- Words Miriam Balanescu
Notion meets Natasha Lunn, journalist and author of a book to pull at the heartstrings, Conversations on Love.
What if we could be taught about love? This is the question posed by journalist Natasha Lunn in her wildly acclaimed non-fiction title Conversations on Love, published by Viking this year. Adored by Pandora Sykes, Cressida Connolly, The Evening Standard’s Madeleine Feeny, and many more, it’s a book that many wish they could have got their mitts on years ago – saving them from wasted torment and anguish over romance.
The Red Magazine features director started a newsletter of the same name four years ago, when she felt a hunger to hear more about the thoughts of writers and idols on a topic so central to our lives. Twice a month, she spoke to the likes of Esther Perel, Jeanette Winterson, Diana Evans, Ariel Levy, Susie Orbach and Dr Lucy Kalanithi, getting to grips with their ideas and experiences on love both romantic and platonic – and often finding the latter is the most crucial. The 2017 newsletter, Conversations on Love, kindled what would grow to be one of this year’s most popular books.
Conversations on Love is an invaluable and contemplative antidote to the modern love self-help book. Its beauty is in is its range of voices, from Dr Philippa Perry to Candice Carty-Williams, dipping into their treasure troves of gemlike wisdom. In 2018, Lunn studied an introductory course in psychotherapy at the Tavistock relationships centre, and this psychological understanding of eros is at the heart of Conversations on Love.
We talked to Natasha about how the book form of Conversations on Love came to be, and her greatest lessons in love.
You said that you started Conversations on Love partly because you found you were talking to lots of unrelated interviewees about love almost by accident. How did you end up talking about love with these interviewees in the beginning?
When I would be interviewing for specific parts of my day job, I would try to talk about absolutely everything. You’re covering a lot of areas. It was more surprising to me that the answers on love were the most interesting and often surprising answers. I’m sure you read a lot of interviews where you think: here is the line, here’s the stuff I’ve heard before. Certainly thinking of someone like David Sedaris who just hates talking about emotions anyway, he’s just so funny and witty, but when I spoke about that relationship, it was so tender – it was like a step-change in our conversation, and I think gave a lot of insight into his character. So, it wasn’t that I never asked about love, and it sort of randomly came up. It was that I would find that I had reams and reams of answers on that topic that surprised me. It helped me to understand people in different ways. In traditional feature structure, you’ve only got so many words and I’d just think: gosh, what a waste of all these answers on love that I can’t fit in. Those answers were the ones that lit me up and made me really excited to be having a conversation on the tube home or the walk home. Those were the answers I’d be turning over in my mind and I would start to think of in moments in my own life when I needed a little advice. That was in a professional sense, but I would say, more generally, I’m somebody who has always been obsessed with love, as a topic. But I started to see more and more how narrow my understanding of that word has been and how, for somebody who thought they were obsessed with love, I didn’t really know very much about how to work at it or how to get better at it.
Were there are any interviewees with whom you were surprised when love came up?
I’d say when I interviewed David Miliband. It was a really difficult interview because he is a politician, and it’s very hard to get any kind of answer out of him. I really felt that when we were talking about his wife and family, that that was the most interesting or most natural part of him that I got throughout that whole interview. I wonder if when asking about his relationship or his family, it’s just easier for him to talk about that than it was to talk about political lives.
So many interviews and features have altered my perspective on it. I remember when I was researching an interview with Tavi Gevinson, I read this line in one of her Rookie editor’s letters: “I find it odd to characterize romantic relationships as “more than friends.” It seems friendship ought to be the prized jewel; connection through the haze of sex and romance and newness; “more than” boyfriends/girlfriends/
The more conversations I had about love, the more I realised I really didn’t know that much. There were more questions that I wanted to ask. Scratching the surface of it as a topic made me think: I need to put this under the microscope, I need to treat it forensically, treat it as seriously as it deserves to be.
You mention in the book’s introduction this idea of teaching love – we don’t learn about love in school, even though it’s something that’s so central to people’s lives. Do you think it’s important to be taught about love? And could you see yourself starting a school of love?
