Calculus of Love

Entry Four in the Dangling Conversation Series

WES

“They’re not the same and I’m not sure why you disagree, but if you’re being honest, you know it’s true. At least that’s how it’s worked for me, and experience is the ultimate arbitrator. Things start out wonderful with no complications, complaints, or expectations, each side eager for the sun to set so they can pick up where they left off the night before. Over time though, one side gets tired, perhaps distracted, or even full; hell, maybe they just lose interest. Bottom line is everyone’s got excuses, you’ll at least grant me that right? In the end the what’s and why’s don’t much matter because the train always pulls into the same station.


“I’ve always been an intellectual smart-ass, ask any of my childhood teachers and they’ll tell you I’m the kid they never forgot. Back in the day I hated math class story problems, there’d always be some guy getting on a train in Philadelphia traveling west toward Chicago at forty miles per hour while an hour later another man boards a train in Boston traveling to Chicago at sixty miles hours. They’d want me to determine who arrives first. It’s such a senseless question; I mean who really cares? So, rather than work through the problem, I’d write something like, ‘What difference does it make if they both get to enjoy a Chicago hot dog?’ My point was the same then as it is now, what difference do the what’s and why’s make in any matter where we’re forced to face down an inevitable outcome?


“The same applies to what you’re saying, there’s no difference between the intimacy two adults share in a relationship and the story problems they’d expect us to solve as kids, both require the same calculus. Perhaps we can even express the rate at which, how did you phrase it, ‘intimacy evaporates,’ in terms of a story problem. It’s probably go something like this,

“Bob meets Sally at the grocery store on a sunny afternoon while picking out pineapples. After talking several hours over coffee they agree to meet again, then again, and again. The intensity of the intimacy they share when together is only eclipsed by the utter loneliness they experience when apart. How far into the relationship do they go before intensity wanes? How long does it take them to reach static equilibrium? And finally, what ultimate fate awaits Bob and Sally after equilibrium is reached?”

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MANDY

“Static equilibrium, what a proper way to describe the beginning of the end while capturing the three phases of love. Well maybe not love, per say, but at least love so much as it lives in a relationship. You have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your right, relationships begin with longing, longing to feel the intimacy of the other punctuated by the overwhelming loneliness one feels when apart. But that morphs over time to what you call static equilibrium; I always called it the being comfortable stage, but like your definition better. Then of course, there is the inevitable decline, maybe equilibrium remains static to the end and maybe it doesn’t, either way, love, or at least the love that lives in relationships, is on a slow but steady decent.”

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WES

“So if, as you suggest, every relationship follows the same pattern, we can construct a calculus to capture the phases in a quantifiable manner, but I’m not sure this is possible or that it would be valid. Perhaps we could speak in general terms while recognizing that for a special few there are exceptions. When I was in engineering school, we used to say that ‘Math follows rules, but literature is for lovers.’ I guess how this applies is that there can be a calculus for love based on formulas and rules and we fall back on the axiom of liberal arts; ‘the exceptions make the rules.’”

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MANDY

“It’s impossible to have a calculus for love. I’ll give you there’s an ebb and flow to relationships and love is the dominate player; I’ll even concede that ultimately an equilibrium must be reached, but it’s not possible to have a formula you plug some set of variables into and out pops an outcome because then you’re supposing fate controls everything leaving no room for free will. I believe people are in charge of their fate. There can be elements of pre-destiny, but when two people are committed to each other, they can override the inevitable outcomes of your formula.

“You’re right about one thing, there’s a lead-up to equilibrium, that may or may not end in downfall, which is where I differ from you. In my opinion, the equilibrium phase matters most because what happens there sets the course for everything else. Let me ask you this, since your calculus concludes with relationship demise, does equilibrium cause the end of love or is it the other way around? To me this is the most important question.

“My Ex and I started hot, I wouldn’t say Bob and Sally hot, but if I didn’t experience the heat, I wouldn’t have recognized the frost. We were tender and kind toward each other, and enjoyed many of the same things, but was there passion, was there this endless aching need? Is there supposed to be? Don’t you think the whole love at first sight, or two-halves of the same soul thing is a fantasy built on childish dreams? Yes, we had intimacy, but was it the kind where you feel yourself being absorbed by another, no. Physically satisfying but emotionally wanting, that’s how I’d describe it.

