Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Physics of Relationships

He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.

—Mary Louise Bell divorce complaint

Richard Feynman was a Nobel award winning physicist who, amongst other things, popularized modern physics by writing and teaching in ways that made sense to the average person. And, as you can see you can see from the complaint above, he had some "challenges" in the love department. Married three times, his first wife died from tuberculosis, and the second wife was ambushed by calculus. Oddly, he proposed to Mary Bell through the mail, while he was doing research in Brazil. Even though it had been several years since the death of his first wife, some suggest he hadn't yet gotten over the grief of losing her. In any event, his marriage to Bell was, from all accounts, a sour experience for both of them.

At the time of his divorce from Mary Bell, Feynman was 36 years old, the same age as I am today. In terms of intimate relationship potential, he was decidedly in the "damaged goods" camp. If Feynman were alive today, and had written an honest online dating profile, he would be overlooked by the majority of women as too much of a risk. Some might even suggest that his "true colors" had already shone through, and that being a "good partner" wasn't amongst them. And for many of them, that might be exactly right.

However, Richard Feynman went on to have a third marriage. One that lasted the rest of his life. Gweneth Howarth was sixteen years his junior, and originally employed by Feynman as a housekeeper. Both of these details would probably be considered major red flags by the majority of daters today, the stuff of dating blog dissections by supposed relationship experts and their fans. And certainly, their life together was fairly unconventional in some respects.

The years moved along. Carl was born, then Michelle. Feynman doodled on the bar napkins of strip joints, experimented with marijuana and flotation tanks, bought a van and had it custom-painted to resemble his famous diagrams. He took his family on camping trips and drew nudes in his home studio.

He also played samba, attempted to crack safe codes, and had some degree of synesthesia for equations. Not your typical husband. And yet, he was an excellent parent, working together with his son in the computer science field, and remembered fondly by his daughter. Furthermore, given Gweneth's passions for travel, music, painting, and adventure in general, it seems they were a good match for each other.

Which isn't to say the twice divorced guy who was fixated on calculus problems suddenly became a "perfect" partner. Indeed, given his penchant for practicing seduction techniques and attracting beautiful young women to draw in his studio, the odds are he wasn't the most faithful husband in the world. But knowing what kind of life they lived together, I have to wonder if they had some kind of an open relationship.

In any event, I offer this as a story of real people who lived real lives. Of a man who didn't let his past turn him bitter and incapable of intimate relationships. Of a woman who would probably be scolded for dating "an old guy" in today's supposedly progressive (but decidedly confused) dating world, and yet seems to have had a fulfilling marriage all the same.

Certainly, I'm not advising that women overlook what might be called the womanizing tendencies of men like Fenyman, nor that age differences never matter.

What I'm pointing to is the richness of being with someone who is real, alive, and engaged in the world. Someone who is guaranteed to have flaws and struggles - because we all do, at the end of the day. One of the most painful things I witness in dating discussions are all the ways in which people dissect and then dismiss each other. It's as if we live in an age where no one can ever measure up. Which means, if you think about it, that you don't measure up either.

The first law of the physics of relationships is that it's always perfectly imperfect people that come together.

May we all learn to embrace ourselves, so that when the right imperfect other comes along, we'll be ready to embrace him or her too.


  1. very nice thought. i like this post

  2. Great thought! It's a nice choice of topic.
    I like this one--"The first law of the physics of relationships is that it's always perfectly imperfect people that come together."
    I can say that i learn something from your post and thanks alot for this.

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