Acts of kindness and affection beyond romantic relationships?
July 15, 2015 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Can life be as rich and wonderful without that deep intimacy with someone romantically? Can one channel openhearted and loving acts of kindness and affection in other ways that are just as fulfilling?

I have noticed a pattern within my life and specifically within my love life. I seem to think that my happiness somehow depends on being in a loving relationship because then I can be a more loving, compassionate person. Like many people, when I am in a relationship, I find that my heart opens up and I am willing to share a deep connection with someone build on acts of kindness and loving affection. This deep connection creates an added aliveness to my life. A sense of purpose almost. I try my best to share love and affection with my friends and family and it is also very nice, but to me, it isn’t the same quality of intimacy.

My ex-partner and I (together a year) had a whole portfolio of traits that made the relationship very wonderful. Unfortunately, the relationship had to end based on circumstantial reasons (he had to move). I always find myself in the same spot after a break up (and well after a break up) that I convince myself that I cannot be happy without a deep connection with someone. Some of those connections can be filled by love for oneself, friends, and family but it’s just not the same.

Is it fair to say life isn’t as rich without that deep connection with someone? Can one channel openhearted and loving acts of kindness and affection in other ways that are just as fulfilling? Sometimes I worry that this deeply rooted belief is what makes me have a difficult time moving on and also living a completely content life when not in a relationship. When I practice mindfulness meditate and find peace, I know there is more to life then just romantic relationships and life has lots of richness, but there still seems to be a bit of an emptiness there. Maybe I can somehow quiet the desire through meditation, so it isn’t always creeping into my thoughts and feelings?
posted by jpritcha to Human Relations (14 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have an answer to whether or not one can be truly happy without a deep connection to another person or other people.

But, I do believe that one need not share a romantic connection with other(s) in order to be happy. For example, I'm not really into dating/romantic stuff but I am very fulfilled by my relationships with my best friend and parents.

More generally, I do think that one can carry out acts of kindness and compassion even with strangers.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:21 PM on July 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

Is it fair to say life isn’t as rich without that deep connection with someone?

I think this is a very fair statement and belief. We are social animals.

Sometimes I worry that this deeply rooted belief is what makes me have a difficult time moving on and also living a completely content life when not in a relationship.

Unfortunately, complete contentment is not very easy to attain. There is nothing wrong with you if you feel a lack of complete contentment when you are not in an intimate relationship. If humans were easily able to feel completely content without an intimate relationship, we wouldn't be the animals we are.

Your desires for connection are not wrong. The emptiness you feel when not intimately connected is real. You have to live through it. Life is suffering. And in many ways, that's what makes the good stuff, so good.
posted by Thella at 4:30 PM on July 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

I think the intimacy that comes with a healthy romantic relationship is its own thing. Like, I don't think you can really sum those less-deep, diverse experiences of closeness and compare that to what you experience in a consistent, warm, loving, committed, romantic relationship. (Remember, though, that many never experience this, and find ways to live well, anyhow. I think those with a real talent for relating may find it enough to have huge and/or strong families of friends.)

I do think we're social, most of us (mileage varies, obviously), and that relationships have their own dynamics. And that every one teaches you something new, or brings things out you hadn't known before. (Including shorter-term and non-romantic relationships, in different ways.)

But I would say that yes, life can be rich and full as a single person, and yes, it's possible to experience contentment on your own. It's different, though, singlehood offers something else, I think; it's an opportunity for self-reflection, autonomy, self-determination. I think it's a valuable experience, particularly if you have only really known yourself with another.

Is connectedness (with one person or many) the only source of purpose? I don't think so, I think it's certainly very important for most of us, probably essential, but not the only answer to that question.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:47 PM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

Can one channel openhearted and loving acts of kindness and affection in other ways that are just as fulfilling?

I know it's unpopular to say so but no, I don't think so. Partially because of the way our society is set up for pair bonding nuclear family arrangements. I think it's a brutal truth that for most people the single life is lacking. Most friends no matter how close are not set up for the type of intimacy and support a relationship provides. That said the wrong relationship is worse than being single. But I think there's this weird pressure for single people to be 100% ok with that. It makes people feel uncomfortable if you say otherwise. But our culture isn't set up for real intimacy and familiarity in other ways in my opinion, especially as you get older. It's almost radical to say you're single and would rather not be. But I think it's logical.
posted by sweetkid at 5:14 PM on July 15, 2015 [9 favorites]

One of the most fulfilling practices I have ever undertaken is as a volunteer hospice caregiver. When you meet someone as a hospice caregiver, they are at their most vulnerable, and each interaction is remarkably intimate.
posted by janey47 at 5:30 PM on July 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

Most friends no matter how close are not set up for the type of intimacy and support a relationship provides.