“He, however, had a different take. Out of the blue one day he starts accusing me of being a selfish lover; said I used to care about his needs but don’t anymore. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just stopped feeling sex was a necessary ingredient in our relationship, that we had evolved to a higher state. He, unfortunately, failed to evolve and I don’t know if it’s a him thing or a man thing, but he equated love with sex and any rejection of physical intimacy on my part was, in his estimation, a rejection of our love and affection. Maybe I was selfish, or maybe sex just stopped being a priority; something I placed diminishing value on. Either way he starts pressuring me and the more he pressures the less inclined I become until he’s sleeping in one room and I’m sleeping in the other with an unspoken tension between us I could neither stand nor understand.

“The start is so vastly different than the end; it has to be. But that doesn’t make your formula meaningful or correct. You assert an end that’s inevitable, and maybe it is, I mean we wouldn’t be sitting here if that weren’t true. But there’s multiple ways to have, what did you call it, ‘the train pulling into the same station?’ In one scenario, both sides start out hot and heavy but over time tapper off to an equilibrium they find comfortable. The other scenario also starts out hot but over time one side becomes content to let things cool, while the other keeps stoking the flames of passion, which is not possible to sustain. When one side defines love through sex and the other transcends to a higher form of intimacy the tension grows into conflict, which eats away at the soul of a relationship like an aggressive cancer that can’t be cured.

“In the first scenario, both sides have peace, probably not love as described in romance novels, but peace is a form of love, or at least tranquil cohabitation, which is a transcendent kind of love. I’m not sure passion is supposed to endure forever, and shouldn’t we expect love to evolve into something more profound; or is that just something people who live loveless lives say to feel superior? Was my Ex wrong to call me selfish? Am I wrong to expect love to transcend the physical, or am I only fooling myself – justifying my inevitable outcome in favorable terms?

“I don’t know and feel I’m on the outside looking in. For the record, I wasn’t satisfied that my marriage reached equilibrium, I don’t suppose anyone really is, at least not those who can be honest with themselves. I tried to retain the feelings from the start, to capture the intensity we once shared and hold it prisoner. I just couldn’t. We could spend hours delving into the whats and whys but in the end what remains is frustration and vain attempts to convinced myself that my relationship had grown into something more profound, something not dependent on physical intimacy.

“It’s liberating, frustrating, empty, and full all at once, while at the same time vacantly incomplete. I can’t point to specifically what was missing or what when wrong other than to say something was. What I know is that I was free from the heavy burdens and responsibilities of having to pretend. But even while embracing my new reality, I found myself constantly assessing successful couples longing to learn how they managed to keep love alive, and I was, I don’t know, jealous. Now all that’s left is the postmortem and what I’ve learned so far is that surrender is not a form of transcendence, but I am nonetheless lost between the two.”

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WES

“I’m guilty of parsing the world in simple terms and for me there are two types of people in a relationship, Poets and Novelists. Poets are driven by a need for passion which is expressed in various ways, including intense physical intimacy, they feel on a deeply profound level and need to be connected with those who can withstand the emotional strain of their world. Novelists are people working the sidelines of life. They watch and report but seldom engage in ways that cause profound impacts, they are drawn more to calm melancholy than excited luster, and approach the world from the standpoint of acceptance rather than change.

“It’s not possible for Poets to transcend feelings of passion or hopefulness into the sully pessimism of the Novelist whose experience and observations validate the stark realities of life. The novelist is quick to settle for peace in relationships, because the world repeatedly demonstrates love was never meant to be anything more than a stopping point along the journey toward transcending into a state of peace.

“Your second scenario involves a Poet and Novelist who are caught in a relationship filled with anguished conflict. When their train pulls into the station, there is no transcendence because while the Novelist is willing to trade passion for peace the Poet cannot. This is the easiest way to separate true poets from pretenders, Poets have an unquenchable desire to drink the wine of life to the bitter end, they never give up on wanting to carry the initial intensity they feel in a relationship through all downstream phases. For them relationships are fraught with anguish, frustration, and intense feelings of loss and suffering because their partner struggles to share such needs. The most unfair pairing of two people is a Novelist with a Poet; two lives that cannot mesh long term because each loves differently and while each desires intimacy, their definitions are divergently different.

