If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
The lines probably need no introduction to the more ‘literate’ ones, but as I had not heard them till recently, I am assuming there might be some others who have not, either. The lines are from Auden’s poem, ‘The More Loving One’ (a beautiful beautiful poem).
I was thinking about relationships and equality yesterday. The thoughts were running at the back of my mind, for the whole evening. Then, while listening to Alexander McCall Smith’s World According to Bertie audiobook, the lines, serendipitously, reached me.
My musings were of a different nature, probably. Now I am not so certain. When I noted down couple of points in my (e)notebook to dwell upon later, it probably was about relationships in general; one to one relationships — not necessarily romantic. But then Auden’s poem, and the lines in question, do not need to be seen as about romantic love either. Or even love, for that matter.
Anyway. Back to my musings. Relationships, my musings concluded, cannot survive equality. At least most relationships cannot. I will explain.
Most people in relationships are unequal — one is more understanding, more expressive, more open, more candid, more sensitive, more joyful, more temperamental. Not all together, of course, but still. The ‘do unto others’ golden rule hardly helps sustain a relationship of such an unequal twosome. Even keeping aside that fringe example of a masochist following that rule, most relationships will not survive — or at any rate prosper — if one did unto the other one would have the other to do unto him/her. Even the so called silver rule — that is negatively framed and is a bit defensive therefor — hardly fixes the problem. The reason is simple: the other is a different person, an unequal (without the usual negative connotations of the word).
The only, rule that I can think of, that could make relationships among unequals work is the one that has been encoded in a networking RFC 1122 (yes!)
“Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept”
When Jon Postel led down that rule/principle, he was probably just asking computer programmers to do in programs what one is supposed to do in real life. But I do not know the history of the rule so well.
Here is a thing though: while the golden/silver rules are simple, this “robustness principle” or Postel’s Law, is kind of complicated. Yes the wording is quite simple, but unlike ‘do’ and ‘do not’, which are easy enough to understand, liberal and conservative have shades: how much liberal, how much conservative? If you’re too conservative in doing, you will become a bore, or worse: a zombie. If you’re too liberal in accepting, soon enough you run the risk of being a punching bag, a doormat.
Feminists (and I am partly one — without the ism) will say it is an old rule that patriarchy has set for women. But in the post-modern era, where power structures are changing, where rules and roles are not set for more and more people, but are decided more and more in an ad-hoc manner, the survival and indeed flourishing, of relationships will depend on the fine balance in implementation of the Postel’s law. (Note that when the rules were set by society, survival was not an issue, flourishing was an accident).
Back to Auden; your best chance is probably still to say, “let me be the more loving one”. Let me be the fairer, the more tolerant, the more understanding, the more forgiving, the more caring, the stronger, the less sensitive, the more conscientious. If, after it all, one is turning into a doormat, maybe the relationship is not worth fighting for. It may survive, if one can call it that, but it will never flourish. And why invest further in such a venture?