My twentieth wedding anniversary was last week, and we finally went away together to celebrate. Ergo, the lack of posting. While sipping mojitos and relaxing by the beach, I kicked around this post for awhile, but kept putting it away and hating it as pablum. Even if it is, it’s an antidote to other nonsense I used to believe. So here goes. Maybe I can combat, even a little, the dangerous, malformed view under which I labored as a young person. For me, growing up meant gradually letting go of lots of comforting ideas and learning how to embrace reality. This is about one of those: true love.
You’re either groaning because you think true love is such an absurd idea that it’s essentially a straw-man or because you’re pained that anyone would lead the empty life of a romance-atheist. These antipodes, and I’ve experienced the eye rolls from each, are yet another instance of the opposing forces always at play when working out our place in the universe. Is our position privileged or not? And if it’s not, what’s the point?
True love, soul-mates, destiny, all of these are ways of describing a deeply embedded but wildly destructive cultural myth. Your partner is that one person for whom you were meant and whom you really, really love, the one who makes your heart beat faster, the one who is supposed to be so close as to be a part of you. It’s psychologically comforting. It affirms our specialness and provides an aura of security so unbelievably tempting in this life that seems otherwise perilously close to being cast adrift in rough black seas, at night, alone. Even if we don’t believe in the Myth, and most people probably don’t intellectually, we may grasp onto it in dark times. Some days we just need it to be true.
You probably already know all I’m about to say in response and are wondering why I thought it worth writing down. Well, it wasn’t obvious to me as a young person, and I know too many others sabotaged by an attachment to some part or other of the Myth. Our culture, our movies, our music, and our books are filled with it. Marriage ceremonies too often pretend simply to recognize true love’s existence. We’re overrun with the message that love is something that happens to us, that we either feel or don’t. I’m convinced that this belief, even if only subconsciously entertained, causes too much suffering to be ignored.
The answer to the Myth’s seductive promise is to be mindful of reality. There are thousands of people out there with whom you could fall in love. Thousands and thousands. If you were in a boat with forty random people and shipwrecked on an island, you’d probably fall in love with one (or more) of them eventually. The supply of people with whom we could fall in love is vast, and we’ll keep meeting members of this set throughout our lives. Obvious, yes, but dangerous to deny.
For me, love is not faith in the idea that the universe has delivered to me my one, true companion. Rather, it begins with the adherence to a wager, the most important choice I’ve ever made. I’m betting that this single, precious life will be best spent with a single, compatible person. Again, the wager is this: life will be better lived with steadfast commitment to one partner than with one’s devotion lurching from person to person, wherever the sensation of love takes it. I can’t tell you whether this is always the right choice, but it is mine.
Love starts, of course, with biologically-driven infatuation. But the body will keep doing that to you, if you let it. Every time you meet a new member of the set, if you leave open the possibility, infatuation will lay in its hooks and begin to do its work. Part of love is deciding that you will not let this happen, that you will draw boundaries so broadly that you never give infatuation with another a fighting chance to become something more and so broadly that your partner is never asked to wonder whether you’re still together in all this. It’s your obligation to reassure. Deep and whole-hearted sharing of a life, my definition of love, cannot really happen without that security.
I wish I’d understood marriage this way from the start. You grant each other the luxury of knowing that your loyalty will not depend on a day-by-day calculation of competing desires. If you’re guided by momentary calculations of happiness, you’ll sooner or later jump ship. That’s human nature. But together you’ve made the long bet. And once you’ve both committed to that, truly committed to irrevocability, infatuation with each other never really goes away for long.
After twenty years, the love I have for my wife is not at all how it began. My feeling of it is inextricably bound to our shared history. Whether either of us could have been happier with someone else is not a relevant question. That’s a life we didn’t lead. We’re betting not that we’re happier together than we would have been with any other people in the world, but that we’re happier living irrevocably together than conditionally, and thus, in a real sense, alone. Soul-mates are made, not born. And we are soul-mates, because we choose to be.
The power of the Myth of true love lies in the assurance it provides that our seemingly secure lives are destined, that our love is embedded right in the moral fabric of the universe. Life is a story we’re living out, a movie in which we’re the sympathetic hero. But what happens when what you feel isn’t the “outside this universe,” timeless, emotion as the voice of God, overwhelming conviction that you’re in love, when you don’t feel that electric jolt of infatuation for your supposed soul-mate? Well, then how could this person really be your soul-mate? If he or she were, there would simply be no way you could have the feelings you do for someone else. The people in the movies sure don’t seem this ambivalent about the love they find. So your soul-mate must still be out there somewhere, and, obviously, this relationship must end for the next one, the destined one, to begin. But that way lies sadness, because love is not a sensation, but the sharing of your one, precious life. Don’t waste it trying to chase a phantom. Love is yours to choose.