Genetics of Love and Liking

Love it is like soup: there is a general consistency that one recognizes as soup, but you can put just about anything into it and still call it soup. I could even mash together another horribly mixed metaphor (another soup) and say that the soup has DNA. It’s taken me MONTHS to write and edit this. I found it hard to keep from drifting down different eddies of interest, over-extending metaphors, and burdening the flow of thought with too many examples and anecdotes.

After writing the post on Subsistence Romance, the number of opportunities I’ve had to talk about recognizing romance in the mundane has been nearly as frequent as the political discussions I attract, but with so much more inquisitiveness and genuine interest in finding accord and demystifying romance…like I’m some sort of Romance guru, which I’m not. But I like to talk about it! Over the span of one week, for instance, the topic came up several times, with particular emphasis on “levels” of romance, or love, or emotion — seemingly interchangeable in casual discourse. But the discussion wants for depth. I think that once you establish what the big chunks of a concept are, it’s time to drill in for some more nuanced exploration and more precise handling of terminology.

This topic is huge because it is many-layered, and I cannot possibly hope to think my way to the core without dutifully peeling one layer at a time. I want to think about it, I really do, but without overwhelming myself with conclusions that are far deeper than this effort, the next proper level of logitating, can achieve. (For the English-as-a-2nd-language readers, I sometimes use words that aren’t officially recognized or don’t even exist.) My first draft of this post shaped up to be more of a treatise on some clinical and systematic treatment about the “what next” in Romance. It turned out much too ponderous. This draft leaves out all the pedantic ponderousness of process and instead focuses more on a couple narrow facets: exploring the relationship between like & love, and intersections thereof that produce what we like to call “relationships.”

Allusion to Process

I will allude to process, however (like I could help myself), by saying that the biggest challenges I find in discussing things like this are 1) breaking down or disabling existing habits of thinking enough to allow a different light through, and 2) finding the right linguistic & intellectual tools to handle the subject, ones that both discussants share enough of in common to allow for constructive exchange of ideas. These are significant obstacles to overcome because they are dedicated efforts in their own right that require time and concentration, more than just realizing that they’re there and nodding at them. I mean, once you realize what the obstacles are, you deal with them honestly and with the full capacity of your tolerance for self-evaluation and relative to how dearly you hold onto the ‘stuff’ you believe makes up “you.” Combine that effort with that of treating a subject, the result might be much like competing in the Olympics in a sport you’ve never done before: you’ve got to learn and accomplish it all at the same time. Herculean … er … Olympian rather.

The biggest hurtle to begin with seems to me to be the coming to awareness of alternate realities or stories: what you know or think you know with respect to your experiences or observations ain’t the only story. Other, valid perspectives exist. To start with, you have to believe that love, emotion, and romance — “the blob” — can be known in a way that allows us to talk about it objectively. If you disallow that or cling to so much relativity that thoughts on the subject are just so much noise, then conversation over. You have chosen to be trapped with thoughts that have no more substance than what scientists used to call ether: the non-stuff of outer space. (Would that make you a Space Cadet, or just spacey?) (And, please, you guys that know about the Casimir Effect, don’t call me out on my comparison. Not the right forum to get into vacuum fluctuations and the quantum of true vacuum.)

The habits of thinking around the subject that we have inherited or developed are, for the mostpart, utterly useless … Hallmark Card clichés and love-song lyrics that we hold onto as though, without them, there would be no truth or anything real to take their place. I believe we can parse the blob and appreciate the real fabric of the gelatinoid to discover its complexities, textures, flavors, nuances, and levels. I do not think we are stuck with the story we’re in, but rather we have the power to change the story, just as I have changed the focus of this post, even if it means only choosing a few different words to frame our experiences from a different angle.

I find that the words one chooses to discuss a topic are telling in how the person perceives the topic, whether conscious of the ‘how’ or not. Words are the proxies for the story you tell, and they compose the landscape of your perspective like the setting on a stage. They establish the boundaries for the landscape within the metaphor one has associated with a topic (again, consciously or not); and when the metaphor thoroughly saturates the topic, it establishes itself as a habit of thinking. Then the main hurtle emerges: humans cognitively try to resolve a situation within the bounds of the established metaphor. If you think of something as composed of stuff in terms of finite commodities (for example), then you will try to both evaluate the situation and resolve the problems found in the situation according to how the proxies would or should work.

