The only thing I’ve ever done enthusiastically is reject. I only know how to orient myself through refusal. After the end of my longest relationship, refusing love was a necessary defense, I was broken. I felt the power of resignation. I felt safe in creating a mantra or a prayer or a devotional against love. I listened to a couple of songs like saying Hail Marys, my finger on the repeat icon like it was a bead on a strand of a rosary. There was a book, too.
Against Love by Laura Kipnis is less an indictment of love and more an evisceration of marriage and the idea that love can and should be a forever commitment between two people. It’s a polemic that rails against monogamy, it argues that adultery is a form of protest. We as consumers of love have internalized all the same notions of capitalism and applied them to the most private and subjective parts of our lives. In a chapter titled “Relationship Gulags” she writes, “What current social institution is more inclosed than modern domesticity? What offers greater regulation of movement and time, or more precise surveillance of body and thought to a greater number of individuals?”
I’ve written about it before, that sometimes love has felt like chains. That love felt like a damp cloth wrapped across my eyes, over my nose, bound the tightest through my mouth. What I had learned of love was that it would be cultivated in the dark, protected by silence, and through denial it would be maintained.
The first song Against Love was Twin Shadow’s “Run My Heart”. I listened to it most frequently on my commute home, sometimes scream singing on my walk, spinning in the streets late at night. It has a slow build, verse, hook, verse, hook. When the chorus hits it washes down like a wave “this isn’t love, this isn’t love” swirling down and around, then it pulls back and the build starts again although a little fuller. “I’m not in love, I’m not in love, this isn’t love, this isn’t love” There’s a sound toward the end that sounds like a siren. I would close my eyes and imagine it was a song I was listening to while driving a car off a bridge. The fullest part hit when the car met the water below, and that sound at the end was the sound of the ambulance heard from underneath, fully submerged. I was drowning in grief. Exiting that relationship was not dissimilar to waking up in my own grave.
It felt fitting that after my failure I sought to be comforted by Kipnis’s snarky disavowal of the couple, “Run My Heart” was the sonic dismissal of love. I had left a relationship with the clearest understanding of what wasn’t love and spent the next year with those lyrics as a shield and weaponizing refusal.
The next time I said “I love you” I was careful, deliberate, and a bit restrained. I interrogated the feeling for months and decided in some ways, love was selfish. Sharing it was about me and my need for release and since that was the case I would keep it like a secret. It felt a bit like a Trojan horse-a gift until the wall was breached, then once inside an attack against the sovereignty of the person receiving it. I tried to wait until it was said to me, it felt like that would be the only way to know it wasn’t coercive. I tried to wait but ultimately failed. I whispered it and waited in those seconds after, feeling like I had dropped a bomb.
(I keep meaning to broach this in therapy, why the narratives of love I cling to are ones of weapons, selfishness, and chains.)
The second song was Twin Shadow’s “Slow”. I played it on repeat last year in the early spring after a fairly intense fling. I belted the words in the light rain while walking home through McCarren Park, the echoey line, “I don’t wanna, be, believe, in love” sang in protest to the developing feeling. I was begging the empty sky for it to not be true, but knowing somewhere in my body I wanted to believe in and be loved. I knew with certainty that this fling was not the site where love would be received but still I mourned. I wanted to feel the walls crumble, to dive into reverb and syncopated drums and looping guitar. I wanted to melt into the honey sweetness of the alternating lyric, “I don’t wanna believe, but be, in love.” I spent the rest of the season realizing refusal no longer served me. I was searching for a way to stop defining myself through resignation.
I’m not ready to talk about the next time because it was a few months ago and it’s sour in my mouth, curdled by anger. I stood on a patio, in the warmth of summer, surround by people, and decided it didn’t matter, whether it was too soon or too selfish or too silly given the circumstances. I decided it was honest and vulnerable and I was tired of a defensive position. I decided I was going to try and I was going to mean it, I wasn’t going to believe in, but be in love. And I was. In all instances of love lost, this was the one where I could honestly say I tried with absolute certainty, but like the rest, it seems to matter not. Believing doesn’t make it so. Sometimes its not love, it’s cathexis.
I’ve been thinking a lot about something Ayesha Siddiqi said- “In eastern cultures telling someone you love them means more I think, here someone could say that to you and it doesn’t tell you anything about what you can expect from them or where you stand. In Pakistan you provide meals and care for people you don’t even like that much, in America people throw around ‘I love you’ but I still don’t understand what they mean by it when their culture lacks codes of duty and responsibility. What I mean is I was raised that you don’t need to like someone to be there for them. It’s not hypocrisy it’s the understanding we all need to be there for each other. It’s about being above such things. So, to me to claim love should imply a great deal more than your mood.”
In All About Love, bell hooks offers the most concise way of understanding love. She quotes M Scott Peck’s definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” She says “to truly love, we must learn to mix various ingredients — care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”
bell hooks discusses the family as the site where we must start in the process of learning what isn’t love. It’s there where we accept toxicity and abuse as love and as a result we carry that with us and re create it in all other relationships. This non-love is weaponized against us, like the statistics that say those who attempt to stab end up stabbing themselves. We are barbed against each other until we confront that most often the love we learned isn’t love at all.
Like Siddiqi is interested in what love is beyond a mood, I am interested in what isn’t love. When I think back on the times I have said it, I get one of those Twin Shadow lyrics stuck in my head. This isn’t love, I’m not in love. It was a mixture of a few ingredients. In my family of origin, it was sometimes care, sometimes affection but never both at once. Trust was non existent, and communication was impossible. In my first and longest relationship was a combination of commitment and care. The next was respect, affection, and open communication. The last was recognition and affection. These are beautiful things to have, and sometimes having a few is enough for a meaningful and worthwhile experience. But having a few isn’t love.
The last is Twin Shadow’s cover of “Not In Love” originally written and performed by 10 CC. Since February I have watched the video recording of the cover, from the “UNDER THE CVRS” session at least once a week. It’s just his black silhouette, that same echoey voice reassuring both of us that just because he calls us up, not to get him wrong, not to think we’ve got it made. It’s a fairly straight forward cover of the original, which started as a riposte from Eric Stewart to his wife declaring that he was not expressive enough. I have grown weary of Kipnis style snark only to find myself playing on repeat, another clever jab at love. Stewart went on to say “I had this crazy idea in my mind that repeating those words would somehow degrade the meaning.” Refusal. During the ambient middle section, George gets up, sets his guitar down, and leaves the frame. We see the chair he was sitting in, black against a white screen as the line “big boys don’t cry” echoes. When I listen to this song it doesn’t feel like I am the narrator, it feels more like I am Stewart’s wife. This time its me hearing a partner tell me they aren’t in love, that just because they’ve got my picture up its mostly because it hides a nasty stain that’s lying there. I know better than to ask, to get it wrong, to make a fuss, to think I’ve got it made. We’re not in love.