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English review - A Good Relationship

A good relationship: how do we accomplish that? Seeing how many people showed up for this event, it is clear that we are interested in knowing how to build and maintain a good relationship. Breakups are more common than ever: almost 40% of marriages end in divorce. Why is it so hard to maintain a good relationship? Both psychologist Esther Kluwer and philosopher Marc de Kesel shed some light on these difficult, but important, questions.

Why We Should Want It

What is the secret ingredient of a good relationship? This is the question that Kluwer opened her talk with. This is an important question, because humans are social animals and relationships are not only fundamental, but also very complex. Why would we want a good relationship? A lot of evidence shows that people in good relationships are healthier, happier and that they even live longer. But since every person and every relationship is unique, one cannot simply follow a set of rules in order to build and maintain a good relationship.

Connectedness and Autonomy

There are two basic needs that people have when it comes to relationships: connectedness and autonomy. This can already be seen in the relationship between mother and child. Children need to feel secure, safe and loved. In psychological research this factor is called ‘attachment’, which is a predictor of good relationships later in life. On the other hand, children need to explore the world and to develop into a grown individual. Kluwer calls this a need for autonomy, which also translates into our grownup romantic relationships. We need to feel safe and loved, but also free to be ourselves and to develop in our own way.

The Secret

So if either of those fundamental human needs is not met within a romantic relationship, this will lead to destructive conflict behaviour and overall unhappiness with the relationship. When there is not enough connectedness partners can become detached, but without space for autonomy partners can come to feel suffocated. Kluwer analysed the positive effects of connectedness and autonomy on relationships. Generally, when we feel both connected and autonomous, our conflict behaviour is constructive rather than destructive, we are more accepting and sexually satisfied. So here we have the secret of a good relationship.

Mysticism and Love

After the talk by Kluwer, De Kesel told the audience about the history of love and the history of the concept of it. What can mysticism teach us about love? According to De Kesel it gives us a reference framework that makes us take a step back from our own ideas about love and question them. At first glance, De Kesels approach seemed quite different from that of Kluwer, but in a way they actually reached the same conclusion.

Eros and Agape

De Kesel described the ancient Greek concept of ‘eros’. ‘Eros’ is great and fantastic, but also dangerous and horrible. It is pure chaos and it is a kind of love that cannot last: it is fundamentally tragic and impossible. ‘Agape’ is another Greek word for love, but is a different kind of love. It is the kind of love of Christian marriage: it is about commitment, kindness and humbleness. Where ‘eros’ is a lack; a lack of the beloved, a never-enough, ‘agape’ is the kind of love that fills a gap within us.

The Untenability of the Ideal

Agape’ is impossible in the sense that we can never be completely fulfilled by another person: love is never perfect. There is always a part of us that escapes, that wants more, that wants different and new. This is the part in us that wants ‘eros’, the dangerous but sublime kind of love. So this conclusion comes down to the same as Kluwer’s conclusion. Kluwer holds that both connectedness and autonomy are needed in a good relationship and so are ‘eros’ and ‘agape’; passion and commitment.

Relationships and Love

After the talks by Kluwer and De Kesel there was an interview and room for discussion with the audience. Both speakers agreed on the fact that difference is very important in a relationship. Although we want to completely melt with each other when we are in love, this is not tenable in a long-term relationship. Furthermore, it was discussed that while Kluwer had been talking about relationships; De Kesel had been speaking about love. Can these concepts be mutually exclusive? Love without a relationship is possible, agreed the speakers, as is a relationship without love. Someone in the audience asked whether Kluwer and de Kesel believed that, if we love ourselves enough, we don’t need anyone else. The speakers agreed that we are social animals and that we cannot and do not want to live in complete isolation.

This report was written by Laura Keulartz, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.