The Complementarity of Multiple Loves: The Victorian Philosopher Edward Carpenter on How Freedom Strengthens Togetherness in Long-Term Relationships
By Maria Popova
“A friend is not to be found in the world such as one can conceive of, such as one needs, for no human being unites so many of the attributes of God as we feel our nature requires,” the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she devised her lovely theory of complementarity in intimate relationships, insisting that rather than burdening one person with the expectation of meeting our every expectation, we ought to scatter our needs and desires across a range of intimates, each chosen for their natural and unstrained ability to meet a particular need.
Curiously, while most of us are able to see the clear and radiant truth of this theory when it comes to our friendships, our cultural mythologies, sculpted by millennia of religious dogma, still hold romantic love to the impossible expectation of having one person meet our every need. We speak easily and gladly of a circle of friends, but in romance we contract the circle to the unitary locus of the idealized lover.
Long before the notion of polyamory entered our lexicon and became an acceptable frontier of the heart’s imagination, the philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) offered an antidote to this limiting cultural mythology in his uncommonly insightful 1912 book The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration (public library), which also gave us Carpenter on how to survive the agony of falling in love.
Two decades after meeting the love of his own life, with whom he would spend the remainder of his days, Carpenter — a contemporary of Mitchell’s who, like her, was ahead of his time in myriad ways — writes:
Sympathy with and understanding of the person one lives with must be cultivated to the last degree possible, because it is a condition of any real and permanent alliance. And it may even go so far (and should go so far) as a frank understanding and tolerance of such person’s other loves. After all, it seldom happens, with any one who has more than one or two great interests in life, that he finds a mate who can sympathize with or understand them all. In that case a certain portion of his personality is left out in the cold, as it were; and if this is an important portion it seems perfectly natural for him to seek for a mate or a lover on that side too. Two such loves are often perfectly compatible and reconcilable — though naturally one will be the dominant love, and the other subsidiary, and if such secondary loves are good-humoredly tolerated and admitted, the effect will generally be to confirm the first and original alliance all the more.
More than a decade before Virginia Woolf offered her succinct, incisive recipe for what makes love last across the long sweep of time and habituation, Carpenter offers his:
Two people, after years, cease to exchange their views and opinions with the same vitality as at first; they lose their snap and crackle with regard to each other — and naturally, because they now know each other’s minds perfectly, and have perhaps modified them mutually to the point of likeness. But this only means, or should mean in a healthy case, that their interest in each other has passed into another plane, that the venue of Love has been removed to another court. If something has been lost in respect of the physical rush and torrent, and something in respect of the mental breeze and sparkle, great things have been gained in the ever-widening assurance and confidence of spiritual unity, and a kind of lake-like calm which indeed reflects the heavens. And under all, still in the depths, one may be conscious of a subtle flow and interchange, yet going on between the two personalities and relating itself to some deep and unseen movements far down in the heart of Nature.
Beyond this shared attunement to the pulse of nature, Carpenter argues that the coremost element in an enduring love relationship is not merely tolerance for but a largehearted welcoming of the partner’s other loves and interests, buoyed by the understanding that they enrich rather than impoverish the primary relationship:
Of course for this continuance and permanence of love there must be a certain amount of continence, not only physical, but on the emotional plane as well… New subjects of interest, and points of contact, must be sought; temporary absences rather encouraged than deprecated; and lesser loves, as we have already hinted, not turned into gages of battle. Few things, in fact, endear one to a partner so much as the sense that one can freely confide to him or her one’s affaires de cœur; and when a man and wife have reached this point of confidence in their relation to each other, it may fairly then be said (however shocking this may sound to the orthodox) that their union is permanent and assured.
Complement this excerpt of Carpenter’s altogether visionary The Drama of Love and Death with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Rilke on the balance between freedom and togetherness in a long-term love, and Esther Perel on surrender and autonomy as the two pillars of romance, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with love’s fundamental fear of loss.
Published April 26, 2019