The space between your heart and mine is the space we’ll fill with time.
Dave Matthews & Glen Ballard
First, I’d better come clean about a bias that I have: I am not a big fan of Valentine’s Day. There are a lot of us out there, for sure. We feel manipulated by this “Hallmark holiday” devoted to overt demonstrations of romantic love, best rendered by spending big bucks on oversized cards, chocolates, jewelry, and high-end dining.
Don’t get me wrong – cards, and symbolic tokens, and lovely evenings out on the town can support intimacy and create life-long memories for two people in love. What bothers me is that the one day on our western cultural calendar that is devoted to romantic love is so skewed to the ideal, that the daily, real experience we have in our relationships can seem difficult and perhaps even unfulfilling.
Love being equated to “two hearts that beat as one,” as that schlocky Lionel Richie song suggests, emphasizes the excitement that brings lovers together at the expense of the loving work that keeps them in a healthy and fulfilling relationship. (Fans of Fox’s Glee are excused for their enthusiasm about Endless Love. The duet cover of the song that aired earlier this season was simply awesome.)
I’m content to leave the sappy love songs alone, since they make for nice car rides and play an important role in procreation. But they should never be relied upon for relationship advice.
Focus on the Space In Between
The Dave Matthews song quoted at the beginning of this post is definitely not a sappy love song, and it makes a useful point. Keeping an eye on the separateness between you and your beloved creates an opportunity for a deeper understanding of your needs, your partner’s needs and how your journey together can create fulfillment for both of you.
The trap of the sappy love song version of relationships is that while you’re feeling good with your partner, everything is fine. But when real-life stuff creeps in, especially when it’s related to how your partner’s needs are different from your own, you’re in for quite a let-down and perhaps disillusionment.
Psychotherapist and personal development teacher David Richo has written extensively about the challenges we face when look to others to “complete” us or to otherwise fulfill a lifetime of our unmet needs. Very simply, life can be a raw deal regardless of the depth or quality of our relationships. The things we love change or end, unfair things will happen to us, life may not conform to our plans, we will experience pain, and sometimes those whom we love most will be disloyal.
It takes two to tango in any relationship; while you have your challenges to deal with, your beloved has his or hers. And, both parties experience each other’s challenges by the way they attempt to get their needs met or act out their pain within the relationship.
Within a romantic relationship, maintaining that space in between allows both partners to understand their own wounds, sensitivities, needs and desires – or at least begin to work on creating that understanding. Instead of clinging to the illusion of utter and complete compatibility that is perpetuated by the Valentine’s Day version of romantic love, healthy boundaries – the space in between both partners – give us the room to live and love as autonomous adults.
An Old Idea
Our own tradition has something to say in support of the idea of how we concurrently understand and care for ourselves and others. Rabbi Hillel, who was born in the century before the Common Era, remains well known to even the most modest student of Judaism for writing
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am not for others, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Clearly the impact of Hillel on Jewish thought extends beyond romantic relationships (and how they differ from secular love songs!), but it is a worthy thought experiment to consider his teaching in terms of how we interact with our beloved.
First, we have a duty to know ourselves and to understand what we need. We hold complete responsibility for our own happiness. No one else is going to make it happen for us. Yet we also are responsible for knowing the difference between what is good for us and what is good for others. Second, we have a duty to others, for without interdependency and self-less caring, the promise and meaning of our own existence are diminished. Finally, the health of our relationships requires constant attention: we need to begin now and continue always.
It’s okay, really, to observe the customs of Valentine’s Day. But during your romantic dinner, be sure that the table in between you and your beloved has room for not only the candles, and wine glasses, and the gift box for this year’s lovely token of undying affection. If you can reserve space to share your needs, fears, and hopes and listen openly to those of your partner, you may well create a new tradition and many loving memories for years to come.