My bedtime reading these days is a novel by Emily Listfield, Waiting to Surface. I’m only a few chapters into it so far, but it’s making me wonder how well we can ever really know the people we love. The book’s premise is that the husband of the protagonist, Sarah, disappears without a trace at a moment when they are estranged from each other and on a fast track to divorce.
While she’s trying to digest the initial, nauseating news of her husband Todd’s disappearance, Sarah reflects on something that resonated with me even though I’m pretty confident I’ll never go through a comparable experience. (Listfield apparently based the book on her own real-life experience – a fact I’m trying hard to repress because it so horrifies me.)
People offer up fragments of themselves to friends, spouses, lovers, leaving each person to create the remaining whole according to what they have in hand, forensic scientists all. But no two pieces are precisely alike, some barely have any resemblance at all. Love, it seems, and understanding, are largely acts of inference.
(Emily Listfield, Waiting to Surface, p. 37)
Since I don’t watch CSI but I did spend enough time in archives to warp my personality, the only metaphor that doesn’t work for me in this passage is the “forensic scientist” bit. I’m picturing instead the archaeologist, holding shards of a life. Or even more pertinently, the historian, skimming through reams of documents that time’s ravages have rendered fragile and frustratingly incomplete. The history of emotions is especially hard to reconstruct; in my dissertation research, for instance, I typically had to rely on doctors’ accounts of how women reacted to giving birth, sometimes reading the doctors’ descriptions against the grain.
We assume that the people we know are a whole lot transparent than that. Yes, people lie. But that’s not what Sarah/Listfield is saying. She’s insisting that it’s in the very nature of relationships that we cannot fathom the other in his or her fullness.
In this novel, this unknowability and ambiguity lays the ground for (apparent) tragedy. Even in the absence of high drama, however, I think that our fragmentary understanding helps explain how a partner can demand a divorce, or have an affair, or suddenly declare themselves unhappy with the couple’s division of labor – or maybe all of the above – and their partner may be blindsided.
Yet I suspect that recognizing love as an act of inference explains more than just the death of love. It may also hold the promise of greater happiness? Might it also be a call for humility toward our partners, which could liberate us (by, for instance, erasing the expectation that we’ll always automatically be on the same page)? Might it open the possibility of continually discovering new and wonderful aspects in them? Might it suggest that terminal boredom in a marriage or other long-term relationship just means we’ve closed our eyes to how our partners are fundamentally unknowable?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but they remind me of Esther Perel’s prescriptions for keeping a marriage erotically alive in her book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Much of her message is to cultivate a healthy distance and mystery. What Listfield suggests is that this mystery is always there, always present. Our task is to recognize it and celebrate it.