»Everything that everyone has ever said about love is true.« Yet, there is so much to talk about. Shaka McGlotten and Alkisti Efthymiou met via Skype to talk about love as a way of relating to others through a set of disparate desires and fears. In an intimate and playful field work of sorts the question arises, what allows us to love and be loved in neoliberal societies, in which love feels paradoxically more private and at the same time more political than ever?
Shaka McGlotten: What browser tabs do you have up? Which has to do with love?
Alkisti Efthymiou: I have this one up: »You are Too Much« by Hannah Black in The New Inquiry. I also have a tab with my astrological love portrait on astro.com. And, maybe this could also count as love-related, the lyrics of a Cuban song called »Lagrimas Negras,« which are also a bit too much.
SM: So, do you worry about being overly attached?
AE: I worry about men that, when I just want to spend some time with them, they think I want a »relationship.«
SM: You worry about what they think about your desire to be attached?
AE: I worry that somehow men, or at least the men I date, are socialized to register every intimate gesture of mine as some sort of marriage contract.
SM: And then you don’t get any intimacy at all because they’re thinking you’ll get too attached?
AE: Sort of. I surely desire to be attached, but it’s a bit scary how this has somehow become a problem.
SM: People always think being attached is a bad thing. I don’t worry about being too attached these days. But people are fucking lonely! Why do we need even more alienation. I don’t want to raise myself up by my emotional bootstraps. I want someone to count on.
AE: Yes, but why does this have to do with some sort of unbearable responsibility?
SM: A lot of people, especially men, don’t like to be responsible for other people’s feelings. It would mean acknowledging their own. Or figuring out what they might want.
Let me tell you about my browser tabs. None have to do with love per se, but Skype keeps suggesting love gifs to me to put in our conversation, like this one. I have a series of tabs about the queer history of computing, which includes stories about Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
AE: What about Wittgenstein?
SM: In perhaps the most controversial section of his 1973 biography of Wittgenstein, W. W. Bartley suggests that the philosopher frequently engaged in a kind of anonymous cross-class sexual contact facilitated by public cruising spaces such as parks and high streets.
AE: In Athens there is this park with a strong cruising history next to my house.
SM: Now I want to go to Athens.
»I wonder if ›falling in love‹ is more related to this dark side of being frustrated, unstable, not knowing if the other person has the same feelings for you and so on, and then ›being in love‹ is more of this smooth (or as smooth as it can be) state of reciprocal flow.«
AE: It’s really interesting how everything is coexisting. There is the cruising happening in the park, but I go there to jog and there are also a lot of children playing around. It used to be inhabited by refugees as well. And at night there’s drug dealing just outside. You have all these different functions within a tiny public space and the contradictions do not seem to bother anyone, but of course inherently they do. The coexistence of these activities is acceptable and tolerated only as long as there is no blending.
SM: For me the most exciting thing about cruising is the excitement itself – of finding someone, of worrying about getting caught. It’s finding out that some space is being used for something it wasn’t exactly intended for. This is so different from a lot of other kinds of relating that are based in language.
AE: Exactly. The gesture and the gaze and the movement toward another body in cruising is not like other forms of relating that are mediated through words.
SM: Yeah, the body plays a different role. You don’t say anything. A friend once told me that he gets tired of talking about relating in a relationship. He just wants to relate. Like if you’re talking about it all the time, then maybe it’s not a relationship?
AE: Talking about it so much could be a way to avoid downright rejection, through a negotiation of the terms. There is a question that bothers me lately and I want to share it with you. What is the difference between falling in love and being in love?
SM: I’ve never had love at first sight. I don’t think so. But usually there is this kind of craziness when you meet someone you like and you’re hanging out together. The falling-in-love happens in that first little period of time, when hormones and whatever else are conspiring. But, in the relationship I have now, it was much more of this kind of slow burn, with someone that I love but I wasn’t in love with from the beginning and then it happened slowly. I don’t know what it means, being in love. I guess part of it is this openness or this vulnerability that doesn’t have to mean it’s good. You can feel open and vulnerable to someone and pour hot oil over their head. It doesn’t mean that it makes you soft and gooey. It can make you crazy, which is the dark side of attachment.
AE: I wonder if falling in love is more related to this dark side of being frustrated, unstable, not knowing if the other person has the same feelings for you and so on, and then being in love is more of this smooth (or as smooth as it can be) state of reciprocal flow. There is something about this falling, the falling part, that when I’ve felt it – a lightning hitting my spine while looking at the other person and thinking »what am I doing, wtf just happened« – it was also related to losing a bit of the control that I thought I had of my self and my composure. I am wondering whether this falling is inherently and unavoidably disturbing and then sometimes it transforms to something else, to being in love. This question sprouts out of my anxiety in love matters, to live something that is at the same time intense but also stable.
