Down With (Romantic) Love!

2013-04-22 Flowers

My wife sent me this article (Romantic love–overrated and hyped-up) around or perhaps on Valentine’s Day. What can I saw? We have a robust relationship. :-)

In any case, I had it saved as tab for the last 2 months until I finally read it this past week. And it was actually very, very good. It also–unexpectedly–had something interesting to say about the gay marriage debate. Here’s an excerpt:

Amid all the violent homoerotic imagery in the same-sex marriage debate what I found strange about the whole argument was the idea that marriage was necessarily just about love, and that – even more bizarrely – people wished their love to be recognised by the state. But marriage isn’t the official recognition of love, rather a social contract.

In fact the link between romantic love and marriage is a fairly recent one, and is, in the wider human picture, an unusual though increasingly common one. Now even a premature reactionary such as I would not suggest the society-wide return to arranged marriages, but in terms of actual outcomes the modern model has been a failure. There has not only been a 50 per cent rise in people living alone in a decade and a half, but the percentage of university-educated women (those who would have once been considered a good match) staying childless is approaching 40 per cent, and the failure rate for marriages based on romantic love is high.

I still hope to write up my thoughts on gay marriage, although at this rate the Supreme Court will rule before I have my say (can you believe it?), but a short preview is that this article’s contention that romantic love is often selfish and a poor basis for marriage resonates with me.

I’m a huge fan of romantic love, and I love my wife dearly, but love is for marriage. Marriage is not for love. What I mean by this is simply that the feeling of romantic love that come from sacrifice, dedication, and fidelity are deeper and more meaningful than the chemical high of infatuation. You can build romantic love with hard work, empathy, and compassion. You can fill your marriage with love. But you can’t control infatuation, and if you build your marriage on that both the infatuation and your marriage will fail.

15 thoughts on “Down With (Romantic) Love!”

  1. This whole idea of love and marriage being linked *before* marriage has been something I’ve been thinking about for the last several years or so, stemming from a marriage and family course I taught. The question of “why get married at all” came up, and I had to really think about it from the perspective (even if not mine) of someone who doesn’t view marriage as a religious necessity preceding intimacy and having children. In biblical times, marriage was decreed a necessity that would supposedly ensure the messiah was born into the “right” lineage. Much later, of course, it became a way to ensure such things as land rights or simply the joint effort to work the land: the husband plowed the fields, the wife milked the goats and reared the children. The husband gave those children a “name” and therefore a legitimacy the woman alone could not. Romance and love as the impetus for marriage has been a recent invention–the result of the luxury we have today to make choices based more on desire than on need. Even children were once a necessity. This idea of “family”–revered and held up as the savior of modern society–is also one of those luxuries to a large degree. I don’t “need” my children to help me reap this year’s crops or plant next year’s or even to take care of me in my old age. I want them. They’re a luxury. The declining birth rate in the US is evidence of that feeling.

    I have no point to make, and I haven’t organized my thoughts enough to fully understand how they affect my views on marriage in general or gay marriage specifically. I just know we have to accept the fact that marriage doesn’t mean today what it did 100 or even 1000 years ago, so how can cling to any definition at all?

  2. So true. And when you build your marriage on the deep kind of love that comes from commitment and sacrifice, it’s not so difficult then for that love to spill over into a commitment to the children as well. The claim that married love is simply about two people being “in love” has done such a great disservice to the children who are born into these unions on so many levels (their well-being becomes second to how romantically “in love” the spouses feel… or don’t feel. And that’s just the tip of the ice-burg).

  3. I don’t know, Bobbie — Are you sure you don’t need your children to take care of you in some capacity in old age? Or, to make a broader point, that society doesn’t need its children to take care of the aging? We live in a culture that values independence and self sufficiency, and we are more likely to distance ourselves from dependence on family than other cultures. But I’m not sure it’s working out well for us when it comes to aging and end-of-life issues. We are starting to treat our own parents as burdens and, with a falling birth rate, taking care of the elderly can be increasingly burdensome on some individuals. The one or two children coming from a specific family may just not have the resources or capabilities to help Mom and Dad in old age, and society has fewer resources as the population gets older and fewer young people are working and pooling common resources. A family with six kids, however, greatly increases care-taking abilities through skills and resources, with a lower impact on each grown child.

