There seem to be two primary, perhaps opposing, forces which create attraction. Excitement: the fluttering glory of someone dazzling, elitely perfect, and, most of all, utterly inaccessible. Companionship: the warmth and recognition of deep, mutually shared understanding and sympathy. Which of these is a stronger force? Which is more meaningful? Can one get in the way of the other? Most importantly: how can an understanding of these forces lead us to love?
Excitement is the feeling felt towards an impossible perfection. It’s the substance of brilliant daydreams and the cause of bursting dejection. It’s felt by the boy enchanted by the beautiful girl in class who he’s never once talked to; it’s felt by the girl who pines for a prince or an athlete or a magnate. Excitement is felt by the young main character of Ivan Turgenev’s First Love when he, wandering through the garden of his family’s rural summer home, catches a glimpse of the neighbor’s older daughter: “I blushed terribly, snatched up my gun, and pursued by resonant but not unkind laughter, fled to my room, threw myself on my bed and covered my face with my hands. My heart leaped within me. I felt very ashamed and unusually gay. I was extraordinarily excited.” (1)
Companionship is built over long shared hours and meaningful conversation, shared interest and shared values. Companionship is the feeling that, in another’s presence, the world is shining, meaningful, and without wrong. Companionship is felt by two young lovers of the Decameron: when the couple is caught naked in the morning by the girl’s parents, the girl’s wise father, though initially outraged, senses a solution; he requests a commitment to marriage. The boy joyously, and nakedly, agrees on the spot.
Excitement, we may imagine, is the “baser” of these two motives. It leads one to shower the uninterested with unrequited adoration, to chase dead ends and fight rejection, to value, ultimately, the pursuit of “glory” over the pursuit of happiness. Excitement leads us to love those who don’t love us back. Companionship, meanwhile, is the only foundation upon which a healthy, long-term relationship can rest.
A theory emerges. Excitement is necessary to enter a relationship, while companionship is necessary to sustain it. Excitement encourages the first nervous conversation, the thrilling feeling that something worthy is beginning. Companionship may become crucial only later. Novelty fades, things become regular, and only a deep, unbreakable, eternal connection remains. It must be a strong one.
But is this how it should be?
This is a terrible state of affairs! Excitement is a frivolous prerequisite; companionship alone sustains a healthy relationship. How often has an absence of the former prevented the presence of the latter? How often have we turned someone down because we deemed them less-than-glorious? How often have we been turned down because we were less than glorious? If companionship alone were sought – after all, companionship alone matters – the world would be a much happier place.
Why do we continue to value excitement?
Humans are animals. It’s conceivable that, burdened by artifacts of natural selection, we’re prone to making consistently “irrational” decisions. Social prowess was once, much more than it is now, necessary for success and survival. Tendencies towards the pursuit of social standing could be vestiges of a time when fitness – and not fulfillment – was our primary concern. It should be no surprise that we act in ways contrary to the pursuit of a modern notion of fulfillment.
This theory consigns excitement to historical obsolescence. Must we consciously neglect excitement, dismissing it as an archaic distraction? Or does it have a value in our modern world?
Self-Evaluation and Approval
It’s possible that excitement plays a more meaningful role. Happy relationships’ members must value where they are. They must evaluate their relationship, examining not only its intrinsic worth, but also its position within their larger worlds of values, ambitions, and life goals, and conclude, finally, that “I wouldn’t choose anyone else.” This feeling is underscored by an element of excitement. It’s also important.
Have we established excitement as valuable after all? To complete the puzzle, this evaluation must rely on a sound value system. A schoolboy, evaluating his school’s social dynamic, might abandon his emotional and intellectual soulmate for a more popular girl. This is obviously incorrect. Healthy adult relationships, however, could lack excitement because a party has weak social support or misaligned interests. Such challenges might have merit, and should perhaps be evaluated empirically.
In any case, we’ve found a role for excitement, as an indicator of a well contextualized relationship. Provided that this evaluation system is sound, moreover, its conclusions are likely to be helpful. Perhaps we should wait for – and listen to – that excitement after all.
Love is a complex, subtle emotional phenomenon. It evolves, from early stages to later stages, shifting its characteristics, needs, and demands. To attempt to break it down – to analyze its ins and outs, ups and downs, strengths and faults – is to attempt to reduce an emotional phenomenon to an intellectual one, and to misunderstand it altogether.
This doesn’t mean emotional autopilot necessarily is intellectually satisfying. To question love’s intellectual value, however, might be to drive the boat off course before it’s left the harbor. This excitement is perhaps not a useless hurdle, but a valuable signal, conveying to the emotional mind that a relationship is right. Perhaps it’s a sign that companionship will follow.
In the end, it seems dreadfully convincing that this dichotomy doesn’t exist. These two intellectual ideas, excitement and companionship, have been extracted from a colorful, complex emotional web; there are likely many more intellectual placeholders which I haven’t even mentioned at all. The answer to our big question might be that an intellectual understanding of these ideas doesn’t lead us to love. Love is too complex to analyze. It must be fallen into.
“I think I have not yet related what happened as we rode home from the ball, nor have I time to tell you now. It was a most magnificent sunrise: the whole country was refreshed, and the rain fell drop by drop from the trees in the forest. Our companions were asleep. Charlotte asked me if I did not wish to sleep also, and begged of me not to make any ceremony on her account. Looking steadfastly at her, I answered, “As long as I see those eyes open, there is no fear of my falling asleep.” We both continued awake till we reached her door… I left her asking permission to visit her in the course of the day. She consented, and I went, and, since that time, sun, moon, and stars may pursue their course: I know not whether it is day or night; the whole world is nothing to me.”
– J. W. von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (2)
In what divine ideal, what lofty sphere
Is found the pattern from which Nature made
That face so fair wherein she might parade
Proof of her heavenly power to mortals here?
Were ringlets ever loosed of gold more sheer
To wayward breeze by nymph in pool or glade?
Was every virtue in one soul displayed
Ere now?—and how the noblest cost me dear!
Who knows her not can never realize
How beauty may the heart of man beguile
And who looks not upon my Laura’s eyes
Knows not how love can kill and otherwhile
May heal us; let him hear how soft she sighs
And gently speaks, oh, let him see her smile!
– Petrarch: Sonnet CLIX, Canzoniere (3)
- Ivan Turgenev’s First Love. I recommend the Isaiah Berlin translation, though was unable to find it online.
- The Sorrows of Young Werther, full text.
- Petrarch’s Canzionere. I recommend the Thomas Bergin edition.