After Love, What?

When Madeleine decided she was done with me, she wanted to "still be friends." I told her that I had finally come to understand something she'd said to me in an angry moment some weeks earlier, that it was possible "to love someone and never want to see them again." And I did, fortunately, never see her again. But since then, twice more I have had a passionate, intimate relationship end with that strange suggestion, that we go back to the crusts of friendship having consumed the rich feast of love, and I've been thinking about it lately. Am I the one out of step with emotional reality? Perhaps. But I know "love" does not lead to "friendship" any more inevitably than friendship leads to love. They might; they could; they usually don't. And a friendship that becomes love can no more go back to friendship than a baked cake can go back to being ingredients, no more than any act, however regretted, can be "undone."

No act, however regretted, can be undone.

If I slap your face, I can't undo that. I can apologize. I can offer you revenge or justice or compensation, but I can't undo the act, and our relationship will continue from that point modified by my action and the consequences, for better or worse as time passes. That seems self-evident, but it's one of those things we understand with our brains, not at the cellular level where we actually shape our choices and expectations. The world would like to believe that if I apologize, that undoes or at least cures the emotional damage. The world can be rather simple-minded, when it is someone else's face that's slapped.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to cheat on you. Well, actually, I did mean to cheat on you, except I don't think of it as 'cheating' exactly but more like 'having a fling' or something. But the point is, now that it's done it turned out not to be as much fun as I expected and, of course, I intended to just do it and not get caught so there would be no harm done, right? So actually, I'm sorry you caught me because I sincerely would have preferred not to hurt you given a choice, and, of course, it's unpleasant being thought ill of by someone who knows me so well. So let's forget it, Ok? Water under the bridge, right? It's true, I did it partially because I don't love you any more, but on the other hand, I do like you, and there are some aspects of our relationship that I really value, so I hope you won't let your attitude ruin them. Let's just be friends. Ok?"


Friendship is not love bleached and dehydrated, any more than love is the frosting on the cake of friendship. Friendship bakes or ripens into love. I prefer "bakes" because the ripening process is natural, and I think love is something we actively make from friendship, rather than friendship's ripened maturity. Love and friendship woven together are the greatest bond, I think, that two people can create, but rare, rare. I managed to thread my way through a divorce that was "amicable," a miraculous accomplishment I realize now. I also had one of the monstrous other sort, and I've had three love relationships each as important to me as a marriage. Two of those ended against my desires, and one I ended myself with the same regret we must feel when we abandon a beloved home because it has degenerated into something we cannot live in any more. In all three love relationships, the lover wanted "friendship" after love was gone, and all three I refused.

It was not easy, walking away from everything when it was fatally marred. In one case, I told her for weeks how it would be, that I would leave her life as absolutely as the dead, but she didn't believe me (not that believing me would have stopped her). I told her one night a favorite story of mine from a Vardis Fisher novel, of a man whose hand was mangled in a lumber mill's bandsaw. While his friends looked on, he chopped off the ruined fingers with an axe and walked away, leaving the useless fingers on the chopping block. I refused her friendship not from vengefulness or malice, but because I could not imagine being the friend of someone who treated her lovers the way she did. Better the clean stump than the mangled fingers.

We like to think of all things as fixed and immutable. If I was friends with Madeleine before we lived together, then the "friend" condition is one we had demonstrated we could do, so why not go back there? It was certainly true, that when I thought all we would ever have was friendship, I was willing to take that and be satisfied, just to have her in my life. But then she said she loved me, and the dry flour and water leavened to rich warm bread. I had loved her for quite some time. We spent eighteen months exploring that love. And then she moved on. Those eighteen months changed what came before. They changed everything, as surely as learning to take photographs changes the way we see. We were no longer the people we had been when we were friends. Unloved, I had no use for her friendship and nothing to offer her. What did she imagine I would get from her acquaintance that would counterbalance the pain of comparing our meagre new relationship to the love we had shared? The person I had thought she was loved me. She found "her self," and that "new" self was someone I didn't like very much, someone self-involved and trivial, a woman whose ambitions and aspirations reached only to celebrity. She didn't want to be a good writer, she had told me, but a famous one. Love does not require liking. Friendship does.

We like to think of all things as binary. On or off; are or are not. The reality we try not to see is that very little of life's stuff is binary. In the real world, very few things simply "are" or "are not." Most things, and certainly human emotions like friendship, "are if" or "are while" or "are because." Ironically, love is the one emotion that is not qualified, not attached to an if, while, or because, unconditional in its purest form. I loved Madeleine for who she was. She changed (or I knew her better) and then I loved her in spite of who she was. But friendship is a choice, and when we discover we have chosen badly, friendship usually ends. Love ends differently than friendship does, more like dying than like moving on. With Madeleine, I feel as if one of us has died and the other is left behind, in a place where the two can never be together again.

In the marriage that ended amicably, a necessary condition was that we had both ceased to love long before we accepted parting. There was stress and recrimination; there was anger over the overt rejection that merely formalized tacit separation. But we were able to accept the fact that both of us, once the heat had diminished a bit, wanted to be done with what we had had, and we were able to keep the friendship that had developed before we were lovers and then had been enriched by our shared life. Are we as close as we were before? Of course not. But we remain friends.

when only one lover wants "freedom"....

Rare circumstances. More likely that only one lover wants "freedom," as we call it rather oddly, and then it is not just our vanity that is wounded. The rejected lover's life, his trust in his own judgment, his beliefs, not just his self-esteem, all are changed. I would have been happy to spend my entire life the way I spent the last day that I thought Madeleine loved me. It would not have been the best life I could have had, nor was it our best day, but I would have taken it gladly, knowing it was vastly more than I would have if my life were diminished by her absence. But the key to what I wanted is in that sad conditional: not our last day together, but the last day when I felt loved. I did not want her, meat and bone and mind, I wanted her love. When her love departed, she was not the woman I loved, whole and complete, no more than she would have been while lying in a vegetative coma. There are those who would pounce on that admission; let them.

What is a person, anyway? We mumble the cliché, "I want you to love me for myself," but what is this "self"? When a lover loses both legs, is he no longer the person you loved? We like to think our love would survive such a change; I'm dubious. Was Madeleine the sum of her cells? Her accomplishments? Her history? Did her "self" include her aspirations? Very well, did it include her failures? The fact is, I did love her for "herself." That is to say, I loved past her weaknesses and into her potential, and I was willing to love her whether she shrank or increased in coming years. I loved her when she stopped loving me, and it took five years before I could say I don't love her anymore. And even now, I write those words and they sound false somehow. I do love her still. Love, as I told a friend once, is accumulative, and the love you "get over" is not love. I have truly loved two other women after her, and I love both of them, all three, still. Love is a condition, not a choice.

It takes violence to drive a lover away. It takes a kind of cruelty that puts our own desires before those of someone who deserves better of us. I found myself thinking, when my last relationship ended, "Your happiness is more important to me than my own unhappiness. Too bad you feel the same way." Between us we had developed a simple definition of the dynamic of love: "Both think the other is doing all the work." That paradox is the nature of love, but the moment it ceases to be reciprocal, the moment either one thinks, "You know, I am doing all the work!" then it degenerates into some flavor of exploitation or real co-dependency (which is not the same thing as "dependency" or "need"; but that's another story for another time).

Friends do not do to each other what lovers must to rid themselves of a partner reluctant to accept rejection. There, I think, is the answer to that strange request, that we might lip the white bread of friendship now that we are no longer welcome at the feast of love. Friendship, for me at least, is based on mutual good will, on trust and respect, and those things are likely casualties when a love is dissolved in conflict.

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