My co-author Susan Pease Gadoua’s article in Psychology Today, “Three reasons why you shouldn’t marry for love,” has hit a nerve. It had more than 111,000 hits in a week, and we have had dozens and dozens of emails from people in response, many who agree.
What does that say about love and marriage? A lot!
I am in the middle of reading Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis, and while I laugh in recognition of her observations about the state of monogamy, marriage and — gasp! — love, there’s a part of me that is incredibly sad by those observations. She is an astute observer of the angst surrounding the way we couple and uncouple today:
As love has increasing become the center of all emotional expression in the modern imagination — the quantity without which life seems forlorn — anxiety about obtaining it in sufficient quantities and for sufficient duration has increased to the point that that anxiety suffuses the population, and most of our cultural forms. With the central premise of modern love the expectation that a state of coupled permanence is achievable, and as freighted with psychological interiority as we all now are, uncoupling can only be experienced as ego-crushing crisis and inadequacy. tweet
Quite a few comments on Susan’s article accused her of confusing lust and passion with “real love,” the kind that sustains a long-term marriage. Kipnis has choice words for those kinds of people:
Ever optimistic, heady with love’s utopianism, most of us eventually pledge ourselves to unions that will, if successful, far outlast the desire that impelled them into being. The prevailing cultural wisdom is that even if sexual desire tends to be a short-lived phenomenon, nevertheless, that wonderful elixir “mature love” will kick in just in time to save the day, once desire flags. The question remaining unaddressed is whether cutting off other possibilities of romance and sexual attraction while there’s still some dim chance of attaining them in favor of the more muted pleasures of “mature love” isn’t similar to voluntarily amputating a healthy limb: a lot of anesthesia is required and the phantom pain never entirely abates. But if it behooves a society to convince its citizenry that wanting change means personal failure, starting over is shameful, or wanting more satisfaction than you have is illegitimate, clearly grisly acts of self-mutilation will be required. tweet
Which reminds me of a column I’d written for the Huffington Post a while back. I’m reprinting it here, edited, because like Susan’s column and Kipnis’ book, it raises an essential question about the role of love in a marriage: If we marry for love, shouldn’t it be OK to end the marriage when love is no longer present or if we are not content to accept “mature love” — aka, a sexless, roomatelike existence — as its replacement? (I think of what the late BASE-skier Shane McConkey says in a documentary about his dangerous passion: “I’m not afraid of death, I’m more afraid of not living fully.” Amen!)
Most of us wouldn’t even dream about getting married unless it was for love. But that creates an interesting dilemma once you’ve been married for a while. Any married person knows that love comes and goes over the years, rarely if ever returning to the level of a newlywed’s can’t-take-my-hands-off-of-you phase. Sometimes, after X-number of years of marriage, we just don’t love our spouse as much as we used to — if we still love him or her at all, that is. But if we no longer love our spouse, can we split? Most people don’t like divorce, for obvious reasons. It’s emotionally draining, often damaging to the kids and expensive; it’s “failure.” We seem to be OK with divorce only if something really bad is happening, like abuse, affairs or addictions — even though a good number of spouses dealing with those issues stay married because they insist, “I still love him/her.” Clearly, love can cloud our logic.
So, we have a good share of people living in loveless marriages. Isn’t that odd? We insist that love is the reason to get married, but obviously we don’t believe we need love to stay married. Instead, we stay married because we say we need to honor our vows — the whole “for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and in health, until death do us part” thing. Or for the kids. Or because we need to understand what commitment means (see reference to “grisly acts of self-mutilation” above).
Tina Turner was right — what’s love got to do with it?
Love is a crappy reason to marry, according to historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage:
“For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply. But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.” tweet
So then why do we cling to a “fragile and irrational” emotion such as love as the main reason to say “I do” instead of love being just one of the reasons? In truth, we really don’t marry for love alone. We marry for love and then some. A woman in her 20s may be tying the knot because she’s ready to be a mom. A 40-something divorcee may want to get hitched again for financial stability. A man in his 50s may wed a so-called trophy wife, a younger woman who offers him social status, or maybe a chance for a first or new family. A 70-something widower may be marrying for companionship.
Are those marriages any less valid that couples who marry for love? Of course not!
But, announce that you’re getting married for, say, financial stability or social status? Expect judgment and shaming. Just look at how Tori Spelling reacted when the tabloids deemed her marriage loveless because someone blabbed that hubby Dean McDermott was just after her “money and the fame.” Men can be gold-diggers, too, according to a recent study that indicates many of us would marry for money, male and female. Even Pamela Smock, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies marriage and money, says she was somewhat shocked by that. “It’s kind of against the notion of love and soul mates and the main motivations to marry in our culture,” she said.
Right — because our main motivation for marrying isn’t just love, even if we don’t admit it. So we should stop pretending that it is. Because if love is the only reason to marry, then the end of love should be reason enough to divorce. In fact, a recent U.K. study indicates that falling out of love has surpassed infidelity as the reason couples are splitting.
We are entering proposal season; more men pop the question in December than any other month, including February. But before you say, “Yes!,” you might want to ask your sweetie why he wants to marry you. If he says, “Because I love you,” beware!
- Where do you rank love on reasons to marry?
- What happens if you fall out of love?
- Are you OK with love becoming “mature love”?
- What the heck does “mature love” mean to you anyway?
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