Listen. Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life? - Mary Oliver
A few years ago I was so moved by the biopic “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” about the complex relationship Leonard Cohen had with his most significant lover/muse Marianne Ihlen, I paid homage to it on my Instagram feed by writing: “Some souls are steadfast and some are restless. Soulmates don’t often live and die together. But they often live and die a richer life.” However, one of my followers wasn’t nearly as enamored. She commented, “I never bought the trope of tortured genius as a free pass to screw anything that moved whilst inflicting pain on the people who love you. Just a different face of misogyny. They need their “muses” but mostly treat them abominably. Glorious poet but is he a great man?”
I was pretty dumbfounded by her ire that men like Leonard Cohen were abusive and misogynistic, especially in light of the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins of the world. By all accounts, Cohen loved women, lots of them, and was the first to admit he didn’t always do right by them. “I had a great appetite for the company of women,” he said in a 2005 interview. “I’m all for the matriarchy. But I wasn’t very good at the things that a woman wanted.” In my opinion, Cohen was refreshingly non-defensive about his lifestyle and often struggled with its repercussions. In his poem ‘Days of Kindness’ he writes to Marianne and her son:
I pray that loving memory exists for them too the precious ones I overthrew for an education in the world.
My friend’s criticism of how Cohen lived his life is a classic example of how easily we put people into a box of conventional norms and expectations, and become critical of them for operating outside those boundaries. The fact is, Leonard Cohen had a great appetite for all of life, which included the explosive availability of sex beginning in the 1960’s. Like a lot of men and women dedicated to a life less ordinary, Cohen was always a Bird on the Wire. And, by most accounts, he wasn’t a particularly big asshole about it. Marianne herself said, “This relationship was a gift to me. And a gift for Leonard. …it has been sort of an opener for the rest of life for us both, for better or worse.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about freebirds because I’ve been sheltering, laughing and sleeping with one for over a year. I feel fortunate to have had a lovely lover during the pandemic, meeting him in late February of 2020 right before Covid came down like an anvil across the globe. But I sensed from the start he wasn’t long term partner material, having never stayed with a woman for more than a handful of years, nor remained in one place if there was an adventure to be had in a faraway land. As Maya Angelou has said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Which I would modify to read, “When someone shows you who they are, don’t think your lovely ass is going to change them. Get over yourself.”
What I love about this freebird man, and what I suspect attracts so many women to his type, is his devotion to the experiences of life, and the infectious enthusiasm this engenders. He is also one of the kindest men I’ve ever dated, as well as patient, intelligent and an attentive lover. It doesn’t hurt that he looks like the runner up in a James Bond casting call and makes me laugh so hard I’ve acquired new definition to my abs. He has learned and taught and built and explored all over the world, and has never been inclined to bend his “one wild and precious life” around the life of another. As he wrote in a clarifying message, “I’ve been content to enjoy relationships while pursuing life and adventures with the hope that we continue to parallel. Until we don’t. I’ve been a chaser of adventure, never of a person.” Like Cohen, he has been a lover of women, remaining friendly with many of his ex’s and never speaking poorly of them, not even the one who was a verifiable nutcase. In essence, he’s an overall exceptional human, dedicated to his own education in the world. To me, that’s super attractive.
When I described this relationship to a friend she said, “But how sad for him that he doesn’t want the benefits of a long-term relationship.” Possibly. These benefits, which include longer life expectancy and higher rates of happiness in both genders who are married, have been well documented. However, I pointed out that she was looking at it from the perspective of a woman who was mostly content being married, but that many of us who haven’t experienced marriage as a place of support and tranquility weren’t exactly clamoring for its potential benefits.
A common argument for leaving a freebird when you want a committer is that you’re wasting time that could be spent in pursuit of someone who is your better match. This makes sense if you’re eager to have babies or acquire the material trappings of a settled life. But when you’re on the other side of reproduction and not looking for someone to bankroll your retirement, what is it specifically you need to commit to, other than eight hours of sleep and a high fiber diet? I don’t consider it a waste of time being with someone who delights me. I don’t believe my long term partner is sitting on a shelf somewhere with an expiration date and someone else is going to snatch him up while I’m frittering my years with an inappropriate match. If my discontent with the situation begins to exceed the contentment I feel within it, that’s my signal to leave.
