It’s been said that our inner clock stops in a particular decade, because it more or less defines us thereafter. For my parents, born in the teens, that decade was the 30’s, which contained most of the Great Depression and was also when they fell in love, married, and started a family.

For me, it’s the 70’s, because by then I had experienced a few depressions of my own, generated mostly out of failed love relationships; but I still had time to “do better” in that critically important area of my life. And I started to have conversations with certain books about what “doing better” might look like.

“The Art of Loving” by Eric Fromm was an early such book. Written in the 50’s, it finally reached me, or I reached it, in the early 70’s. One detail in particular — maybe in that it’s so counterintuitive — has had a lifelong influence: in love relationships, the closer the union, the greater the frequency and intensity of conflict.

Look, I heard Fromm saying. You are two ever changing individuals, in most cases different sexes, from different upbringings with different values and priorities. Closeness entails fighting through conflicts. Fighting fairly, of course. Listening well. Lack of conflict indicates distance, not closeness. Indicates not wanting to engage each other’s complexities.

Not long thereafter, as if Fromm had opened a path to it, I picked up “If You Meet the Buddha on the Street, Kill Him,” by Sheldon Copp, which has a related theme: you can’t find your own path through another, and certainly not in lockstep with another. Your path is yours alone. And, again, I remember the essence of one idea in particular: something like “for lack of the one, the whole world.”

I took (and still take) that to mean that if you lose yourself in another person, your world becomes smaller. Copp’s title alludes to losing yourself in the Buddha, or in Jesus, but for most of us that’s a remote possibility compared to getting lost in the person with whom we fall in love. And why not? Falling in love makes us feel so … well, born again!

In the honeymoon period, one’s world surely does not seem to be smaller, even though almost nothing else exists but the other person. I’ll never forget how joyously alive I felt in my first honeymoon back in high school. It was “only” a kissing relationship, most of it in the back row of the Penn Theater in Plymouth, Michigan. Puppy love, older people called it. But name it what you will, it was as powerful “that way” as “that way” ever got.

“Joyously alive” does not equate with the world becoming smaller. But then came the suffering that followed her decision to go back with her upper-class boyfriend. Woe to the adolescent whose love relationship ends in the honeymoon stage — a few weeks of emotional kissing, then months and months of heartache. And not heartache that comes and goes, but is more or less there all the time.

I manned up as best I could, but for a year I wasn’t very present to a lot that was going on. School work deteriorated. Friendships weakened. Athletics declined. My shoulders slumped. That was a clearer kind of smaller that the world got, as the price for getting lost in another person.

I eventually got strong enough to put my head back into the lion’s mouth, to fall in love again and to be fallen in love with. This time around, I put as much predictability and protection into the relationship as I could muster: gave her my class ring, ate lunch with her at school, walked her home after school, you know the drill. The consequence: the world got smaller in another way.

And fifteen years later, when I read Copp, I knew immediately that this was the “smaller” that he was talking about. Not in the falling-in-love, not in the inevitable narrowing down of the world into you and one significant other, but in locking it in. It’s overprotection in a relationship — overprotection against suffering, really – that’s makes for the real contraction. And soon enough, sure enough, there’s another valley of the shadow death you find yourself walking through.

Time may heal all wounds, but wisdom requires many woundings. Making it alive into my 20’s, I now had marriage available to more thoroughly lock-down my next love affair before the euphoric honeymoon stage had run its course. I didn’t consciously know that’s what my fiancée and I were up to, because at that time the “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage” mindset was still the unquestioned way to proceed, once one reached the marrying age.

But same mistake, same consequences, now locked in even tighter, longer. And I hadn’t read Fromm yet. I hadn’t read Copp, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Carl Jung, to name but a few to whom the 70’s would soon open its doors, and whose books would give me a fresh look into the subject of enclosed love. Rings, contracts, promises, picket fences aside, nobody owns anybody. Control in the guise of safety is doomed. Love that traps its original energy in a controlling structure shrinks into a small fraction of what it once was.

In such books, sometimes one found innovative maps detailing possible ways through, and, if necessary, out of locked-down love. In Carl Jung’s map – one of the best ever, Jung starts from inside the trap and traces a way to richer possibilities. In a declining relationship, there is generally one partner who has more rooms in his psyche than the other. (Jung calls the top dog partner “he” and the bottom dog “she,” but only for the sake of convenience; it’s just as often the other way around.) “He” lives in several rooms, while “she” lives in essentially one room – the room he and she share. The partner that inhabits more rooms frightens the partner who inhabits but one — albeit a central — room with him. She wants him to stay out of those other rooms that don’t include her. She feels abandoned when he goes into them. On the other hand, he feels engulfed by her pressures to stay out of where he wants to go, or lose her.