Tons and tons of examples exist to support this notion. One of my favorites is the metaphor of the computer and programming that was used in psychotherapy. While there are similarities between humans and computers (only because programming computers appears to be modeled after us, not us after them), the jargon used within the metaphor “informed” diagnoses and engendered prescriptions that were better suited to machines than to humans. There was just too much wrong with the metaphor, and most clinicians working within that perspective adopted other, less mechanical metaphors to treat human patients.

More on this when talking about Commodity Thinking.

One note on my use of “Hallmark” — While I have great respect for Hallmark, I here use its name as a pejorative modifier signifying pie-in-the-sky, vacuous, stereotyped modeling for human relationships. Stereotyping is a type of generalization as a tool used in place of thinking and confused for truth. Using “Hallmark” to stand for this concept is merely a convenience for me, not a slam on it. My apologies to Hallmark for this characterization.

The Triple-Helix of Liking

JuanPa wrote a post called “When I Say I Love You!” where he alluded to “love” in a particular instance of time with undercurrent pangs that are causing undiagnosed symptoms of anguish and guilt, threatening one’s notion of “love.” Because the protoplasmic blob had not been dissected to discover the fibers of the pain he is witnessing, he cast his lot to the wind with a heart-felt admonition to trust something he could only assume had something to do with life and living. But the wind that dispersed his lot also sifted the silt and exposed a single, elemental quartz grain: Liking. He’d identified a unique substance that gives cohesion to even the blob. I pounced on this revelation with emotionally rational fervor:

Love does not have to come in one single flavor, but a range of flavors. Love is not a limited commodity that must be rationed or you run out. Love is not obligating: that I love you does not obligate you to me. Time changes as the sun passes overhead, bringing different perspectives to light; but under all that, “like” is the bedrock for any lasting relationship. And “like” itself can be a form of love — it varies only in investment, intensity, and depth.

This encapsulation sums up a lifetime of unsynthesized observation into one single over-stuffed Valentine’s Day Therapy card printed on a napkin instead of gloss-varnished paper. (Thanks JuanPa!) My current thesis is this: liking is a base or primordial ingredient for a relationship, by which I mean ongoing, joy-filled interaction.

At what point does intense liking turn to love? Or is it merely a form of love that lacks color strength, saturation, and dye penetration to a certain number of interpersonal fibers to be called “love”? (Oh gawds, another metaphor.)

I have heard (and I’ve found myself believing at times) that you can love someone without liking him. I’m pretty sure that’s true…at some level and with some definition. But I’m not right now wanting to consider edge-cases and extrapolations, nor the explorations of the loves that the Ancient Greeks recognized (similar to studying the number of words for ‘snow’ as different concepts found in the Eskimo-Aleut languages). Let’s narrow it down to the type of love that we identify with romance, deep emotional concern, strong affection, and attachment. Not the type of love that is “practiced” or devotional. (Of course Affection can stem from empathy, sympathy, etc. and can grow to saturate the essence of the heart to the point where living the empathy is loving the target. Fascination could also be construed as a foundation for love, but I’m focusing here, people, focusing.)

So I posit: liking in itself can be a form of love — it varies only in the triple-helix of investment, intensity, and depth. At some point, the saturation level and constancy of liking graduates to a level we call love.

I’ve had flashes of love under certain circumstances that both caught me off guard and didn’t last. Waves of intense liking that washed into every cell of my being like a flash flood. In those circumstances, I could easily have thought: I love this person, and I want more of him or her. This used to happen super infrequently, and I chalked such occurrences up to infatuation or the quickening of the fascination of novelty. With fewer things being “novel” (at my modest age) and my emotional and intellectual filters having deliberately formed, such flashes remain only assimilated memories useful for such things as facebook posts and reminiscing on the porch step or sandy beach. In these years, I have relationships with a close set of friends that exemplify what I mean by investment, intensity, and depth.