»Everything that everyone has ever said about love is true. And then you have all these cultural patterns that tell us certain things: the pair bond in western culture for example is so dangerous. This is a cultural pattern telling us that »there is this other person.«
SM: I don’t know if these things are really compatible. You cannot maintain the intensity of falling in love with someone: you can’t sleep, you feel really stiff, you wait for their calls. It just burns you out. For people who are really into that experience it might be sometimes a form of addiction. I think that certainly Christoph and I are feeling stable in loving each other and being there for each other, but there is still so much bumpiness that needs maintenance: why did you leave your shoes in that corner, or other ordinary stuff like that. I think that with falling in love there is this real confusion between the self and the other: the other person is inhabiting you in a way that you have no control over. But when you are in love, you still have to manage your own emotional and psychic space. »I am going to do this, you might not like it, but I am still going to leave my shoes there.«
AE: I still wonder if these two can coexist. Falling in love and being in love. Whether one is after the other, like they are two separate states, or there are instances when these two can be brought together more closely. I am looking for that: for a way to be okay with myself without expecting the other to complete me or fix me or be me, but also keep the self-shattering aspect of falling for them.
SM: Everything that everyone has ever said about love is true. And then you have all these cultural patterns that tell us certain things: the pair bond in western culture for example is so dangerous. This is a cultural pattern telling us that »there is this other person.« People live their whole lives waiting for this »other person« or searching for them. Why don’t you go cruise or go to a sex club or have your friends or be in a polyamorous relationship? Part of it is not because people don’t want to do it but because the structures of capitalism do not permit it. Making a date night with my partner is hard enough when we are both working. And for polyamorous people it’s even harder: you have primary, secondary, tertiary partners. How do you manage that? Who has the time?
AE: I find this form a bit problematic, of having primary, secondary partners and so on, and potentially quite selfish. Maybe I am being very simplistic but, when I have been engaged in relations with multiple lovers (mostly in different geographies), it was more of like me trying to be brutally honest with people so that essentially I can do what I want, instead of developing a mutual understanding and respect of each other’s needs and desires.
SM: I like this model of having lovers in multiple places, people that you can hang out with, have sex with, and you’re not going to be in some sort of long-term romantic relationship. It’s very kind and friendly and even loving.
AE: But not as intense.
SM: To be honest, I am kind of over this intensity. It’s like taking drugs that are not good for me. Just being in the ordinariness of relating is emotionally demanding enough, why would I want to be in this state where I am constantly anxious and not even taking care of myself properly. I am not into that anymore. Every relationship that I’ve been in and has ended left me crumbling, and in almost all of them they break up with me because I am one of those people (classic Taurus) that if I’ve made a commitment to you, I have to see it through. It takes me years to get over a break-up. There is the narcissistic injury of course (»they are rejecting me«) but also the fact that when I attach I attach. I’ve made a commitment to take care of you and to listen to you and to love you and why would you break that commitment.
AE: Exactly because I don’t want to go through that rejection part, I am transforming my breakups into friendships and I am being like »no, it’s not completely over yet«, sort of like »I can handle a friendship now and not a love relationship, but I cannot handle losing you completely because it would mean that you don’t want me at all.«
SM: But does the friendship work out in the end?
AE: In general I have been lucky, in the sense that most of my past relationships really wanted to keep on hanging out with me after the separation. Some of them made an effort, more effort than I did, to care for me as friends, and even supported me in better terms than they were supporting me as lovers. In this way, I was able to get over the breakup more easily, I was able to see that what we had before was toxic and just couldn’t work. There are other times that I feel I try too much to keep in touch and I should just stop. Because I recognize now that it comes from this fear of rejection or from this fantasy of wanting to forever play a crucial part in someone else’s life.
»In terms of shame … guilt is feeling bad about what you’ve done. Shame is feeling like there’s something actually wrong with you. Shame is triggering your insecurity. It triggers a kind of crisis in confidence that, for me at least, says something about who I am.«
SM: The fear of rejection, why do we take it so seriously?
AE: Is it because we are too full of ourselves or because we care too much?
SM: For me, rejection tells me that I’m not good enough or that there’s something/someone better out there. It’s a little egotistical maybe but I don’t think it’s only that. I think I feel shame when I’m rejected.
AE: Yes, me too, it touches upon all my insecurities. But why shame?
SM: I love how Skype is giving me these prescribed answers: Cuz, Because, Why not. Algorithmically-designed desire!
In terms of shame … guilt is feeling bad about what you’ve done. Shame is feeling like there’s something actually wrong with you. Shame is triggering your insecurity. It triggers a kind of crisis in confidence that, for me at least, says something about who I am. »He broke up with me because I am too bossy.« Actually, I am not only bossy, I am really confident, I am confident in who I am. But that rejection totally undermines that.
