A three-strand theory of love and attraction

“You can be in love and still have a life, you know? You can build something.”

Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus

One of the really brilliant aspects of Egan’s treatment of her protagonist’s coming of age is its depiction of teenage watchfulness. At 18, Phoebe reads the world and the people around her for clues on how to build a life and make connections. Unsurprisingly, romantic relationships are a particular point of fascination for her. Here is Phoebe, spying on her sister’s former high school sweetheart and his fiancée as they hunt through apartment listings in the paper:

Carla exclaimed at something she’d found, set down her cigarette and circled the item with a stubby pencil, her other hand groping for Wolf as if for a pair of glasses or a cigarette pack, finding his wrist without lifting her eyes from the paper. The gesture transfixed Phoebe—the inadvertence of it, the thoughtlessness. Wolf rose from his chair and leaned over her, his chest to Carla’s back. He kissed her temple, breathing in her smell while his eyes perused whatever it was she’d found in the paper. The sheer ordinariness of it all confounded Phoebe, as if any one of these things might happen several times a day, with no one watching. They belong to each other, she thought, and found herself awed by the notion—knowing someone was there, just there, reaching for that person without a thought.

Phoebe, trying to wrap her head around the difference between this calm vision of domestic partnership and the wild, youthful romance she saw Wolf share with her sister, asks him how those two relationships compare. He answers, You can be in love and still have a life, you know?

Later on in the novel [SPOILER ALERT] Phoebe and Wolf begin an all-consuming affair, the sort that compels two people to leave a bedroom only to attend to the basic need for nourishment. This is obviously impossible to sustain after a number of days, and Phoebe strains to envision a future where they might be able to go out in public without a constant yearning to return to their locus amoenus.

Wolf’s three relationships—his animal attraction to Phoebe, his unbridled devotion to her sister in his youth, and the committed partnership he’s built with Carla—capture precisely the three strands of my theory of love and attraction. I’ve only recently arrived at this idea, since my understanding of this topic has deepened significantly over the last couple years, having rounded out a decade in a relationship and examined its growth and evolution.

One of my youth advisors recently asked me what it was like being married, and I firmly believe that we should have open conversations with our young people on the subject of love, since cultivating strong, healthy, intimate relationships is a critical life skill. So here I offer an elaborated answer to that question. In my mind, there are three buckets:

  1. lust;
  2. chemistry and emotional intimacy; and
  3. commitment.

Lust (animal attraction) needs little explanation, though it’s interesting to note that it’s possible to lust after someone you don’t know or may not even like. The second bucket is decidedly more complicated because it’s very broad. In this category I place crushes and friendships (with any gender, regardless of your sexual orientation), as well as romantic love. You may track a progression from crush to friendship to romantic love (or perhaps, from friendship to crush to romantic love), but it isn’t a necessary one. It’s possible to go from romantic love to friendship, for instance, or never slide along the continuum.

I insist, however, that you can have chemistry and emotional intimacy even with individuals who aren’t potential romantic partners (and until the mid-19th century, this sort of relationship—a romantic friendship—would not have been regarded as odd). One of my oldest, closest friends and I used to joke that we would be perfect girlfriends if only we were physically attracted to each other. Summer dates with her were the best: We’d take in some outdoor Shakespeare, have a long chat over dinner, head out to a bar with some other friends, sit in Tompkins Sq. Park talking and watching the fireflies, and then we would decide to call it a night, but proceed to stand on the sidewalk, reluctant to say goodbye, and talk some more. Isn’t this the Hollywood depiction of love?

The third bucket, committed partnership, is really the foundation of a serious relationship. At this level we’re dealing with the nuts and bolts of what enables two people to share a space and build a life together: how to divide chores, handle financial decisions, deal with family drama, weather a crisis, fight fairly, communicate hurt, adjust to transitions, juggle two careers, raise children, etc., etc. This is about as much fun as it sounds, but it’s the vital work of a healthy partnership. I think few people would commit to each other considering all this from the start. What makes partnership attractive is precisely the lust, chemistry, and emotional intimacy that drew you into the relationship in the first place, and what makes it secure is that solid foundation resulting from all those experiences of negotiation, decision-making, and a continued discovery of self and other.

So that, dear readers, is my three-strand theory of love and attraction. I invite reactions and push-backs.

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