On a family trip to Rome a few years ago, I had the brilliant idea to take my sleep-deprived young daughters to the Vatican. It didn’t go well. “This is boooring!”
Finally we made it to the Sistine Chapel. One of my girls glanced at the image of Adam and God and said, “Why is there only a man?” Then her sister pointed out, “Is that Eve under God’s arm?”
That’s when it hit me. Since antiquity, one story has stood at the center of every conversation about men, women and sexuality in the West. That couple is Adam and Eve. Yet instead of celebrating them, history has blamed them for bringing sin, lust, even death into the world. Adam and Eve — but mostly Eve — are victims of the greatest character assassination ever.
I’ve spent the past few years traveling in the footsteps of history’s maiden couple, from the Garden of Eden in Iraq to John Milton’s London to Mae West’s Hollywood, trying to figure out whether our culture’s first relationship can teach us something about relationships today.
What I discovered is that Adam and Eve introduced the idea of love to the West. They were the first to grapple with the central mystery of being alive: being unalone.
Modern psychologists tell us that the greatest threat to human happiness is feeling isolated. The first thing God says about Adam in the Bible is, “It’s not right for humans to be alone.” The Bible got there 3,000 years before social science.
Examining the story through the prism of Michelangelo, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Beyoncé, even Pope Francis, taught me the single most insightful lesson I have learned about relationships in a decade of writing about families: Love is a story we tell with another person. It’s co-creation through co-narration.
The man and woman who become known as Adam and Eve first appear in Genesis, and right away there is a peculiarity about them. There is not one story about their origins; there are two.
The second contains the primal scenes of Adam being created from the earth; Eve being formed from his body; Eve and Adam eating the fruit; their being expelled from Eden and having two children.
The underlying meaning, though, lies in the lesser-known first story. In that account, God forms a single, ungendered human being in his image, then divides it into two. What is true for one is true for the other. They are entirely equal.
Even more important, a single god gives the power of creation exclusively to two human beings. If humanity is to succeed, Adam and Eve must succeed. Our founding story is not about one person; it’s about two: learning to live together, learning to be one.
The most effective way to create this intermingled identity is to have the lovers create a new story — a shared story — of their life together. This shared story has two protagonists whose needs must be fulfilled, two individuals whose fears must be surmounted. It does not replace the individual’s stories but rests on top of them.
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget coined the phrase “collective monologue” to describe how preschoolers play, meaning they gather together but talk only to themselves. Love is the opposite. It’s “collective dialogue,” meaning the two sides construct a joint reality.
Perhaps the most salient characteristic of joint storytelling is that it’s not passive in the way “falling in love” suggests; it’s active. It’s a continuing process that involves balancing contradictory impulses like independence and interdependence, selfishness and selflessness.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher has found evidence of long-term relationships in the human brain. She put long-married people into brain scanners. Those who scored highest on marital satisfaction showed increased empathy and a greater ability to control their emotions.
She explained the reason: In the early stages of romantic love, a distinct cocktail of chemicals juices through our bodies — dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin. These help create what Homer called “the pulsing rush of longing.” But as everyone knows, that cocktail dries up.
Fisher found that successful, long-term relationships come with their own cocktail of oxytocin and vasopressin, which is associated with memory, attention and positive illusions. Specifically, they help us overlook what we don’t like about a person and focus on what we do.
“To be in a healthy relationship, you don’t have to agree on everything,” she said, “but you have to agree on enough things so you have a good story to tell.”
This quality of continually adjusting your joint narrative in real time may be the most underappreciated ingredient in creating a long-term relationship, and a main reason we fail to see the love between Adam and Eve. Simply put: We’re calling the wrong thing love.
We describe love as something passive and fleeting, then are surprised when it goes away. We glorify love as effervescent, then are disappointed when it evaporates.
But love is not a moment in time; it’s the passage of time. It’s the long-term practice of reinvention, reconciliation and renewal. Love is the act of constantly revising your own love story.
“Love is not an initial drama followed by happily ever after,” philosopher Robert Solomon writes, any more than a good novel climaxes in Chapter 2, 500 pages from the end. “Love is the continuing story of self-definition, in which plots, themes, characters, beginnings, middles and ends are very much up to the authorship” of the selves involved.
It’s this idea that Adam and Eve are most responsible for creating: the love story as self-written novel. They begin life as one, then separate into two. After coming together in a classic meet cute (he drifts off to sleep and awakens to find a mate), they’re at first elated. Eve is “the one!” Adam enthuses.
But Eve wants autonomy, so she ventures off alone, seeking knowledge. Yet once Eve tastes freedom, she realizes she still craves a relationship, so she returns. Adam, too, opts for love over duty and eats. The two leave Eden — “hand in hand,” in Milton’s memorable phrase — to a “far happier place.”
In exile, they forgive each other and have children, but then one child murders the other. Can the parents’ fragile partnership survive?
Shirley Murphy, a retired professor of nursing at the University of Washington, tracked 271 bereaved couples over 25 years. The oft-repeated assertion that losing a child destroys a relationship is not true, she found. Only a small number broke up.
How do couples survive? They write a new chapter in their joint story, she told me. They build this disruption into their narrative. “After several years of working on themselves,” she said, “they look up and realize their spouse is sitting across from them struggling, too, and they reach out and begin to heal together.”
As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: You rise beyond the question, “Why did this happen?” and begin to ask, “What do I do now that it has happened?”
“Forgiveness,” the cast of “Hamilton” sings as Eliza and Alexander reconcile after losing their son. “Can you imagine?” Love is bringing imaginativeness to the unimaginable. It’s not a choice you make once but over and over again.
Adam and Eve make a similar choice when the grieving couple salve their sores, reconcile and have a third son, Seth. It’s this child who populates the human line.
Adam and Eve bequeath to their descendants something even more vital than their seed: their example. Their actions ensure that there is promised love in the Bible as well as promised land. And that promise is the example of writing your own story.
In a world dominated by “I,” Adam and Eve are the first “we.” Just look at how we remember them.
Not Adam. Not Eve. Adam and Eve. Theirs is the first joint byline.