Deeply in love? Stoically single? In the second circle of hell known as “it’s complicated”? No matter where your heart lies, the prospect of Valentine’s Day makes even the best of us think about love.
Is it a sport where you learn to hate the game, not the player? Is it a battlefield with walking wounded, losers and victors? The language we use influences how we see the world – and how we respond to it.
Research shows that if crime’s described as a “wild beast preying on the city”, we think people should be punished harshly. If it’s a “virus infecting the city” that’s “plaguing” communities, we feel social reforms are the answer. We think we’re guided by the statistics but it’s the unconscious links made by those metaphors.
Those figures of speech have a subtle power to shape our thinking and the self-fulfilling prophecies we conjure. And when it comes to love, as Mandy Len Catron explains in her TEDxSFU talk,
“.. we fall. We’re struck. We are crushed. We swoon. We burn with passion. Love makes us crazy, and it makes us sick. Our hearts ache, and then they break. So our metaphors equate the experience of loving someone to extreme violence or illness.”
Sounds familiar. Love’s an affliction that happens TO us, rather than an affection we have agency over. She continues;
“In their book, “Metaphors We Live By,” linguists Johnson and Lakoff suggest a new metaphor for love: love as a collaborative work of art.”
[They] talk about everything that collaborating on a work of art entails: effort, compromise, patience, shared goals.
These ideas align nicely with our cultural investment in long-term romantic commitment, but they also work well for other kinds of relationships — short-term, casual, polyamorous, non-monogamous, asexual — because this metaphor brings much more complex ideas to the experience of loving someone.”
So if love is a collaborative work of art, then love is an aesthetic experience. Love is unpredictable, love is creative, love requires communication and discipline, it is frustrating and emotionally demanding. And love involves both joy and pain. Ultimately, each experience of love is different.”
The idea of love as a collaborative work of art appeals to me as much for the components as the finished metaphor;
produced by or involving two or more parties working together.
Have you found yourself in a relationship where you’re making all the effort? I know I have. As Oliver Burkeman explains,
” .. in your relationships with other people, you’re almost certainly an overfunctioner or an underfunctioner.
Faced with a challenge, you either switch into fixing mode, taking control, attacking the to-do list, and offering supposedly helpful advice; or you pull back, pleading for assistance, hoping others will take responsibility, and zone out.
The problem – according to Murray Bowen, the psychologist who developed the distinction – is that OFs and UFs get stuck in a mutually reinforcing trap.
The OF takes on more than his or her fair share of responsibility for (say) housework, parenting, or finances, because otherwise they don’t get done. But that just reinforces the UF’s dependency, so now those tasks really don’t get done, and the OF must do even more.
The relationship curdles, each accusing the other of either laziness or nagging.”
As someone who’s often an overfunctioner, it’s great question to ask myself: Are we both working together to create something? If not, what’s my part in this; am I taking control or trying to create a connection out of nothing?
Isn’t love supposed to be easy? Yes and no. Work can be as simple as deciding to choose someone every day, as relationship coach Bryan Reeves openly confesses about a failed five-year relationship;
“.. I’ll never not choose another woman I love again. It’s torture for everyone.
If you’re in relationship, I invite you to ask yourself this question: “Why am I choosing my partner today?”
If you can’t find a satisfying answer, dig deeper and find one. It could be as simple as noticing that in your deepest heart’s truth, “I just do.” If you can’t find it today, ask yourself again tomorrow. We all have disconnected days.
But if too many days go by and you just can’t connect with why you’re choosing your partner, and your relationship is rife with stress, let them go. Create the opening for another human being to show up and see them with fresh eyes and a yearning heart that will enthusiastically choose them every day.”
Choosing someone every day takes effort, intention, attention and application. On a good day, that’s easy. On a bad day, for most of us, that takes work.
Like everyone else, I’ve been through different stages of love. I’ve been fully dependent on another (literally, due to my illness), fearful of what I could lose and anxious about what I might gain.
I’ve spent a long time being independent (to the point of isolation), not wanting to place someone in that difficult situation again.
And now? Co-creating something beautiful, honest and true with another and becoming interdependent feels like a powerful way of being the love I want to see in the world. As the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas put it,
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Having the commonplace and unthought-of revealed through another’s eyes, sharing and creating something new, contributing to a deep connection and finding a way to work with it all; that’s the kind of art I’d love to make.
A collaborative work of art
Finally, describing love as “a collaborative work of art” appeals to my belief in a growth mindset, as described by psychologist and author of Mindset, Carol Dweck.
A fixed mindset is passive; without a feeling of agency we avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless or worse, ignore useful negative feedback and reinforce our deterministic view of the world. Why try if nothing will change?
A growth mindset is proactive, however. Feeling things CAN be changed by our input means we embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the pathway to mastery, learn from useful negative feedback and develop a greater sense of our own free will. Handy in all areas of life, but especially in relationships.
The vicissitudes of life can and will buffer and break upon our weathered bows. With growth and collaboration as a shared value, however, we can help steer one another into safe harbour rather than give up in the storm. Maybe we’ll even learn to dance in the rain.
Because life’s too short to wait until life’s storms have passed. Especially if there’s great art to be made.
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