    I hear parents talk about the expensive nature of having children and the need to limit the number of children to one or two to maintain a certain lifestyle, pay for college, etc. But they rarely factor in the advantages of grown children and grandchildren in the golden years. They only see the first 18 years of a child at home and then college, and their own personal sacrifices within that time frame. And, as a culture, we admittedly do not like to imagine dependence on our grown children. This is not a criticism of those who cannot have lots of children or have valid reasons for not marrying or limiting family size — We have a responsibility toward those people in old age as well, regardless of circumstance. I’m just speaking to a broader cultural shift in attitudes toward children and family size in this country.

  4. Bobbie-

    To my mind, the way the institution has been modified to meet changing cultural norms is really just tinkering around the edges. The institution of marriage has been put to a lot of uses–from sealing alliances to ensuring a proper Biblical birthright–but all of those uses relied on the pre-existence of the institution and on its validity. To me, they don’t show that the definition of marriage is malleable, but rather that there’s an underlying permanence to the institution that makes it a suitable foundation for adding on additional features.

    It reminds me of the argument that morality must be relative because of the great diversity of belief systems. But when you actually look at the ethical codes across civilizations throughout time, it’s not the diversity that stands out but the homogeneity. Ethical systems take different views on practices (everything from theft to human sacrifice), but underlying the different conclusions they all tend to appeal to a common wellspring of human intuition a bout what makes up morality: concepts of harm, of balancing individual vs. group welfare, and notions of duties and obligations for those who are vulnerable: these central concepts are practically universal, and the different belief systems are all created with the same building blocks and seek to answer the same fundamental questions.

    Same, I think, goes for marriage. Whether it’s arranged or not, whether property can pass only through the male or the female line, whatever the particularities of marriage in a given culture and time, the heart of it is that a man and a woman sacrifice their own interests to found a family, and that they are mutually obligated to each other and to their offspring, and that marriage is fundamentally not an arrangement between two individuals, but rather between two individuals on one side and their community on the other. Marriages have always been primarily about duty and not about fulfillment of the individual.

    That’s the really timeless nature of marriage. It’s the common thread across all human societies that we’re preparing, for the first time, to sever.

  5. I see your point, LT. And I agree that society as a whole needs its children to take care of the aging–via medical care particularly but also through public service sectors in, say, waste management or public safety or public utilities. But on the individual family level, we’re seeing less reliance–whether we should or not–on our children. Like you said, most people don’t see beyond what we as parents need to provide our children with. We don’t look ahead to the years when we might need them. My own mother has been obsessed with making sure she can take care of herself as she ages, and she’s been obsessed since she was in her 40s. She’s now 80, and the thought of any of us 8 kids “having” to take her in really mortifies her. Many elderly people would rather pay a stranger (someone *else’s* child) to change their bedding or bring them their dinner on a tray than to have their own children lovingly do the same. And many people perfectly capable of doing such things for their own parents would also rather someone else’s child take over that role for pay.

    Again, this all goes back to the luxuries we’ve come to afford ourselves . . . or the luxuries we think we’ve afforded ourselves (when in fact we may be destroying ourselves). Why do the “dirty work” when we can pay a stranger to do it? Why do *anything* we think in the moment or the year or the generation we don’t *have* to do? Ruth and Esther make a beautiful story to us today, primarily because to find such devotion and loyalty between generations now is rare. And along those lines, I think, conversely, the reason the story of Jacob and Rachel draws us in still is that it’s a story of love at first sight. We can relate to that today because we’ve all felt it to some degree. But do we work for 14 years to see if infatuation can hold out and become love? Probably not.

    As you mentioned, there has been a cultural shift in attitudes toward children and family size–and marriage–in this country. And I don’t see any signs of that shift readjusting itself anytime soon. Is that a good thing? Absolutely not. But is it all but inevitable?. . .