“The Novelist with a Poet seeks out places to rest where there is no need to worry about expectations and passion. They can live without sex, without intimacy, even the tenderness of another’s touch. They’re full, with no need for anything to change or be different. They struggle to convince themselves they’re at peace, but as you said, surrender is not a form of transcendence. They’re also not at peace because their Poet partner wants more, needs to feel a closeness the Novelist is not capable of providing. As the Poet’s frustrations grow, it exerts pressure on the Novelist in ways the Poet may not even realize. Pressure leads to tension, tension to strife, until culminating in one or the other doing something that cannot be repaired. Once the damage has been inflicted, things can only end in one of two ways; either they negotiate terms of a joint surrender and stay together suffering in silence, or they separate in the hope of finding a proper pairing with someone else.

“A Poet paired with a Novelist is the more anguished of the two. While the Novelist is full but feels pressured to provide more, the poet is empty, devoid of things essential to sustain their life. Imagine two people underwater, one has all the air they need but their hose has too much pressure forcing them to deal with the excess. They are in no danger of dying, but they are constantly uncomfortable. Suppose the other person only has a fraction of the air they need and are slowly being starved of life. They look at their partner with all that air to give who is unwilling to share, even as they slowly die. Who suffers more and whose situation is more tragic? I would argue the Poet paired with a Novelist is the one in need of our pity.”

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MANDY

“Your analogy sucks big time! You paint your Poet as some tragic soul who should be pitied while the Novelist is almost evil. No one with an abundance of something would deny the excess to someone in need, be it air, or love, or whatever. I’ll admit I’m no Poet, but I’ll be dammed if I’ll let you label me a Novelist! My Ex would, but he was no prince either, and certainly not a Poet. Damn you all to hell anyway! I wasn’t a selfish lover, even if I do stand accused. And yes, I did evolve in our relationship, and yes, there was constant pressure to provide more, and maybe, on some level I’m guilty of not providing the intimacy my Ex desired. I’ll concede I was capable of giving more, I just didn’t, I don’t know, maybe I didn’t want to, shouldn’t of had to. But he was no Poet, I can certainly attest to that.

“The problem with your simplified view of relationships is that it fails to take into account all the other complicating factors. Maybe I withheld sex because he was a shit and didn’t deserve it, what does your calculus say about that? I’m sure you’ll just counter by saying he was a shit because I withheld sex, such a wonderfully convenient tower you live in. Judging me, who the hell are you to judge me? You know nothing about me and certainly didn’t live my life, not like I did. I’ll admit to tending toward being a sully realist at times, but I can just as often be filled with passion, you need to know that. Even though it’s hard to sustain a Poet’s level of intensity I can have flashes just like anybody else. He was no Poet, that much would be obvious if you visited my world.”

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WES

“I’m sorry if I offended you, that wasn’t my intention and of course it’s a broad generalization to put everyone in every relationship into one of two bins. But the thing is, even if we came up with a hundred subdivisions, it doesn’t change the outcome, only the fidelity. My simple two-bin approach provides an effective structure for my calculus. Does it fully capture the nuance of every relationship? No. But even if I add a million more bins, there would still be left over cases in the tails.

“So, if you will indulge me and if we can agree I’m talking in general terms and not about you, the way I see it there are three possible pairings of people in relationships: (1) a novelist can be paired with a novelist, (2) a novelist can pair with a poet, and (3) two poets can pair together. What’s interesting going forward, is our need to determine the approximate ratio of novelist to poets. We probably all have our best guess based on the people we’ve known, and I’m sure Behavioral Scientist have tons of studies homing in on a ratio, but if I had to guess, I’d say that half the world thinks they’re poets but only maybe ten percent really are. But just for fun, let’s suppose half the people in the world fall into the category of Novelist and the other half are Poets.

“Now suppose I give you two coins and ask you to flip them together one hundred times, let’s pretend the number of times the two coins both come up heads after a toss represents the number of times two Novelist pair up. Alternatively, the number of times the two coins both come up tails, represents the number of times two Poets pair up. Finally, the number of times one coin comes up heads while the other tails, is the number of times a Novelist pairs with a Poet.

“In a totally random world, which doesn’t really exist, after one-hundred flips, one fourth of the pairings would result in two heads, which represents a Novelist paired with a Novelist, one fourth a Poet with a Poet, and half of the time two people in a relationship wind up being a Novelist paired with a Poet. We need to point out, as you so eloquently did, just because a Novelist pairs up with a Novelist, or a Poet with a Poet by no means assures the outcome will be harmonious. That being said, we know when a Novelist pairs up with a Poet there’s little opportunity for long term bliss.