I interviewed somebody who calls themselves a “love professor”, Dr. Megan Poe, and she taught a course on love at NYU University. She said it was at one point the most popular course. The way she spoke about teaching it and the reaction to it just made me wonder why this is something that we haven’t really looked into. It has probably been the role of self-help and nonfiction books. For me, books like Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love was my earliest introduction to romantic fantasy, projections, idealisation and all that stuff. I think that up until now, I learned about love from books more than from life. I’m wary of saying that we all need to go to school and learn about love. I don’t think you can ever learn enough that you’re not going to make mistakes or you’re not going to get heartbroken – and nor would you want to learn enough that you don’t experience those things. I think with anything, like writing, for example, we begin and we use terrible adjectives and cliches and we’re embarrassingly bad at it, to begin with. We just keep writing and writing, and we get better. I think it’s the same in love: there is some path, you have to live through those experiences, learn, understand your flaws, understand where your weak points are. But, I do think we need to learn it’s something that we consciously have to work on and understand ourselves throughout. It’s something that can’t just tick along. I do think it’s crazy that it’s arguably one of the most important pieces, if not the most important piece of life, and we do seem to expect to tick along and we don’t have a review, we don’t evaluate our performance very often or look at where we can improve. I think that it would be useful for me to study love in that way, to see it as more of a skill we learn rather than a gift bestowed upon us and that is our right forevermore. Conversations on Love is my attempt to show my own learning experience. I’m not an expert, I’m still such a beginner. But hopefully, by showing the learning journey that I’ve been on – it’s almost as if I’ve been studying for the last four years – my hope is I can bring other people with me and share some of the things that I’ve learned.
There are some recurring ideas in your book, for example whether to be happy alone or not or whether to be in control or not, that different people have conflicting ideas on. Did you ever find it confusing working out how to process those conversations?
It’s something that I’ve thought about quite consciously because it was filled with contradictions coming out as I was writing and as I was speaking to people, and I think that as I continued the conversation, and looked at my own life, I understood that is not something that we can view from a fixed position. I know that in my own life, certainly there are times say when I was in a bad relationship when it was really valuable for me to be alone. I needed to understand that that time alone was nothing to be feared and had some value to me at that moment. Then there were absolutely times when I had spent too long on my own and I had been single but I haven’t really been making many connections and spending time with friends. I would just be very sad and feel very isolated when I needed to really understand that just because you’re single, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have relationships. Heather Havrilesky gives advice on being single when she says: sometimes, you need to absolutely believe that you’re going to find love, and it’s going to be around the corner. And other times you need to say, okay, maybe I’ll never find it, but what will a good life look like? That’s just one example. But I think that throughout all of our lives, what love requires us to do is to look at that present moment or to really tune in to how you’re honestly feeling and understand what you need to live your life in the best way you can at that point. I think that would be very different for all of us, within one life. I certainly know there are times for myself when I value friendship above absolutely everything and say, it’s more important than my relationship. Then there are other times where I have to accept the distance creeping in, to trust that we love each other enough that we can be apart for a while. So, I’m glad you picked that out because I really wanted to show that there isn’t one answer to all of these questions in love. As Barbara Kingsolver says: Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place. And I really believe that.
How did you go about working out what to take from the conversation for yourself?
The narrative structure of the book really brought out how there is such a pressure in western society to meet romantic milestones. Those have come under a lot more scrutiny in recent years or amongst the present generation. Were you curious to explore love from the perspective of breaking down those milestones?
