Love spy Louise Rafkin on what makes our hearts go pitter-patter.
One of life’s greatest pleasures is reveling in a mutually gratifying relationship happily ever after—at least that’s what Mom said. Just how folks come to forge these eternal bonds is the stuff of Emeryville writer Louise Rafkin’s weekly “On the Couch” interview series in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Style section. In these true-life stories, Rafkin shows the many ways love can blossom (from chance meetings on airplanes to arranged marriages) and demonstrates that there actually are other ways to meet your soul mate than through an online dating service. Naturally, the accompanying photos always depict the lovebirds cuddling on—what else?—a couch. Given her druthers, Rafkin prefers to profile couples doing the unusual—for example, the 20-something couple she recently interviewed who had adopted two 16-year-old foster kids. She’s less turned on by the old “I reconnected with my high school flame online and now we’re happily married” story line. Rafkin, who also writes for The New York Times, contributes to NPR, holds a fifth-degree black belt, and runs Studio Naga, an Emeryville martial arts center, doesn’t claim to know exactly what makes for a successful relationship. But she’s no shrinking violet when it comes to discussing the subject, as I found out in a recent no-holds-barred meeting at The Monthly’s palatial offices.
Paul Kilduff: Do you consider yourself, after 100-plus interviews, to be an expert on relationships?
Louise Rafkin: I have no idea what they’re about. I am so not an expert. But I think that the successes that I see are people who find someone who wants the same thing out of a relationship. Whether it’s non-monogamy, whether it’s “we live apart six months a year,” whether it’s “we have five children.” I just did one where within three months of marriage, two 26-year-olds adopted two 16-year-olds girls from foster care. Like, random girls come up to them and say, “Will you be our parents?” And they say yes. Most people, one of those people would say, “Yeah, no way.” It’s like you [both] want to spend every night together; you [both] want to not spend every night together. You want to have sex every day; you want to not have sex. I mean, [different couples] want really different things.
PK: So are you saying it’s kind of like a business relationship?
LR: I don’t think it’s a business relationship, although you might think the people that I met in a refugee camp in Thailand who made a pact to get out of there together was sort of a business relationship. Certainly, the Indian couple that had an arranged marriage that is still [going] 30 years down the line and [who are] doing incredible, wildly successful things in business, they might consider that a business relationship. Again, different people want different things. Somebody might want someone to be their helpmeet and someone might want someone to bring flowers.
PK: Right, so I can see what you’re saying. You do have to have the same basic idea about what you want out of your relationship in order for it to work.
LR: Well, even then it’s a crapshoot, but I think it gives you more of a base. The other day, I interviewed [a couple], and I was driving away going, “Wow, I don’t know. I mean, talk to that in three years. I don’t think that’s going to fly.” I talk to people that have been just married or haven’t been married yet, and all the way through to 50-year relationships, and people who met in concentration camps or after the Holocaust. Like you know, wow! That’s a story, and did they even know they had shared values there? Just trying to survive at that point, that’s amazing.
PK: Do you ever get people that say afterward, “Hey, you know what? We’re breaking up. This isn’t working out.”
LR: I don’t get that. But I did get someone who wouldn’t do it after I spent all the time writing it. I had driven there. I had interviewed them. Many, many, many massaging moments and then they backed out. So that was a drag.
PK: Is there a common thread that you find? We always hear the ubiquitous “You got to have a sense of humor.” I mean, do you see that that’s always the case?
LR: No, because that would mean people without a sense of humor (of which I know many) would not be married, and that is not the case. [But a common thread] can be two really big personalities that need that bigness to do their own orbits, or it can be someone with a huge life and someone who’s going to stay at home and make that life happen. There’s a couple from Fremont who were from a very particular tribe in the Philippines. Their parents immigrated here, so the kids are second generation, but they wanted to marry someone from their same tribe. Their choices were fairly small; one of them met someone in England from the same tribe. Their cultural heritage is really important. So in that case, it wasn’t sense of humor. It’s like, “I want to be identified as this part of my life.” For someone else, it could be as simple as “I want to be interested.” I mean we’ve got a 50 percent divorce rate in this country. I don’t have that thing of, like, it’s only successful if it lasts. I find it interesting for the time, whatever the time is.
PK: People being dissimilar or similar, I think that comes up a lot in relationships.
LR: This is how shrinks make their money, right? Trying to figure this stuff out. Some people say opposites attract, some people say you need a degree of similarity, some people say it’s the thing that’s so opposite at the beginning that you find compelling, and then you hate it at the end.
