My culture seems to have a strange relationship with marriage. On the one hand, we value it so highly that the thought of denying it to anyone constitutes an egregious violation of that person’s rights, but on the other hand, we think it so insignificant that we ignore it, breach it, break it, and abandon it almost as a matter of course.
The divorce rate is staggering, but we’re too indifferent to be staggered by it. We’re occasionally chagrined when people cheat–at least enough to say sympathetic sounding things to the cheater’s spouse–unless of course the cheater was motivated out of love for someone else, and then we’re pretty willing to call the behavior noble or at least to forget about it. In fact, barring the occasional (and vanishing) financial benefit, we treat marriage as largely unnecessary; anything you might do when married we encourage you to do before marriage, and sometimes to do without ever planning to get married.
Nevertheless, we seem to have a cultural nostalgia for the sort of relationships that we can no longer effectively produce. We marvel at the people who have been married for fifty, sixty, or seventy years. Even people who have only been married ten years, we’re so surprised that we ask them how they could have accomplished something so unlikely.
Now for the moment I’m going to ignore the effect this all might have on society as generations develop without any kind of consistent and stable family structure. After all, if we as a culture were broadly inclined to think of our children’s well-being as significant, we would be environmentalists without abortion, and we would give money to teachers the way we currently give it to athletes and movie stars. Instead we mostly want liberty and fulfillment ourselves.
Specifically, with regard to marriage, we want to be part of the sort of love story we read about, see on television, and (for the blessed minority) witness in lives around us. We’re just not sure how to go about it, or even if there’s anything we can do to increase our chances. (Perhaps it’s fate, or as the sitcoms say, the universe having a plan. In any event as the song says, one can’t hurry it, one just has to wait, and presumably, stay hopeful.)
At the very least we’re certain that the sorts of life-long relationships we crave must have a kind of trick to them. This is evident even from the way we phrase the most common question: “What’s your secret?”
Experience too quickly tells us that love falls apart. We can go from smitten to repulsed in a matter of moments. Or worse (at least from our perspective) we may stay smitten while our lover becomes repulsed. Yet every history of a long relationship is filled with moments when it seems like the relationship could have failed–our own relationships failed at similar moments–but it lasts instead. That’s the puzzle. We almost have to imagine some sort of deeper understanding, which strengthens relationships enough to flourish despite adversity.
In general, I think our culture suggests two candidates for explaining that puzzling strength, one emotional and one rational. They’re evident in almost every media, but contemporary love songs seem like a reasonable focus. If love songs reflect what our culture thinks about relationships, then this is what we think.
Candidate #1: The Search for True Love
Most of us have inherited a driving obsession with our emotions, which is to say that we think they’re what should drive us. This obsession has periodically risen to the status of fashion, but it’s probably as old as humanity. Following the truth of one’s heart–one’s feelings–is as new as any artistic youth who seems to discover it, but fueled Hippies in the last century, Romantics in the centuries before it, Cavaliers before that…. I could go on.
Unfortunately, those of us who want our relationships to be guided by our hearts are left with the problem I discussed above: our affections change. The suggestion many make in response is that those changes are only appearances, symptoms of something deeper that isn’t changing.
Mostly we call this deep unchanging thing “True Love,” and we describe it in somewhat bizarre ways. Extreme as Pink’s song “True Love” might appear, she captures a widespread understanding when she explains, “I hate you, I really hate you so much I think it must be true love.” Concordant scenes frequently occur in television shows and movies. When one character complains too much about another, the character’s friends laugh knowingly and suggest that anger, frustration, and any number of other negative things might actually be love in disguise. (This has been around at least since Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.)
Maybe this True Love, which can take so many unexpected forms, is what’s needed for a relationship to last. Maybe, as Taylor Swift suggests in “Love Story,” love can be “difficult” so long as “it’s real.” A deep and intransigent emotion would retain for us the liberty of following our hearts, even if more shallow emotions were “inconstant” as the moon and “likewise variable” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2) We could even join with Selena Gomez in “Come and Get it,” when she sings, “[I] hate the way I love you,” embracing a contradiction that doesn’t interfere with her plan to be in the relationship “for life.”
To be continued….