I guess I was trying to break those milestones, in terms of the ones that I had for myself, because, somewhat embarrassingly now, the milestones that I had were from expectations drawn from stories that I was obsessed with: teenage romances or young formative relationships. These were my sort of template. I always had expected that I would meet someone in my teens, stay with them forever and ever, marry in my early 20s, and have kids before my 30s. Those were the milestones that I longed for, and held up. I missed the milestones. For my thirtieth birthday, it wasn’t just that I didn’t have a kid by that time, it was that I didn’t have a date. It had become this big thing. By missing those milestones, it gave me the opportunity to rethink what I valued in my life, what I valued in people and actually, what I was looking for in a relationship, rather than a person. For me, because I had struggled to conceive, I would love to say: let’s chuck out all the milestones. But I felt not the pressure of the milestone but the pressure of my biological clock as somebody who wanted to have children. So I think the pressure was more that than a particular milestone. But that’s why I wanted to show someone like Ayisha who didn’t want children, she didn’t have that pressure. And also to show someone like Sarah Hepola, who is in her forties and dating and has great friends. And then someone like Justine Picardie who divorced and had hit the traditional milestones but fell in love again in her fifties. There are opportunities for love in every decade, and even if you’re somebody who thinks that you haven’t hit the milestones when you miss them, opportunities emerge. I’m so thankful that I missed the milestones that I had in mind for myself now.
Lots of more “unconventional” forms of love, if you can call them that, like polyamory for example, are being shown more frequently in the media. If Conversations on Love had been written 10 years later, what do you think it would have been like?
If I were going to do it again, I definitely would include a story with polyamory in it. Because I’m not just covering romantic love, there’s also friendship, etc., it’s really hard to cover all the different facets of love. There’s nothing on what mental health is like in relationships which is something I’m really interested in at the moment – how it plays out in relationships. But there’s so many things, especially polyamory, but also infidelity, that I know I will explore in the newsletter in detail, but I wish that I had explored in the book. I don’t think it’s even in 10 years – I think if I were going to rewrite the book now, there are so many different stories every day, there’s a new facet of love that I think I want to explore. I feel really lucky to be continually exploring this topic, because rather than feeling like I’ve had all of the conversations since writing the book, I feel there are more conversations to have than there were even before writing it.
I felt that the book was maybe more interested in psychology rather than the philosophy of love. Do you feel this was the case and why do you think this may be?
For my newsletter, I tend to try to have half authors and half psychotherapists, and that’s always been the model. Someone like Alain de Botton describes himself as a philosopher and I would say in the book between authors and psychotherapists it was roughly 50:50. I had been studying an introduction to couples psychodynamic psychotherapy at the Tavistock Centre so it was something that I was thinking about a lot and naturally, very interested in. I think that I chose those psychotherapists on those specific topics because they were the ones that I had had issues with or they were the ones (while doing the newsletter) that I had found particularly helpful. I wasn’t consciously thinking: I need more philosophy, or I need more psychotherapy. I was trying to recreate the model of the newsletter and the conversations that have been most helpful to me.
How did the course you took on couples psychotherapy end up shaping the book?
It really showed me something I’ve continued to learn: how much taking responsibility for your own feelings is at the heart of your relationship with any person, whether your sibling, your friend, or your parents. I was very much looking at other people, my interactions with other people, how they react to me, and looking at couples, how they reacted to each other. By the end, I’d learned much more about what being with another person brought out in me, in moments of irritation, trying to understand where that was coming from in my past and why I reacted in a certain way – understanding more of how all of love requires us to be responsible for ourselves. Almost a bit of self discipline is needed. It’s the continual effort to understand ourselves. So, frustrating in that it made me realise a lot of it is on us and I can’t blame any of my failings. It mostly was to do with me!
How did you decide on different interviewees at different points throughout the course of writing?
I started with themes. For the first section, I was looking back on my teens and 20s – the bits of my personal life from quite a long time ago. So with those, I was looking back, thinking about the themes and the issues that I’ve struggled with most, then working out who would be my dream person to speak to on that topic – who do I think has something to say that would really have been useful to me back then, approaching people based on the topic. Certainly in the middle section and the last section, I was asking the questions as I was living them. Where I started with the themes ended up being slightly different. For instance, with the sex interview, I knew I wanted to do something on sex and was thinking about it for a long time. Then, as I was trying to conceive after the miscarriage, going through this functional sex, struggling with desire and trying to understand that, then that’s what lead me to ask Emily Nagoski. So, in that way, it was coming out of my own life more organically.