Well, the problem is that your friends will eventually settle down with someone else romantically (while you do not), and then eventually the cheese stands alone, as it were. Without that "life partner" commitment or family bonding going on....well, probably not.

I can say that if you go hungry long enough, you'll get used to the feeling of not having anybody, and try to focus on other things. But does the biological need to partner go away entirely? Probably not. Will anything else be as fulfilling? ... probably not. Though you can do the best you can without it, that urge still nags me even though my heart is like 95% dead and I totally accept that partnership isn't for me for a host of reasons.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:34 PM on July 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think what you really want is the sense of meaning or purpose this loving feeling gives you. A worthy substitute, instead of trying to re-create a close emotional relationship without the romance (as I think this is essentially pretty unlikely in adult life, unless you are very lucky with friends) would be to pick up a meaningful hobby or pastime. Such as volunteering, writing, art, dedication to a career that gives you meaning, etc. I think those are the only things I would put on the same level of meaning- if not higher.
posted by quincunx at 5:46 PM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

No issue with anything said so far. Except that the kind of intimacy you're talking about, OP, doesn't always happen within just any committed relationship, either, and it doesn't always last when it does. It's an ideal that can be real enough, but even when it comes about (by luck), it may not be realized, with the same person, from year to year to decade. People and feelings change, and lots of coupled folks are just as lonely and unfulfilled in their long-term pair bonds as others are out of them. Plenty are bored, stifled, even want other people now and then, sometimes at the same time that they love their partner. Many are outright miserable. Some are just used to each other and own things in common (like a past). They don't have to deal with the stigma of public aloneness, though, and some of the private kind of aloneness is (maybe, sometimes) mitigated if they have kids. It's all just messy. And it's a crapshoot.

So are those briefer moments of connection anyone can feel with anyone at any time. I don't think these come to me less often than they did when I was in a relationship, or that I'm less loving or kind or open.

I say all that because I think sweetkid's right, there is a lack when you're single, but it's certainly not exclusive to single people, and I think Theila's right, most people probably are not "completely" happy or contented most of the time.

Your last relationship was a year long; how long have most of them been? Are you comparing several experiences of the honeymoon phase to several experiences of the first year of leaving a relationship? That's going to sharpen contrasts, if so; there's a lot of stuff in the middle.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:13 PM on July 15, 2015 [14 favorites]

Oh, honey, no. I mean, if you need a romantic partner in your life to feel really fulfilled, then that's cool, and you do you, etc. But does everybody need a romantic partner to have a rich and fulfilling life? No, not by a long shot.

I'm living a rich and fulfilling life without a romantic partner; therefore, that is a possible life experience. And I'm not by myself - a LOT of people are single and really, really happy, either by choice or circumstance (or luck!).

Actually, at this point in my life I can't imagine where I would find the time to develop or maintain a romantic relationship; there are about a billion things I'm way more interested in doing. I stay up too late every night because the world is really big - there's just so fucking much to do and think and learn and talk about, and I already have a lot of really wonderful people in my life who don't get the time or attention they deserve from me.

In comparison, my life experience during relationships has been on average about 100% awkward insecurity and painful self-consciousness.

So, if you're looking for validation that life is better with a romantic partner, I'm sure there are people here who are able vouch for that life experience. But if you're looking for reassurance that life without a romantic partner can be really good, really actually fulfilling - I can vouch for that. It absolutely can.
posted by kythuen at 7:32 PM on July 15, 2015 [21 favorites]

Is it fair to say life isn’t as rich without that deep connection with someone? Can one channel openhearted and loving acts of kindness and affection in other ways that are just as fulfilling? [...] Maybe I can somehow quiet the desire through meditation, so it isn’t always creeping into my thoughts and feelings?

Since you meditate and practice mindfulness, I will meander along the lines of buddhist /taoist thought.

"Deep" means different things to different people. If by deep you mean having those in your life who see, understand, give time to and care about you, to whom you are happy to return the same favor -- then yes, humans beings need deep connections to live a rich and full life. However, those connections need not be romantic. Some find it in friendship; others, in serving some greater purpose; others, in work; others, by being closely connected to a large network; others, through fame or fortune.

In humans, this romantic preoccupation is seasonal. When we are young, we are obsessed with it. As time passes, our passions cool, and our minds turn to other priorities. Romantic love moves from a must-have, to a nice-to-have. For many long-term couples, the love and attention once reserved exclusively for one another become transferred onto their children. It is the circle of life.