AE: I’ve been getting a lot of »too intense« comments, primarily by men.
SM: What does too intense look like?
AE: I don’t really know. I always ask them what does it mean and they add something like: too emotional, too stubborn, too demanding.
SM: Because you like to express your opinion.
AE: Yes, probably. But what you did just now is important. Because the other side of »too intense« is simply »expressing an opinion,« or the other side of »bossy« is »confident.« What I don’t understand is why and when and how a positive feature turns into a negative one. Why can’t I have an opinion? Or be true to my feelings? Why is this considered too much? And then I enter into this trip of shame, where I think that maybe I do need to »calm down« or be »more fun.« How do we get rid of the misinterpretation of ourselves that the other is projecting on us?
SM: I don’t think we can get rid of other people’s misrecognitions.
AE: I am more talking about how to get rid of what these misrecognitions are doing to us. Not about getting rid of the misrecognitions per se – this is impossible.
SM: Yes, but then this misrecognition is also on you. Because the other says »you are too emotional« and then you think that »well, I really like you, so maybe you’re right.«
AE: Has it ever happened to you, to break one’s heart just after yours was broken by someone else?
SM: No. Maybe I broke my ex-husband’s heart somehow. The breakup made him really upset obviously. It’s really weird when sometimes, whatever relationship you just got out of, the problem might come back to you reversed. My ex-husband broke up with me for x reasons and then I see those reasons in Christoph and hypothetically I am going to break up with Christoph for the same reasons that my ex-husband broke up with me.
AE: It’s like some weird karmic shit.
SM: Yes. Part of this anger after a breakup comes from »what’s wrong with me, I am no good« but there’s also that anger that’s like »how could you break up with me for this, how could you do this to me, why is this thing so important, why didn’t you tell me earlier that you were having doubts?« And then you might find yourself in that situation and you’re like »oh, that’s how it happens.«
AE: I’ve been in a situation where I felt rejected by someone and, after that, I meet someone else and I am drawn into rejecting them for the exact same reasons that the previous person had rejected me. Looking at this rejection pattern can be quite revelatory: »wow, that’s why they didn’t want to be with me.« But I also don’t want to believe it, exactly because it looks so obvious and every relationship is different. At times I guess it helps to realize that people have their reasons, and you might also have the same reasons later and it’s okay.
»What about loving and not feeling right? This not-feeling-right might have to do with not feeling right with yourself, more than not feeling right with the other. But then I wonder whether this is too narcissistic or individualistic – and whether it thins out the radical potency of love. There’s something too complacent in feeling right with ourselves.«
SM: Maybe we can end with something like this. There have been periods when I’ve been single after the end of a relationship and it’s really painful because you miss the person you were with. But I’ve also had the experience a few times where I get to a point of not really missing anything. I remember some years ago when a friend looked at me and asked me »you seem so happy, are you in love?« I thought about it for a minute and »yes,« I told her, »I’m really loving myself.« In this real way of liking to spend time with myself, liking who I was, I liked what I was doing. I was in a »healthy relationship« with myself. I think that this whole thing with attachment – »don’t get too attached, don’t get codependent« – is bullshit. Get attached, have people to rely on, form connections! But there’s also something amazing about being able to be with yourself.
AE: Staying alone but not feeling lonely. This sort of thing. Maybe it starts from there.
What about loving and not feeling right? This not-feeling-right might have to do with not feeling right with yourself, more than not feeling right with the other. But then I wonder whether this is too narcissistic or individualistic – and whether it thins out the radical potency of love. There’s something too complacent in feeling right with ourselves.
SM: It’s so hard to love ourselves, let alone the others. Maybe loving doesn’t always have to be romantic. Like when you meet someone and from the first minute you start loving them. Not in an erotic way. That’s another kind of love that is not »pathological.« When you meet someone and you just love them.
AE: Yes, I have felt that. We are not used to thinking of that type of love as something other than friendship, though. I want to explore what else it can be. It’s not romance, it’s not a passionate obsessive erotic situation. Can you love someone in this way who is not just your friend? What is the difference?
SM: I don’t know.
AE: What is the last message on your phone from a lover?
SM: It’s a message that references this amazing TV show called Steven Universe:
AE: Mine is this message on whatsapp:
SM: In spiritual traditions, in Tantra and some forms of Buddhism, sound is the most important thing. When you detach or are detached from the other senses, hearing is the only one that remains. »I would love to hear it.« What he’s saying is interesting because he’s meeting you somehow, through hearing.
AE: I like this interpretation. And I also like the »I would love to…« part.