Evidently, love is dead. At least, that’s what far too many websites and magazines stated when rockers Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale called it quits after 13 years of marriage and three kids. But then again, the same was said about Kermit and Miss Piggy as well as Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner and, well, just about any celebrity couple some of us felt close to for whatever reason.
A couple decides to split (and happy, healthy, satisfying marriages generally don’t end), and all of a sudden there is no love for them, for us, for anyone. Ever. Love is dead! Although we know that they and most likely a lot of other heartbroken people will eventually find love — or loves — again. Which kinds of shoots a giant hole in the theory that love lasts forever — or that it at least should last forever, if we just work hard enough at it.
Maybe it can. Maybe love can last forever. But why is a lifelong love so important? Why do we consider lifelong love to be the best kind of love, especially since most of us fall in and out of love with several people before we find someone we actually might want to be in love with for the rest of our life — if we even want that at all? Is there any research that indicates love that lasts forever improves us in any way — makes us smarter, more resilient, more creative, kinder or a better person? Not that I know of. Yet each time we have a loving relationship that ends, we actually learn more about ourselves, others and the world.
Surely some of us have fallen in love and stayed with people who were not worthy of our love and who were unable to return love. To make ourselves feel better we tell ourselves that it wasn’t real love even though it may have felt like it at the time — it just might not have been a mutually healthy, sustainable love.
Maintaining love for the long haul isn’t easy. After the initial passionate, crazy-in-love phase, we tend to have what’s considered a comfortable love, which is probably good because no one can sustain that intense phase for very long — we’d never get anything else done. But to make that comfortable love last means we need to compromise, as philosophy professor Aaron Ben-Zeev writes:
We give up a romantic value, such as romantic freedom and intense passionate love, in exchange for a nonromantic value, such as living comfortably without financial concerns. Nevertheless, the more the combined score of attraction and praiseworthiness decreases, the greater the compromise, and the more we yearn for the road not taken – the one with romantic freedom or a different romantic partner. … the problem of romantic compromise, and hence of our inability to be satisfied with our own lot, has increased to the point where it is the major obstacle to achieving or sustaining profound love at all. tweet
There’s nothing wrong with compromise. But what if we’re “satisfied with our own lot” for a while — like, say, for three or four years, while we’re figuring out the whole marriage thing, or longer, like the 18 or so years that we’re raising kids together? If we had deep satisfaction and happiness in creating and maintaining those romantic relationships, but then realized we wanted to experience “romantic freedom or a different romantic partner,” why would that be seen as a bad thing?
In Against Love: A Polemic, Laura Kipnis brilliantly speaks to what marital compromise means when marriages are lasting 40, 50, 70 years or more (and let’s not forget that marriages in colonial days lasted about 12 years — think about that!).
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
Ouch! But she is right. Although we have had no-fault divorce for a long time, there still is a stigma about divorce: Divorce = failure. Why? Recently, Astro Teller, Google’s Captain of Moonshots (yes, that’s his real title!), and his wife, Danielle, wrote a book, Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce And Marriage, about what we get wrong about lasting love:
Up until the point that you get married, the dominant narrative in our society is that (A) true love exists, and (B) everything is worth ditching in exchange for getting true love. … Once you are married, that barrier evaporates. The narrative is, true love, if it exists at all, by definition exists with the person you said ‘I do’ to.” After that, you are expected to finish what you started, heart’s compass be damned. Your spouse may change, cheat, or cease to love you altogether, but a promise is a promise. tweet
A promise is a promise. And so even if you have been unhappy, perhaps denied sex for years, stay together and … success!
According to journalist Iris Krasnow’s book, The Secret Lives of Wives, women get pretty creative to stay married, as has Krasnow herself, married 27 years, despite “boredom, disgust, loathing and malaise throughout her marriage.” As she says:
All we want to do as human beings … is to love and be loved and to feel worthy … We want someone in our lives we can count on, who loves us back, that we can trust and who will go the distance with us. tweet
I don’t doubt that many of us want that (although I’m not convinced we should expect it, especially if we are not particularly lovable people), but perhaps the question should be who will provide that for us? Must a romantic partner or spouse be the “someone in our lives we can count on”? And must it “go the distance”?
When I look at my own life trajectory, my friends, much more than my boyfriends or my two husbands, were the ones whom I could almost always count on, who love me as much as I love them, who trust me as much as I trust them, and who have gone the distance with me. I’m not sure if my first husband would have done that — regardless, I was unable to do that for him — but it was pretty clear my second husband was not.
But, you know, I don’t have sex with my friends and I enjoy male companionship and I enjoy all that romantic relationships have to offer — yes, including sex. I’ve had quite a few romantic relationships in my life. None has lasted “for life” — my second marriage lasted 14 years but we were together for almost 17 years, and the relationship that followed lasted about eight years. I was very much in love and very much committed in both those relationships, as well as many of my other romantic relationships, including my latest relationship, which is nearly a year old. I have indeed experienced all the wonders and joys of deep love a few times in my life — including my decades-long friendships.
Do those relationships not count?
Interested in finding a loving relationship that works for you? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.