The Myth of the One
“πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” [Everything changes and nothing stays fixed] – Heraclitus, as quoted by Plato in Cratylus, 402a-402b.
Though we can ponder timeless questions we exist in time. Our desires, needs and aspirations are conditioned by where we find ourselves in the timeline of our lives. This simple undeniable fact forces us to recast the question with respect to the search for an ideal person in our love lives. Ideal for what stage in our lives?
Similarly undeniable is the fact that growth occurs in stages and seems to be of at least two kinds. One that happens passively through the mere passage of time and another that is earned through the active use of our faculties and the interactions we have with nature and others.
The existence of these two facts, which are easily ascertainable with a moment’s reflection, makes the prevalence of the notion that there is a single ideal person out there for us that will be the love of our lives quite puzzling. I call it the myth of the one.
The Myth of the One
Narrated ad nauseam in movies and romance novels, the goal of your love life is to find or be found by the one. The one is everything you ever wanted and more. The one may not be perfect for everyone but is perfect for you. From the instant you lay eyes on each other, a feeling of implacable destiny draws you to one another and you soon discover that you are soul-and-body-mates. You will meet, overcome all obstacles, and live happily ever after, married with children, one big happy family – and then the credits roll. Because in real life, even though sometimes experiences that feel like that do happen, and I am as guilty of surrendering to the allure of this myth like any other, things aren’t that simple. In fact, in this text, in contrast to the potentially beneficial ways to respond to that allure I mention in my introduction to my love letters project whose name refers to it, I would argue that believing and living with that mythical notion is deleterious for three reasons:
First of all, by believing in that myth you have more of a reason to quickly ditch people when things get hard. You would say to yourself, or have that be said unto you, “He/she can’t be the one, otherwise things wouldn’t be that hard.” But whenever relationships get serious and profound they get hard, but they’re worth it – sometimes. However, you wouldn’t know it if you use your belief in the myth of the one to rob yourself of any opportunity to discover that.
Secondly, believing in the myth of the one at times can lead you to attempt to force someone who is almost the one to be 100% the one by pressuring them to do or be things they don’t want to do or be. Thus, ruining a good relationship that might have had bloomed further because a real person didn’t measure up to an imaginary one.
Thirdly, believing in the myth of the one can lead you to be with…no one – because no one is “good enough”. However, it is prudent to remember that prolonged inexperience in relationships, does not lead anywhere other than emotional and sexual frustration. It also leaves your relationship judgment blunt and you end up making fewer and less astute decisions. So that even if you do come across some-one, you wouldn’t be able to tell, or if you did, you might ruin what you could have made to work had you not been so inexperienced.
The question you need to ask is: “What reason or evidence do I have for believing in the myth of the one?” Look around. Not one. So why are so many captivated by its allure?
The Need for Eternity and Happy Endings
Perhaps the reason we are so enamored with the concept is because we are terrified of change and love a happy ending. Change, in some deep corner of our minds, reminds us of the fact of our eventual death, which according to Becker is the primary denial affecting our lives. The one is idealized perfection, and what is perfect doesn’t change.
The experience of love, apart from its potential to make us feel extraordinarily happy, seems to make time stand still. Love is our portal to eternity, both in an experiential sense and, through reproduction, in the practical sense of giving birth to some part of ourselves that will live on beyond our demise1. The myth of the one, combines love, perfection and immortality in an irresistible package.
Eternity is Overrated
Duration in itself is neither good nor bad. We don’t stop watching beautiful sunsets just because they’re short and it’s not the number of hours that determines the greatness of a film. Of course, we like the good to last forever but reality tends to change. It seems rather presumptuous, in a world that appears to be in constant flux, to expect or demand something to remain unchanged.
It is that very wish that sometimes leads people to imagine they have a different relationship than the one they’re actually having. When friends or family point out that the relationship the partners are describing is different than the one they’re observing, some couples react by distancing themselves from the person who exposed their fantasy, trying to keep it alive. The pain of the truth is harder to bear than the sweetness of a fantasy. The more ethereal, abstract and mystical their “love” becomes, the harder it is for every day reality to refute it.
The sober truth is that sometimes relationships complete their purpose and simply have to end or transform into something else. They gave us all they had to give us, and it was good, but sometimes we have to move on, and look back with gratitude to what we were fortunate to experience rather than make sour what was good by artificial extension.
However, just because you believe that relationships may not last forever should not be your excuse for running away with the first obstacle. Sometimes an obstacle is not a sign signaling the end but something to overcome signaling a new beginning. It takes wisdom to be able to distinguish which is which. When relationships do have to end, ideally it should be in an atmosphere of joyous commencement: celebrating the end of something and the beginning of another.
Dealing with Change and the Myth of the One
“The tragedy of marriage is that while all women marry thinking that their man will change, all men marry believing their wife will never change.” – Len Deighton, London Match (London: Hutchinson, 1985) p.18.
“Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing; a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
“Μεταβολή πάντων γλυκύ [Change is always sweet]” – Euripides, in Orestes, voiced by Electra.
“Τὸ γὰρ ἡδύ, ἐὰν πολύ, οὐ τί γε ἡδύ [A sweet thing tasted too often is no longer sweet.]” – Ancient Greek proverb.
In relationships, we, our notions —or both— change. So dealing with change of any kind is perhaps the crucial skill that determines our success in them. If we imagine that the love between two people is like a fire that provides warmth and light, it may come as no surprise that couples, want to protect and nurture it. Some believe that once it is ignited they just need to keep very still so that they don’t disturb it, lest it goes out. These are the people that don’t want anything to change. Others, afraid it will go out, protect it so tightly they leave no passage for air to flow, tragically putting it out by their own effort to protect it; or they throw too much wood too early, producing a lot of smoke but little light and warmth; or grow it to such proportions it burns them.
Many get bitterly disappointed by their failures, opt to never try again and counsel others against trying. They end up leading lives of quiet desperation, devoid of light and warmth.
Love is awesome, in the original sense of the word, rightly inspiring dread and wonder. We should exhibit both curiosity and awareness of the real dangers involved in experiencing it.
But everyone needs to face our myths and the choices that change forces upon us.
The Trap of an Endless Dilemma
There is a class of dilemmas that are impossible to completely settle. For example, let’s say that you are trying to change a certain relationship, yourself or another person. After a few unsuccessful attempts a dilemma arises in you:
“Is it impossible to change “X” or have I simply not found a way to change it?”
Notice that irrespective of how many attempts I make, someone may always repeat the same question. For perhaps in most cases, we cannot be 100% sure of whether there might be some undiscovered way of changing what we want to change. Perhaps what we declare impossible, another achieves by trying harder or smarter, leaving us feeling weak or foolish. But if no one achieves that specific change during our lifetime, we feel justified and glad with our choice.
I’m afraid anyone caught under the spell of the myth of the one faces a similar dilemma: “Does the one not exist or have I simply not found him/her yet?”
Don’t let your mind trap itself into that infinite loop. We are mortal. Let us not forget Marvell’s wisdom.
Kintsukuroi is concept in Japanese. It means “to repair with gold” and it is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Love is that gold. It doesn’t matter if we are broken.
Everyone we meet will have flaws. Human relationships are not based on perfection but on need and imperfection:
“A human relationship is not based on differentiation and perfection, for these only emphasize the differences or call forth the exact opposite; it is based, rather, on imperfection, on what is weak, helpless, and in need of support – the very ground and motive of dependence. The perfect has no need of the other, but weakness has, for it seeks support and does not confront its partner with anything that might force him into an inferior position and even humiliate him.” – C. Jung, The Undiscovered Self.
It would be a mistake to believe that I am celebrating neediness and dependence. What I’m actually doing is exonerating need in our psychic court. It is ok to need others. Others need you too!
Just as with everything in life, it is a matter of degree. Indulge too much and you succumb to neediness, a kind of selfishness. But denying it completely is not the mark of superiority but of pathology:
“…we must be cautious about calling Need-love “mere selfishness”. Mere is always a dangerous word. No doubt Need-love, like all our impulses, can be selfishly indulged. A tyrannous and gluttonous demand for affection can be a horrible thing. But in ordinary life no one calls a child selfish because it turns for comfort to its mother; nor an adult who turns to his fellow “for company”. Those, whether children or adults, who do so least are not usually the most selfless. Where Need-love is felt there may be reasons for denying or totally mortifying it; but not to feel it is in general the mark of the cold egoist. Since we do in reality need one another (“it is not good for man to be alone”), then the failure of this need to appear as Need-love in consciousness–in other words, the illusory feeling that it is good for us to be alone–is a bad spiritual symptom; just as lack of appetite is a bad medical symptom because men do really need food.” – C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.
We all have needs. Your partner may not fulfill all your needs. You may not fulfill theirs. That is not because they or you are not an “ideal partner” but because both of you are human. Face this reality, don’t deny it. There are options:
Perhaps those needs were not meant to be fulfilled by your partner anyway. Embark on a journey of self-discovery – maybe you’ll find a way to satisfy those needs on your own by healing old wounds.
Assess how important those needs are. Perhaps you can live without them being satisfied. Simply accept this reality, cause any other may be a lot worse.
Be patient. Perhaps they weren’t real needs at all but merely passing fancies.
Not all relationships are meant to last till your final breath. In my experience it is better to change partners (or live alone) than to try to change your partners.
Perhaps Rumi was right when he wrote:
“A thousand half-loves
must be forsaken to take
one whole heart home.”
– Rumi, The Book of Love.
On this point see Plato’s Symposium, 205e onwards.