It occurred to me this morning that our concept of love might be struggling to go back around to the historical mean — and not the sensible part of the historical mean — but the easier, and less civilized part.
Look, our entire concept of romantic love as shaping and creating your entire life was partly a construct of the same wonderful Rousseaunian philosophy of the “natural man”. If you’ve ever read Tess D’Ubervilles, not to mention suffered through Effie Briest in German with a slightly deranged teacher, you are aware that the “natural” philosophers of the 18th century more or less invented the concept that you should abandon everything for love and reshape your whole life around it. Also, that there was only one true love, and you couldn’t really have another.
I’m not a hundred percent sure who came up with the idea of soul mates, because mostly I hear it from new agers, and minutes later there is something about my aura and crystals and such.
Note I’m not saying love doesn’t exist. I’m also not saying that soul mates don’t exist.
I’m saying the idea of them being a single person, cohalescing into a unit, and if you marry/elope with that person you’ll be happy your whole life is recent. Also a bit delusional. Mostly because life — and humans — aren’t like that. Though it does make fine poetry.
Because it’s a weird and idealistic thing, it has more or less been sloughed off from the culture, while we still hold onto the shape of it. We’ve returned to the more familiar — Shakespeare would recognize it — shape of love as infatuation and love as really good sex, while retaining the idea that we should drop everything to follow this.
Which is sort of a one-paragraph explanation of the divorce crisis.
Recently I bought — because my friend Dorothy keeps talking about it! — the seven love languages, which I think I’ll pass on to son and lovely fiance.
It’s not that Dan and I don’t have different love languages — considering how different our cultures are the amazing thing is that we meet somewhere in the middle — because we do. Our upbringing was markedly different, particularly his being from New England. I remember the first time I raised my voice in enthusiasm in the deserted grocery store at 2 am and got told not to make a scene. I thought he’d lost his mind. (Robert’s lovely fiance is dealing with this too, from the other side, since my family has evolved over time and the fact Marshall and I have hearing problems to communicate in shouts, and in very loud shouts when enthusiastic. The other day Robert and I were upstairs discussing books; she was downstairs, and she came running up to see why we were about to kill each other. We weren’t. In fact, we were in VIOLENT agreement.)
It’s more that we’ve (mostly) already learned to communicate. The fact that the portion of Portugal I come from has a strong substrate of English culture, or that dad’s family behaves more like that, and love is expressed (when not in high flung poetry, which is a family affliction) by doing things your spouse needs/wants, or preparing elaborate surprises for your love doesn’t hurt.
I read the whole “you’ll be fascinated by each other for two years, and the end of that can feel like the end of love, but isn’t” was a “duh.”
Because of course, we’ve gone through it, and no marriage survives over 30 years without you figuring out that feeling was completely wrong, and you actually still love each other, it’s just not the crazy lust of early marriage. Which is just that, lust.
I find the fact that traditionally published romances have regressed from romantic love (an unsustainable and often silly ideal, but more conducive to leading to the idea that love remains after lust) to lust-love is probably worse for society, over all.
I gave up on contemporary romances ten seconds after I discovered them. Look, I (rarely but sometimes) read erotica. I’ve even written erotica (once and weird as the guidelines were it must happen between a married couple.) But erotica is its own thing and has an honesty of its own. It’s the confusion between “he’s great in bed” and “I’m in love” that bothers me.
I also eventually gave up on regency romances published by traditional presses. First all the women were suffragettes or proto-suffragettes (if there had been that many, you wouldn’t have been able to move for them), all the ladies ran shelters for abused women, (regency ladies were encouraged to be charitable, but their concept of “deserving” was different. I have no problem believing some of them would run charities for abused women, I have problems believing that ALL of them would or that their concept of abuse was the same as ours. (It wasn’t even the same in the village. A man who controlled your every movement would be considered an admirable pater-familias with a care for his women folk (blame that Arab occupation.) Here people would tell you to leave him. (Often with reason. No, not every time. Look, other people’s marriages are totally opaque from outside. No, I wouldn’t be happy being controlled. Neither would my husband, because I tend to run the other way when pushed. But I know women where their husband is their mobile/detachable sanity unit. They relinquish control because they need the structure. I know men in those relationships too. I truly don’t judge. The human heart is complicated. And the human soul more so. I’ll just say for such units, it’s heartbreaking when the sane one dies.)
Second of all, even in regency romances, it was all about the sex anymore, as though writers (or more likely publishers) had completely forgotten the psychological game of wooing or the romantic ideal. When I came across the regency where a stranger takes a virgin from zero to anal sex on a terrace outside a ball, that was it for me and traditional regencies.
Mind you, I still read them. In my rotation regency romances are usually for “I’m exhausted, just finished a book, don’t feel so well.” They’re most of them so predictable they don’t hold up well to “I’m okay now, and I want something stimulating.” They’re relaxa-reads. But I read “Sweet”or “traditional”regencies on Amazon. Mostly on Kindle Unlimited. Which is good because one can’t re-read Heyer forever, just like one can’t just re-read Heinlein forever.