The resolution of this conflict can only come about in this fashion, according to Jung: he must have full access to all of the rooms open to him, and thus risk losing closeness to her in the one big room they share. And she must risk establishing new rooms in her being, or reclaiming old rooms that were abandoned upon marriage. Jung sees this as the only way through this conundrum that will enlarge both parties. The alternative is a slow diminishment of the of the relationship, and finally its death.
. . .

Aging is a humbling process. Four plus decades later, when I look back at all this relationship work that was front and center in the 70’s, I ponder: did any good come of it, beyond the rare individual wising up a little bit. Initially promising relationships continue to devolve into acrimonious endings, or, even sadder, into stalemates. Blame games are as common and fruitless as they’ve always been. He cheated on me. She didn’t turn out to be the person I thought she was.

The underlying idealistic principle of the 70’s — that significant reform was possible if it starts within yourself, if it happens from the ground up — had its day in the sun. It demanded that we look within our locked down, failed relationships, to see how they had taken form out of stunted self-awareness.

But reading over what I’ve written here so far, I experienced the almost happy realization of how far I’ve fallen out of love with 70’s idealism. Or all idealism, really. At the time it surely felt like we were getting someplace. There was movement. Group work seemed to be particularly hot. Encounter groups — not talky stuff, but programs like primal therapy, where we faced, and ostensibly worked through, our deep down stuck places.

That group work on our inner lives seemed to naturally extend outward to group work against corrupt politics. It is said that group protests were instrumental in ending the Vietnam War. It was thought that if WWI didn’t turn out to be the war to end all wars, then maybe Vietnam could be. It was assumed that progress on all fronts was possible.

It was an optimistic decade, hard-working decade, so why did it come to so little. Why is its legacy so small. Looking back, I now can see a big hubris in it. Those of us leading the charge for progress were pretty inflated. We didn’t understand well enough that big idealistic ambitions, even for noble goals, cast equally big shadows.

That’s the trouble with idealism. It’s afraid of its shadow, and thus hides from it. Thus, for all of that down and dirty trench work we were doing, nothing took hold. More sexual freedom, perhaps.

My wife and I were in primal therapy together. At the Somerset, Pennsylvania Center, there were many that came into the program married, but none that exited married. At least not to the same partner. We saw ourselves as honesty personified.

We put a big growth slant on our break-ups in those days, perhaps to hide from more self-centered motives. Maybe we just wanted to fuck somebody new.


  1. Charles Sullivan

    Another introspective piece, Jim. Complex subject matter. Intimate human relationships are a landscape more treacherous to navigate than the high Sierra, and potentially no less demanding, painful or rewarding. At their core, all human relations may be a struggle for dominance and control: a primal urge that is programmed into our DNA. The last line of the piece, a real zinger that seemed to come out of nowhere, may come closest to the truth. It happens to be the best line in the essay. I like its simplicity and honesty. Perhaps we have a tendency to over think things.

  2. james ralston

    Great response! Pleases me to no end, the quality of your thinking, your questions. As to the last question, my first thought is that idealism and love are incompatible. (Passionate love, I’m thinking of now, but maybe all love.) I don’t even want to question my first thought too much right now, because, as the blog post indicates, a good piece of my life long idealism recently slid off my back, like a piece of ice. Idealism is should be. Love is is.

  3. Matt Chelf

    There’s so much I like about this post. In fact, I think it’s my favorite.

    It seems there’s an antagonism between love and relationships. Love–I think, or want to believe–expands life; it opens doors, it self examines. Because I define love as openness–replete with connotations like adventurous and curious, patient and humble–love is always vulnerable, a vulnerability right to the core. Love is an existential threat to life. And maybe that’s no good for anyone–certainly not to institutions invested in a harmonious, working order (marriage, economy, etc.). Love is destruction.

    Relationships, though, they’re all about order, and protection, and building walls. In some sense, perhaps antithetical to love, which doesn’t want containment.

    It’s a simplistic dichotomy, I’m embarrassed to say, but I stand by what I said about love. It’s the center of creation, perhaps. My girlfriend says “all of literature is about love.” For context, she said this after I mentioned one day that you once said, “All of literature is about two things: sex and death.” I was looking at your poems, actually, when I realized out loud: “All of these poems are about sex and death!”

    Any who, love is fundamentally creative. Ideologies always want to put a ring on creative energy. I like the Fromm you incorporated. It reminds me of something you used to say that I still puzzle over: “The first betrayal is the beginning of the relationship.” To go full circle, ‘betrayal’ is the thing that BEGINS (emphasis on origin, creation, profundity) the ‘relationship,’ that obligation toward enough that tends to cloister. Tension. Or maybe relationships aren’t about confinement, but the beginning of openness, and as a culture we’ve just got it all ass backward.

    One last thing. What’s the relationship between love and idealism?


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