimension one: Stability and safety. A good relationship allows you to be you and to live and breathe easily. I can be with my interests and my ideas. My partner protects me and accepts me. He or she is there for me and ready to help me. I feel as though I am on solid ground. I am given space and I give the other space to be with their interests and ideas. Areas of negotiation are, regulation of power in the relationship and how much space I need and have.
- Dimension two: Bringing in life. I like to live with this person. There is an emotional quality to our connection which allows me to enter into the relationship and contribute to the relationship. I want to take up my feelings and give time to the relationship. We share common activities. I like being close to the other and I feel an attraction to them like a magnet. I want to smell them, hold them and feel them. These qualities bring life into the relationship.
- Dimension three: Bringing true love. The three qualities of this dimension are attention, justice and appreciation. I can be myself; I am allowed to be myself and feel even more like myself in this relationship. There is a respect for intimacy, dialogue and encounters. I feel seen and my differences are interesting to my partner. The relationship allows me to have opinions that differ in principle and I allow my partner to be different. Our relationship cultivates diversity and appreciation for each other. This difference between us allows dialogue which enriches both of us. My partner and I can address issues and habits in each other that disturb us and the dialogue can bring about a healthy correction. I can correct my partner and my partner can correct me, but we also compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
- Dimension four: Bringing meaning. Can I see the value that comes up when I am with my partner? Is this relationship good for something? Together, can we do more? What can I do to add value? What are the common goals we both love?
This allows for development and shared suffering; it is easier to carry a shared burden.
I hope you found this article stimulating. These concepts will help you establish where you are at in your own relationship and how you feel about it. I hope it also gives you some valuable suggestions on how you can improve your relationship.