When I first started studying philosophy, I became intoxicated with existentialism. It seemed to speak to every angsty feeling I had, validate every sneaking suspicion that nothing was really worthwhile and that everything was arbitrary. As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that this negative evaluation of the philosophy is a shallow interpretation.
Existentialism has so much to offer in the realm of positive realization, about the depth of feeling and the meaning available to us if we will only decide to create it. It is in the spirit of righting some of my former misinterpretations that I want to discuss one of the areas in which existentialism can radically enhance a life. Let’s talk about existentialism and love.
Before we dig in, let me lay out a few key ideas in existential thought. In his philosophical masterpiece “Being and Nothingness”, Jean-Paul Sartre lays out three modes of being: being-in-itself, being-for-itself, and being-for-others. Being-in-itself is what you see in the physical world around us. A brick or a stone or a piece of driftwood just is, and it is exactly what it is. Simple enough.
Being-for-itself is the mode of being of consciousness, and by extension, us humans. Being-for-itself is reflective, it is the us that “sees” the world and our own thoughts. Being-for-itself is also nothingness, because whatever the mental content of a thought is must necessarily be different than that thought itself. A thought about a rock is not the rock, yet it is constituted by the rock. As such, being-for-itself is not what it is and is what it is not. This is why, according to Sartre, all we are is choice and freedom. There is no deeper foundational self, because consciousness lacks the concrete being of being-in-itself.
Finally, we have being-for-others. This is the mode of being we have from the outside. When another person looks at us, they see us as an object, they ascribe to us fixed traits and a sure manner of being. When we think of a friend, we think of them as being some combination of attributes (smart, funny, punctual, etc). This is at odds with the way individuals experience themselves, e.g. as first-person experience (being-for-itself), as the individual knows deep down that they have no fixed essence and could act completely differently should they so choose.
It is important to note that, according to Sartre, being-for-others is not less real than the way we experience ourselves in the first person. Our being-for-others is just as real as being-for-itself, which is part of the reason we feel things like shame or embarrassment. We are fundamentally separated from how others view us, as it is out of our direct control, and we are constantly trying to reconcile this with the way we see and experience ourselves.
There are multiple lessons in love we can gather from this framework.
1) We are free to leave.
We have no soulmate. We are not fixed beings, and there are many different possible versions of us depending on our choices. Because of this, there is no perfect fit in love. Rather, there are many people out there who could serve as our romantic partners, and each carries their own unique set of joys and disappointments.
This is a vital realization, as it gives us permission to stop questioning our feelings when we feel unsatisfied in love. Too often we stumble into relationships with someone who seems nice, someone who is convenient to be around, maybe shares the same social circle and is attractive enough for us to sleep with. Initially, they may be incredibly captivating. We fall in love based on the warm feelings we get in their presence. As time passes, we build a life with and sacrifice so much for this person that eventually we feel we must stay. We commit as though it were a one-time decision, then act as though our hands are tied.
Existentialism reminds us that we are free to explore our options and that the traits we like in this one person will exist in someone else, possibly without some of the traits that disappoint us. We can remind ourselves that the only thing keeping a relationship in place is our decision to stay in it, that we are always free to leave, and that there is no objective marker we need to hit in order to justify doing so.
2) We should think about what we can and can’t live with.
The flip side of this revelation is equally important. Since we have no soulmate, it is impossible that we should find a partner with whom we entirely agree and who gets the whole of our inner world. What is important is not full and perfect alignment, but alignment in the important areas.
What are these important areas? That is something the individual must decide for themselves. There is no objectively right answer, only what we decide we need from a partner and what we decide we can live without.
Once we realize love won’t involve a complete synergy, we are faced with an opportunity to get clear on the major things we want and need out of a relationship. Maybe we need a partner who challenges us intellectually. If that is the case, can we live with that partner lacking interest in our golf hobby? Does our partner need to be deeply attentive, or can we meet a less touchy-feely person in the middle if they also share our zest for life? We rarely take the time to think these things through because we believe in a misguided idea that a perfect love will find us and be so powerfully miraculous that we will never question it. The truth is, love involves thought and concession.
