Fire and Air

“…desire is rooted in absence or longing.” – Esther Perel

One of the first takeaways that hit me when watching Ms. Perel’s TED Talk was the simple phrase “Fire needs air; desire needs space.” It is such a poignantly true statement, and it is unfortunate, because while Absence makes the heart grow fonder is a popular sentiment, it is also often quoted with the last two words being “…go wander.” It’s such a catch-22: if I want you to want me, I have to give you the chance to miss me. But what if you meet someone else in that space between us?

Hold On Loosely

That fear is rooted in jealousy, which is the subject of an entire other post to come later. Meanwhile, there’s very simple allegories to show why it’s rarely useful to “clamp down” on something you want to make grow:

  • When holding a weapon, you are taught to hold it loosely, because squeezing tightly makes aim shake and your muscles tire out more quickly
  • When dancing with a partner, the “dance frame” is designed so that both partners create a space where they move together – even in lead/follow dances like the tango you are taught to “invite your partner to fill the space, do not push her into it.”
  • To use Ms. Perel’s analogy: the fastest way to put out a fire is to smother it.

One of my favorite scenes of all time is in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The two of them are applying for legit jobs (as stagecoach guards) and their potential employer wants to see if Sundance can shoot. As he shifts into a gunfighter’s crouch, the owner protests “No, no, none of that fancy stuff, just pull out your gun and shoot it!

Awkwardly, Sundance tries that and misses, denied the kinesthetic muscle memory that usually serves him so well. The employer is about to dismiss them when Sundance asks, bluntly: “Can I move now?” Given the space to fulfill his potential, he of course is a crack shot.

Their employment doesn’t go so well after that, I’m afraid, but that’s not the point. The idea is that if you give yourself and your partner the space to create the love, rather than trying to fill expectations of what it “should” be, it’s possible that things will actually be better – and, frankly, hotter – than you’d ever imagine.

But What If It Doesn’t?

Recently I was talking with a young woman about her troubled relationship. She said, “I’m not breaking up with him, I’m just taking a break from him, so he’ll have the chance to miss me.” I’ve heard that many times before, and I confess I don’t have much faith in it. There’s a line between “room to breathe” and “neglect”, and usually “taking a break” is on the wrong side of that.

Though “wrong” may be a misnomer. The fact is, not everything is destined to grow. Sometimes the space that is given can change into distance. The key ingredient is communication, I think. People who are physically distant can still be emotionally present because they have something to look forward to – indeed, that makes the absent partner that much more attractive. “Anticipation is the mortar of desire,” according to Esther Perel. So if there are letters, or the occasional skype chat, or just that reminder that the person is thinking of you, it can sustain a relationship for a while.

For a while. Rarely is a long-term relationship sustained by text messages. You don’t get out of doing the work just by using the excuse that you’re going to make them miss you. So while I wish the best for that young woman, I believe – from personal experience and relationship theory – that “taking a break” is pretty much the same as “breaking up.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My “personal experience” with that kind of situation hurt, sure, but at the same time I know that we are both in pretty good places, and the things that are good about them are pretty much mutually exclusive. Her great job is nowhere near my fantastic grandsons, for example. That’s the thing about finding things out the hard way; it’s hard. But it’s not necessarily bad.

Relationship space is a tricky thing. The best advice I’ve ever heard, which I still try to follow with mixed success, came from Rainer Maria Rilke in his amazing Letters to a Young Poet:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”





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