Mad love: Time of life or state of mind?

I know of two women in the throes of mad, bad love.

V., 62, has been living with one man for 20 years. Two years ago she began an affair with a man who lives in their condo building; he's 21 years younger. The scenario: wonderful to her, awful to her. There, absent.
Flowers and champagne, insults.

She waits for his appearance, says she can plan nothing because she never knows where he is, when he will drop in to whip up a marvelous dinner. He is interested in children and marriage– and therefore a woman much younger than V.– but "cannot leave her." V.'s partner knows about the liaison, thinks it is an infatuation, and leaves this month for an extended trip. They will discuss what to do when he returns next spring.

H. is 53, in a decade-long relationship with a man whose behaviour is marked by control- he tells her where to put down a glass- and more troubling actions. Several breakups, lauded by her four sisters, crumpled in fear of loneliness and her assertion that "we love each other".

Most of us in relationships go through ebb and flow, irritation and appreciation, doubts and certainty. Those not in relationships but desirous of one hope to meet someone intelligent, kind and mature: a grown-up.

But some
choose difficult partners, the ones whose behaviour shocks and worries their friends or family. H.' s sister says "Though I realize I'm hearing only her side of the story, I've begged her to end it. I worry about her health."

I was thinking in the same black and white way when I came across a wholly different perspective, "A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century" by Cristina Nehring. She criticizes modern love that is afraid of ardor (even that of a chaste relationship), and deplores the trade of passion for reason.

She prizes tumultuous struggle, yearning and risk, and says that we've drifted toward a sanitized, safe love, devoted to boring co
mplacency. Nehring wants to reclaim a "fearless and romantic provenance" (though critics point out this provenance usually depends on inequality).

This kind of love is heroic, according to her, because it involves suffering. She illustrates this point by describing the affairs of Mary Wollstonecraft, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson, among others: "At its strongest and wildest and most authentic, love is a demon. It is a religion, a high-risk adventure, an act of heroism."

I imagine H. and V. saying, no shit, Sherlock.

Nehring has raised my awareness that, at this point in life, I want companionship, contentment and constancy. I value passion, too, though am no longer willing to be a regular donor
at the blood bank of broken hearts, as I did in my 20s.

Despite Nehring's advocacy for love on the edge, my wish for these women is that each receive love that sustains, rather than destroys, and (the corollary) learn to live on one's own.

Entering one's sixth or seventh decade, have we not learned enough to say, alluring... but no?

Or is the desire for someone, as Lady Caroline Lamb assessed her lover, Byron,"mad, bad and dangerous to know" an adventure for which some of us will still sign up?



22 comments

What a Splurge said...

"a regular donor at the blood bank of broken hearts ...." Did you make that up? What a wonderful expression! I enjoyed your post once again.

Deja Pseu said...

Yes, that's a fabulous phrase!

As we used to say when we were young, "Been there, done that." I was once passionately in love with one of those "hot and cold running water" men, until I read (can't remember where) about the power of intermittent reinforcement*, and realized that was partly what had me hooked. That wasn't my last questionable relationship, but I started to get better at recognizing the dynamics and protecting myself. I think some people just *need* a lot of drama to feel fully alive. On some level it works for them, but can be hell on their friends on the sidelines.

*Intermittent reinforcement: if you give a rat a treat every time he pushed a lever, he will learn to push the lever when he wants a treat. If you only provide a treat at random intervals, the rat will become obsessive about pushing the lever.

metscan said...

Wow, you change topics swiftly ; ), it´s hard staying in the saddle.. I´m with you on the three c:s. Been married so long to a man with a case of ADHD of some stage ( slowly cooling-I hope ), I feel I´m entitled to relax for a while before the next decade.

diverchic said...

Oh, Metscan! ADD is such a challenge to live with. If he has the H too, you are in for an exciting life. Maybe Duchesse will write about this for us.

I also loved that original and funny phrase. How apt!

Duchesse said...

What a Splurge: My phrase but reading the comments below, others have certainly been donors, too.

Pseu: Intermittent positive reinforcement is the most powerful reinforcement there is. For a positive angle on this,the book "What Shamu Taught me About Life, Love and Relationships" " by Amy Sutherland- explains the principles of operant conditioning, and how she applied them to her DH.

metscan/diverchic: That's why it's a "passage".
re ADHD: Metscan has experience could comment more knowledgeably than I.

Anonymous said...

Both of your friends are in a hard place. V wanted to push her Longterm into some intense feelings. However,his leaving probably means she won't get them at all. She will be in an even worse spot when the young one leaves too. She should start getting ready to leave herself. And H, well her family seems to think well at least she's in a relationship...

Duchesse said...

Anonymous@ 11:23: Neither is a friend. V. is a friend of a business associate, H., the relative of a friend. I can't guess what V. wanted re her longterm. H.'s family deeply hopes that she will end the relationship, the sooner the better.

sisty said...

