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By Emma-Louise Boynton
ow do we find love? How do we sustain love? And how do we survive losing love?
These are the questions Features Director at Red, Natasha Lunn, explores in her new book, Conversations on Love, which follows her widely popular newsletter of the same name, started in 2017.
Speaking to me over Zoom while I remain housebound with Covid, Lunn tells me she is no expert in love but wrote the book she has always wanted to read yet could never find - one that blends expert analysis with personal memoir, bridging “the gap between philosophy, therapy, and beautiful, personal love stories.” Having made every mistake in the book when it comes to love, she tells me, she hopes it can be as instructive as it is reassuring.
Conversations on Love is just that.
Prompted by Lunn’s struggle to conceive a child, and her devastating experience of miscarriage, the book examines the different manifestations of love between partners, siblings, friends, parents, and children, collating the wisdom of writers, therapists, and relationship experts alike. Author and journalist, Dolly Alderton; psychotherapist, Philippa Perry; psychotherapist, Esther Perel, and writer and philosopher, Alain De Botton are but a few purveyors of romantic wisdom to lend her their two cents.
“I used to think it was love that I was looking for,” Lunn sets out at the start, “but I was wrong. I was obsessed with the idea of love, not the truth of it.”
“I used to think it was love that I was looking for, but I was wrong. I was obsessed with the idea of love, not the truth of it.”
Debunking Myths On Love
That there is some eternal ‘truth’ to be uncovered about love seems to me doubtful. However, there is great value, as Lunn shows, in analyzing some of the many myths and illusions in which commonly held ideas of love and relationships are often shrouded. Such as that most alluring fallacy of all - the idea that someone else can enable you to find meaning in your life.
She quotes author Sheila Heti’s words: “You make your life meaningful by applying meaning to it - it is not just inevitably meaningful as a result of the choices you’ve made.” To which Lunn concludes, “the romantic relationship or family I wanted would not make my life meaningful, only I could.” (I ponder all the times I’ve looked to someone else to confer meaning on my life, either by way of the validation I seek in their ‘approval’ or in the hope that their perceived fullness can help fill my perceived lack. I resolve to move forward a la Heti.)
Lunn also addresses the idea perpetuated so readily in popular culture that love is a battlefield, something to be hard-fought for and hard-won. She quotes Ariel Levy, who told her: “I always thought that love was supposed to be fraught and painful and complicated. I wish I’d known it can be really easy.”
While “you have to work at a relationship” Lunn reflects, “you shouldn’t have to work at convincing someone to love you. Either they do or they don’t. The love and being loved should be easy.”
It is in these sorts of reflections, peppered between doses of expert advice and accompanied by numerous personal anecdotes, that you feel as though you’re learning alongside Lunn as she extracts and digests the sort of insights you may well wish you’d considered before your last dalliance with unrequited love or a toxic romance.
She prompts you too to probe a perhaps unconscious faith in the trappings of romantic mysticism, in ideas such as ‘chemistry’ or having a ‘gut feeling’ about your connection with someone. Psychologist Dr. Frank Tallis dismisses such notions early on as the sorts of ideas we reach for in the absence of evidence suggesting any real intimacy.
“Love requires us to be vulnerable to rejection.”
The Fragility Of Love
Having examined the topic of such universal pain and joy for so long, did writing the book change her view on love at all, I asked?
“It certainly expanded my view of it,” Lunn responds. “Beyond even just friendship, romantic and sibling love. Hearing people talk about the love they found in nature, in purposeful work, in solitude, it just blew up my understanding of love into something so much bigger and more expansive than what I’d thought previously.”
“There's a conversation in the book with the author Mira Jacob,’ she continues, “about the fragility of long-term love, of how it's dangerous, and how there can be newness and mystery in it.
“While we are kind of aware of the fragility of new love - we panic when we're dating someone new as it feels precarious and as though it could end at any moment - we don't like to admit to ourselves that long term love is fragile too, because that can feel like more of a threat. When we've loaded so much of our life into it feels scary that it could end,” she says.
The fragility of love is a theme woven throughout the book, which in many ways is an exploration of the inseparability of love from loss.
The loss of what you feel you’re missing out on when you’re single and in pursuit of love. The fear of losing something so precious if/when you eventually do fall in love, followed invariably by the actual, eventual loss of that person and hence of what you’ve built together when they die. Even when describing joyful snippets of love experienced with her husband, Dan, Lunn is wont to remind us such moments are fleeting.
“Underneath the stillness,” she writes, as she describes breaking down in fits of laughter with her husband one evening, “I feel the swelling of a sweet, sorrowful knowledge: these are the moments one of us will miss the most, one day, when the other dies. These ordinary afternoons.”
“I always thought that love was supposed to be fraught and painful and complicated. I wish I’d known it can be really easy.”
There Is No Other Life Than This
It is always “precarious to love another person” she later notes. “How much we have to lose when we do.”
It is all the more vital then, as Lunn suggests, to find joy in the present. To savor whatever it is you have right now, even when, in a world of so much optionality, when social media bombards us daily with snippets of all the other lives we’re not in this moment leading, it feels harder than ever to step through the sliding doors and not wonder what other room you could have wandered into.
“I often think about what my life would be like if this or this happened,” Lunn tells me. “If my husband and I had met earlier, and we could have taken years out to travel before we had kids… all these things.”
“When I kind of get lost in that I think about this quote from Dani Shapiro: “Change even one moment, the whole thing unravels… There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.”’
“It helps me remember there is no other version, no other life than this one,” she says. “That sentence, it always manages to grab me back into my own life and helps me understand that in love, there are always going to be all these different woulds and shoulds and maybes. But they don't exist. And you risk overlooking so much of the love that's right in front of you by getting too lost in those.”
Having gathered so many different insights and perspectives on love, can she distill what she’s learned into a single guiding principle?
“Love requires us to be vulnerable to rejection,” Lunn responds, “and to try and live inside uncertainty and to try and have the courage to face the mystery. The lesson really is that you can't cheat your way around those things. You can't leapfrog them or sidestep them.
“There are no lessons you can learn in love that can help you avoid making mistakes, facing rejection, or feeling discomfort. Accepting that and finding meaning and beauty in these experiences, rather than trying to fix each experience into something perfect is really the most important thing we can learn about love.”
Conversations On Love is out now in hardback for £12.99 here.
Conversations on Love, with Natasha Lunn
By Emma-Louise Boynton