Monday, February 11, 2008

Should Your Love be like a Red, Red Rose?

Just in time for Valentine's Day! An article in the newest issue of The Atlantic advises women in their 30s to stop looking for Mr. Right and just settle down and have kids with the next guy that is nice to them. Mr. Good Enough might not be the love of your life, and the sex might not be so great, but marriage is not about living an excited life and sex and intense connection with your partner really isn't that important to a good life. Here's a telling quote:

"The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable but not because they seemed so in love—they were enviable because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch. In practice, my married friends with kids don’t spend that much time with their husbands anyway (between work and child care), and in many cases, their biggest complaint seems to be that they never see each other. So if you rarely see your husband—but he’s a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?"

In a way, I sympathize with the sentiment driving this article (though I think the author makes some very suspicious assumptions about what all women want out of their lives). I do believe that much of our anxieties about love and relationships are based on expectations about what love can do for our lives that are simply false. For instance, I think the model of the soul mate offered by Aristophanes sets us up for co-dependency. So maybe its good to try to be realistic about what we can get out of a relationship.

This reminds me of some of Stendhal's reflections on different types of love. Stendhal believed there were four types of romantic love. The first is "sympathy love". This is love based on common tastes, ideas, and outlooks ("We can talk for hours--we have so much in common and we want the same things in life!"). For Stendhal, most relationships are based on this ideal, but he found nothing particular interesting about it.

The next types are "vanity love" and "sensual love". Vanity love is essentially wanting someone because of how they make you look to others; Trophy spouses, in other words. Sensual love is pretty much what it sounds like--love of the sensual pleasure someone gives you. Stendhal thought there was nothing particular admirable about these types.

For Stendhal, what was most interesting was "passion-love". This is a kind of attraction to someone that inspires imagination, fantasy, and even painful thoughts. This kind of feeling brings out vibracy, euphoria, and creativity. But, as with all good things, there is a dark side to this as well.

Tied to this kind of love is the phenomena of what Stendhal called "crystallization": "I call 'crystallization' that action of the mind that discovers fresh perfections in its beloved at every turn of events" The story behind this concept is quite lyrical, but the main idea is that when one starts to fall in love with someone, the lover's imagination begins to take over the powers of perception, so that he sees the beloved as the most beautiful they can be. The lover can see only the admirable qualities of the beloved and starts to "see" the world in terms of the beloved. Every small gesture by the beloved is a message and this can bring great joy or despair, depending on whether the message is about mutual feeling or rejected love.

There is now a clinical term for this: limerence. This is the idea of "falling in love" with someone. All the feelings of joy, expectation, hope, passion, and excitement are part of the limerant stage. But this is different than "being in love" with someone, which usually involves having some kind of relationship with the person in which concerns are shared and people work for one another's well being and feelings.

It is "being in love" that takes effort. People in limerence are usually self-absorbed on their own needs and are unable to attend to the needs of others, especially the beloved, whom they have crystalized into someone different than what the real person is. Its even worse if the love is unrequited, because then the lover feels inadequate and depressed that someone so great would not even notice them or want them.

So perhaps there is some wisdom in the pop psychology of The Atlantic. Perhaps we do need to attend to the difference between the feelings of falling in love with someone (which are great) and the reality that being in love means having to think beyond yourself and attend to the well-being of others, respecting them as having a full range of emotions like oneself, and wanting to be with them despite the set-backs and the difficulties of being an "ordinary person".

I'm not sure this is the same thing as "settling". Settling seems too much like resignation. As Robert Burns suggests in the poem, being in love is a real struggle, not a passive acceptance, but it is journey worth taking:

"Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun :
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only love,
And fare thee weel a while !
And I will come again, my love,
Thou’ it were ten thousand mile."

"Red, Red Rose" Robert Burns (1794)

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At 11:17 AM , Anonymous Theresa said...

The article regarding "settling" seems to be written by a modern day Charlotte Lucas, the woman in Pride & Prejudice who, at age 27, decided to marry the pompous clergyman her best friend Elizabeth Bennett had just rejected. Charlotte, who viewed herself as a spinster with few prospects for a life beyond living forever with her parents, decided that settling was exactly the kind of thing that would make her tolerably happy, and society had taught her that she shouldn't expect more than that, as she explains to Elizabeth when announcing her engagement:
"I see what you are feeling," replied Charlotte; "you must be surprised, very much surprised -- so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connexions, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state."

At 11:34 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Stendhal and other French writers are famous for knowing well the subtleties of human emotion. For all the stereotype of the English being emotionally closed, Jane Austen shows they comprehend the intricacies of intimacy too.


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