Do Pain and Struggle Constitute a Fundamental Part of Love?

B&W and Red All Over B&W and Red All Over (Practice) B&W and Red All Over (4today)

Artwork by Tonia Davenport—from her wonderful series “B&W and Red All Over”


A while back, I read this relationship break-up anecdote at Galleycat, from a poetry-devoted reader:

The book was a collection of love poems by William Carlos Williams. The poem was “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower.” And the specific line of the poem over which we disagreed was: “I cannot say that I have gone to hell for your love but often found myself there in your pursuit.”

Although my boyfriend and I had been dating seriously for about a year, we disagreed so vehemently about whether pain and struggle constitute a fundamental part of love that we decided to break up then and there after reading and discussing the poem.

When I shared this with The Conductor, he responded, “Who wouldn’t agree that pain and suffering are a fundamental part of love?” Then he argued that whoever did the breaking up in that relationship was the person who felt real pain in it—and was resentful the other person seemed to think it was all happy-fun time.

So I started to wonder: How can a person see love as something free from struggle? Theories:
  • Is it an ideal vision of love where it transcends pain?
  • Does it assume that ideal partners (if such a thing exists) do not struggle, have conflict, or hurt each other?
  • Is it a very Zen idea of love, where there’s a level of detachment that makes pain and struggle impossible? (Such thinking is absolute folly, but that’s a post for another day.)

Every relationship I’ve experienced has been different—always a new dynamic, a different type of understanding. Whenever you bring two people together, you have unique energies, patterns of behavior, and hang-ups.

I don’t really believe in true, soul-mate love. I do believe in love at first sight (though I differentiate it from true love). Either way, I can’t imagine any meaningful relationship free from pain and struggle.  The one constant with anyone you love is that you have the ability to hurt each other, and you know exactly where to aim and how deep. Or, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “All I ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.”

You do get better at it, I think. You get more mature. You drop the Hollywood, Disney-fied, cultural fantasies that create hang-ups.

Most of all, you practice gentleness and kindness, which takes strength. But the relationship hasn’t actualized until you’ve hurt each other.

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” (William James)

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Posted in Life Philosophy, Love, Reading.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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