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January 15, 2008

Comments

Nato

Isn't it relevant that marriage is hardly ever considered a familial alliance any more? As a verb, "elope" has become quite tenuous, apparently meaning "to get married without a large pre-planned wedding" It also used to be that marriage was a pretty "good" deal for a woman, since it brought protections that one would be hard-pressed to maintain on one's own. These days, however, women have both the statutory and practical freedom to look after their own wellbeing.

The function of marriage has changed, and, I think, has become *more* romantically-based rather than less. We no longer expect anyone to stay in loveless marriages, at least if there's no minor children in play. I would expect that marriage and romance in the Western world are, as measured in modern values, in many ways more successful as they've ever been. The difference is, however, that to count as "happily ever after," outcomes have to hit a much higher standard. When they don't, or when people think that they are not, then they feel like they could or should do better.

The thing is, they seem to be right much of the time, eventually hit on a relationship that really lasts and is as awesome as long term love can be. Then the tragedy - if there is one - is that the life they (and others) spent on previous relationships couldn't be spent on the ones that turned out permanent. I would like to have been right the first (or second, or third) time*, but I wasn't, and I'm at least grateful that they ended earlier rather than later, though I also note that the shallower the wounds I sustained (reference Nathan's "fishing" analogy) the less I learned less about myself and about being a good mate.

The commoditization of marriage and romance are a bad/morally-misleading phenomenon, but the underlying shift away from social and economic marriages toward romantic/partnership-focused ones certainly make it more possible to eventually achieve best-case scenarios. It may have something like of forcing all businesspeople to be entrepreneurs, so that their best case is very much better but usually only arrives following several false starts.

*Not least because it felt (and still feels, to a much attenuated degree) *wrong* somehow for love to not be permanent. I thought that real love had to be forever. Well, I still believe that, but in a different way. I still love all the people I've ever loved, but not as partners and fellow travelers.

** In the classic sense

Nathan Smith

My, my... Given my experience with the dating and romance scene in big cities and secular colleges, both personal and what I've heard of friends etc., Nato's comment seems like a cruel joke. People may *want* marriage to be more romantic, relative to other priorities, but that doesn't mean they *achieve* that. Romance is the sort of thing that can't be pursued for its own sake. It's a little like a movie in which the characters are always talking about "is this movie suspenseful enough? what would make it *really* suspenseful?" That's not going to be a suspenseful movie. You have to have *real* high stakes and unexpected twists to make the movie suspenseful. Likewise, romance depends on the *real* high stakes of marriage: lifelong commitment, mingling of bloodlines in the next generation. Without that, the roses and rings are just a cheap imitation, and deep down I think everyone knows it.

If "we no longer expect anyone to stay in loveless marriages" then anyone who gets married is a fool, because love is too subjective a thing to be trusted to just happen to last. You're building your house on sand. Even if the house of cards happens never to fall down there can be little pleasure in such a precarious arrangement. Fortunately, there are some people left who do not believe that continuing a marriage, at any given time, is optional; but it's hard nowadays to tell the good apples from the rotten ones.

Nato

"...it's hard nowadays to tell the good apples from the rotten ones"

If the criterion for "good" in this context is believing that continuation of marriage is not optional, then I will agree that it can be harder to tell who is good and who is not. If "good" is being used in a more general sense, then I don't think it has ever been easy, and was in many cases so difficult that no one attempted it. Instead, one largely hoped for good luck, like happening to inherit a fortune. These days we don't accept that, and always want to strike it rich.

re: "Likewise, romance depends on the *real* high stakes of marriage: lifelong commitment, mingling of bloodlines in the next generation. Without that, the roses and rings are just a cheap imitation, and deep down I think everyone knows it."

Since this is largely my position, I was a little confused as to how this was a remonstration against my "cruel joke." I think we're using "romance" a little differently, and probably mine is a little more unconventional, since I use it to refer to a certain suite of love-type emotions the endurance of which I take to be the gold standard for a successful marriage*. The lifelong commitment part is still embedded in that concept, since a shared life is part of romantic love**.

"If "we no longer expect anyone to stay in loveless marriages" then anyone who gets married is a fool, because love is too subjective a thing to be trusted to just happen to last. You're building your house on sand. Even if the house of cards happens never to fall down there can be little pleasure in such a precarious arrangement."

