Is it a myth?
by Denis “Woodja” Flanigan
There is a belief in our culture that we are incomplete when not in a relationship. This distorts our thinking about relationships—frequently leading to bad behaviors, both in the pursuit of relationships and within relationships. As gays and lesbians, we tend to believe that having traditional relationships validate our sexuality in the eyes of society.
In John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the most popular song from this film musical is “The Origin of Love,” which re-tells a story of the same name from Plato’s Symposium. Plato’s story has become popular among gays and lesbians because it puts homosexuality on par with heterosexuality.
“The Origin of Love” tells of a time when all people had round bodies with four legs, four arms, two faces, and two sets of genitalia. There were three types of people: those with two male sides, those with two female sides, and those with one male and one female side. When the people became haughty, the gods punished them by splitting them in half, creating individual males and females and scattering these “half-people” about the world, separating the halves by great distances. Thus for eternity these individuals have been roaming the earth to reconnect with their other half.
As the story goes, hugging is an effort of the two halves to merge after finding one another. The story implies that love is grounded in our yearning to be reunited with one’s other half. It is also a very appealing myth in that it equalizes sexual orientations. However, it also creates the myth that each of us has an “other half,” and without it we are incomplete—a romantic notion, but inconsistent with the realities of falling out of love, affairs, open relationships, polyamory, bisexuality, or transgenderism.
Plato’s Symposium, in which the story appears, is presented as a dinner party in which each guest tells a story about love. “The Origin of Love” is told by Aristophanes. This is noteworthy in that Aristophanes is both a satirist and Plato’s enemy. Consequently, scholars have classified the story as satire, at best, and mockery, at worst. Gays and lesbians can take some solace in that Plato was probably not mocking homosexuality, as his beef with Aristophanes was that he blamed him for Socrates’ death, and Socrates was a known homosexual. It would seem more likely that Plato intended to mock the idea of one’s “other half.”
When clients mention desiring their other half, I always ask, “Why would someone want to date half a person?” I think that is a view that interferes with personal growth; if you are looking for another to complete you, it lets you off the hook for becoming whole on your own. I also firmly believe that waiting for someone to come along to make yourself whole will always leave you incomplete. The idea that my partner and I combined are more than one hundred percent when we take on the world together feels more powerful than the idea that combined we can only achieve one hundred percent.
The Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna from the 1970s cartoon Justice League of America, needed each other’s touch to use their powers. In the same cartoon, many of the other superheroes—who could use their abilities independently—would team up and be more powerful combined. They enhanced each other, not completed each other. While I think Zan’s power to take on some form of water is pretty cool, I think I would prefer to be any other of the superheroes, because I would not be powerless in the absence of my “other half,” which is exactly how I see some of my clients.
It is the desperation in the idea of being incomplete without a partner that disturbs me the most. I have seen a wide variety of unhealthy behavior enacted in order to feel “complete” with a partner—either in maintaining a bad relationship or in the pursuit of a relationship. In fact, the clients who speak in terms of being completed by another tend to be in more dysfunctional relationships or engaging in more self-destructive interpersonal behaviors. I have seen clients (and friends) sacrifice their money, their friendships, their integrity, and their happiness for the sake of having a relationship—not a good relationship, but just a relationship.
People cling to bad relationships in which they are miserable in order to avoid being alone. Others agonize that they are single and settle for partners with whom they do not feel a true connection. They are convinced that their happiness lies in another person, rather than in themselves. Consequently, they evade the responsibility of making themselves better or happier people—which would improve their chances of a healthy and rewarding relationship.
Being without one’s “other half” generates anxiety and acts as a barrier to personal growth. There is a belief that one cannot work on himself or herself without having a partner, because only with this completion will he or she be able to self-actualize. How’s that for irony—I cannot become fully myself unless I am in a relationship with (part of) another?
The flip side also seems to be true, that one does not have to work on oneself if one is “completed” by a relationship. I have seen people frantic to find their happiness within a relationship and consequently evade working on themselves. Whatever is missing inside them is supposed to come from their “other half.” They look for their emptiness to be externally filled and refuse to look internally.
This perception of being incomplete without a partner has permeated our culture. Not only do we see ourselves as incomplete without a partner, we are imperfect or invalid without a partner. Having a partner shows us (and everyone else) that we have value, that we are desirable. Parallel to the belief that being single makes us incomplete is the perception that being single makes us flawed or inadequate—lesser than.
I think in the last thirty years this has become increasingly the case for gays and lesbians, but on a more community level. In the attempts to prove that our sexuality is valid, we have adopted a model of heterosexual relationships and values. We have adopted the notion that
sexuality is valid only if we are in sustained, long-term relationships, just like heterosexuals purport that they are. Gays and lesbians have been painted as promiscuous and serial monogamists, respectively, and this image was used to classify our sexuality as invalid, relative to heterosexuality. So if we can mimic heterosexual relationships (or at least the idealized image of heterosexual relationships), then we are worthy of validation.
This brings us back to our love of Aristophanes’ origin-of-love story, which puts homosexuality on par with heterosexuality, and consequently validates our sexual orientation. We do a great deal of harm to ourselves, as individuals and as a community, in trying to complete or validate ourselves by being in a relationship. The emphasis that we put on the importance of being in a relationship distracts from focusing on ourselves, and we end up with a community of people who see themselves as defective.
Woodja Flanigan, MS, LPA, is a Houston-based psychotherapist and career counselor specializing in counseling for people in non-traditional lifestyles and relationships. He frequently speaks on gay and lesbian experience and mental health, transgender concerns, and body-modification issues.