I'm still struggling with the headline and the first couple of sentences -- whatever your friends are involved in, I wouldn't call it love.

Belle de Ville said...

Excellent post.
As a single woman of a certain age (widowed young, then engaged several times, now alone) I'm fascinated by this subject and can't wait to read this book.
Happily, I'm well beyond the age to get addicted to the drama in a relationship...but does that make me too old for ardor as well? I wonder.

Duchesse said...

sisty: You might not, and I might not- but each woman maintains it is.

There are different varieties of love, but that's another post (or several).

Duchesse said...

Belle; Sounds like you could write one, and I am not being glib. My 60ish contemporaries tell me there is certainly ardour, and one said recently in consternation that she was experiencing the uncertainties and breathlessness she thought she had left behind 40+ years ago.

sisty said...

I'm sure they would, but probably the abusing men they're involved with would say they were in love, too. I don't know your acquaintances, of course, and I'm sure there's more to their lives than the facts you described, but on those facts you gave us, it's emotional abuse, which has nothing to do with love.

Ardor, passion, and intensity don't have to be painful. This book sounds retrograde and obnoxious, but I will defer to your experience. I'm really, really wary of anything that romanticizes mistreatment, though.

Duchesse said...

sisty: I'm wary of the label "abuse", since my experience of their lives is secondhand, from the outside. Though there are behaviours that most of us would call abusive, there are others that are more grey areas.(I asked H.'s relative if the man was abusive, she said, "Well, not physically.")

I had the same thought as you, that the book just tries to put a gloss on accepting mistreatment. When I told V.'s friend about the book, she said "this is the last thing she needs to see."

Frugal Scholar said...

Even thinking about some of my relationships of 30 plus years ago provokes a physical stress response. Thank heavens for my wonderful guy--first kiss was 32 years ago.

verification=syncor= sin coeur????? sans coeur????

tiffany said...

Fascinating post. I haven't read the book you mention, but as you say, if this kind of passion is based on inequality, the powerlessness of one partner, I'm not sure that it's a good thing. Like Deja Pseu, I've had friends who thrive on that sort of drama - who will, in fact, create it if it isn't there - and I find it wearing. By the same token, I think one's youth is far more fun to look back on if there were some tumultuous times in there! I just don't want them anymore ...

Karen said...

Ahhh geez, enough of suffering at a Certain Age! Been there, done that! Disfunctional passion has no place in the life of anyone seeking equanimity in mid-life. I guess I'm not shocked that 60 pluses have the same drama as someone in their 40s, but I'd like to think that by FIFTY there'd start to be some semblance of sanity in love relationships! Could this also happen at 70? 80?

Thanks for spilling these tales, what a great subject.

sallymandy said...

This is very interesting and I've enjoyed the comments as well as your post.

There must be a way to combine ardor, romance, and maturity in a healthy way--if one so desires. I've always been perplexed and not a little disappointed at what passes for "love" in the media and our popular arts.

I read once that two people can remain fresh and exciting to each other for a long time if they continue to grow as separate individuals; have time away; pursue separate interests. I like that.

Duchesse said...

tiffany: Yes, it is wearing to and eventually I have lost patience- not with these women, who are not friends- but with girlfriends when I was young.

Karen: In their late 70s and early 80s, my mother could no longer invite two GFs to bridge, because of the intensity of their simultaneous affairs with the same man!

sallymandy; I really like that 'way to remain fresh'- thanks for sharing it!

Maggie said...

I'm reading the post and comments with curiosity. I'm wondering if being in the same relationship for 40 years would make its way to the pages of a book. My closest friends are in the same boat as me...still with our guys we met in college. Only one is in a back and forth rocky sort of thing. And to an outsider, it all seems rather foolish and childish.

Duchesse said...

Maggie: Yes, hard for those in longterm calm relationships to even imagine the draw that kind of affair. Yet for those in them, leaving is agonizing. Some women do find the strength to leave. I think the more one is afraid of being alone, the more difficult that is.

bonnie-ann black said...

i have three sisters, all of whom belong to the school of heightened hysterical romance. they want the fights, the drama, the tears, even the physicality of the kind of mad love. i worry about them, fret over their health, their physical, social and psychic well being. they tell me i've "never been in love." what they have never seems to me be "love." i think love should be a meeting of equals in spirit -- there should be passion, but passion without any regard for self is martyrdom. i don't get it. and maybe that's why i'm still alone, and my sisters are on their 3rd and 4th marriages/relationships. i'm not sure which is better.

Duchesse said...

bonnie-ann: Your sentiments are exactly those expressed by H's sister.

When we say of someone else's relationship, "that's not love", I believe what we mean is, that is a way of experiencing and expressing love that we do not value.

You make an important distinction between regard for another and regard for self. Healthy relationships encompass both.

H. says she will leave when she is strong enough, but the longer she stays, the less sense of self she has.