‘There ought to be some mode of life where all love is good, where one love can’t compete with another but adds to it.’
– William Golding, The Spire
I had dinner with a great friend this week. She’s the only friend that I have kept from school and I adore her. Our lives have gone in very different directions since school, but our friendship has survived. It’s built on old jokes, past experiences and a shared love of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harry Potter, and it’s wonderful. Our longest running joke revolves around the fact that we both have unnaturally high self-esteem. We’re awesome. Really, we are.
When times are good, this attitude is meant in jest. She has a crush on a colleague who isn’t responding to her flirtations and we proclaim that there must be a reason, it can’t just be because he doesn’t like her. Who would turn her down?! But when life gets harder, this self-belief becomes a crutch to support us through the difficulty until we reach the sunlight on the other side. Don’t worry, we repeat, it’ll be OK. It almost becomes a mantra. We’re awesome after all, how can it not be OK? I don’t always believe it, but it comforts me to pretend. I can try to believe that I’m enough, and it might become so.
I mention this because the fact that my self-esteem is so introverted and built on my own opinion plays an important role in what I am about to write. If I didn’t have faith in myself and my value, I imagine that I would think and act very differently.
My mother has a book called ‘Guess How Much I Love You.’ It’s a children’s book that she bought when neither my sisters nor I were really children anymore, but she thought it was sweet so bought it anyway. I thought it was horrible. This was the first sign that the way I see love is, well, different…
In the book, a small rabbit tries to tell a big rabbit how much he loves him, claiming his love is as wide as his arms or as high as he can jump, but with each declaration, the big rabbit goes bigger. The big rabbit is taller, his arms are wider, he can jump higher. No matter how hard the small rabbit tries, he can’t make his love big enough. In the end, the small rabbit announces that he loves him right to the moon. The big rabbit immediately counters that *he* loves him to the moon…and back. The fucker just wouldn’t let the small rabbit win!
Now, it is possible that I read too much into the story and completely missed the point that they just love each other, full stop, but it hit a nerve and I think I’ve worked out why. The big rabbit was turning love into a competition.
As an intensely competitive person, you would imagine that I would agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment and be all for the fight. I would show you that I love you more than you love me, I’ll be the best damn love you’ve ever had, I’ll be the One! But I’m not, I don’t want to be, and I’m certainly not going to compete like that. It’s not a fair competition and I would lose just by taking part.
Competition only works when the two variables can be directly compared and when the outcomes and results are quantifiable and measurable. Speed, height, depth etc. It is only in these strictly defined terms that it is possible to say definitively that one is better than the other. Otherwise, the comparisons are too easily swayed by personal opinion. Of course, everyone has preferences but these don’t decrease the value of the lesser choice. I prefer peanut butter milkshakes to strawberry ones, but that doesn’t intrinsically make strawberry a poorer quality flavour or really confer any judgment on the value of the two flavours.
I’m labouring the point, but my opinion that competition is of no worth unless a direct and fair comparison can be made has had a profound effect on my personal relationships.
As always with me, it seems to boil down to the fact that I’m not a romantic, I’m a scientist. And potentially, a secret Vulcan. Competing against another for something as ethereal and subjective as love is illogical. There is nothing quantifiable about love or relationships, nothing that is objectively measurable. I don’t know how to measure affection. I can’t calculate how much I feel for someone, or how much they feel for me. I can’t measure how beautiful or witty or caring someone is, scoring their assets on a Top Trump-style card. I can’t place a numerical figure on the value of a relationship, comparing it’s worth to others.
And I am so grateful for that. I’m in a polyamorous relationship so it would be very easy to feel in competition with the other people in my lover’s life. Does he want them more than me? What do they do or have that I don’t? How can I be better than them? But just asking these questions is dangerous because, even when my self-esteem is soaring, it’s rare to compare yourself to others and not see faults. I’m British after all, we’re much too self-depreciating! I would just see where I fell short, where I wasn’t enough.
Luckily, I don’t work that way. I know that it is irrelevant whether I see myself as more or less than the other women so I’ve stopped comparing. They may be curvier or thinner, they may be smarter or funnier, they may be everything that I am not, but they’re not me and I have confidence in my value. I know how I feel and, more importantly, I trust how he feels about me. It’s personal, it’s unique, and it is unaffected by anyone else. This knowledge doesn’t stop the occasional stab of jealousy, but it does stop that becoming an open wound. I am able to shrug, remember how great we are, and move on. Expending energy wondering where I fit on a scale or obsessing over the differences is exhausting and counter-productive. Maybe what I see as a lesser quality is what makes me special. Maybe he sometimes prefers something and someone completely different. Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway!
Feeling in competition with another is not only an issue in open relationships. Everyone has a past. Everyone has loved and been loved; been heartbroken or been the heartbreaker. What about that one that got away, that one who could have been? As a subsequent lover, how can you not feel in competition with them? And if that previous love was beautiful and perfect, should you feel less loved in comparison? Exes and old loves have all the benefits of rose-tinted hindsight and none of the weight of every day existence, glowing with nostalgia while the reasons that the relationship failed get lost in the memory. They are a cropped and filtered photograph, locked in time with all the imperfection edited out. They are an impossible opponent, so why compete?
It has been suggested that I am unusual for thinking this way. That what I see simply as the most logical approach is not how most people think. I sometimes worry that this reliance on logic makes me somehow cold. I worry that my lack of jealousy suggests a lack of feeling. I really was only half joking when I referred to myself as a Vulcan!
But I strongly believe that love and lust are not finite resources to be divided between us. Loving someone doesn’t mean taking that love away from another. There’s more than enough to go around and it’s not a competition. Even if it was, I can’t compete in a fight like that. Trying to be ‘better’ just belittles what I do have and makes me seem worthless. I can only offer myself. It’s simpler that way.
I will love right to the moon and back, but if it’s not enough then no amount of fighting for position would change that. It would only hurt me to try.