First Love, Forever Love

Balls and Walnuts

Everyone knows Jewish men make the best lovers, but have you ever wondered why?

Maybe it's because we get such great advice from our rabbis and matchmakers. Check out The Human Touch, a blog about love and romance authored by three rabbis and matchmaker Devora Alouf. Sure, they're a front for an online Jewish matchmaking service, but they offer lots of fine words, too.

Their most recent post concerns reciprocal love versus unconditional love. Reciprocal love depends upon what we get from the other person. Is he handsome? Funny? A wonderful father to your children? A hell of a lover? Reciprocal love is conditional love, and while important, it's a fragile thing indeed: What happens when some of your spouse's beloved qualities wane, or when they no longer appeal to you, or when you find someone who seems to profess superior qualities?

Often this marks the end of a romance. "Why should I be here for you if you can't be here for me any longer?" This is a good question, one that has caused and continues to cause the death of many a marriage.

Unconditional love is an unquestioning, undemanding thing by comparison.

I love you not because of a particular "because," an individual quality or many qualities that I cherish in you. Rather, I love the very "you;" not the "you" that benefits me, but the very core of your being. It is born from the recognition that we share an essential bond.

It is not that I love you because you are beautiful, but rather, you are beautiful because I love you. It is not that I love you because I need you, but rather I need you because I love you.

This does not mean one should not cherish and appreciate the fine qualities of their spouse. It means that your love is not limited or defined by their particular lovable qualities. Say, for example, you are blessed with a beautiful and talented child. You certainly appreciate these qualities in your child and you mention them to him or her. Yet your love to this child is not dependent on or limited to these characteristics. You may have other children who lack these gifts, yet you still love them with equal passion. Why? Because you feel that you are essentially and eternally one with them.

Read the whole post - it's worth it.

I'm not going to blather on about the truth of these words; in my opinion, their truth is self-evident. Instead, I'd like to say a few things about first love.

Surely, there's something unique about first love. The intensity, the insanity, is unmatched by almost anything else; only the death of a loved one seems to generate the same sort of mind-consuming monomania.

Part of me looks at this mechanistically. We're no more than hunter-gatherers in suits, hardwired to fall for each other and fall hard*. First love is a forever sort of bond, or at least as 'forever' as it takes for the babies to get born and grow strong enough to escape the crushing statistics of infant mortality. Pair bonding is adaptive. First love helps us win the Darwinian Challenge.

But another part of me is a romantic at heart. It seems to me that first love captures much of what is good about unconditional love. Because you feel you are essentially and eternally one with them. Doesn't that sound like a smitten fourteen-year-old girl's diary entry? Doesn't that sound like one of your diary entries? You remember how it feels: I don't know where I stop and you start.

It's risky, lowering your guard like that; after all, only 3.2% of first loves result in marriage for life**. For the rest of us, first love ends in disaster. Afterwards - after the heart break, with the wounds that remain raw for years - how many people reject that sort of plunge? And doesn't that rejection mean a substitution of reciprocal love for unconditional love?

Let me phrase that a bit differently. How many people avoid the emotional rollercoaster that burned them before, favoring instead a businessman's approach to relationships? Hmm. Let's look at that balance sheet. You make six figures a year, you're only ten pounds overweight, and you make me laugh, but you have bad teeth, you drive a Ford, and you still live with your mom. The hands do their balancing act: Six figures, lives with Mom. Six figures, lives with Mom.

Those of us with successful long-term marriages (knockingonwood knockingonwood knockingonwood) might prefer to think we've grown into a state of unconditional love, but I think reciprocal love is the default state for most of us. As Rabbi Jacobson says in his post, reciprocal love is not such a bad thing: "If all marriages required altruistic, selfless affection, it might spell the end of the human race as we know it. We are self-oriented creatures and we must feel that our relationships are based on a give-and-take dynamic."

Yet unconditional love has its merits, too. Unconditional love enables us to sacrifice for our mates, to be there for them when they need us most. And unconditional love feels good. Perhaps us old married folks ought to remember the madness of first love, that All I want is to die in your arms sensation, that vertiginous feeling, I don't know where I stop and you start.

It was scary and exciting, and above all else, you felt alive, didn't you?

Take it from a doc: alive is a very good thing***.


*I base this on my viewing of One Million Years BC, starring Raquel Welch.
**By now, I hope you all realize from what bodily orifice I produce my statistics.
***As one of my favorite patients replied when asked, "How are you doing today":
I woke up on this side of the dirt. I'd say that's a good day.

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