Another thing I’ve noticed. You give a hugh priority to romantic love, don’t you?
What do you mean?
For you, it’s more important than any other form of love, isn’t it?
Well, yes, it is. If my wife died I’d be more upset than if I lost any other relationship
(Lots of murmuring from the women across the table)
What about a child, wouldn’t that be as bad, if not worse?
No. I don’t think so.
(Lots of outraged chuntering from the women across the table)
It would for me, because I’d feel guilty that I wasn’t there for them, that I wasn’t able to look after them better, and I’d feel that I’d somehow failed in my responsibility towards them to protect them from all harm.
Of course, it would be dreadful. You’d never get over it. But the feelings if your wife (or husband) died would be different.
What would those feelings be then?
A huge hole, a huge loss.
What is the loss exactly?
I’d miss her.
Of course you’d miss her. But is missing someone an indication that you loved her more, or that the love you had for her is somehow more virtuous or more important than any other form of love?
She’s part of me.
You mean you’ve merged, become one?
(More murmurs from across the table)
Is that healthy? It sounds like the sort of relationship a very young child would have with its mother, and then would grow out of.
What do you mean?
Well, isn’t becoming an adult about being independent and separate and “differentiated” from your parents? Not being merged into one?
Are you suggesting that my wife is my mother?
Your wife clearly isn’t your mother. It’s not legal to marry your mother. But I’m wondering whether you give such importance to your romantic relationship because there are elements of your relationship that are like the relationship you had with your mother, and that what you’ll miss is those needs being filled. I mean, think about all the things she does for you, including the emotional things (but excluding the sexual things, of course). Are those also things that a mother would do for a son? You’re lucky that those needs are fulfilled, but I’d also say that your experience might be different if you were a woman.
Well, how many intimate relationships do you have? I mean close, personal relationships where you can be honest, open about your vulnerabilites and what you are feeling?
Hmm. Not entirely sure I have any.
Well, I suppose my wife knows more about me than anyone, but I find it difficult to be vulnerable.
Just not something men are supposed to do.
Is it something that a young male child is allowed to do/be?
Yes, of course, in relation to his mother especially.
And I imagine that would feel good, because, generally, it feels good to be vulnerable and open and free.
Yes. But it’s not easy.
For a man, perhaps it is more difficult. But we women have friendships that are all of those things. I bet if you asked all of us here, we’d all have a bevvy of close friends with whom we talk about just about everything, if not everything. Do you have any friendships like that.
No, but my wife does.
Those close friendships are important, crucial. I’m not saying that they are more important, but we would not want to imagine a world without them. I think romantic love is essential, but so, too, are those other friendships. I think romantic love perhaps includes more responsibilities, and for that reason alone appears to be more important than other love relationships, but there are plenty of people who do not have a romantic relationship and who survive, happily. There are very few who survive happily without friendships …
(Murmured agreement from all the women on the other side of the table)
Those friendships fulfil a need for us, and I suspect that they fulfil some of the same needs that you experience and get met by your wife. To be mothered. If I look at the quality of my female friendships, a lot of the interaction is mutual mothering.
Mmm. That’s interesting. I hadn’t seen it like that before. Makes me feel a bit childish. Because I think what you say is true – to an extent. Do you think it’s the case that men who don’t marry just haven’t moved on from Mother? Or that women who don’t marry haven’t moved on from Father?
Obviously, what I’m saying is true only to an extent. It wouldn’t be the whole truth.
So I’ve put all my eggs in one basket, whereas you have spread yours around a bit.
Yes, that’s true.
So, does that mean that you also have a need to be looked after by a father?
Yes, as do you. But it’s more difficult to see how that need is met in your relationships. And, remember, I don’t think we only have these childhood needs. I think we also want to be grown-ups, to be equal in our relationships, to be able to make decisions together. I also wouldn’t want you to think that I have everything sorted out. I’m only spouting this stuff, challenging you. I think there are other challenges for women, and I think my situation, as a child, was complicated by having a mother who didn’t “mother” me (though she did feed me, clothe me and so on) and a father who was more soppy, more emotional. So, I think some of my problems come from expecting that a man will behave like my mother, and getting upset when he doesn’t. I don’t do that so much now, because I am aware that I do it, but I think it was something that went on unconsciously. It’s better if I get those mothering needs met by my girl friends.
I thought this was supposed to be a philosophy class.
I’m not sure that philosophy has all the answers, though it does provoke quite a lot of thought.
Yes. I’m just wondering about those fathering needs, and where I got those met. I suppose my father was around for a very long time. he only died recently, whereas my mother died quite some time ago. Actually, I am not sure that we’re not missing something, the mystery of romantic love, with all this analysing.
You were the one who wanted to stick to philosophy. No room for the metaphysical.
Yes, and, anyway, there was never any need to separate from your connection to your father, whereas you’re expected to leave your mother and cleave to your wife. Sounds as if your wife has done a good job of meeting your needs, and I can see why you’d miss her terribly when she’s not there. But again, it raises that difficult question of whether romantic love is really altruistic, or whether what keeps us locked in is having our needs met. Which makes it seems much more selfish.
Yes, because I can see that when those needs are not met, you must be searching around (even if you don’t know it) for someone to meet those needs. With disastrous consequences.
(Another, older man joins in. Unlike all the other men, he is divorced, having decided to leave his wife in very late life)
Yes, but it’s sad when your wife doesn’t meet your needs, and you are not allowed to have girl friends, like you are allowed to, to meet them.
I can see that it makes you sad. Do you think that’s perhaps why you left your wife? Why you woke up one morning and thought that you didn’t love her any more?
I don’t know. I think, instinctively, it was more about not sharing interests. I did think it was sad that I knew other women who did share my interests, but I was not allowed to have them as friends.
So, more about the adult connection? And those other friendships, why were they not allowed?
They just are not allowed. It’s not acceptable.
Why? Because the romantic love you were supposed to have with your wife ruled out other fulfilling friendships with women?
Romantic love begins to seem much less altruistic and a lot more selfish. We’ll have to return to this.
Indeed. Next week!
[And, as I leave the group, I remember a bit from Eat, Pray, Love. It’s how the film of the book begins. With the author recounting how she has a friend who worked as a pyschotherapist with refugees who has spent weeks in dire poverty in refugee camps before coming to the US. She expected to have to deal with all the trauma of their treatment, but instead all they wanted help with was their relationships, specifically their romantic relationships, but also their relationships with their family. And I thought about all these would-be philosophers, all retired, and how for all of them their happiness still depends, it seems, on the success or otherwise of their personal relationships. After it all, having been a Bank of England economist, or a medical consultant, or a minister, or a very successful businessman was not enough to make them happy.]