“We also need to point out the difference between surface and meaningful harmony. Many couples appear on the surface to be a perfect picture of relationship bliss when underneath things long ago went to shit. I bet you knew long before your marriage officially ended that things were over but you cosmetically sustained the appearance of harmonious bliss. I’ll also wager you invested more in propping up appearances than you did in rescuing your relationship. This is one reason we can never know if my calculus is correct, people pretend too much. Pretending is often all that’s left in a relationship. Think of your friends, of your parents; think of their friends and their parents. If you extend that all across the globe, imagine the staggering number of relationships where all that remains is pretending. It’s the entire reason Facebook was invented, so people could project a wonderful life even as they’re descending through the nine levels of Dante’s Hell.

“The math behind my calculus pierces through the veil of pretend, it tells us fifty percent of all relationships are doomed from the start, not doomed from the standpoint of ending in divorce or separation but doomed in the sense that one or both people in the relationship end up frustrated and feeling less than loved by their partner. A rational person would look at those odds and say, ‘what the hell, isn’t it better to just be alone?’ The problem isn’t that most of us aren’t rational, and it’s not that we foolishly believe we’ll beat the odds, it’s that instinct trumps logic, so we simply don’t give it much thought, especially early on when the passion and intimacy we hope to sustain long term are running full-tilt hot. There are of course a small handful of us who embrace love’s ability to prevail and sustain two people to the end, odds be damned, but that’s the limited subpopulation of our Poet group who are true poets.”

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MANDY

“I’ll concede your math, but not your conclusion. You’re wrong to believe the fifty percent of people who fall into your broad Novelist paired with Poet category are doomed. I think it’s just the opposite. Yes, a Poet married to a Novelist is eventually frustrated by a lack of partner passion and they do suffer from not receiving the level of intimacy they require, but they survive by shifting their passion to something else, or regrettably, someone else. When they shift to something positive, I contend that they’ve transcended by clearing away the clutter caused by physical intimacy to allow more evolved forms of love to nurture. Dante’s Hell is reserved for those who can’t, for whatever reason, evolve and instead stay locked in a physically limiting form of love.

“And yes, a Novelist married to a Poet must learn to manage the constant pressure to provide more than they can sustain. Their partner may say they’re selfish, but maybe what they really are is a guide to higher forms of love. The journey to transcendence can be arduous but eventually the Novelist figures out how to balance some minimal level of passion and intimacy with the pressure to provide more. These couples live in a constant state of tension neither getting the level or kind of love they seek, and maybe on some level it’s what keeps them in the game. In that sense they keep reaffirming their love for each other so their surface harmony is synchronized with their meaningful harmony.

“When a Novelist, as you defined them, pairs with another Novelist, they grow their relationship over time into a stale partnership devoid of any form of love other than that shared in a business arrangement. There is no tension, just quiet acquiescence, and could anything be more sad and pitiful than two people staying together when neither could list three meaningful reasons why. To me, it’s like two strangers sentenced to share a prison cell, they have no hope of escape so just make the best of it and when you contrast that with the one perfect life each hoped to live, it is a loss of life and that’s incredibly tragic. They may have peace, and they may have some bizarre level of intimacy that in their filtered view transcends love, but I can’t help but believe if they were given the chance for a redo knowing how things end, they’d jump at the opportunity.

“That’s why I got out. I looked at my stale relationship, at my inability to provide more for my Ex than I thought he deserved, at how his constant pressure was wearing me down, how the one perfect life I thought I would live was being extinguished, and I knew I had to get out. No matter how upsetting, or tragic, or mean-spirited it seemed, I had to get out. When your inner soul awakens to the fact it’s trapped inside a life imprisoned in unhappiness something must be done. I concede to being mostly a Novelist, but my Ex was no Poet, and for me, this is the saddest of the three outcomes.

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WES

“You argue against my calculus while being the exception that makes the rule, and if it’s any consolation, not only are you not alone, you made the right choice. We only get one life but can have many shots at the rainbow and one of the most fundamental facts in this world is that when nothing is changed, nothing will change, so, you put yourself on the path to try again. Hopefully, this time, you’re a little wiser and more honest about what you can offer and expect in return. I’ve had more than one redo, and each time I dive back in believing I’m wiser, and yet, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow remains elusive.

“I don’t want to throw cold water on a great debate, but there’s another outcome we’ve yet to explore; what about the person who opts to be alone? I’m not sure how much it matters if they ended up alone by chance or by choice, but their outcome should at least be addressed. In the coin flipping scenario, alone happens when the two coins get flipped but one or both end up in a mud-puddle and can’t be found.

