In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s character Lysander says, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” How well we negotiate relationships can mean the difference between depression and well-being. Susan Piver’s new book The Four Noble Truths of Love helps us navigate that course.
Love is Confusing
Last Saturday I fell in love at a party while my long-time partner stood three feet away.
A co-worker of the host asked me the quintessential party question, “And what do you do?”
I briefly summarized From Depression to Well-Being, and she asked if I’d seen the Pixar movie Inside Out.
I smiled because she’d made the connection between how these exercises work and the movie’s depiction of how emotions work. She smiled because my smile affirmed that we had both experienced a moment of love in one of the ways Susan Piver defines it: deepened intimacy (or a close familiarity) with the topic we were discussing.
I fell into it because this intimacy was dependent on the other person’s experience. Then the pizza arrived and I fell out of it. I love pizza, too. Love can mean a lot of things.
Truth is as Confusing as Love
I cringe at the term noble truths because it takes four key concepts for evaluating the underlying causes of mental challenges (like depression) and associates it with a religion.
You don’t have to attend the church of Pixar to appreciate Inside Out, the story of Riley, a young girl whose life is disrupted by change when her family moves from Minnesota to Silicon Valley. It’s easy to see how Riley’s desire for stability: the activities, school, and friends that she knows, creates a rift between her and her parents. The challenge of the parents and Riley to address the rift together is love. And discovering how to navigate through anger and resentment to get to its underlying cause, sadness, is the plot of the film.
The four key concepts, whether or not they’re noble, are true enough for Riley and her parents.
1. Relationships never stabilize.
Piver writes: When you solve one problem, another arises. There is actually no way to finally get comfortable. They are constantly in flux because relationships are alive.
My partner and I both like to relax by listening to spoken word content (audiobooks and podcasts).
She listens while she knits and doesn’t use earbuds. I listen while I do other things and use earbuds.
For most of the year, we’re listening in different rooms. During the summer months, we both like to spend time on the patio.
2. Expecting relationships to be stable is what makes them unstable.
We are always trying to get rid of the problems in our relationships. This is only human. However, expecting that, upon doing so, you will finally be happy can cause a lot of confusion.
When we’re together on the patio, and I go into the house for a minute, her iPhone is always playing through its speaker when I return. When she goes into the house, I resume listening to my preferred audio content through my earbuds.
Our efforts to continue our individual pursuits creates instability when we spend time together.
This happens all the time. Things that never created friction before suddenly do, and things that always do, suddenly don’t.
3. Meeting the instability together is love.
Rather than trying to resolve the discomfort of instability, a relationship is about riding the never-ending waves of connection, disconnection, distance, desire, dullness, and joy, together. In doing so, you find that there is an ever present invitation to deepen intimacy, whether you agree or disagree, are delighted or confounded by each other.
The characteristics of patio instability from my perspective are disconnection and dullness.
My presence causes her to literally disconnect from what she’s listening to. Her resumption of listening as soon as I step away suggests to me that I’m obligated to come up with conversation at least as diverting as her iPhone.
But, I can’t tell whether she’s mentally counting stitches or rows (are stitches a thing in knitting?) when I say something. And when I speak while she’s counting, I’m interrupting.
So, we sometimes sit in silence for long stretches. And since she has her knitting to engage her attention and I don’t have a similar patio hobby to keep me semi-engaged, I’m left hankering for my spoken word content.
In this instability, love would mean deepening our intimacy (our understanding of each other) by exploring how we each feel about being disconnected from our solo endeavors when we’re together.
4. The Path to Liberation.
Finally, there are steps we can take to go beyond disconnection and disagreement to love each other more deeply.
This truth in Piver’s process, the How-To section, both moves closer to the original language and diverges from the original meaning.
The original path included eight steps to liberate us from mental suffering. For Liberation from unloving relationships, Piver recommends three steps.
This involves factors like recognizing that there are two people in the relationship, both of whom have needs. It includes being honest both with ourselves and with the other person in addressing the effect the instability has on those needs. It also includes doing so with good manners.
Working with patio instability, if I’m being honest with myself, I sense that we both have a preference to be amused or informed by our devices when we’re not engaging in conversations ourselves.
This involves making room for both of us to be who we are and acknowledging that the other person’s needs are as important as our own.
Dropping the expectation that my partner needs to change, either her need to knit or to engage with spoken word content on the patio is important. Whatever stabilization we come to should accommodate both of our needs.
Going Beyond Conventional Ideas of Love
This is where the imprecision of what love means stops being a bug and starts being a feature. By dropping stories of what love is supposed to be, acknowledging and putting forth mutual effort to resolve instability can almost always be used to deepen intimacy.
Piver is careful to exclude abuse and addiction from this mix, but apart from instability that requires intervention, everything is workable.
A possible conversation around patio instability might include exploring our mutual tastes for a jointly selected partner playlist that we could reserve for moments when we are alone together.
Ten Minute Exercise
If you’re currently facing a relationship instability with a partner, try this exercise to test whether Piver’s paradigm is true for you.
1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
3. Take a moment to consider a change that has occurred in your relationship to make it unstable.
4. Ask yourself whether part of the instability is rooted in the idea that neither you or the other person should change in behavior or the way that you feel about each other.
5. Instead of blaming the other person for changing (or not changing), reframe the instability as a separate entity, a situation for you to address together.
6. Spend the remainder of the time considering how you might address the instability together with precision, openness, and going beyond conventional ideas of love.
7. When the timer sounds, note whether the exercise has given you greater insight into how to address the instability.