Previously I started talking about my culture’s desire for lasting relationships and its confusion over how to produce them. We know that successful relationships survive trials and difficulties, but we’re just not certain how they do that. I’ve suggested that our current society promotes two possible methods of succeeding where so many relationships fail, and that these methods are apparent in contemporary love songs.
First, we might cling to the idea of a surpassingly deep and real emotion, commonly termed “True Love.” It’s frequently described as manifesting in ways that seem contradictory, but that very diversity–the ability to encompass even opposing feelings–is a significant part of its appeal. The idea that a deeper and more constant emotion exists beneath the obvious but ephemeral ones allows us the freedom to let our emotions guide us while preserving our hope that maybe our emotions might guide us toward something long-lasting. Our experience with emotions almost requires it, especially if we’re committed to the idea of “following our hearts;” our hearts change too quickly to lead us to stability unless we’re willing to believe that those changes can be subsumed into something that doesn’t change.
The second method is based on reason rather than emotion, though.
The Economy of Romance
One of the various concepts floating around is something called “rational self-interest.” It’s been an economic theory, an ethical theory, and even a military theory, but it’s probably as old as humanity too. The basic idea is that people will do whatever seems most likely to benefit themselves. The rational element is important because pursuit of personal benefit sometimes requires a judgment between competing interests on competing schedules; a large enough long term good might require the short term sacrifice of a lesser good.
For those of us who are suspicious about our hearts’ ability to guide us into successful relationships, reason is the logical alternative. When we view our relational needs in the same way that we view other elements of personal benefit, we can rationalize certain sacrifices–monogamy, the effort involved in supporting someone else, the periodic need to overrule our hearts–as a legitimate means of securing the larger good of our own long term happiness.
The resulting do ut des might seem slightly less romantic–an almost contractual exchange of services isn’t as poetic as True Love–but it’s common nevertheless. In his song “Gone, Gone, Gone,” when Philip Phillips describes the many signs and services of devotion that he’s willing to perform, they’re contingent upon reciprocity: “Give me reasons to believe that you would do the same for me, and I would do [these things] for you.” Then, as the song’s narrative progresses, the formula is reversed–“You’ve always done the same for me so I would do [these things] for you.”–suggesting a service debt that demands resolution since a lack of balance would jeopardize the arrangement.
Michael Buble alludes to a similar understanding in his song “Haven’t Met You Yet,” when he explains, “I’ll give so much more than I get.” The exchange rate might be more favorable, but the principle of exchange persists. In “Lonely No More,” Rob Thomas asks, “What if I was good to you? What if you were good to me?” The implied answer is that fair trade would end the litany of failed relationships that the song laments. Perhaps then a clear understanding of how relationships serve our self-interest might enable us to pursue the long lasting relationships we crave.
Perhaps our culture will employ one or both methods and begin consistently to produce relationships that can overcome the challenges inherent in the endeavor. It seems more likely though that we’ll simply redefine what success in a relationship requires, favoring intensity over longevity perhaps, or some other quality that doesn’t so easily elude us. Maybe someday we’ll admire both brevity and multiplicity, preferring one-night stands as the relationship equivalent of epigrams.
Again, for the moment I’m going to ignore the potential effects on society that might emerge as it becomes increasingly populated by children raised in what were once called “broken” but are now called merely “modern” homes. It ought to be harrowing enough to consider that the length of a child’s most formative years is longer than many relationships are capable of enduring.
I want to suggest though that both emotion and self-interest are fundamentally flawed as candidates for relational motivators, at least so long as long lasting monogamous relationships are an ideal.
Emotions are fickle and uncontrollable. On the one hand True Love might never manifest for a person at all, or it may never manifest in that serendipitous arrangement of two people simultaneously. On the other hand, unless we want to suggest that True Love is entirely unlike other emotions, even it might fade or change into something different.
Meanwhile, self-interest is vulnerable to changing circumstances, and this is without even considering the obvious tendency in humanity toward self-beneficial injustice. If a relationship is built on self-advantage, it can only last until something comes along that seems more advantageous to one of its members. In that case that member’s self-interest would abandon the other, no matter how unfair that was to the partner abandoned.
It seems to me that relationships require something more constant, more controllable, and more independent, at least to the point of not being enslaved by circumstances. Christianity suggests committed charity, the willful (and frequently stubborn) choice to labor for someone else’s benefit regardless of whether he or she can or can’t, will or won’t reciprocate.
The obvious objections we all (even Christians) have of course are that our own needs might not be met and that such relationships might not be experientially satisfying. That is to say, we object based on emotion and self-interest. The entire conversation becomes circular. Christianity also provides an escape from that circle.