Friendships seem to lose color when little or no effort is put into nurturing them and vice versa. I have had (only) a couple of friends in my life that I would have called “good friends,” and only within the past decade have I arrived at a “best friend.” Now I have both a best friend and a fantastic circle of really close, good, & dear friends who I want to interact with, where just sharing a small facebook note or a short telephone conversation is enough to bring out latent appreciation that translates to joy. They’re people about whom thoughts pass through my mind regularly. I have discovered a chemistry that is right for me and, apparently, them also — and I try not to let the solution of friendships get diluted or weakened for lack of vitalization. I’m not as good at this as Pato, but my ways are a’changin’. Of course, if there weren’t some sort of feedback from them to recognize my interest, I would not pursue it, although I might pine for it. I’m not sure of how selfish this is — one of the points I want to explore is unrequited passion. But first …

Investment, to me, would be both the range of areas of my life exposed and the commitment I have to a mutually beneficial relationship. With my circle of friends, the breadth of things we share covers nearly the entire spectrum of life; whereas with friends not so close, casual, or merely acquaintances, the spectrum is both truncated and filtered of hues and range. By investment I do not mean merely the yearning or the desire for something. It’s directed, active energy: I’ve placed the colors of my life’s rainbow in their hands, and I cherish caring for theirs. So investment is the quality and breath of the expenditure with the hopes of quality returns.

Intensity has to do with the amount of time and the actual emotional, physical, and mental effort expended (passion). When I do things for my friends, I think through situations more thoroughly; I try to find more thorough solutions; I want to please them more effectively — the superlative end of the magnitude scale. It does not matter if they are next to me or far away. On the flip side, there’s the intensity of enjoying them, their way of thinking and acting; their way of being. I have several friends who are just plain smart, at the far end of the positive edge of the bell curve. Being less smart than them does not inhibit me from enjoying what I can of their thought processes or the differences between us. In fact, a lot of the differences between us are a joy in themselves. I like that — I like them. I focus more intently on what they say and do, and I concentrate on absorbing of them what I can.

Then there’s depth. Through my experiences as an Information Architect, I’ve come to think of depth as interaction at a more personal and nuanced level. Let’s say that there is a segment of the market that you want to come to your site and interact with you. At the first level, everyone within this audience segment is treated pretty much the same (although differently from those you don’t care about). Assuming some chemistry and trust, they start doing things with you, the company, that a passer-by would not do, and you “reward” it; they are pleased at the recognition; and the cycle gets tighter where you recognize more of their individuality and the effort the individual is expending. I’m not talking dog-training here. I’m talking the satisfaction that humans get at having themselves or representations of their selves recognized. In the case of the blob, I can share with one level of friend some general or more superficial aspects of goings-on in my life; but with closer friends, what I’m sharing is micro, more nuanced, more personal, more trusting as opposed to macro, general, superficial, and harmless. More nuance is deeper in the sense of finer granularity in subtlety and the profundity of your foundations, your story.

I’ve discovered you don’t have to like anything equally and absolutely or of a certain type or intensity for it to be liking. You can have a thick soup that’s bland or a thin soup that’s packed with flavor. The combinations are infinite. We can like and love with more or less of the triple-helix, and the result will still be viable if not unique. You can have a light dye splashed on or a few saturated strands threaded in; or soak every fiber to the core (to follow up on the two main metaphors that I’ve mashed together — maybe I should think of the soup as the dye!). Which suggests that there is no one, single type of either like or love. Since when were we only capable of loving one single being one single way or that there is only so much of one type of love available within us? Those are, I believe, unfortunate side affects of those cliché-generated misconceptions.

Commodity Thinking as Habit

A friend of mine — the inspiration for this post — and I were talking on the beach one Saturday about problems he was having in his current, recognized relationship. He said stuff like “she wants things I’m not ready to give,” and used words like “give up,” “sacrifice,” “compromise,” “insecurity”, “my space” … the usual suspects. During the course of the conversation, he shared with me his story which contains as a protagonist the baggage he carried from two previous relationships, and we discussed how his “evaluation system” was developing or changing. The “evaluation system” discussion was the key to the conversation because it revealed that the “system” he used to process the subject was in terms of quantities of specific ingredients that you only have so much of and that you could run out of or spread too thinly. Specifically, “sacrifice” appeared to be both good and evil: evil in that, if someone asked you to do something, it required you to “sacrifice” your “space and time” to accommodate; and good if someone was willing to do that for you.

I argued that choosing this set of terms and a commodity-like metaphor pretty much forced one to resolve a topic according to hog and futures trading, and it is his evaluation system that is the root of his problem, not love or liking or her or her expectations. But I also then discovered that, as much as he said he wanted to, he either could not give up his walled-in thinking, or he was unwilling to abandon cherished traditions of Hallmark or Pork Bellies-Tradin’ treasures that form the basis of a very deep-seated set of “values,” ardently conserved to preserve his “identity.” He apparently has a problem he wants to understand and solve, but he’s using mental proxies that, together, define machinery that isn’t getting the job done — he’s in a box. (Refer to “Allusion to Process”, above.)