Which conversation had the biggest impact on your own life?
I’d probably answer something different at every point. But I think at the moment I do think about Heather Havrilesky’s conversation a lot. There are so many things in there that I think about all the time. She ends on how she’s got to a point in her life where at the moment the defining energy isn’t actually in another person, it’s in her writing and her imagination. She talks about how love has to be very important at different points but for me now, when you’re married and you’ve got a kid, love has to be the most important thing because it’s what gets you through. For her in her fifties now, she spent so long prioritising it. She’s now learning not to prioritise it so much. As somebody who is prioritising love right now, it really reminded me that love is not the only thing. I thought I’d finish the book saying: love is the most important thing in the world. I really don’t think that now. I think that it will be important to us at different levels, at different points. Actually, sometimes it’s just as important not to lose yourself in it. So, I think, as someone whose natural inclination is to put love above everything else, that was a really useful conversation for me. She also talked about appreciating the flaws of the people we love as their own poetry – her husband complaining about his back all the time. She’s got a bad neck but she never moans about it. And she said: just because she doesn’t moan she can’t expect her husband to act as she would because that would be the death of love. Loving someone means taking all of their vulnerabilities and quirks and flaws and grumblings about their back or neck and seeing them as beautiful pieces of the whole person. I think before that I thought: you have to love someone despite their imperfections. Now, I much more try to love somebody as a whole for those imperfections. My mom has been annoying – she’ll say “I’ll give you a tip” all the time and it drives me crazy. But I know that one day when she’s not here, I’ll long for those words, I’ll long for her to nag me.
How did it feel to finish the book? Did you feel you could move on from thinking about love or is it still on your mind?
Maybe I have space to think about it more now because I’m not in that rush and trying to wrestle out each sentence. But I think – like I said about Heather’s interview – I’m at a moment in my life where I’m trying to raise a baby and trying to sustain a marriage, and I’m trying to keep my friends close. I feel like I’m at a point where it’s very difficult to love other people well, and so I feel like I really need the book now, and that actually, I need to take its advice. I’m feeling that more intensely than I have for a long time, and still making some of those mistakes. So, it’s good for me to keep returning to it.
How did you feel the book differed from the newsletter, especially with its retrospective point of view?
When I started the newsletter, lots of people approached me saying: you could do a collection of the interviews as a book. And I knew I wanted to do that, thinking about the books that I love – they gave me something more personal. I always love reading personal writing, and I knew that it would feel a bit flat, possibly, without that. It also wouldn’t feel like a journey or a story, it wouldn’t feel like an immersive reading experience if it was just lots of different interviews packed together. So, I spent a long time thinking about how to give it some sort of narrative arc, without wading through some of my former embarrassing stories or painful stories. But I think I always knew that that’s what it requires, and probably what I would enjoy reading. I think that’s the big difference. This book is much more of a personal question. There’s a lot more of my personal story in there, and I’ve tried to be very honest about my own experiences in love and my own failings, trying to show how it can move through the course of a life and how, as I was saying, love is not something that we ever understand from a fixed position. I really wanted to show the fluidity of it and how it changes. In the introduction, we talk about one friend playing with their baby in a bath, and there’s another whose round of IVF has just failed. I wanted to show I’m somebody who would long to find a romantic relationship, then I did fall in love, then overlooked that in the search for a baby. I wanted to show how love flows and changes during the course of a life. I figured showing how it had in my own life was probably the best way to do that. I did the interviews first, whilst continuing to plot out the scenes. Then I wrote my story.
You mention cliches in your introduction and what we should leave and what we should keep. Were you worried about cliches while writing?
