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Why Patience Can Be Essential for Romantic Relationships

Knowing when to rush in, and when to hold back.

Key points

  • Profound lovers are both patient and impatient, as profound love involves both the excitement of sexual desire and the calmness of friendship.
  • Both types of sex—impatient, wild and brief, and patient, prolonged and tender—are valuable.
  • Today, timing, which is an instantaneous point in time, has become more important than time, in which long-term processes take place.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise; because of impatience we cannot return.” —W. H. Auden

Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it is cowardice.” —George Jackson

Romantic love is often described as both patient and impatient. Does this paradoxical description make sense?

The patient and impatient heart

In his book, Impatience of the Heart, Stefan Zweig distinguishes two contrary features of the heart, concerning the other’s suffering. The impatient heart is “feeble-hearted and truly sentimental,” but wishes “to escape as fast as possible” from the other’s suffering. The patient heart, “the only one that counts—is unsentimental, but… knows its own mind and determines to endure patiently and compassionately whatever may come.”

We can certainly see similarities between the heart’s approaches to suffering and romantic love. In romantic love, the impatient heart, which is mainly expressed in passionate sexual desire, is central. This heart is sentimentally true, but wishes to escape the moment sexual satisfaction is achieved. The other heart, in which friendship is central, endures patiently and compassionately whatever may come.

The impatient heart is expressed in the words of Elvis Presley: “It’s now or never, be mine tonight, tomorrow will be too late.” The patient heart appears in many popular songs and other cultural works and can be seen in lyrics such as: "I will patiently wait for you ‘till the end of time" (or, “’till the sun don’t shine”) and "I’ll wait for you in the darkness patiently." These lyrics are popular among lovers.

Unlike Zweig, who claims that the patient heart is the only one that counts, I believe that in romantic love, both types of hearts are important. I do concede that Zweig is right concerning enduring profound love, where the patient heart is by far more valuable.

Romantic love, sex and friendship

“Love is a friendship set to music.” —Joseph Campbell

Romantic love consists of both friendship and sexual desire. Friendship, which is based on shared history, interests and activities, involves patience, mutual support, intimacy and respect, and all are enhanced over time. Sexual desire is an acute, intense emotion, which like biological drives, such as hunger and thirst, is impatient and demands immediate satisfaction.

Love and sex are often found at opposite normative poles. The characteristics of friendship are paramount when developing and sustaining enduring love; indeed, romantic love is considered as one of the most sublime human expressions. Sex has been associated with vulgarity and disgust, sometimes degrading the partner into a commodity. Despite their differences, sexual desire and romantic love overlap a great deal in the brain, activating specific, related areas.

Sexual desire is impatient. It does not last forever and when it exists, it demands immediate fulfillment. It is hard to be patient when your heart is on fire. For the impatient heart, any distance or delay is intolerable. In profound romantic love, when you are deeply satisfied with your situation, there is no need to rush into anything, as you feel peaceful joy. For the patient heart, a healthy distance is part of a meaningful togetherness.

Patience and waiting

Patience is not sitting and waiting, it is foreseeing. It is looking at the thorn and seeing the rose, looking at the night and seeing the day. Lovers are patient and know that the moon needs time to become full.” —Rumi

Waiting is a state of allowing time to go by, “especially while staying in one place without doing very much, until you can do something.” Patience is a specific type of waiting. It requires “the ability to wait, or to continue doing something, despite difficulties” (Cambridge Dictionary). Waiting is often passive, while patience is typically dynamic—we continue doing something despite enduring hardship. Patience also involves delay, i.e., making something happen at a later time than expected, but it is a positive functional delay intended to nurture the right circumstances. Patience differs from the negative delay of procrastination, which is the needless delay of tasks one intends to do.

The conflict between impatient sexual intensity and patient romantic profundity is expressed in two major ways. People (more commonly, women) tend to temporarily block fulfilling intense sexual desires in order to achieve greater profundity: (a) playing-hard-to-get behavior, and (b) adopting an “in-due-course” policy. In playing-hard-to-get behavior, individuals hide their genuine interest in order to assess the partner’s profound attitude. In the “in-due-course” policy, both partners are aware of their love but decide to take the time necessary for their own feelings to develop and become more profound. This policy, which includes productive patience and involves investing more time and effort for profundity to develop, constitutes a kind of prolonged courtship. Indeed, marital happiness is positively associated with the length of the courtship period.

The impatient nature of modern culture

Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” —Soren Kierkegaard

Our culture has made us impatient, expecting quick rewards for whatever we do. From instant coffee to instant love, we have become trained to demand rapid fulfillment, immediate gratification and quick results. Today, timing, which is an instantaneous point in time, has become more important than time, in which long-term processes take place. Accordingly, impatience has become more common than patience. Indeed, the issue of speed has become central in our culture, and many people feel that staying in one place involves compromising and relinquishing their chances of finding a better option. As Meryl Streep said, “Instant gratification is not soon enough” for some people.

Nowadays, patient and slow people often fall victim to the rapid pace of life; the fast, impatient and superficial people have an edge. Credit cards are ubiquitous examples of this concept, since they eliminate the waiting time until the desired object is acquired. Accordingly, they have been advertised as “taking the waiting out of wanting.” The internet and various social networks make the connection between people faster and less profound, thereby significantly decreasing the value of patience and the possibility of an enduring relationship where this quality is central.

In contrast to sexual impatience, lovers often speak about their patient heart—their readiness to wait for the beloved. When you know that paradise waits for you, you are more likely to be patient. The only compromise that is acceptable in romantic ideology is temporal—lovers should be patient and postpone their romantic gratification by waiting for months or even years until their beloved is available. Thus, in the Bible, “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” In this case, patient waiting is not due to the lovers’ need for maturation or development, but rather due to having suitable external circumstances.

The value of impatient desire

Don’t rush into love, because even in fairytales, the happy ending takes place on the last page.” —Unknown

Profound lovers are both patient and impatient, as profound love involves both the excitement of sexual desire and the calmness of friendship. Profound love does not eliminate impatient bursts of intense desire, but rather prevents the impatient aspects becoming the major decision-making factor. Impatient, brief, and intense sexual episodes are fine. Thus, in the heat of passion, it is inappropriate to observe the niceties of polite culture, and to patiently fold your clothes. Yet, for many people, slow, patient sex remains a perennial preference.

Both types of sex—impatient, wild and brief, and patient, prolonged and tender—are valuable. It is merely when impatient quickies become the only ice cream flavor available that the ice cream tends to melt into a messy, inedible puddle. Modern society has a problem: it loves “fast,” but many important things require being “slow.” Fast food and fast sex have their place, but the imagined ideal of speed can spiral out of control. Orgasm—or any other satisfaction—can be achieved quickly, but romantic profundity takes time and patience.

This post is partially based on my book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time.

Facebook image: Shift Drive/Shutterstock

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