Family Happiness: Plato and Tolstoy on Erotic Love and Shared Horizons

It is a great irony for the modern couple that having a child together can be at once such a deep expression of love and a source of bitter conflict. I have even heard it said that these two things – romantic love and raising a family – are not meant to be integrated, that this is a mistake that misunderstands the historical institution of marriage. But this is where we’re at: many of us want both in the same place, and so we are faced with the difficult problem of reconciling the expectations of romantic love with the realities of co-parenting.

Nurturing a loving relationship with someone with whom we are raising young children is breathtakingly hard. What we assume is that it’s hard because we don’t have enough time or energy just for being a couple; we are told that we need to make that time and nurture a distinctly romantic relationship, the way couples without children do. Ideally, we keep that excitement in each other going in between our parenting duties. On Saturday nights or during naptime. More often, we just wait it out until the kids are older and we can hopefully resume our intimacy, celebrating the fact that we made it through hell and back together and can still look at each other without crying. But it’s these assumptions that I think need to be challenged.

When we work at keeping or getting back ‘the magic’ in this way, we are treating child-free relationships as the ideal. And this inevitably leads to disappointment, when laundry and night feedings get in the way of spontaneity and erotic desire. This aspiration also, I suspect, misses an unequaled opportunity: the opportunity to grow and learn and love alongside the other. I want to propose that instead of couples with children trying to emulate couples without, on the contrary the model of co-parenting love might be a good model for all relationships. This might not sound new, as I think we often suspect that there is something deeper to be found here, but I think that because we fail to appreciate specifically what this is, we continue to aspire, consciously or not, to the child-free kind of love.

What we are trying to get back, of course, are those early days when we’re so into one another that we can barely think of anything else. It’s what Plato characterizes as an exclusively erotic kind of love. He uses for this the imagery of the face-to-face relationship, where the two lovers are gazing only at one another, desiring and being desired, affirming and being affirmed. There’s no question that this is an exciting and stimulating time in the history of a couple. But it’s limited, as Plato’s image illustrates. It grows tiresome. It’s never enough.

This is where Platonic Love comes in. This is not, as the common (mis)understanding of the term would have us believe, simply a relationship without sex. In fact, a relationship can be both Platonic and sexual. Platonic love imagines the partners in a couple no longer facing one another but side by side, facing a common horizon. Rather than gazing at one other, they are aspiring to something beyond themselves, and aspiring to this beyond together. This is the relationship in which we find ourselves when we give up our narrow and self-oriented desires for love, recognition and desirability, for the broader value of building or nurturing something in the world. This kind of project exposes us to the unknown and to the possibility of genuine self-expansion. It also affords us a view of the other that is unavailable to us when our sole desire is for self-affirmation.

It is here that I find a person who is fundamentally unknown to me because he is not a finite object but an element of my open-ended project. At the same time he becomes all the more precious to me as I become responsible for what is so deeply precious to him. My parenting work actively cares for what he cares for, nurtures what he loves, and contributes to something he is building. And vice versa, of course. And this has the interesting effect that we are no longer just reflections for one another, but two persons apart with independent life. We are not fused as one, we are engaged as two, distinct yet related by a common vision. What we can love in each other becomes so much more than how we make each other feel.

From this perspective my lover becomes my challenger and my co-learner, and rather than an insular gazing at the other gazing at me, I find beside me the person who forces me to be a bigger and better human in many crucial ways, a person who pushes me outside of myself. And where in the exclusively erotic relationship disagreement is something unpleasant; something to be endured; something that damages the process of loving and feeling loved, here it becomes the catalyst for constant learning and self-questioning. If we are able to see it as such, that is.

What then becomes of the erotic when our relationship evolves in this way? Is the face-to-face relationship entirely consumed and superseded by the Platonic? I suspect that what actually happens, in the best-case scenario, is that the erotic engagement remains but is itself changed. I’m genuinely not sure whether it remains important, but in any case I still like to gaze into my partner’s eyes, I still desire his attention and his affirmation of my own desirability. But facing him, I see at the same time beyond this limited horizon. Gazing at him I see worlds, and not even possible worlds but actual worlds that our union has brought into being. That can also be exciting and thrilling and it can be a much greater source of wonder at the singular beauty of another human being. But it is not the same as the thrill of those early days, for reasons about which many long books have been written.

These reflections may seem rather abstract and idealistic, in contrast to the very real and sometimes monotonous details of raising children. But as a philosopher, I believe strongly that learning to see things in new ways can have a profound influence on how we feel and behave. If having children with someone brings with it the opportunity for a new and very different kind of love and happiness, then a great deal of misery and disappointment can be avoided by recognizing this and moving beyond the longing for what is lost.

Tolstoy’s lovely short story Family Happiness illustrates just this resistance and bitter disappointment, and an eventual epiphany that restores happiness. Masha spends years in anguish at the perceived loss of her husband’s love. As a young woman, her husband remarks of her that she comes alive only to be admired, and indeed the reader gets the impression that her grief is for the loss of this self-to-be-admired. When the epiphany that reveals a different kind of happiness, the titular family happiness, is finally achieved, it is expressed as a letting go of this self-oriented perspective. For Masha it is a letting go of what seemed like the only thing worth living for, and I suspect that many of us feel such a strong attachment to the idea of love as self-affirmation that we can only see its loss as the loss of the relationship. Tolstoy’s story suggests that on the other side of such a letting-go is a relationship where exclusive intimacy opens up to a love that makes way for something more, something beyond the self. This is the moment for Masha when she comes alive again, when she learns to really adore her children, as well as her husband not as her lover but as the person who also adores them.

This would mean that parenting is not an obstacle to a relationship but an opportunity. For couples without children (because I in no way want to endorse the idea that having children is superior to not having them), such an opportunity might be created by having a shared project of another kind. A very long time ago, a boyfriend suggested to me the value of this shared project idea, so we started a poetry magazine together. It didn’t end up going anywhere, and in the end neither did the relationship, but I now understand how much we each gained in being so much more for one another than self-reflections. A topic for further consideration might be what kinds of joint projects can give rise to this Platonic love and what are their similarities and differences from the co-parenting project. Plato’s own culturally-specific view of where this higher love might be found is itself a great source of ideas, of course, but Plato doesn’t seem to have regarded co-parenting as among those common horizons.

So instead of parents looking to childless couples for inspiration on how to be more spontaneous or more romantic or more sexually exciting, perhaps the beauty of the common horizon should be what we all aspire to, at least as a second or further stage of a relationship’s evolution. As Tolstoy says “each time of life has its own kind of love”. I’m not saying that parents can’t or shouldn’t go in for all that ‘reviving the romance’ stuff, but the sources that are selling us that can’t begin to capture what it’s like to be madly in love with your children together.

  • photo courtesy of Julia Nathanson Photography