I offered a contrary position: dump the commodities approach by simply “switching off the evaluation system.” While “switching off” sounds like an action requiring effort, I mean it in the way of “if you’re holding onto something [effort], simply let it drop [no effort at all].” When I’m sitting comfy on the couch and Pato asks me to do something, my selfish commodity engine begins to rev up to complain and resist. I switch off the engine, and simply do what he asks without feeling about it one way or another. Peace. Stillness. Present. “But you’re sacrificing…” — stop right there! No I’m not. I’m not killing an animal, subjugating my will, or blowing myself up. Managing to secure my preference at that moment to sit like a vegetable on the couch is not a conquest of the Marxist elements to assert my self-ness triumphing over the confrontation of another’s ego with mine. I choose to be in a different story characterized by different processing machinery, to not let notions of “me” and “mine” interfere.

Commodity thinking and habits of thinking. One might immediately say, well they’re both ‘thinking’, and the former is easily a subset of the latter. And if you said those things, I’d agree with you. The structures that form habits of thinking and attitudes clothe themselves in specific metaphors and the vocabulary that correspond to the chosen metaphor. The thing about habits of thinking, tho, is that they box you in by both limiting and blinding you to other options for solution. They limit in that we strive to work within the bounds of the metaphor; and they blind in that we don’t realize that we’re in a box and can’t see to choose a different metaphor.

OK., enough philosophizing on psycho-linguistic matters.

Negotiating the Metaphor

This is something I have believed for a long time: I think to some degree affection and effort have to be mutual in order to not be lopsided; but even one-sided, love is not obligating. That I “love” you with some intensity to such a degree does not require you to the same…unless you’ve run a little behind on your promises. My beach-conversation friend told me about how his friend-girl was behaving or reacting when he did not return a sentiment or gesture with the same intensity as she meant hers to be and within a certain timeframe. He also had to counter suspicions, accusations, and exaggerations at every turn, as though doing so would make up for the fact that he didn’t share her state.

It isn’t pretty. It ain’t subtle. And it’s the stuff of poetry about angst in unrequited love. But it begs the question: Does “it” have to be mutual to work?

Of course, I think that depends entirely on the evaluation mechanism, how much of the same criteria you both share for an identifiable type of relationship, and how honest you are with yourselves in what it is you really want. When you get all those things listed in one sentence, it’s pretty easy to see that there ain’t no easy answer. Using myself as the measure of all things, I’d say that, even if the two of you managed to concretize enough these facets, your hearts may not agree — or you agree in theory, but your habits of thinking are interfering with assimilation of a new structure for your evaluation mechanism.

I think that, if we claim to be loving someone a certain way, well then, we would probably should be living up to some of the traditional characteristics, like fidelity and such, which consecrate certain actions to the uniqueness of said relationship. But if you are innocently, blindly, or naïvely enjoying facets of another person, and that other person begins applying Hallmark standards of judgment, then you have synchronization problems. Synchronization problems exacerbated by forms of thought, thoughtforms that exist only because we act like they do and endure because our habits of thinking sustain them. A type of asynchrony is the disequilibrium that results from doing certain things that encourage a Hallmark thoughtform in another without intending that the thoughtform come to pass juxtaposed to that same other’s wanting it to. In such a situation, you have to structure the physical circumstances of your relationship (where and how you live, domestic routines, etc.) in a way to not create a Hallmark setting, avoid the stage that either feeds or provokes what you don’t want.

In my first relationship, there arose some emotions stemming from how what was happening around me and between us was not adding up to my expectation of what a love/romance relationship should be. So I thought, what the heck! I’ll just redefine the relationship based on the existing variables and take it from there. I failed: not only did it not match some undisclosed mental prototype, but it wasn’t what I been brought up to want. My thoughtforms were solid and resistant to assimilation. So, I had to figure out first what relationship it was that I wanted, and second I had to present my situation to the other person in the equation. Our current paradigm was certainly working for him. Problem was, I wanted to live by different rules. What I wanted from him, I wasn’t getting …at least in a form that matched my metaphor, which I equated with a higher bar.

