Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
February 2012 - Volume 12, No. 2
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The Vulnerability of the Loving Heart

One of the mysteries of human relationship is that it takes two people to form a relationship and only one to break it. By almost every standard this is definitely “not fair.” However, when we are old enough to experience and suffer the various fortunes of love relationships, we’ve already passed beyond the realm of life where fairness hopes to reign. Someone once pointed out to me that fairness exists only before we have the freedom to leave home. Fairness is now replaced by freedom. And it is only in this freedom that we can form true adult relationships of the heart.  

At a local cinema, I recently attended the MetOpera Live in HD performance of “The Enchanted Island.” One of it’s most poignant moments was the aria “Hearts that Love Can Always be Broken.” This, among other recent events has reopened my thinking on this subject.

I often advise clients who are newly re-entering the dating world that he or she can only begin to date if they can face the chance or necessity of breaking someone’s heart. Otherwise we can never leave a relationship that may be no longer right for us. And many a disappointed lover has laid claim for merciful reconsideration based on the pain of his or her broken heart.  

And so the rational question emerging from all this vulnerability, 

“Why bother?” 

Well, the initial positive answers are usually based on the two-fold horns of compatible companionship and sexual desire. Each of these are in good supply during courtship, throughout the engagement and into the first months or years of a marriage. I usually consider this marital “honeymoon” time to average about 18 months.

This primary relationship energy comes in great part from our gene pool, its primary purpose being the ongoing of the tribe or perpetuation of species. It’s our hormones working as allies to the relationship.

But soon the “real world” of relationship enters, when we learn (or don’t) that it takes a lot of work. I recall this question from my graduate school days: “Do you kiss your wife because you love her, or do you love her because you kiss her.” There’s always a pause after this question. We know that at first it’s the former. Then there’s a more mature realization that I love her because I do the ongoing work of loving her. I recall from many places and occasions in my own life observing some remarkable couples at work in being together, beginning fortunately with my own parents.

And, of course, it’s work, and often hard work. An all-too-frequent complaint I hear is that one or both have been taking each other “for granted” - relationship laziness. With the eventual decline of gene-pool energy, and the constant claims of the work of a relationship, this would seem a losing proposition.  

But this is not the only map of the territory. There are reasons we’re willing to take this risk of becoming so vulnerable to each other.  

The ‘third thing’

With every couple in an adult relationship, there are not two, but three parties. There are the two persons and there is the relationship itself - a third thing. Within this lies the great secret, the mystery, of human relationship. 

When I am with you and you are with me, we are in a relationship - which can take many forms:  friendship, family, care-taking, erotic, economic, legal, contractual. The form packages the relationship, defines it, holds it together. But especially when the relationship is a relationship of the heart, this third thing takes on a life of its own. When the heart is involved, with its inherent vulnerability, this thing called “love” emerges. 


So let me ask the question: What is love?  

Our first answer is love is a feeling - a feeling however that seemingly can overtake all other sensory experience. One of the best clinical definitions I know is the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers’ term “unconditional positive regard.” And yet for me that’s still a binary definition.

Love is itself a third thing. That’s why we speak of being “in love.” The third thing even can encompass the initial two. The British novelist and theologian Charles Williams (1886-1945) speaks of love as erasing the two-ness. He writes in one place of Mary (divinely pregnant) and Joseph, in conversation: Mary exclaims “Joseph, dear, I am in love.” Joseph cautiously responds, “With whom?”  Mary says, “Not in love with anybody, I am just In Love.”  (Recounted from memory, the citation currently lost.)

The third (Great) heart

Another way to say it is that when I am in a loving relationship with you, there is my heart, and your heart, and a third heart that protects and even overshadows what you and I each bring to our relationship. Sometimes I’ll call it “The Great Heart.” It seems there is built into the human soul a deep hunger for this third love, the love that transcends all duality. There’s a religious parallel in the famous passage from St. Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430AD) Confessions, “Our heart is restless, O God, until it rests in Thee.”  

When couples come to me, they are usually in contention, which means there are only two struggling with or against each other. Often in their struggle to take care of each other, or to contend with each other, what they give is no longer enough to maintain the relationship. The feeling of love may still be there, but it has little or no power over their current reality. They have “lost love” or “lost hope” of keeping it together. The relationship itself (as a third thing) is dying or has died - usually of starvation, even if there’s a specific betrayal. An adult relationship needs to be fed by each adult. That’s the (intended) meaning of most marriage vows. When the third heart is broken (or starved) the two hearts alone suffer the breaking.  And usually with the two separate hearts the distress is tremendous - though different personalities have different ways to handle or ‘pass on‘ the suffering.   

But often we often want to try again. We can still try (or try again) with the marriage, or eventually ‘try again’ with a new relationship. Someone once said “re-marriage is the triumph of hope over reality.”      

The mature path of the loving heart often comes to a place where doing what is right for the Great heart supersedes doing what one wants for one’s own heart. Consider the difference between loving and possessing. The immature lover wants the beloved to “be mine.” And many a beloved relishes the joy and thrall of “being possessed.” By calling this “immature” I’m not saying it is wrong. But when it no longer feeds the relationship, then it’s time to find a better model.  If I am working to protect myself from discomfort, then I’m probably acting contrary to the health of the relationship. And there are many who have just given up hope. The image of a man and his dog is iconic.  

From aloneness to life 

The vulnerability of love often involves the possibility of loneliness, or at least the fear of it. Yet holding on because of fear can bring about the very fear it’s meant to avoid. Many of the world’s loneliest people are married.  

But to risk this, to face this vulnerability, is also to experience the transformation of loneliness to aloneness. (The difference is that the former seems to stem from an external “no” while from the latter emerges a new internal “yes.”)  It’s worth the trip, because it paradoxically provides a foundation for the courage to enter a mature love relationship.  

Yes, the third thing in a human relationship is where the real life of the relationship is to be found. The Great Heart becomes the true heart of the relationship - which feeds everything it touches. And even if it is lost, though the pain be intense, what emerges even with the solitary individual is a strength of life or a courage of heart that carries a residual blessing for all whom it encounters.      

Yes, hearts that love can always be broken. But even from that brokenness can emerge healing gifts, for the self and for the community. That’s the mystery behind love’s vulnerability. It’s from that very vulnerability (yes, even in it’s ‘unfairness’) the fullness of life can remarkably flow.  

Pay attention

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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