The relationship spectrum is wide. At one extreme, no contact with any other human being, on any level: the full-on hermit life. At the other, a close and loving bonding with another human being, so that they are almost one entity, and lost without each other.
The ideal is still heavily weighted towards the bonding end. Falling in love, sharing a life with somebody very special, and eventually marrying them is still promoted as the favoured model to copy. The 'family' is still a revered concept. The notion that two people will get to know each other better and better as years pass, and grow ever more comfortable together, is an ancient one but still current, and still the thing to aspire to.
And many people do grow together. Despite the high divorce rate, many couples say together through decade after decade, through a variety of jointly-experienced tribulations, and survive intact to reach old age in tandem, at which point they may seem utterly inseparable. Total symbiosis, in fact.
And yet, in such a relationship, the disablement or death of one partner might well entail the rapid disablement or death of the other, so dependent on each other they would be. We all know of couples who were so wrapped up in each other that when one died, the other couldn't carry on. And yet many will say that the 'perfect relationship' must involve the willing renunciation of individuality, so that two people blend into one, thinking as one, planning as one, loving as one, and sharing their lives in this fashion until death do them part.
There was certainly a time in my life when I embraced this kind of idealism. But 'willingness to embrace' is definitely not the same thing as having the right temperament for it. I have ample evidence - the frank failure of all past relationships, for example - to conclude that I don't have the right temperament, and that it would be highly irresponsible of me to inflict myself on anybody in the future. The relationship would be doomed out of hand. However well it began, sooner or later my nature would assert itself and I'd find it claustrophobic and inhibiting. Commitment is unavailing if it's fighting a free spirit.
As for love, I have no idea what that really is. And I don't believe it conquers all difficulties. I used to say 'I love you', and mean it sincerely. But I should never have said it, because I didn't know what I was saying. With hindsight, it's clear that I did not know what love was. And still do not know. The nearest I can get to working out 'what love is', is to set out its most prominent features, as I see them:
# Love is an overwhelming emotional state. It can last a very long time.
# Love has pronounced physical effects, and is totally distracting.
# Love is uplifting and poetic, inspiring the best a person has to give.
# Newly-felt love is urgent, and makes one passionate and impatient, even desperate.
# Love may be obsessive or possessive, but is certainly protective.
# The first hot flame of love will cool down, but will never grow cold.
# Love is initially directed at one person in particular, but in time may change its focus to include children.
# From the first, and ever after, love makes enormous effort and self-sacrifice seem easy and natural.
I'm sure this list simply reveals that I do not know, and never will know, the real joy of being in love. Well, I am what I am.
So much for relationships that involve love and deep commitment. But then there is ordinary friendship. And something else - 'being a soulmate'. Now what on earth is a soulmate?
I'm guessing that soulmates are at least good friends. But special compatibility is implied, not just a straightforward liking for each other. There have to be important interests in common. The ability to dream the same dreams, share the same kind of ambitions, and think along the same lines. I don't think soulmates necessarily love each other, and they may well live separate lives, but they understand each other, and empathise completely.
I can't imagine being in a relationship now. But having a soulmate (as described above, anyway) does not seem so impossible. I wonder if I have one or more soulmates among my current circle of friends, or my neighbours, but can't see it? An intriguing idea.