I’m worried about writing on love in general, because I think it is an impossible topic. Sometimes I think: God why did I do this to myself. It is such a huge topic, and the reason that we reach for cliches is that it’s such a complex thing that is very hard to pin down into words. Often I would try to describe something in love and I would feel like I’d failed because it’s just so vast and it’s so sprawling. It’s still something that’s too big for words. But I think there are some cliches that were useful, and some that weren’t. This: love yourself before anyone else – I’d definitely unpick that now and don’t believe that now. I think it is, as Alain said, much more about self-understanding. I don’t love myself wholly and let that shut anyone else off from loving me. I think that is an unrealistic goal to think we can all walk around loving ourselves before we get to that point. We can still be a bit of a mess, and someone can still love us but it makes a relationship quite difficult if you don’t understand yourself at all. One I heard a lot: distance keeps you close. I think that one is true, but that you can express that in lots of different ways and it’s more complicated than I first thought. In my writing, I tried to avoid cliche in the kind of technical sense. I think that we have been talking about love for years and years, and some of those things are useful as much as there are old fantasies and narratives that are probably better to ditch.
In your conclusion, you talk about love as a choice, which is maybe contrary to what we’ve been made to believe. I was wondering if you could explain a bit more about that.
This is nothing new, because when I was researching love, every philosopher, Erich Fromm, so many people have been stressing this for years and years: that love is a choice. That it is something that we learn, not something that we’re given, that it’s a verb, not a noun. It’s something I’ve struggled to understand when there is an element of luck, for instance, in meeting somebody, or not meeting somebody, and the pandemic that has probably taken away an opportunity to meet someone – that’s not a choice. Where I believe it is a choice is that it’s not a feeling. It’s in the way that you show up for people and in the way you create opportunities to be there for them, to be close to them. If it’s just something that happens, then love is not in that decision to be together: how you are kind to them or not each day, how you demonstrate your love for them. You asked me earlier what’s the conversation that’s had the biggest impact on me. The one line I think about all the time is Esther Perel saying: if you tell me you love your partner, well, that’s one thing, but how do you show it, how do you demonstrate it. Because there’s actually no use saying “I love this person” if you’re not showing it. So when I say love is a choice, I’m furthering that idea and saying: well, there’s no use loving someone if you’re not choosing to demonstrate that to them, in all of your relationships. With parents, you can say: they’re my parents, I love them, they’ll know. You still have to choose that relationship, you still have to call them, see them, be kind to them, listen to them, and laugh. Relationships are just not inevitable. Same with friendships – because you live together for however many years, it doesn’t mean you’re going to stay close, unless you choose to continue to keep those relationships, to tend to them. So, love is a choice because it’s not something that you’re given and you get to keep forever. It is like a plant – something you keep contributing to in order to keep alive. It’s not something that will keep ticking along. If you don’t tend to it, it won’t be there.
In your book, you also talk to Roxane Gay who says love should be easy as well – that putting the work in shouldn’t feel like work.
Yeah, she was talking about the maintenance class, and how that doesn’t feel like work to her. She lost her partner and she wanted to tend to the relationship. The key thing was really me differentiating between relationships where I’d think “I’m so in love with this person” but the whole relationship was such a struggle. I had to work hard to get their attention or it was so anxiety-inducing, I’d never know where I stood. I’d be thinking about it all the time, analysing everything. The whole thing felt like a wrestling match. In that relationship, it wasn’t love. It was the lack of love that made it feel like such a struggle. I think it was important to differentiate between the maintenance it takes to stay close and to keep working for the relationship, and the work it takes to try to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t care for you. I think that they’re very different things. When you are in a loving relationship, the loving part feels easy: you don’t have to cajole someone into loving you, they do or they don’t. But maintenance is just what you do to keep prioritising each other and keep being kind to each other. It’s not an exhausting uphill struggle where every month feels like the relationship is tumultuous. There’s a really big difference between those two types of work.
I think that’s one of the things that is so radical about your book. As women especially, we’re often taught we need to win someone over who treats us badly.
It’s one of the things I put in the first essay that I did find life-altering – the psychotherapist Frank Tallis, who says: When we have chemistry with someone and it’s so tumultuous, sometimes we latch on to that feeling because we have no evidence of real intimacy. We feel that it’s this profound connection because there’s no real evidence for it. It feels like this mystical thing that you’ve got to hang this feeling off – a mystical gut feeling. I learned to stop trusting that so much.