The Ethics of How to Love

The Ethics of How to Love

While I am fascinated by studies that document the physiological aspects of love and of failing in love — a meta-analysis study conducted by a Syracuse University professor found that “failing in love only takes about a fifth of a second” and “failing in love can elicit not only the same euphoric feeling as using cocaine, but also affects intellectual areas of the brain” — I want to talk about how to love. Yes, the ethics of how to love.

After a debilitating breakup, I began to think more acutely about how I need to relate to myself before I relate to another (in an intimate, sexual relationship kind of way). What I’ve come to discover is that this relation to my self must be grounded in self-love, compassion, and, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, a willingness to move beyond the survival instinct of self-preservation by embracing the gamut of emotions fluctuating between pain and pleasure.

Ethics of how to love must consider how to establish a relationship between two people knitted together by the qualities and constituent factors of love (trust, sexual and intellectual attraction, compassion, among other factors of compatibility) without erasing the individual.

The question is, how can we love someone in such as way that does not result in the subsuming of a person’s individuality into some messy conglomerate of being, commonly referred to as the “we”? The ethics of love, then, must not only include an ethics of the self — of the willingness (and the ability) to make oneself open to love — but it also must take into consideration the position of the other.

This consideration demands a respect for the absolute difference of that person from you. That is, an ethics of love must recognize the respective perspectives and temporalities of the “I” and “you” of the couple in an attempt to create a new entity, a new temporality, of the “we,” which runs concomitant to the two individual temporalities. This is the delicate balance that must be created and maintained: how to love, how to open oneself up to another, to change, and to becoming (something new in that relation to another) without losing the self?

The mantra “you can’t love someone else unless you love yourself first” encapsulates the key idea for not only positive self-love but also for the potential to love an other. But the ability to be in love with another not only requires self-love but the willingness for a type of destabilization of the self. The self must put aside the austere notion of self-preservation in order to be open to change. Self-preservation connotes a rigidity, a changelessness at odds with the human condition:

“When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid. You’re able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open.” — Pema Chödrön (The Pocket Pema Chödrön)

Accordingly, this openness will necessarily entail an amount of unavoidable pain that results from making oneself vulnerable (as even the process of making oneself vulnerable is painful because of the discomfort of revealing a part of oneself that is consciously hidden). An ethics of how to love, therefore, is motivated by desire to/for love, sustained by self-assurance and composure, and, in a way, delimited by the extent of the “risk” perceived to be taken.

But this risk — not only of the process of overcoming our preserved state, but also of willing something (here, a relation with another) into the future and committing oneself to that relation (“the promise”) — is essential to our capacity to be able to love. For Judith Butler, this risk, which is an element of any desired ethical relation, is what makes us human:

“ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human. To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance—to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient ‘I’ as a kind of possession. If we speak and try to give an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be forgiven.” (Giving an Account of Oneself, Fordham UP 2005)

If we are committed to the possibility of love, we have an ethical obligation to be open to taking risks and to making ourselves vulnerable. We must cast aside self-preservation in order to live and to fall in love. The heart awakens when jolted.

What must also be overcome, then, is the fear of failure — the fear that a potential relationship will fail, that love will be betrayed, or that trust will be broken — through an acknowledgment and an acceptance that failure (in love) is a very real potential. The initial risk of making oneself open to love takes on a duration as that risk becomes a constitutive part of the ethics of love: if one is in love and wishes to sustain that love through time, then it is imperative that one continues to make herself vulnerable by never ceasing to explore the self and the self’s relation to the other. Considering that we are products of time — simply put, people change — it’s common sense to always take account of the fact that not only do the self and the other change but, subsequently, the dynamic between the two also changes.

There is no love without risk.

When I think about the ethics of how to love, the philosopher that immediately comes to mind is Luce Irigaray, whose humble little text, i love to you: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History (1996), offers what I feel to be the most feminist, most insightful, ethics of inter-relationality.

Even though her focus is on heterosexual relationships (because in hetero-relations the objectification of women results in the erasure of their existence once they “unite” with men, especially in marriage), I believe her thoughts about how individuals should approach each other and how they should, if they so decide to, enter into a relationship speaks across sexual preference. In the excerpts cited below (I’m loathe to paraphrase her!), Irigaray describes the actions that enable both the recognition and the respect of the “other” (the other in the relationship) as a separate being — actions and behaviors that I feel bespeak a productive, positive ethics that all couples, new and old, should live by.

On Recognition

I recognize you, thus you are not the whole; otherwise you would be too great and I would be engulfed by your greatness. You are not the whole and I am not the whole.

I recognize you, thus I may not revolve around you, I cannot encircle you or introject you…. I cannot completely identify you, even less identify with you.

I recognize you means that I cannot know you in thought or in flesh…: you are irreducible to me, just as I am to you. We may not be substituted for one another.

I recognize you means or implies respecting you as other, accepting that I draw myself to a halt before you as before something insurmountable, a mystery, a freedom that will never be mine, a subjectivity that will never be mine, a mine that will never be mine.”

How “to” Love

I love to you means I maintain a relation of indirection to you. I do not subjugate you or consume you. I respect you (as irreducible)….

The “to” is the guarantor of indirection. The ‘to’ prevents the relation of transitivity…. The “to” is the sign of…mediation between us….

I love to you thus means: I do not take you for a direct object, nor for an indirect object by revolving around you…..

It could be that what I love in you — “to you” &mdsah; is not consciously willed by you and escapes your intentions: a certain mannerism, a particular expression, a feature on your body, your sensibility. We have to see if we can build a we on the basis of what, of you, is thus compatible with my intentions but escapes your own….

The problem of we is that of a meeting which occurs through good fortune, good fortune, as it were, or partly that of a coincidence whose necessity escapes us, but it is also or especially that of constituting a temporality: together, with, between.

This — the understanding that individuals are subjects of time, with the implicit acknowledgement that change is inherent in, and, in fact, defines, all “life” — is the challenge presented to everyone who seeks to establish and sustain an “us”: how to create a temporality of an “us” that essentially consists of two distinct temporalities (ie, two distinct bodies) that will a kind of harmonious co-existence.

This is important: an ethics of how to love takes account of the forces of time and the change inherent in time, but it is an ethics (as all ethics are) that presupposes a duration. Love, in this regard, has a longevity; love changes over time but it, in whatever its machination, is that which is willed by both individuals into the future. This is a major condition of an ethics of how to love.

The image that immediately comes to my mind when thinking about this type of co-existence is — scientifically accurate or not — the double helix.

To me, the two helices represent the two distinct bodies; the colored connections between them, in turn, represent the spirit of their coming together (sexually, even) at various points in time. Within the concept of the double helix, there are moments of connection, but the two helices remain identifiably separate. The two helices seem to dance together, while moving forward in time.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to dance together with someone in this way?