How Do You Keep the Music Playing?

Maybe it’s the season, but a lot of the relationships of people in my social circles seem to be falling apart these days. Ever since I started reading Tom Robbins’ books, I have been struck by the enormous challenge that he describes in many of his books: How to make love last.

Peter SteinerA couple of years ago, Robbins wrote an article in Harper’s called In Defiance of Gravity (it’s also included in his book Wild Ducks Flying Backward). In it, he describes his personal experiences with near-suicidal depression, and how he was able to pull himself back from the brink of what he calls Weltschmerz (world-weariness) The trick, he said, was to rediscover playfulness, or what the Tibetan Buddhists call Crazy Wisdom — “the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything”.

At the time, I wrote this about Robbins’ article:

Robbins says the epitome of Crazy Wisdom is the cat. I have seen cats of all ages, cats of amazing wisdom and style who otherwise show themselves to be cunning and astonishingly self-sufficient, chase a piece of string dragged by a child around the house for an hour or more, indefatigably and with enormous concentration, creativity and energy. What is the purpose of this unexpected playfulness? Is this the cat’s way of discharging the tension and anxiety that preoccupies her more sombre and sober moments? Is it her way of teaching the child (or the adult, since I get great pleasure from such games, at least until some intrigued child coaxes the string away from me to learn more about this magic trick) important lessons about instinct, about reflexes, about strategy, about the need for play, and a hundred other lessons we are too besotted with Weltschmerz to appreciate?

Perhaps that rediscovery of playfulness is also the secret to making love last. Expecting us to love one person forever, come what may, is demanding a lot of us, and arguably unnatural. Popular music is full of references to this challenge:

You’re here, what if you weren’t, what would have happened to me?
That candle, unburnt, is history
One thing I guess this place would be a mess
For my standards at best are undemanding, and that takes some understanding.
Still here, but what if we weren’t, where’d you think I would be?
For love I have learned depends on geography
Fortune found us when all around us,
Half the couples we knew were disbanding, and that needs your understanding.
And do you know even when we disagree, and freedom holds out a hand to me
You know I would never want to be without your company.
We have reached an understanding…
— Everything But the Girl, Understanding

But every morning I wake up and worry what’Äôs gonna happen today
You see it your way and I see it mine but we both see it slipping away.
You know we always had each other baby; I guess that wasn’Äôt enough.
— The Eagles, Best of My Love

Look at us baby, up all night tearing our love apart
Aren’t we the same two people who lived through years in the dark?
Every time I try to walk away something makes me turn around and stay
And I can’t tell you why.
Nothing’s wrong as far as I can see; we make it harder than it has to be.
— The Eagles, I Can’t Tell You Why

First you make believe I believe the things that you make believe
And I’m bound to let you down
Then it’s I who have been deceiving, purposely misleading
And all along you believed in me
So we circle around one another, playing a guessing game
Strangers at this masquerade, pretending to know each other
We strain to catch a name, and never see the mistakes we must have made
— James Taylor, BSUR

and my favourite:

How do you keep the music playing? How do you make it last?
How do you keep the song from fading too fast?
How do you lose yourself to someone and never lose your way?
How do you not run out of new things to say?
And since we’re always changing, how can it be the same?
And tell me how year after year, you’re sure your heart will fall apart
Each time you hear his name
I know the way I feel for you, It’s now or never
The more I love the more that I’m afraid
That in your eyes I may not see forever, forever.
If we can be the best of lovers, yet be the best of friends,
If we can try with everyday to make it better as it grows
With any luck, then I suppose, the music never ends.
— James Ingram, How Do You Keep the Music Playing?

Lots of wishful thinking but no magic secrets there. The advice we often get is not particularly encouraging: It takes a lifetime of hard work. You have to compromise, not expect too much. You need to be forgiving. You need to give space.

When I was younger, breakups were tempestuous, and usually provoked by an indiscretion. But now, its just as if the force of gravity that held couples together has been repealed, and they’re just drifting apart. Relationships are ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Perhaps this is nothing new. Maybe it’s been going on for generations and its just that, when you reach a certain age, you start to notice it, you see through the thin veneer and pick up on the signals and tones of estrangement.

