Lessons in Longing
Lessons in Longing

Lessons in Longing

We all know that feeling: the slow, fermenting desire for something missing; the visceral ache that roils within us; the bittersweet anticipation of that which we may never get.

This is longing.

Longing is among the more alluring qualities of romantic love. It is the spark that ignites our imaginations, fuels our passions, and drives the dance of chase and retreat. It is the curious mix of immediate pleasure and delayed fulfillment. At once hopeful and frustrating, longing is teasing and tantalizing, enticing and seductive.

That’s all well and good for summer flings and young lovers, but for most of us in committed relationships, our days of longing apparently ended the moment we “acquired” the object of our affection. How could we possibly want something we already have? Indeed, the current cultural climate supports a narrative of waning passion in the face of commitment.

This common wisdom is not entirely groundless; it is true that the care and protection we seek from love can block the autonomy and sovereignty needed to experience longing. However, the fact that security and desire seem to be at odds with one another does not mean we cannot experience them with the same person; it simply means we do not experience them at the same time. In what follows, I hope to offer some practical insights into inviting longing back into your relationship.

Longing and Loss

In Meditations on Loving and Losing, I wrote at length about how our relationship with loss shapes our capacity for love. I suggested that our nervous systems and conditioning compel us to deny loss, detracting from our ability to appropriately cherish our relationships. It is in the paradox of impermanent commitment that we are able to continuously transform our committed relationships.

Similarly, in order to long for someone, we must allow ourselves to feel their absence, even if they seem to always be near. This is such a painful prerequisite that many of us go to great lengths to avoid it. Yet, by learning to responsibly cultivate distance, we can reignite our passions. As Esther Perel says,  “Fire needs air to breathe.”

In a committed relationship, longing invites awareness of a kind of ambiguous loss, a lacking that is fully felt but incompletely understood. Unlike other forms of more concrete desire, longing signals the absence of things that are not so easily known by our thinking brains. Longing is more than the desire for something as-of-yet unacquired. It is the thirst for something as-of-yet unnamed.

In this way, longing demands a certain tolerance for ambiguity as well as an openness to whatever may emerge in the continuous unfolding between us and our partners. Longing leaves us hanging, sometimes perilously, on the brink of catastrophe. It is this tension between disaster and reward that creates such beautiful triumphs. It is the risk of loss and the interplay between desire, obstacles, and fruition that makes longing worth our suffering.

Loathe to Long

Because longing is often experienced as unpleasant, it is easy to find ways to shut it off. Perhaps the most common way we dissociate from longing is to place the burden squarely on our partners. We expect them to be more attractive, more available, more accommodating. We think “if only he/she would ____, then I could experience that spark that’s been missing.” When they fail to deliver, we are able to justify our emotional and erotic torpor. Longing, however, is not primarily about that which is desired. It is actively cultivated in the hearts of those who would do the desiring.

So why are we so loathe to long?

In order to long for another we must first recognize them as exactly that — an “other.” We have to see them as being distinct from ourselves. Thus, longing is ultimately an expression of our existential separateness. This fact alone might be enough to understand why we are so quick to snuff it out — with a drink, a drug, a phone, a distraction, a sexual liaison, a quick pornography-assisted release. Longing is a reminder that we are ultimately alone. These feelings are unpleasant bordering on intolerable, and when they crop up, we will go to great lengths to put an end to them. Reclaiming longing challenges us to confront the ways we skirt our own mortality.

We also resist longing in loving relationships because it can have non-loving feelings embedded in it. We might have to acknowledge that our partners have disappointed us. We might have to let ourselves experience guilt and shame. We might have to grieve time lost. We might have to own our power. It’s true that longing can arise from positive experiences, but shame, guilt, fear, and anger can all intensify it. This is a rich and difficult experience. Honoring longing is not for the faint of heart.

Cultivating Longing

Most of us don’t tolerate longing, much less deliberately cultivate it. We rely, instead, on crises to remind us of impermanence and reignite desire. If love is about minimizing threat and increasing security, longing thrives in chaos, uncertainty, and “hangings in the balance.” Still, if we are courageous enough, mindful enough, graceful enough, we can harness the power of longing while foregoing these more destructive elements.

Longing is born out of imagination, which is one reason it seems at odds with the routine security of domestic life. Erotic imagination, in particular, is under constant threat. Often, fantasy is billed as an immature indulgence that ought to give way to the “responsible business” of commitment. Cultivating longing challenges us to reclaim fantasy and confront the ways we deprive ourselves of imagination daily.

A cultural emphasis on logic and practicality certainly dilutes imagination, but the most important reason we avoid fantasy is that it scares us. For starters, fantasies often include experiences that we do not actually want to have in reality. For many of us, allowing fantasy means risking having these unwanted experience materialize — or worse, having an intensely yearned-for experience fall flat.

What’s more, we suppose that if we have a fantasy, it must be shared with our partner. Fearing guilt or embarrassment, it sometimes seems easier to shut down completely. This line of thinking robs us of the freedom and autonomy necessary for eroticism and longing. Healthy couples respect the sanctuary of each other’s imagination — erotic and otherwise — and continuously negotiate their way between secrecy and transparency.

The way out of these various traps is to view fantasy as an experience in and of itself. Once we see imagination as a process of stoking desire rather than a commitment to a particular set of  thoughts, we can begin to open ourselves up to multiple dimensions of longing. In the world of imagination, we are free to live out paradoxes, contradictions, and taboos. We can transcend our physical limitations, suspend our moral code, and break rules. All of these mental experiences can prime us for real-life longing in the here-and-now.

Where do Our Longings Take Us?

One final question to ask ourselves is “Where do our longings take us?” Do they lead us towards our partners? Or towards something else? Longings that take us out of the relationship ultimately diminish intimacy. For this reason, it is important that we be deliberate about holding our relationship at the center of our imagining. If this proves difficult, a trained professional can provide a safe space to explore blockages to desire.