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|IMAGE: LOVE: BEING CLOSER THAN EVER, OR YOUR HEAD IN THE SAND? (PHOTO: JOE GELONESI)|
Five Tips For Relationship Happiness From Existential Philosophers
In the western world, lovers are free from arranged marriages. Yet all too often we bring chains to relationships in the form of misplaced expectations and ideals. Skye Cleary, the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love reaches for her existential classics for help, with five philosophical tips for a happy love life.
Max Stirner, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir all dealt with love and existential themes, but they all had different ideas about romantic love. Yet they all loved loving and sought to explore the sources of frustrations in romantic relationships and how relationships could be more meaningful. Below are five key existential messages for 21st century lovers.
The best love relationships are those where lovers are free and equal
Too often, lovers use relationships as an escape from the world, according to Simone de Beauvoir. The feeling of security is comforting, but it becomes problematic when lovers make the relationship the only source of meaning in their lives. This is a risky way to be in a relationship because love that lasts a lifetime is the exception, not the rule.
Relationships would be better if lovers were stronger-willed, mastered their passions, and were better friends.SKYE CLEARY, AUTHOR
Instead, de Beauvoir advised lovers not to become so dependent on one another that they can’t exist without each other. Relationships are more interesting and stronger if both lovers pursue rich and diversified lives through their authentic projects. Ideally, adopting common goals shifts lovers’ focus onto something other than themselves, enhancing their understandings of one another.
The best love relationships are those that are free and intimate
De Beauvoir’s lifelong boyfriend Jean-Paul Sartre thought that in order to know ourselves we need to know what other people think of us. Lovers are especially important because the more one cares about another, the more the other’s views matter. The more intimate lovers are, the deeper insights they give each other. Yet lovers can’t know if the other is telling the truth, so they try to capture each other’s freedom to force the truth. This leads to sadomasochistic power games that can’t be won—we can’t possess another’s freedom. This, Sartre thought, is why love is really conflict.
Later Sartre said that an authentic love would not try to rob the other of their freedom. Sartre and de Beauvoir attempted this by giving each other the freedom to fall in love with other people. Although their other lovers knew about the agreement, they were hurt when they realised that their love wouldn’t conquer all. It’s possible to view Sartre and de Beauvoir’s commitment to each another and Sartre’s financial and emotional support of many ex-girlfriends as contradicting their freedom. Sartre explained it philosophically as freely choosing his priorities, and practically as preferring ‘to be a fool than a jerk’. De Beauvoir said that it was his ‘guilty conscience’.
The best love relationships are based on friendship
Life shouldn’t be comfortable; it should be about challenging ourselves to be better people. Friedrich Nietzsche referred to this as striving towards the ideal of the Übermensch. The problem with love is that it all too often manifests as an egoistic desire for power over another and selfishly seeking to be the centre of each other’s attention. Love distracts—or even worse, actively prevents—lovers from achieving great things. Nietzsche described lovers as becoming like dragons guarding treasure or cooping each other up like exotic birds in a cage.
Relationships would be better if lovers were stronger-willed, mastered their passions, and were better friends. Then, lovers could focus their energy on concurrent flourishing and supporting each other’s goals instead of holding each other down with petty power games.
The best love relationships are romantic and secure
Romantic loving is beautiful, extraordinary, and intoxicating—the problem is that it tends to be fleeting. Søren Kierkegaard sought to make love secure and lift it out of the realm of lusty, unrestrained and empty hedonism. Relationships would be deeper and more meaningful if lovers would stop letting themselves be pushed around by their animal instincts. He thought that lovers could turn relationships into something more stable and enduring by owning themselves and making commitments. So he recommended that lovers choose despair and marry.
Nevertheless, Kierkegaard also recognised that marriage is no more secure than romance and risks a boredom ‘worse than death’. This is why he eventually appealed to religious love, that is, to love independently of the object of affection (which isn’t very romantic).
The best love relationships recognise that love is egoistic
Love is a sweet and enjoyable experience that makes life richer. Max Stirner thought lovers should be honest with themselves and realise that love is egoistic because when we love, we actually love loving. While we should relish the frivolity of romance, Stirner thought it a crime to become a slave to love or a lover. There’s no surer way to kill such a beautiful experience than to weigh it down with duties and sacrifices, so he advised not to turn love into an obligation, as Kierkegaard recommended.
Instead of subordinating themselves to external pressures to be in a relationship, get married, and procreate (or risk eternal loneliness, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the US Supreme Court opinion on gay marriage recently), Stirner advocated owning and loving ourselves. This means that lovers create relationships that work for them. He thought the best relationships are where lovers become stronger through their union and achieve more than they could have alone.
The existential philosophers proposed that falling in love throws existence into a new light and opens up new dimensions of possibilities and experiences. They suggest that best relationships are likely to be ones where lovers throw themselves wholeheartedly into romantic loving, but also master their passions, and are mature enough to allow each other the freedom to pursue their own goals and interests.
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