In many of her novels, Anita Brookner, almost as a signature to her work, will make this comment: The first task of a couple in marriage is to console each other for the fact that they cannot not disappoint each other. That’s an important insight. Why?
When we are young and hear sadness in love songs, we think that the sadness and disappointment are a prelude to the experience of love. Later we come to realize that the sadness and disappointment ultimately originate not from the fact that love has not taken place, but from the finite, limited character of human love itself. Brookner has it right: The first task in any love is for us to console each other for the limits of our love, for the fact that we cannot not disappoint each other.
Why? Why can’t two persons ever be enough for each other? Why is disappointment part of the experience of every relationship, friendship, and marriage?
Because the very way that we are made precludes ever having, in this life, a oneness of mind, heart, and body that fulfills us in such a way that there is no disappointment. Our longing is simply too wide. We long for the infinite and are built for it and so we wake to life and consciousness with longings as deep as a Grand Canyon without a bottom.
In this life then, outside of rare and very transitory mystical experiences, there is no consummation (sexual, emotional, psychological, or even spiritual) with another person that is so deep and all-embracing so as exclude all distance, shadow, and emptiness. No matter how deep a friendship or a marriage and no matter how good, rich in personality, and deep the other person may be, we always find ourselves somewhat disappointed. In this life, there is no union that fills every emptiness inside of us. Somewhere, we always sleep alone.
In essence, there is no union which fulfills perfectly the Genesis prescription that “two become one flesh.” No matter how close a marriage or a friendship, two can never ultimately become one.
No matter how deep a union, we always remain separate, two persons who cannot really ever, in this life, make just one heart, one mind, and one body. No love or friendship ever fully takes away our separateness. Sometimes sexual electricity or emotional or spiritual affinity can promise such a oneness. But, in the end, it cannot fully deliver it. No matter how deep and powerful a union, ultimately, we remain, and need to remain, captains of our own hearts, minds, and bodies.
This needs to be recognized, not just to help us deal with the disappointment, but especially so that we do not violate each other. What’s implied here?
In this life we are always, to some degree, in exile from each other. We stand alone in some way. Where we feel this most deeply is not in our sexual isolation, but in our moral separateness. What we crave even more deeply than sexual unity is moral affinity, to be truly one heart with another. More than we desire a lover, we desire a kindred spirit, a soul mate. If this is true, then the deepest violations of each other are also not sexual but moral. It’s when we try to be captain of somebody else’s soul (more so even than of his or her body) that we rape someone. And it is our failure to accept that we will always be somehow separate from each other that creates the pressure inside of us to unhealthily try to be captain of someone else’s soul. We violate another’s separateness precisely because we cannot accept the disappointment of love.
Finally, beyond even this, we cannot not be disappointed in love because, in the end, we are all, in some way, limited, inadequate, blemished, dull, and boring. None of us is God. No matter how rich our personalities or attractive our bodies, none of us can indefinitely excite and generate novelty, sexual electricity, and emotional pleasure, within a relationship. A relationship is like a long trip and, as Dan Berrigan puts it, “there’s bound to be some long dull stretches. Don’t travel with someone who expects you to be exciting all the time!”
What’s the lesson in this? Stoicism and cynicism about love and romance? To the contrary:
The recognition that, in love, we cannot not disappoint each other is what makes it possible for us to remain inside of marriage, friendship, celibacy, and respect. It’s when we demand not to be disappointed that we grow angry, make unrealistic demands, and put pressure on each other’s moral and sexual integrity. Conversely, when we recognize the limits of love, when we accept an inevitable separateness, moral loneliness, and disappointment, we can begin to console each other in our friendships and our marriages. In that consolation, since it touches so deeply the core of our souls, we can, in fact, begin to find the threads that can bind us into a oneness of heart beyond disappointment.