In a folktale that has been retold for centuries in many variations (one of which is Shakespeare's King Lear), an elderly king asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two older sisters deliver flowery speeches of filial adoration, but the youngest says only "I love you as meat loves salt." The king, insulted by this homely simile, banishes the youngest daughter and divides his kingdom between the older two, who promptly kick him out on his royal heinie. He seeks refuge in the very house where his third daughter is working as a scullery maid. Recognizing her father, the daughter asks the cook to prepare his meal without salt. The king eats a few tasteless mouthfuls, then bursts into tears. "All along," he cries, "it was my youngest daughter who really loved me!" The daughter reveals herself and all ends happily (except in King Lear, where pretty much everybody dies).
This story survived throughout Europe for a very long time because it is highly instructive: It reminds listeners that in matters of love, choosing style over substance is disastrous. It also helps us know when we're making that mistake. Salt is unique in that its taste doesn't cover up the food it seasons but enhances whatever flavor was there to begin with. Real love, real commitment, does the same thing.
Each of the following five statements is the polar opposite of what most Americans see as loving commitment. But these are "meat loves salt" commitments, as necessary as they are unconventional. Only if you and your beloved can honestly say them to each other is your relationship likely to thrive.
1. I can live without you, no problem.
"I can't live," wails the singer, "if living is without you." It sounds so tragically deep to say that losing your lover's affections would make life unlivable—but have you ever been in a relationship with someone whose survival truly seemed to depend on your love? Someone who sat around waiting for you to make life bearable, who threatened to commit suicide if you ever broke up? Or have you found yourself on the grasping side of the equation, needing your partner the way you need oxygen? The emotion that fuels this kind of relationship isn't love; it's desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it invariably fails to meet either partner's needs.
The statement "I can't survive without you" reflects not adult attraction but infancy, a phase when we really would have died if our caretakers hadn't stayed close by, continuously anticipating our needs. The hunger for total nurturing usually means we're in the middle of a psychological regression, feeling like abandoned infants who need parenting now, now, now! If this is how you feel, don't start dating. Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person responsible for them: you. The "I can't live without you" syndrome ends when we learn to care for ourselves as tenderly and attentively as a good mother. At that point, we're ready to form stable, lasting attachments that can last a lifetime. "I can live without you" is an assurance that sets the stage for real love.