The pragmatist in me says that you don’t try to “keep the music playing” — when the music stops, you acknowledge its end to your dancing partner and move on. The idealist in me says that the problem isn’t trying to make feelings of love with one person last, it’s that we don’t love enough people throughout our lives so that, when one love wanes, there are dozens of others to keep us loving. Because I do believe that without love we are nothing.

If we loved more people, freely, openly, would we feel less grief at the loss of love from one person? I’m not so sure. We might, however, be able to cope with that loss better, because we would see and feel love as an abundant and indefatigable resource. In our terrible modern world where love is treated as a scarce resource, jealously guarded and limited to one person at a time (and in some societies, to one person in a lifetime), its loss is inevitably more profound in its impact on us.

Here’s an analogy: People with enormous financial wealth don’t worry much about losing a small part of it. People with no wealth at all, when they acquire something briefly and easily, don’t worry about losing it — easy come, easy go. It’s those people who have just a little wealth, acquired with difficulty and all tied up in one thing, who feel the greatest stress and grief and sense of loss when it suddenly disappears. Is it the same with ’emotional wealth’? Is that why some people who have lost love become unable, or refuse, to love again?

What do you think? How do you keep the music playing? Is more playfulness the answer, and if so, how do we engender that? Is it even important to keep the music playing? And do you see “half the couples you know disbanding” (disengaging psychologically if not legally), or is it justme?

Cartoon: By Peter Steiner from The New Yorker, in the Cartoon Bank.

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7 Responses to How Do You Keep the Music Playing?

  1. You have to treat an intimate relationship as you treat other relationships; here’s a natural ebb and tide to them. Sometimes you’re closer, sometimes you’re not, but always have to be conscious of this and act to turn it around if you notice periods of prolonged detachment.You have to have time set aside just for sitting/lying and talking like you would with any other friend. You have to have some social things you do with them and some without, like any friend. The balance is in how long you spend together and apart, like any other friend.

  2. Evan says:

    I think you need to court each other every day, just as you did in the beginning. My grandparents were in love for their entire lives. He left small love notes for her, she always looked her best for him when he came home. They courted each other every day. My husband and I court each other every day and we’re still in love. Our lives are a bit more modern than my grand-parents, but the sentiment is the same. He’s the love of my life and I treat him as such. We respect each other, we give each other space when we need it, ect, but mostly we court each other a little bit each day.

  3. Pearl says:

    A lot of what seems to be about continuing to dance is to not sit in the corner when the tempo changes. I can’t/won’t dance to silly or to mushy or to formal distant. People just impose a theoretical envelop around the idea of the other person that’s bigger than them and decide that forever is a good thing adn both people just keep it up when they want to and they don’t They choose to treasure. A lot of people around me seem to be perpetual singles, a few polyamorous, some happy couples of decades, some unhappy couples of decades. Certainly if love becomes a ping pong between two people who depend on each other entirely for all affection and socialization, that’s a heavy responsibility for each. Cultivating community and connection all over can help. Resilience comes from supporting and being supported by a large network.

  4. Dear Dave – thank you for this! It is pure sychronicity – on the 14th I too rediscovered the joy in it all…How else can we as change agents create healthy spaces for life to flourish if we are not carrying them inside ourselves too?Much appreciated for spreading this concept and glad to be part of the interconnectedness of it all! thank you too for having your blog and sharing your thoughts with the world…

  5. Nadine says:

    Dave, I too am seeing a lot of my friends and families marriages/partnerships fall apart and for seeminly trival reasons. I have to wonder if people really know what love is. That new love feeling doesn’t last forever and people change throughout their lives because of the experiences they have. If you truly, truly love someone you want to engage with them and help them grow spiritually (not in the religious sense)and personally. I’ve certainly had some times that it would have been incredibly easy for me to leave my marriage and I stayed – difficult as it may be to find a way to love, and love differently in our relationship. We cling to secuity and sameness and repel change. Well, people change and so must the way we love each other.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    What a fascinating mix of idealism and pragmatism in these responses! What Laura Kipnis said is that, because we now work so hard at ‘work’, we refuse to work that hard again when we come home, as if our relationship were a second ‘job’. My sense is that if we stopped working so hard at work (and lowered our material lifestyles and consumption levels) we would have both more energy and more motivation (because we’d be spending more time with them) to ‘work’ at personal relationships. We’d also probably be a hell of a lot happier!

  7. ANDRE JUSTICE says:


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