“If we’re conducting an experiment involving one-hundred trials, this outcome results in replacing the missing coins to continue the experiment, so it doesn’t impact the resulting distribution. But is that fair, and does that mimic life? On the one had we could say no one chooses to be alone, that they only end up alone due to unfortunate circumstances. Yes, there are those who make a conscience decision to be alone, but I would argue they’re in the noise and don’t alter the coin toss distributions, so have no impact on our discussion. The consequence of this conclusion is that it means no one starts out to be alone, they just wind up that way, which is probably true. Another way to phrase this outcome is that the number of people who choose to be alone, or wind up alone as the result of events outside their control, is unfortunately insignificant, which again I believe is probably true.

“What the distribution doesn’t take into consideration are the majority of us that have multiple goes at the coin flipping experiment. Given that a random participant in our game has a fifty-fifty chance of being either a Novelist or a Poet and a fifty percent chance that the second coin toss is a match with them, there’s only a twenty-five percent chance they’ll get the match they need on their first pairing. This means, on average, we need at least four relationships to find the one that bring us the most peace, love, and harmonious transcendence.

“Of course, there’ll be those who beat the odds and find a blissful pairing on the first, second, or third try, but also there will be an equal number who don’t find bliss after five, six, or seven tries. And when you add in the number who give up after one or more failed pairings, you conclude my Mom was right when she foretold fourteen-year-old me that I’d likely spend most my life alone, which is why she prepared me for this outcome. While focusing on the odds of finding a partner that provides a loving blissful life is informative, it doesn’t address the root cause of why we’re destined to be alone, even when we’re with someone. To really auger in on this, you have to distinguish between people who are alone by choice and those who through a series of unfortunate circumstances ended up alone but want to find someone to be with. For me, that’s a huge difference, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”

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MANDY

I am alone right now, and that is by choice, but I don’t intend to stay that way. I remain optimistic, so, in that sense maybe I have a bit of Poet in me. A quote my Dad used to recite echoes through me at times like this; it was from this guy Henry David something or other, who said, ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ I think this applies here because that’s what your describing, two people in a relationship that starts out warm and fuzzy but turns to shit over time. And your thing about what’s on the surface and what’s meaningful, that’s another way of describing quiet desperation.

“I’ll be the first to admit life’s full of flaws, but hopefulness prevails. The fallacy of your formula is that there’s no optimism variable and that trumps sully realism, and maybe even passion. Maybe the reason I was selfish in my last relationship is because I knew he wasn’t the forever one. The difference between me and the ‘mass of men’ is I chose not to live in quiet desperation. I got out because I’m optimistic enough to believe my perfect future is still in front of me. What does your calculus say about that, the ones who surrendered but remain hopeful that transcendent love is possible?”

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WES

“We already addressed you in our distribution. Remember I said on average a person has to endure three bad relationships before they hit on the one best suited for them. You’ve got one in the books, which means you’re just getting started. At the same time, an average is just that, for every person who needs five goes at the roulette wheel, someone just needs one, so, who knows, you could strike it rich on your next go, or you could be the one helping someone else get there sooner.

“I only needed two spins at the wheel, only I didn’t know it. So, I took a third spin, only later to realize my mistake. Luckily, fate felt kind and let me come back to person number two for a redo. Sometimes that’s how things work out, we want a linear solution, but life doesn’t feel the need to accommodate. The interesting thing about my calculus is that it explains the what’s and why’s of my past but does nothing to predict my future. It will be the same for you. That’s the real fallacy in my theory, it’s only useful for postmortems and at the end of the day, what’s the value in that?

“When you find your next Mr. Right, my mathematics can’t do anything other than highlight the hard road ahead. How you choose to exercise your options is completely up to you, it always is, even with your Ex it was. I don’t think your selfish for wanting out or wanting more. As you so eloquently put it, we each only get one perfect life and the most tragic thing we can do is squander it. I make no judgments about whether you should have tried harder or sacrificed more or remained in a stale relationship under constant strain for the sake of surface appearances, there are enough people out there who are more than willing to share their opinions about that.

“I only know what I know and based on past performance it doesn’t amount to much. I know that physical intimacy is an important part of how Poets like me define love but that others require less. What’s important is being honest about needs and wants so both sides can decide what harmonious transcendence looks looks like and if it’s even possible.”