When I was younger, I chased that elusive intimacy in one after another after another, and the idea of passions cooling seemed alien. A giving-up-of, a letting-go-of. These days, time having passed, I am a different person, and think differently.

A romantic bond as automatic signifier of depth and connection is an ideal of the modern world, and in a sense, a fairy tale. The truth is, from birth onward, and from one moment to the next, we are essentially alone. The most intimate lovers remain worlds apart, carrying the occasional glimpses we see of the other's soul as promises of an imaginary forever none of us can fulfill. We are destined to be separated from everyone we will ever love -- by time, space, by change, by death. This is why a connection, ANY connection, is so infinitely precious, because even as it is happening, it is gone. Our most consistent and deepest connection is only with ourselves, and the thoughts and beliefs we carry within us.

When we have a deep connection with ourselves, when what we carry within us sustain and nourish us, then we will no longer need any external thing to help us channel love into the world. When love is in our heart, given to us by our self, love becomes the easiest thing to give because we have it in abundance.

Meditation is not be a means by which we escape from the human condition. Meditation is merely to be still, and through that stillness observe and understand how our false "self" twists our thoughts, attach visceral pangs from our distant past to unrelated current triggers, invest in strange beliefs that are so much a part of us we no longer see their illogic. Meditation by itself quenches no desire; such desires can only be quieted by seeing and unraveling WHY we have such a longing in the first place, what kind of thoughts stirs it into existence, what kind of feelings surrounds it, what kind of symbolism we attach to it, and why must this longing be satisfied by this particular kind of relationship..

This is not to say the longing for a relationship is wrong, or that we should be quenching all such desires. Merely, that life is very much richer if we can fully appreciate and enjoy deep connections with everyone at all times, and that self understanding can be helpful toward that goal.
posted by enlivener at 10:17 PM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

You want to read Eve Tushnet , a catholic lesbian blogger who writes and talks to many people about vocations beyond partnerships. She's willing to look into other traditions and ideas, and is thinking r very hard about this very question with kindness. Her answer is usually yes, with help and dedication.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:27 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that romantic love was invented only a couple hundred years ago in France. Joseph Campbell explains it really well in his books. As part of the rise of individualism, the idea of one special partner for each person became popular. It seems like the idea of romantic love has filled in a space in western culture where God used to be (no judgments on that either way, just an observation). Romantic love is not the end-all be-all in cultures where extended family/community is still central in life. I am not sure where you live, but in the United States individualism dominates everything and the only forms of intimacy still promoted/encouraged are romantic partners or parent-child. I think it is just human and beautiful to want to connect, but culture influences which connections are most accessible/valued.
posted by Sophia Del Verde at 7:02 AM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Obviously you may or may not be into any of these (and each given suggestion may be a bad idea) but here is a brainstormed list:

Kids: you can have really close and fulfilling relationships with them if you put in the time and effort. This can range from volunteering at a children's hospital to having kids of your own. Organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters can facilitate a connection with an older child. You might consider fostering if you're interested in younger kids. It can be hard work, but it can also be really, really fun and deeply rewarding.

Animals: Dogs especially can form close relationships with you, but other people like other animals. Some volunteer opportunities with animals lead to bigger communities. Either way, you are needed for affection and care.

Volunteering in general: There are a number of people who would love to have a weekly visitor. There are specific volunteer programs set up for this kind of visiting, usually for the elderly.

Religion: Religion can be really very fulfilling for a lot of people, especially smaller/closer religious groups that have a shared sense of purpose.

Intense Group Experiences/Fandoms: I know the least about these, but I hear a lot of community and closeness comes from this kind of stuff. Maybe Burning Man? Adventure hikes? Doing ecstasy with strangers in general? You get the picture.

BDSM: yeah, you kinda have to be into it to be into it, but a lot of people who are into it have strong, intimate, and affectionate relationships with people they're not romantically partnered with, probably because they do intimacy building stuff like tie each other up and boss each other around.

Anyway, like I said, many or all of these may be inappropriate, but they are all pretty good for emotionally close and mutually giving relationships.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:07 AM on July 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Society treats them like they don't exist, but many (by no means all of the ones I've known, let's be clear on that) elderly women have told me they were happy, fulfilled people who didn't feel the need for a romantic partner again. Maybe they were all deceiving themselves because dating is awful, especially when you're out of practice and the pool of candidates is small and shrinking, but I doubt it.
I don't know whether *you* are amongst the people who can forge a happy unpartnered celibate and aromantic life, or if you are at a stage in your life where that's possible (not necessarily old age but it seems like the sort of thing where some people have different capacity/needs at different points) . But I don't think it's at all cut and dried that life is incomplete without a primary romantic partner.
posted by gingerest at 7:25 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

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