I'm not sure of what definition of "love" is in play here, but given that which I assume, I don't agree. To what are we marrying ourselves, if feelings are so ephemeral? It seems to me that dating, especially for a long time, exists to make sure that infatuation has faded enough for us to test whether we are in love based on who we and they really are, rather than on an idealized projection (or calculated misrepresentation!). Sure, many people use dating for point scoring or whatever, but though our culture lionizes that behavior to some extent, outside of music videos and beer commercials most treatments of romantic interaction carry considerable commitment-related subtext. I think Harry Potter is a fairly typical, middle-of-the-road representative of how the young West sees dating - most of the narrative excitement focuses around the beginning of relationships, but the fans care deeply about how they turn out.

The West's popular culture hasn't forgotten the old truths; they're just construed differently, and more fluidly.

*Leaving out the "parenting" side of marriage, which is related but not necessarily constitutive. "Mingling of bloodlines" also doesn't seem to be all that important, though the partnership of shared parenthood is rightfully still recognized as a deep and critical one.

**Though I know people who have long, stable relationships in which they and their partners do not, by choice, live with one-another. I cannot remotely understand this, and think it is very much a fringe case.

Nathan Smith

re: "If the criterion for 'good' in this context is believing that continuation of marriage is not optional..."

Yes. The rotten apples are people who reserve the right to walk away, so that the marriage becomes, not a source of security, but a complex game, and your whole future hangs on a mysterious and unpredictable factor outside your control.

"I'm not sure of what definition of 'love' is in play here..."

The idea of love which is consistent with the idea that "we no longer expect anyone to stay in loveless marriages" is necessarily shallow and emotional. If love involves an act of will, if two people believe that love can be chosen, through difficult times and not, then if there is ever a lapse of love, the partners will blame themselves and try harder. The idea that there could just happen to be a 'loveless marriage,' with no one to blame, and the parties are entitled to walk away from it, is associated with another idea of love, something more like 'passion'-- passive-- a mood, a sort of enchantment that just happens to one. Love is ephemeral if you allow it to be ephemeral, by doing things like dismissing a marriage as loveless and walking away from it.

"It seems to me that dating, especially for a long time, exists to make sure that infatuation has faded enough for us to test whether we are in love based on who we and they really are, rather than on an idealized projection..."

Even worse. First, people are too complex to know "who we and they really are"; there will always be surprises. Love must be able to accept and enjoy them; it cannot inoculate itself against them by knowing the person well. Second, people change. If my love depends on "who... someone is," then what if they grow and change? Is my love obsolete? The horrifying thing about this notion of dating and marriage is that it implies a form of slavery: my wife loves me because she knows me; if I change, her love may become obsolete; so I'd better not change! And dating becomes a prelude to this slavery, a forging of the chains, a building of the narrow cell walls, in which a marriage will be lived. Third, there's something to be said for the 'idealized projections' of lovers. What if half of what my lover sees in me is really her own ideals? If I like those ideals, I can try to live up to them, to be a better myself than I was. Nato wants us to wait until we are 'disillusioned,' so to speak, or perhaps 'disenchanted,' but those words have almost the same meaning as 'falling out of love.'

re: "most treatments of romantic interaction carry considerable commitment-related subtext..."

Considerable-- but how much? In old-fashioned courtship there might be much suspense as to whether lovers would marry or not, but that suspense would be resolved: yes or no. At which point both would know where they stood. Now, it seems, even after marriage one is left guessing about the level of commitment. How is one to dream big dreams, to plan's one's future, when such a colossal variable remains unknown? Suppose one is considering a career step that might involve moving cities. One must consult one's wife, of course; but now one must consider the possibility of her leaving you? Suppose you have to move to a new city because you lose your job-- again, your wife now has a right to prefer her local friends to her husband, so you fear losing your wife as well?

Ugh. I'd certainly rather be a lifelong bachelor, or die young, to the shadowlands of such "marriage."

Nato

So I started a response on the train ride home, resumed it on the way back to work, and apparently almost two hours still isn't enough to finish. In the meantime, I wanted to just very quickly respond to "Nato wants us to wait until we are 'disillusioned,' so to speak, or perhaps 'disenchanted,' but those words have almost the same meaning as 'falling out of love.'"

I think there's a huge difference between the euphoric passion of initial infatuation, and the (somewhat) clear-eyed appreciation of enduring love. I don't think you truly can love someone unless you know them well; otherwise you're on a dopamine-serotonin high, projecting your own hopes and values, or both. That's not to say they don't sort of shade into one-another, but at the end of the day, falling out of passion* is not falling out of love; indeed it sometimes signals the transition from infatuation to true, enduring love.

*Really a lull, I think, but coming down off the high can be shocking to some.

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