I left that relationship and finally ended up with Patrick, who was pretty much the definition of “traditional” relationship metaphor …actually, the very metaphor inspiring Hallmark (the company and its products). While no relationship is perfect (meaning, there are and arise over time asynchronies, disequilibrium, and changes in perspective that cause tension), we attempt to conduct ourselves in a way that respects the boundaries defined by the metaphor we have chosen as the one to guide and govern our lives together. Is it the only working and successful metaphor? Absolutely not. Is this one working for us? Absolutely. We agree on the metaphor, thereby establishing respectable boundaries. Working within those boundaries, we ironed out the asynchronies and disequilibrium that popped out of the baggage we met each other with.

What to do?

The answer to that I think is a function of what you want to accomplish weighed against your tolerance for self-evaluation. Such discussion, as mentioned earlier, is part of process, but I will at least parse “tolerance for self-evaluation.” By self-evaluation, I mean one’s ability to look objectively at one’s actions and attitudes (which are habits of thinking). By tolerance, I refer to the tendency for humans to equate their thoughtforms with value of “self” , as in: the way I think is special because it makes up part of who I am — not realizing that if I change a thoughtform, I’m still me. Perceiving oneself as “unique” is part of a value system that makes up part of (at least) U.S. culture. Culture is the “personality” of a larger set of cells (individual humans) within the body of the civilization. As such, cultures also have habits of thinking that form the corpus of shared perspective, which gives Hallmark a market. Tradition is structured perspective and weighs heavily on individual perspective. Layers and layers of thoughtforms to identify and peel back. But ultimately, one’s perspective on uniqueness will bear directly on his ability to change or adopt a different thoughtform, the basis of a different evaluation system.

While the way I describe things might appear daunting, you can skip the layers entirely, as long as you have control over the value system that governs your self-esteem and perception of uniqueness …

To My Beach-Discussion Buddy

…but to my beach-discussion buddy: that wouldn’t be you!

I know this post is dense (or maybe I’m dense and my writing is just reflects that), but I’ve tried to touch on every single thing we did in discussion. Except now, it’s in writing. The most important point, tho, is to deal directly with the metaphor (and the associated vocabulary) that forms the basis within which you’re trying to address your situation. It’s hanging you up and steering you wrong. Choose differently. It won’t cost you a thing. It sounds all scientific ‘n’ shit, but it really isn’t. The biggest obstacle to gettin’ it is you — the current you, not the you in a different story (of your choosing, of course).

Hang in there.

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4 Responses

  1. […] to dissolve years of feeding a tendency.  A lot of the “me” problem is the metaphor one uses to identify either himself or whatever is appearing at a problem at the […]

  2. This TED video is *awesome*! It corroborates the Commodity THinking as Habit notion: the language you choose to talk about something is drawn from the pool of vocabulary in the domain you use to think about that same thing. So, with relationships, if the terms you use regarding problem-resolution refer a lot to “sacrifice”, then you have a commodities frame.

    And then, once within a frame, the solutions that present themselves for problem-resolution are as constrained as the vocabulary. It’s like: given all the (cognitive-linguistic) tools in this particular frame (bounded box), I think first to configure my solution with solutions that maintain the frame. It’s a type of sense-making (or rationalization or cognitive dissonance or equilibrium finding within a narrative structure).

    In this TED video, the speaker is hypothesizing that language structure (tense in particular) itself channels how one thinks about saving, presuming that future-tensed language have an cognitive distance between the now and the tomorrow.

  3. This is a nice encapsulation …

  4. http://www.alternet.org/secret-breaking-out-our-most-destructive-habits

    However appealing this view of human transformation may be, the reality is that it distorts what we now know about the foundation of lasting change. Falling in love, for example, doesn’t make us appreciate other people; appreciating other people makes it likelier that we’ll fall in love. Appreciation can be practiced and conditioned; love cannot, at least not directly. We don’t change our bad behavior by feeling bad about it. In fact, we usually don’t feel bad about it—much less understand its effects on ourselves and others—until after we’ve changed enough to achieve a more enlightened perspective. (That’s why it’s usually not until we become adults that we can transcend denial about the foolish things we did as adolescents.) Except for saints and literary characters, enduring change rarely happens as the result of being knocked off our feet by a spiritual or psychological whack upside the head. Perdurable change is gradual and mundane. It occurs by extending, supplementing, and altering the habits that shape perspectives and drive behavior. First comes the hard work; then comes the epiphany.

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