PK: What about timing, though? There were some women before my wife and those things didn’t work out and I’ve never felt that, “Oh, that one got away.” But at the same time, I’ve felt, like, “Man, if it had been a different time for both of us, then maybe that could have worked out.” Do you know what I mean?
LR: You know the world is all about timing, isn’t it? The whole world is about, like, are you at the right corner? I think timing does have a lot to do with it and what you want. I mean, some people are very clear, they’re like, I knew I would marry and my life would look like this, and both our parents look like this, and that’s what I wanted. And other people are [less clear]: “I don’t know what I knew. Grow up and something will happen.”
PK: Yeah, I was more of the latter. I didn’t get married until much later. I was 36 but I had a good friend of mine, it was his master plan. Marry by 30.
PK: And he was. And as far as I know, he’s still married. He was methodical about everything that he did, including his relationships, and I guess his wife was fine with it. Or maybe she’s the same way. I don’t know.
LR: Well, it’s funny. I think that sometimes if you’ve had really good parenting models, people [are] like, “Oh yeah, that’s what it looks like,” and they have that clear sense. And then other people are sort of [thinking], “I don’t want it to look like what I grew up with but I’m sure what I do want it to look like.” It might have a little bit more challenge.
PK: This isn’t to knock on children of divorce, but if that’s your experience, do you think that makes it more difficult for you [to be in a relationship]?
LR: If you had a divorce where it was really crazy, yeah. I know somebody who’s had various parents in her life and she grew up to go the other way. “I’m totally stable. This is what it is, marry by 24, have children by 26. I’m not doing the same thing my parents did.” So you know, it depends.
PK: Do we expect too much out of relationships?
LR: I don’t know. Do you? Is this the ubiquitous “we”? I try to expect nothing.
PK: It’s the royal “we.” Well, I mean, do we need to be with somebody? I think most people probably do, but do people lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day you just get along, and you kind of become best friends?
LR: Are you asking me? You should not be asking me.
PK: Come on! Who am I supposed to ask about this in the room right now?
LR: I just interview how they got together, what they like to do together . . .
PK: Just the nuts and bolts.
LR: I’m not a shrink even though [my column is titled] “On the Couch.” Every once in a while I get some insight, but I think it’s completely baffling. but I do think culturally we’re a country that believes in this particular thing, and other countries believe more in tribal or community aspects. Or in France, you have affairs . . .
PK: Or Italy.
LR: We have a much more happily-ever-after story that I think actually makes people suffer. And I think that’s why everyone wants to believe so deeply in the Brad and Angelina story. It’s like we want somebody to be our Camelot. I suspect it’s just very hard to make it work whoever you are.
PK: So you think the French with the whole mistress thing, that’s actually a more sophisticated way of doing things?
LR: When I went on a book tour in France, I stayed with my editor in her house. She’s a few years older than I am, totally hot, and [also] staying there was her Hungarian professor boyfriend who she had on and off for 20 years. By the end of the week, I had met five different men with whom she had had up to 20-year relationships. And it was fascinating because she is brilliant—she’s an intellectual. She does a lot of things in her life. [She said,] “I was married, I had kids. I did that. I never needed to do it again. My rule is people know who comes before them. They don’t need to know who comes after them. I had some guy in Israel I see twice a year that I’m fond of.” It was very much about her life not being defined with one of these men. And it was shocking to me. I mean, I kept thinking, “Oh, I’m not getting the language right. Is this the boyfriend boyfriend?” But it was actually true. She had a whole idea about America being such a young country. It’s kind of a teenager [type of] romance that it has to be all glamorous and sparkly and hot.
PK: I wonder how many people can actually handle that emotionally—even in France.
LR: I do know a couple of people that have non-monogamous relationships, long term. It’s an interesting idea that we’re only going to “love” someone in a certain way for a certain time. All of this being said, I totally believe in love. I think there’s not anything else really to believe in even though that sounds kind of trite.
PK: Pretty corny, yeah.
LR: It is corny. But I believe that [love] also is about more than one person. I mean, for my life, it’s about community and friendships and family and all that.
PK: What about people that just never marry or are not in any long-term relationship?
LR: Are they getting off scot-free?
LR: I’m not going to tell anyone else how to live. I think that when one is in an intimate relationship of any kind, whether it’s community or friendship, you do get your buttons pushed and then you get to grow. I think that’s kind of interesting.
PK: My way of thinking about it is, if you can’t beat them, join them. [When] you’re this single entity in your 20s, you just do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. And then when I started getting into my 30s, it was like, “Wait a minute, now all my friends are married and have kids.”
LR: There’s no one to play with.
