Solitude and intimate relationships

This post is sparked by a rather thought provoking quote that I read in the beautiful book titled Solitude by Anthony Storr. Let’s dive right in.

It may be our idealization of interpersonal relationships in the West that causes marriage, supposedly the most intimate tie, to be so unstable. If we did not look to marriage as the principal source of happiness, fewer marriages would end in tears.

Storr, Anthony. Solitude (Flamingo) . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition

Storr talks about the value of spending time alone. Solitude, says Storr, is not as bad as the modern society makes it out to be. It’s not as if the people who consciously choose to spend time alone are anti-social. On the contrary, some of the most truly sociable people are the ones who are connected deeply with themself. It is this inner connection, this relationship with one’s own fears, joys, trials, tribulations that can help us empathize with others. People who can accept and integrate into their personality both their flaws and their talents, can understand and accept flaws in others. This is the basis of empathy. Therefore, truly sociable people are those who are connected to themselves. And this connection is built and nourished when one spends considerable time alone. It simply cannot come about in the mad chaos of today’s hyper connected world. Most ‘social’ people are those who use other people as a means of escaping boredom. In the truest sense, socializing is a means of escaping from oneself. It is this chaos that is considered ‘normal’ in today’s world.

Relationships, especially intimate ones epitomize the apex of this chaos today. As the quote says, we bank too much of our hopes on intimate relationships. We expect them to fulfill us, to bring great sense of joy to us. Then their are some of us who have completely turned away from deep, meaningful relationships and prefer shallow, casual acquaintances. Most often than not, these people have had bad experiences and have now decided to shut themselves off completely. In my view, both these are extreme viewpoints and are born from not recognizing who we really are.

This means that the more we pile up our expectation that one particular person or thing will grant us happiness, the more it is surely going to disappoint us. The object is immaterial – whether it is a romantic relationship or one’s own career. It is the act of banking one’s hope on an external ‘thing’ leads to frustration and disappointment commensurate with the degree of emotion invested in that particular person or thing.

The only way out is to reverse the direction of this basic human drive. The drive that something outside us will complete and fulfill us. Instead of expecting things from outside to fulfill us, we ought to bring ourselves to thing, events and people. It is from bringing ourselves into things that one begets joy. Joy is found in expression and not in obtaining. Life is not a pursuit of happiness but an expression of being.

How can one internalize this truth? How would such a relationship look like? One loves not for love to be returned. One enters a relationship not to obtain love, care and so on. But one enters a relationship with the primary purpose of sharing one’s love, knowledge and sense of vibrant affection with the other. Rollo May, in his excellent book Man’s Search for Himself quotes the great philosopher Spinoza. He says,

“Whoso loveth God truly must not expect to be loved by Him in return”

Spinoza.

While Spinoza was more concerned about his affairs with God, there are lessons for us mere mortals Why do we love our partners? Is it a passport to something else? Do we love for love’s sake? Do we love because we have the capacity to love? Or do we love in order to be loved back? Is it a business transaction?

May goes on to say this:

“The man who knows that virtue is happiness, not a claim check for it; that the love of God is its own reward…. [Such a mature man has] the capacity to love something for its own sake, not for the sake of being taken care of or gaining a bootlegged feeling of prestige or power

Rollo May. Man’s Search for Himself.
[p 153. W.W. Norton and Company. Paperback edition 2009]

Love for love’s sake. This seems to be an arduous task, especially for the modern man. The immediate question that flashes to one’s mind is this, ‘How can love be one directional? Doesn’t it require two hands to complete a handshake?’

True. But, this attitude of loving for love’s sake does not certainly mean that one is exploited. It also doesn’t mean that one doesn’t expect the other to take care of you when you have a need. It isn’t a saintly ‘divine’ love. If one senses that one is being exploited, one can amend the situation by a frank conversation or in extreme cases, leave. But one doesn’t bank one’s entire sense of self on the other. It is akin to walking into a restaurant hoping to be served well and hoping for the food to be palatable. In the event it is not, one either asks for an alternate dish or leaves the restaurant never to return. In either case, there is no extreme disappointment. There is of course full engagement in going to the restaurant, sitting down and ordering. But the absence of one’s expectations being fulfilled doesn’t lead to an emotional collapse.

Therefore, we must learn to enter relationships with the attitude of expressing our love to the other, of the desire to take care of the other, of sharing and giving knowledge and wisdom. One hopes that this is reciprocated by the other. If yes, this is a beautiful relationship worth preserving. If not, one mildly laments the fact that the other did not have the attitude or the character to participate in this beautiful synergy. The flaw, in such cases shall remain with the other and not you. By depersonalizing this situation, strong emotions associated with ‘break-ups’ can be averted.

Always remember, when your needs in a relationship are not met, examine to see if these needs are reasonable? First ask yourself: “Am I investing by entire sense of self worth in this relationship i.e. in the other?”. The answer almost always, comes in the form of emotional pain. The greater your pain, the greater your sense of identification with the other. If the answer is yes, connect with yourself. Spend time alone and connect to who you are, to your values. Once we clear out the clutter of unwanted social connection and social media, we start coming close to who we are and what our innermost desires are. This is the purpose of solitude. From that space, once can begin to give the other what one perceives within oneself – love, kindness and compassion.

If this is reciprocated by the other, wonderful! If not, then we pity and have compassion on the other. They are not connected to themselves in a manner that they can express love to you. You are not hurt or disappointed by their lack of love, care and affection. It is they who do not recognize love – and therefore do not recognize themselves. One feels sorry and compassionate. But in all this, we do not lose a sense of who we are – love, kindness and compassion.

I was fortunate enough to photograph this Peregrine Falcon ‘The world’s fastest bird’ at Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat. 2020.

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