  6. Hm. Nathaniel, I think I’m struggling with the argument that marriage is “primarily about duty and not about fulfillment of the individual” because it once WAS about duty and not personal fulfillment. I think that ideally, yes, that’s what marriage should be about. But, ideally, that’s also what life is about. At our individual best, we should be more concerned with duty and service than with our happiness, but we’re not all Mother Teresas. And how happy was she after all? And, of course, does our own happiness really matter? Perhaps “men [and women] are that they might have joy,” but at what cost, right? What comes before our own joy, particularly when we’re struggling to first do good and then hope to reap the benefits–a blind sort of faith for some.

    So 19 years ago, I married someone I was in love with, someone I knew was kind and good and would make a good husband and father. He was in stark contrast to my previous long-term relationship, in which I’d been (to put it mildly) treated horribly–and yet I’d have married him had he asked. And that would have been a gargantuan mistake that I likely would never have extricated myself from because I’d have seen myself as having committed to him for eternity, even if it would’ve been an eternity of abuse. My happiness would’ve been irrelevant and non-existent. Romantic love is dangerous for such reasons. But is it what leads the vast majority of people into marriage? Absolutely.

    My point is that duty isn’t “enough” any more than love is. And I would no sooner suggest someone stay in a painful marriage (physically or emotionally) than I would suggest someone enter a marriage with someone they don’t love or that they marry someone they love (supposedly) but don’t like very much. Duty, whether ideal or not, rarely comes first today. And that’s not always a bad thing. My struggle with your definition, I think, is that if the meaning of marriage can evolve on a per-couple basis, what, really, is our starting point? And *that* is the question–our starting point–that has had me thinking for a while now about marriage as an institution.

  7. “That’s the really timeless nature of marriage. It’s the common thread across all human societies that we’re preparing, for the first time, to sever.” I agree with this response with the exception that the first time we really severed marriage from commitment to society/children was with no-fault divorce. This is where the same-sex marriage debate becomes very sticky – because why tell same-sex couples they can’t marry for “feelings” or “love” or “personal preference” when that is precisely what no-fault divorce is basically saying “traditional” marriage is all about (when you get tired of your spouse, just get a divorce and find a new one. Maybe you’ll owe a little child support – that’s all children really need, right?).

  8. By the way, Nathaniel, having marriage be a contract between two people–a literal contract that you sign at the courthouse and that lays out the expectations of each person and that also lays out the repercussions of breaking that contract, and that thereby removes the romantic-love element altogether–would make much more sense to me than marriage as a $30,000+ event that more often than not ends up in divorce. It would more fully say “I am committing to you not just because I love you but because I want to create a future with you that is worthy of us both.” The romance that goes into the ceremony itself is too appealing to so many people who might otherwise hold their pen for an extra minute or two before signing.

  9. Bobbie-

    I’m not really writing about an ideal situation because, as you point out, the idea that marriage is only about duty leads to some pretty bad outcomes. My reasoning is based on two things:

    1. Men and women tend to have biologically different interests in mating. Women are physically vulnerable and in addition need a tremendous amount of resources to devote to child raising. Men, by contrast, depend entirely on women for their genes to be carried on to the next generation (primarily because women can conceal paternity from men, which is a huge threat biologically speaking). Pairing to mate and raise children is therefore an arrangement that predates human society and is essentially identical to pair-bonding in other animal species (where the specific arrangement always depends on the relative strengths/weaknesses of the particular species). So right off the bat, pair-bonding was less about a man and a woman wanting to be together, and more about a compromise where both sides give and take in a trade.

    2. I used the term “pair-bonding” rather than “marriage” in the first point because that’s not marriage. It’s like the evolutionary antecedent of marriage. Marriage only exists in the context of a society. Lots of animals have pair-bonding, sometimes for life, sometimes not, but only humans have society and so only humans have marriage.

    Marriage, in a nutshell, is the recognition of the community of the validity or a pair-bonding. We’ve already addressed why men and women pair bond (and sex is only a part of it), but what is society’s interest in formalizing those pair-bonds? Why should the community care? Why should the institution of marriage–as opposed to the practice of pair-bonding–exist at all?