PK: What is the vetting process [for your column]?
LR: I am the sole vetter.
PK: That’s it? And what are you looking for in particular?
LR: I look for something that illuminates either a part of life or a culture or something that I didn’t know about. I get a lot of, “I love my husband and it’s so great.” I barely ever get, “I love my wife.”
PK: Guys are pigs.
LR: “I love my husband.” Four words. I’ve got 500 words [to fill my column], which is not so many, as you know, but you’ve got to have some kind of story. Not just: “We met on the Internet and he’s so wonderful.” I get a lot of people that say, “It’s just so wonderful.” I look for something unusual, I look for a little bit of story where other people who might be looking for a relationship will say, “Okay, well, that’s interesting. Maybe if I open myself up on the Bay Bridge to some guy being a jerk in the next car, I’m going to find my husband. Who knows?”
PK: Who came up with [the idea of the] soul mate?
LR: Someone to torture most of the rest of the world. I just heard another story where someone went on a date with a guy, and two days later he was saying, “You’re my soul mate” and stalking her. She was like, “Yeah, soul mate, you come close to me and I’ll have you arrested.” So you know, at first, it may seem to be true; sometimes it’s not.
PK: Are you familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, where he went in and observed a psychologist who had developed this theory about body language and looking at couples? Within less than a minute he could tell, just by the way they were interacting and their body language, whether things were copacetic or not with them.
LR: There’s an English study that I followed. They put people’s faces in a computer and then matched them up to each other, and then they threw a bunch of single people in the room and said, “You have one second or you know, 10 seconds to meet each other. Who are the people you are most drawn to?” And they were [drawn to] people that had the same physical features. Now that certainly doesn’t explain people who are like David Bowie and Iman, but you know what I’m saying?
PK: Are you in a relationship?
LR: I am not talking. I made that mistake before.
PK: Okay. What about finishing each other’s sentences? Do you hear that a lot?
LR: “We have the same thoughts?” Again, it’s like some people want that. That’s fantastic for them. For me, it would drive me crazy. I want to be my own person. I want to be separate.
PK: When I got married people told me, “Paul, learn how to say ‘yes, dear.’”
LR: It’s a total ruse. I think it suits men to [not] feel shackled, but in essence they want to be in those secure relationships more than anyone else. Americans set up women as these sort of spiders that lure men into this trap, and it’s so not true. So many women I know are just utterly fantastic, out-there human beings. and their husbands are with them because wow, they wouldn’t have a social life, so many things wouldn’t happen, without the women making it happen.
PK: What about the flip side of all of this? You know, a lot of people are happy to be out of a relationship. Could that be another column in the Sunday magazine? Papers have been signed and we’re not speaking to each other or we just broke up, he took all his records and you threw all his clothes away. The aftermath.
LR: Or the gay version, we’re still best friends and talk to each other eight times a day but we’re no longer together, kind of.
PK: There have been times when I’ve tried to stay in touch with people I’ve broken up with and it’s just been forget this—this is way too much work.
LR: Oh, I’m still friends with my high school boyfriend. He still mows my mother’s lawn.
LR: Yeah, I adore him. I see him all the time when I go home. I am great believer in community and so I have a wide and extensive community that includes most of the people I’ve ever been in love with, including an ex-husband in New Zealand who I see every few years. So I guess for me, that is an important part of my life, but it’s not for everyone. People walk away and never talk.
PK: For me, it was just making those attempts to stay in touch and being rebuffed.
LR: Yeah, everybody has to have a certain amount of grace. I’m 26 years into psychoanalysis and 26 years into doing martial arts, so I think the more you understand yourself, the better. Even if someone didn’t like you and dumped you, that’s sort of an interesting thing to work with. I’m not always good at it, and I don’t like suffering or pain, but I think figuring out why something happened is pretty interesting.
PK: That’s a good point. If you don’t learn from even the crushing relationships and figure out how can I do something different maybe next time or what did I do wrong . . .
LR: It kind of leads to the existential question, what are we supposed to be doing here on the planet? My thought is if you can learn something and keep being engaged and interesting, then you’re making good use of the time.
Birthplace: Ridgecrest, Calif.
Astrological sign: Leo Cusp
First real job: I was the early purveyor of Internet journalism. When I was 8 years old, I made one copy of The Sun newspaper about my neighborhood and I carried it around from house to house and charged 25 cents for people to read it.
Planet you’d emigrate to: No planet, too lonely, I would miss my friends.
Extinct animal I’d like to be reincarnated as: What’s extinct? A dodo bird? Who wants to be a dodo? I don’t; can’t fly.