It could be that I’m just a Dopamine-dominant person and like attracts like. In her research as biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, the author of Anatomy of Love and Why Him? Why Her? has found that people with Dopamine-dominant personalities (curious, creative, adventurous types) tend to be drawn to fellow dopamine-influenced adventurers. Serotonin-dominant people (traditional, conscientious, and rule-following) are also drawn to people like themselves. On the other hand, testosterone-dominant people (analytical, skeptical, and tough-minded) tend to be drawn to their behavioral opposites, Estrogen-dominant individuals (nurturing, contextual, imaginative).
So will long term love elude me as long as I’m a dopamine junky? This is where I’d like to challenge the conventional notion that we are either free birds or committers. Is it possible that we can be committed freebirds without it being an oxymoron? Can we be devoted to living our most fulfilling lives in a way that is committed to growing a history with a partner? I think so.
What I see many couples suffering from is the death of their own passions in service to the partnership. Certainly, any good partnership requires negotiation and compromise. We don’t want to feel that our desires of the relationship continually take a back seat to the desires of the individual. But when people stop singing or dancing or writing poetry because they feel they should be spending more time serving the partnership before they serve the cultivation of their own talents and joy, they invariably settle into a numbing mediocrity. Or, like me, hit fifty and explode with pent up, and misguided, resentment. After all, my partner never told me to stop loving my own pursuits. We simply did too much as a couple and I neglected my own needs. Until I didn’t.
The Freebird in Hydra
When a friend in a committed relationship with two young kids was about to throw in the towel on their fifteen year history because of a gradual lack of affection and emotional support, she imagined all the wonderful things she would do with her life again were she single. Then she decided she could do all those things without leaving her marriage. She stopped asking her wife to go to counseling or change who she was in the relationship. My friend instead focused on finding her own happiness. She rekindled friendships, skied and hiked and held up her end of the parenting, letting go of the notion that her wife was responsible for making her happy. She became the committed freebird and gradually her partner woke up. Now it’s her wife who is bidding for affection and has become more present and loving without the overt, and often tedious, mediation of a couple’s therapist. And though I try not to take a hard line on most topics here, I do believe unequivocally that individual therapy was more beneficial to my happiness in relationships than couples work ever was.
But to love a freebird is a precarious proposition. I’ve felt sad more than a few times this past year. Those of us who want to be partnered are motivated by the desire for a person who has our back through thick and thin, who won’t fuck off at a moment’s notice or take commitment lightly. But even then we may want an adventure at times that speaks to us alone. The challenge is to negotiate the spaces of our lives within love, to break free from the notion that a partner need be the only person with whom we explore. This doesn’t need to include intimacy with others, but it could. Personally, I’m a one lover kind of gal, but I’m unapologetically drawn to people doing interesting work and don’t want a partner who fears my collaboration with others.
With the world now emerging from lockdown, I’ve wondered if I should move on from my loving freebird. But I’m not ready to leave what is generally a good thing. We are dubiously conditioned to look for The One when we may benefit a great deal from enjoying The One Right Now. Instead, I decided to ask for what I wanted without asking him to change: Could I be a free agent without giving up the Us? He agreed. So, I pop onto dating sites once in a while just to look around. This doesn’t entail having sex with other men, just keeping myself open to someone more interested in building a life with me. I prioritize my local activities and friends and he works on growing his business and plots our next adventure (no more than a week in advance, of course). We have a Relationship Light kind of deal. We take care of the people we are and inspire each other to be our best selves. Above all, we’re honest with each other, transparency being the difference between a free spirit and a dishonest sack of shit. Sure, it will hurt when one of us decides it’s time to go a different direction. But we will have gained so much more over the time we spent together knowing it would end than had we ended it knowing it wasn’t forever.
By being our own freebirds, devoted to our growth and engagement with life, without requiring an inordinate amount of attention from our mates – while not accepting a regular diet of flakiness or abuse from them – we become the kind of person we want to love. The freebird finds pleasure in being single and clarity within a relationship. When you love someone for who they are, not for what you want them to be, and understand that loving them is no guarantee they’ll be around until you take your last breath, I suspect you’ll re-evaluate your concept of commitment. Our lessons of love are learned through our experience of many people over time. As Eleonore Roosevelt was purported to say, “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. When you figure out which one it is, you will know what to do for each.” Freebirds teach us to live fully. Our commitment to love and partnership will inspire us to do both.
(This piece was originally published in Erotic Review Magazine)