    The community cares because it has in interest in the welfare of all its members, and specifically in the welfare of the rising generation.The couples are entering into an exchange with the community much like they enter with each other: in return for special status within the community, they agree to care for each other and (even more importantly) to care for their offspring.

    This is what I mean when I say marriage is fundamentally about duty and obligation: the community has absolutely no interest in formally recognizing pair-bondings (e.g. having marriages) just so that the couple can feel happy about it. Nor is there any reason why a pair-bonded couple would want some kind of public recognition of a private relationship. It doesn’t make any more sense than the idea of getting a BFF license. To get from pair-bonding to marriage there has to be some incentive for the community. The obligation of the couple to be the first line of defense and to expend private resources to caring for each other (“in sickness and in health”) and to care for offspring is that incentive.

    So I’m actually not making an idealistic argument about how we ought to view marriage in terms of service (although there’s that too), but rather an entirely pragmatic investigation into why this institution exists at all. And, without the concept of the a contract with the couple as one party and society as another and duty being the incentive for society to care… I think it’s impossible to explain the institution. And the institution needs explanation because it’s a universal and unique feature of human society.

    So is duty enough? No, not for a great marriage. But it is enough to explain why the institution exists in the first place. Love, on the other hand, certainly isn’t.

  10. Ah. Okay. Well, if you’re speaking about duty as society’s incentive to care, I can get behind your assertion.

    And I look forward to reading your opinion (eventually) on how all of these thoughts play out in the debate regarding gay marriage. I suspect you won’t be offering up any of the usual arguments. Nothing about your arguments is ever usual. :-)

  11. Sarah-

    I agree with this response with the exception that the first time we really severed marriage from commitment to society/children was with no-fault divorce.

    I think we’re in 99% agreement on this one. The only hesitation I have is that the actual rationale for no-fault divorce marriage at the time was not to intentionally redefine marriage as a voluntary, for-the-sake-of-the-individuals relationship. That was an unintended consequence. The actual goal was to protect women from abusive relationships.

    So I guess I’d say this would be the first time we intentionally sever marriage from commitment to society/children, but no-fault divorce already did a lot to cut that bond.

  12. Bobbie-

    By the way, Nathaniel, having marriage be a contract between two people–a literal contract that you sign at the courthouse and that lays out the expectations of each person and that also lays out the repercussions of breaking that contract, and that thereby removes the romantic-love element altogether–would make much more sense to me than marriage as a $30,000+ event that more often than not ends up in divorce. It would more fully say “I am committing to you not just because I love you but because I want to create a future with you that is worthy of us both.”

    In a way, that’s what marriage was before no-fault divorce. Like Sarah, I view no-fault divorce as sort of the beginning of the end for marriage.

    There’s also a movement to bring this back, by the way. Since there’s basically no chance of overturning no-fault divorce, there’s this idea of a “covenant marriage”.

    In some parts of the United States, a covenant marriage is a legally distinct kind of marriage, in which the marrying couple agree to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for divorce. The covenant marriage laws emphasize the belief that marriage is more than just a mere contract between two individuals, contending that without marriage, there would be no foundation of family in society and, in turn, no civilization or progress to follow.
    The movement sets out to promote and strengthen marriages, reduce the rate of divorce, lessen the number of children born out of wedlock, discourage cohabitation, and frame marriage as an honorable and desirable institution.[1] As a law, covenant marriage is technically written neutrally with respect to religion, however it quickly became marked as a religious form of marriage, due to its historical background.[2]

    From Wikipedia.

    Right now only Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona actually have covenant marriages as an option, but many more states are considering it. I would fully expect the movement to gain steam once gay marriage is legalized.

  13. Found this:

    Looks like Virginia got pretty close to passing a covenant marriage bill in 2003. It passed the House, but got defeated in the Senate.

    I think most states in the nation will try to pass covenant marriage in response to gay marriage. They will probably fail with respect to making it heterosexual-only, but it’s an intrinsically valuable goal, in my opinion.

  14. Yes, good point… the intent wasn’t to redefine marriage. The covenant marriage idea has been around for awhile. I too am curious to see if it will gain steam.

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