Existential philosophers were totally on to something ...
The ideal of romantic love is to find "the one" and live happily ever after.
Why do we want this? Why do we expect this? Why is the reality that almost half of US marriages end in divorce?
Existential philosophers suggest that the problem is that romantic relationships rarely live up to the ideal. We rarely fall in love with just one person in a lifetime. It rarely lasts forever. It rarely manifests in perfect happiness all the time. Romantic relationships are more elusive and complicated than the ideal.
Below are six existential tips to create better relationships:
1. Choose loving actions.
Love is intoxicating, overwhelming, beautiful, interesting, extraordinary, magical, and like a narcotic. In love, it’s difficult to control our impulses. Examples of supremely impulsive lovers include Don Giovanni, who bragged that he had slept with over 2,000 women and kept track of their names in his little black book. Or Samantha from Sex and the City. Their lives are about immediate gratification. The goal of their relationships is sex.
What, you may ask, is the problem with that?
Well, Soren Kierkegaard – the first existential thinker – would say that these people are prisoners to their natural urges. They treat other people as sexual objects. They lead shallow, empty, and meaningless existences because they make no meaningful choices. They are floaters in life and are doomed to melancholy and despair.
Kierkegaard's message is although we have animalistic instincts, we are not animals. Love is like a drug, and we should enjoy that—but don’t forget that we can still choose our behavior. Don't be a slave to love. Own your passions.
2. Respect each other's freedom.
The joy of love is the feeling that we are MFEO (Made For Each Other) and the feeling of becoming a 'we' instead of two 'I's. Lovers feel like they are soul mates, and love is the attempt to merge into one soul so that we are never alone again.
Here is where the problems start, according to the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Trying to merge is frustrating because although we can control our own behavior, it takes two to tango. We want to control our lover so that we can become one and obliterate our differences. This leads to sado-masochistic mind games.
The existential solution is to acknowledge that love isn't about perfect harmony and oneness. Instead of seeking perfect unity, embrace your differences and accept each other as unique and as individuals. Accept that you can’t control each other. Even attempting to control another undermines him/her as a self-determining individual.
3. Be better friends.
Weak relationships are based on dependency, control, and restrictions. Strong relationships are based on camaraderie, encouragement, concurrent striving, and flourishing.
Friedrich Nietzsche says that great friends inspire and educate each other. They push each other to achieve more than they might have thought possible alone. They open each other up to new experiences, possibilities, and opportunities.
This also means that the best friends know how to be bitter enemies, for the best teachers are also the harshest critics. So, don't be afraid to be frenemies. Challenge each other constructively. Be catalytic muses for each other.
4. Remember that romantic forever is the exception NOT the rule.
Margaret Mead suggested that we should marry three times: once to leave home (or at least for great sex), once to have babies, and once to grow old. While it would be great if we could have the three-in-one package, don't be absolutist about it. The person you are with (or seeking) now won't necessarily be right for you as you move into other stages of your life. Just because a relationship doesn't last forever doesn't mean that it wasn't love.
Moreover, ending the relationship might not be up to you. So just in case, pursue a rich and diversified life. Have a back-up plan for your life in case the relationship doesn't work out. Support each other's goals, but don't give up your own dreams and goals. Strive to be authentic.
5. Look for a common goal.
Find something to talk and laugh about together as you grow. Nietzsche says that while passion fades, most of the time lovers are together will be spent in conversation. So, find someone you can really talk to, not someone who you’re attracted to.
Simone de Beauvoir says that relationships are strengthened by a common struggle. In her time—during World War II—the French Resistance was the obvious choice. Philosophically, it can be anything, really. Animal welfare or human rights are perfectly reasonable options, as is the goal of raising a family. The point is that strong relationships are built on indicating yourselves together in the future. And that also gives you something to talk about.
6. Treat each other as the important person in your life.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were lifelong companions, even though the physical passion faded soon after it began. (Apparently Sartre preferred flirting and foreplay over fornication). Their secret? Simply put, just treat the other as more important than anyone else in your life.
It won't be easy, but the existential approach acknowledges that romantic loving is full of uncertainties. Be brave, embrace the ambiguity, and most importantly, don't fall in love, leap into it.
Dr. Skye Cleary is an Australian philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love. She holds a PhD and MBA from Macquarie University in Australia, works at Columbia University, co-founded the Manhattan Love Salon, lectures at the New York Public Library, and is a certified fellow with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Previously, she was an international equity arbitrageur and management consultant. She has a black belt in taekwondo and lives in New York City with her husband and son.
This article was originally published at SkyeCleary.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.