It is a truth universally perceptible in modern day love, that there are many kinds of unions between men and women. For the sake of clarity, let’s call this a mutual relationship or a marriage. There is heterosexual marriage, interfaith marriage, interracial marriage, separated marriage, open marriage, polygamous marriage, poly-amorous marriage, gay marriage, common law marriage, cohabitation, long distance relationship, one-sided relationship and divorced relationship, to name a few. Now that’s a mouthful, and a handful!
A counsellor might come across some who seek therapy to see if they could possibly be weaned from other romantic relationships they were having outside their marriage. They are able to identify very clearly why they are doing what they are doing. Monogamy feels unnatural to them. It curbs the freedom of loving whoever one likes throughout one's life span. They assert that they have the ticket for such experience, as they are self-sufficient and are not dependent on any for their existence. Relationships have a shelf life, they conclude. It is frightening for them to accept being tied down to one person to satisfy all that there is in their adventurous, passionate, experimenting hearts. Marriage is a shuddering, boring entrapment - just a piece of paper. For some of them, getting married was a mistake, done impulsively without careful consideration of compatibility or similarity. Others say they are properly committed to their spouses, but cannot help but be drawn to others for the sexual intensity they have and for the desire for novelty. They want to keep this yearning and succumbing a secret to protect themselves from the ensuing fury, and from inflicting immense pain on their spouse. Secrecy and deception feel justified in this context. Yet, they want to investigate if something can be done, as they fear losing their children’s full custody to their monogamous spouse’s discontent, who will not tolerate their spouse’s transgression and slam them with a divorce and the battle for legal custody of their children. Such people entertain changing their disposition towards loving more than one for the sake of their children. They know children matter to them. They want to see their lineage everyday under the same roof. They turn to therapy and want to look upon the counsellor as their saviour, their validator. A psychotherapist can do the latter, but not the former.
Helping someone in a relationship crisis is challenging, as it does not make sense at times, especially when there is the dark and complex experiences of abuse, abandonment, betrayal, ghosting, avoidance, sarcasm, possessiveness, jealousy, indifference, mismatched choices and infidelity. These are the stories of men and women brutally wounding each other with impunity. But she also repeatedly hears the inner longings of romantic love.
Philosopher Alain de Botton, in his YouTube series The School of Life, talks about how romantic love can hurt relationships, just as adultery does. But he notes that romantic love is still firmly ingrained in the human psyche from the mid 18th century to the present. In his view, romantic love is the “single greatest enemy we face for love”, as it calls for one person accommodating all aspects of the other partner’s life beautifully. In the culture of monogamous love, a partner is expected to be a soulmate, a mind reader, a domestic manager, a co-parent and a lifelong erotic companion.
This is not the norm in the modern age, as he confirms what Tolstoy had mentioned in Anna Karenina, that there are as many minds as there are hearts, and there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts. The eye roves. Botton suggests that nowadays, dealing with two imperfect people getting together and gently embracing the craziness of one another is more the norm. Loving requires being practical, not romantic. Sustaining the relationships requires personal achievements, having the ability to tolerate madness and some loneliness, and a sense of humour to replace “I married an idiot and ruined my life” with “I married a lovable idiot”.
He also brings attention to making inadvertent mistakes in choosing a partner who does not beautifully fit the “familiar patterns of one’s childhood”. When this is the problem brought to therapy, the counsellor works on the choices that are available to the couple. When one leaves the altar because of such dissatisfaction, the marriage is mostly over. However, if one still wants to tarry in this very painful predicament, the psychotherapist holds the hand of this lovesick person until the emotional readiness of letting go becomes possible. Then, the collaboration on gently letting go -- of someone who does not wish to stay -- begins. The counsellor works on awakening the mind to the pain of unreciprocated love and the futility of holding on. She validates and tries to open doors to coping in new ways to the aggrieved. She can rely on bibliotherapy and refer this person to Tagore’s prudent song lyrics, which talk about letting go of one-sided love, which is a mistake.
Soul mate I do not accept your mistake in love.
Come not near, as I still do love, shokha.
Follow the dictates of your wishful heart,
But wanting me to smile is your vain desire.
I am satisfied with my perpetual melancholia,
Where your intermittent light brings no cheer.
I resign to drifting away without hope,
I ask, that you are not with me, in my unchartered destiny!
In this context, the counsellor plants the seed of radical acceptance -- keeping no contact, moving on and carving a new future out of the bleakness to heal the wounded self with compassion and mercy.