Anyway, it’s entirely possible all this is because of the de-Christianizing of the west, with the concomitant fall of the ideas of duty. Or it can be the same reason we don’t have big families: we’re too rich.
Used to be, particularly for women, you needed a family structure so you wouldn’t find yourself old without anyone to care for you. I think it’s stupid to have replaced that with money and government, but hey… who am I to say anything. (I just don’t think government will be there to look after my generation, not that way. And money… we’re in for interesting times. Not that single women as a rule have tons of savings.)
It used to be man and wife had to learn to be a team after the lust faded (not that some of us don’t still have a lot of fun, even at our advanced age, but if you’re married you remember the weekends where somehow there was no time to get out of bed. Usually the first 2 to 4 years. And you weren’t sleeping.) because they were an economic unit, there wasn’t a ton of ways for women to earn a living outside the home (though most worked at some craft inside the home) and there would be a passel of kids more likely to survive if you were together.
And through that, you learned the real love. You know “Love is patient, love is kind.” Even though humans aren’t naturally any of that, you learn to be. You have to, to stay together and not miserable.
And somewhere around year 10 or so, you find what you have is better than the lust years. You have trust, you have confidence, you have someone that allows you to not watch your back all the time. You can say “you and me against the world.” And the whole is much, much better than the sum of its parts. We discover new interests together. We find that even, you know, going for a drive and nowhere in particular is fun so long as we’re together. You find even the things you liked doing before are better now, because there’s two of you and over the years the person has learned to understand your sense of humor. You can make each other laugh with a look. You can encourage each other’s pursuits. You can reach higher.
But if you think love is really good sex, you’ll never get there.
I like Valentine’s day because it’s a memory of the way things used to be before love was all about sex. I have a stash of cards somewhere that my husband has sent me for Valentine’s and my birthday (yes, they usually have cats on them. Deal.)
And that kind of love is necessary to rebuild a healthy society. Even if our money and wealth as a society allows to ignore the necessity of a partnership. Remembering that love is more than the appetites we share with dogs might help create healthier families.
Not that I think there’s only “One person” for any of us. Okay, some of us are really weird, and even finding one person was a miracle. But there’s a lot of people in the world, and there are probably one or two others in the right age range with whom we could be happy.
As for “soulmates” I have a few. You will know them. They’re the relatives/old friends you suddenly meet for the first time. (Some of mine are regular commenters here. You know who you are.) They’re one of the few persuasive arguments for reincarnation, but that’s not necessary to explain it. As RES (that wallaby!) says, the soul is not bound by time and space. Perhaps when you meet your soul mates you just remember knowing and loving them in the future.
It’s just that sort of love is no tied in, nor should it be to romantic love or sex. These people are just companions on our journey to forever, but trust me, I don’t want to sleep with them.
If you’re doing things right — I have a lot of young friends, not just older son, marrying this year and I want them to know this — your spouse is far more than that.
Your spouse is, or should be a real safe space. The person who sees you with no social mask on, the person to whom you can reveal your fears and anger, and who will still love you despite all that. Your spouse is the person who sees all of you and who, when you’re down on yourself, can also say “But you’re so strong.” Or just “but I still love you.” Because Peterson is right and all of us hate ourselves a little, having seen us naked too many times. Our spouse is the one who sees, but forgives or doesn’t even know there’s something to forgive, but just loves and accepts.
As such a marriage is invaluable, long term. Because human life is tragic. And all of us, at some time, will be poorer, sadder and definitely uglier and often horribly ill as we age. I’d say it’s necessary for sanity and not to fall into bitterness to know at least one person loves us through it all.
Which is worth the times when you had to make an effort to understand, or when it “felt” like there was nothing between you (feelings are treacherous. And just because you can’t feel an emotion it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. When tired or sick I don’t feel much of anything, and I don’t think I’m unique.)
We need to take the ashes of the “natural love” and the crazy illusion of “lust-love” and build something, perhaps on the foundations of chivalrous love, the foundations of honor and duty.
Because man (or woman, even) were not meant to be alone. And while it’s possible to have great platonic love for my friends (I do. Agape, not eros) I don’t and can’t demand they consume their life to have my back when I’m attacked, or support me when I’m down. Some of them would, but there’s a limit. They have their own lives, their own loves.
And I’m very glad I have mine. I’m very glad my husband married me almost 34 years ago now. I’m even more glad that we stuck together through some truly horrible times, even the times when it felt like we couldn’t raise the emotions anymore.
Because it’s a joy to wake up every morning and find him by my side. And I know he has my back and believes in me even when I don’t. And I’m ready to do battle for him too, when he needs it. (My being the unstable Latin he often has to grab the back of my shirt and pull me back when I deem battle should be engaged.)
I’m glad I have him, and he’s for keeps, and it’s me and him against the world. And I have a place I can let my hair down, or indeed metaphorically speaking, shave my head and run around setting fire to things, and it will be understood.
The journey would be unbearable without a companion.