As I may have mentioned, I have a writing professor who likes to harass me relentlessly about my love life.
He gets away with this for a couple of reasons. One is fairly obvious: that I am singularly open about it.
The other is that early in our relationship he made clear that he, a gay man, is similarly plagued: he likes to label both of us “tragic romantics.” (Also: “narcissists”– a characterization that my therapist disputes and I alternately reject and embrace.)
In class last night we workshopped a short story I”m (struggling to) write about an older woman who has a long-term affair. One of my classmates raised the (very legitimate) question of why it is that her husband knows about it but doesn’t leave the marriage: what sort of person, he asked, stays in a relationship in which they know they are loved less?
According to my teacher, people like him and me. There are lots of us out there, he said, who would rather love than be loved. He brought up that W.H. Auden line: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.” (And then he made me blush–not a difficult feat, mind you–by calling me out as I furiously scribbled it down. “An open book, that one,” he sighed–joking, but not.)
I furiously scribbled it down because, you may not be surprised to hear, this is something I have thought about a lot. And I’m not sure that my preference is as obvious as my professor, brilliant though he is, would seem to think.
The truth is that I love to be adored. I am a youngest child, for Christ’s sake, and the only girl. I have spent my life being coddled. In many ways I am kind of helpless: I depend on people to care for me in ways both emotional and practical. S sometimes likes to refer to me as her “medieval maiden,” because I don’t really know how to pop the hood of my car or pay my taxes.
But it’s also true that I would rather be the person who loves than the person who is loved in a romantic relationship. I want to be with someone who I am absolutely, positively passionate about. (I mean, who doesn’t?) I am terrified of being with someone who I don’t vehemently adore.
Like so many others who struggle in love, I am drawn to the unattainable. People who may or may not be attracted to me. People who may or not be emotionally available. People who I adore, but I’m not entirely sure care that I exist.
I have often looked at friends in serious relationships in which it is clear that they are more the “lover” than the “beloved” and felt as bewildered as the boy in my class. Just as he wondered why anyone would stay in a relationship where they love less, I don’t understand staying in a relationship in which one loves more.
Except that, of course, I do. Based on my limited experience, it is quite nice to be the one who is loved. And as I recently wrote, sometimes I’m even turned on by someone’s interest in me. But only when that interest is mutual.
I’m not sure equal affection is impossible. I do think, though, that it’s unusual. In most relationships I’ve seen and experienced there is a bit of an imbalance.
I’m okay with that. So long as I can be the one who loves. And is adored. Is that really so much to ask?