Existentialism reminds us that there are always other options, but that these options are not objectively better or worse. We are responsible for making value judgments on our relationships. It is a good idea for us to develop a set of metrics so as to know with which partners we might truly have a shot at happiness.
3) Love is a creative collaboration.
The final takeaway I’d like to touch on has to do with how we grow in relationships. Recall what I said earlier about the modes of being. Being-for-itself (the way we experience ourselves) is fundamentally free, whereas being-for-others (the way we are to another person) involves seeing fixed attributes and behaviors. This means our partners will necessarily see us differently than we see ourselves. Couples will always have a different idea of who the other is, if for no other reason than that the individual secretly knows they could wake up tomorrow and act radically different.
This is where my own conjecture enters, but I believe this is an invitation for us to rethink what it means to be with someone. As I have stated, much of our anguish in life arises from the fact that we can’t reconcile the way we experience ourselves (being-for-itself) with the way other people experience us (being-for-others).
What separates romantic love from the love of friends and family is that, with romantic love, many of us seek a true surrender of our being. I think romantic love involves an unparalleled trust in someone to see us as we would like to be seen. This feature isn’t unique to romance, and it could certainly be done with friends, in polyamorous relationships, etc., but I think it is what many of us are looking for when it comes to relationships and what we mean when we talk about “true love”. We want our partners to cradle the tenderness we don’t let the rest of the world see, to acknowledge the potential no one else understands. We want to feel deeply understood, like the “me” of the first person and the “you” we are to our partner are aligned.
As we’ve established, a perfect alignment is simply not possible, but that doesn’t mean we need to write this whole feeling off as a naive vision of youth. Instead, I think it is an invitation to view love as an act of collaborative creation of the self, wherein we trust our partners to guide our growth alongside and with us in order to synergize our multiple modes of being. The way our partners see us is as real as the way we see ourselves. I think that provides a beautiful opportunity for two people to come together in the act of mutual creation.
In practice, such an act involves a few things. Trust is vital to such a project, but this does not mean we should trust blindly. It is highly important that we do our due diligence picking a partner. We must find someone who truly sees the best in us in the areas that matter most and who has our best interests at heart.
Additionally, our partners must be committed to learning about our inner worlds. No one will ever succeed entirely in this, but a commitment to trying is crucial, as it will allow their view to shift with our views of ourselves and keep things from getting misunderstood, stale, or oppressive. As we grow, so too should our partners’ idea of us grow. In love, our being is a dialogue between the first and third person, and no good conversation can occur without both sides following along and responding to the previous sentence. This is how a love of this nature should proceed.
To clarify, this kind of love can only occur in a genuinely caring setting where both partners are willing to accept that they may misunderstand and are willing to change their perspective. Letting an abusive or degrading person tell us we’re not good enough is not the same as having an authentic love interest collaborate in and support our growth.
I am also not saying we can let our partners take all the responsibility for our being onto their shoulders. Rather, our being becomes a joint project, informed by our inner worlds and by our existence in the outer, with the aspects of our being we can’t directly control in the hands of a person we trust immensely. A very real part of our existence lies beyond our first-person perspective, and it is in entrusting that aspect of ourselves to another person (who in turn tries to understand that inner world) that a feeling of deep, intimate understanding can be achieved.
One last thing: all of this must be mutual. In the same way that we trust our partners to try to understand us, we must try to understand them in turn. Anything less is not love, but a vain and panicked attempt to run from our own freedom.
While existentialism shows us that a complete and total understanding between people is impossible, it also shows us how we can find deep and meaningful connections in love. By shifting our perspectives away from the cliche idea of mind-reading, destiny written soulmates, we can start to build love on the only truly fertile ground there is: freedom.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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