Is Love Overrated?

That's a rather absurd question, isn't it? But this evening's experiences have brewed a peculiar tincture of thought that I must share.

Tonight, I had the luxury of watching on DVD Woody Allen's latest motion picture, Match Point, a brilliant and terrible film I highly recommend.

I'll try not to give away too much of the plot, but let me issue a *SPOILER ALERT* just in case.

The protagonist, Chris, finds himself torn between two relationships. One is based on stability, future-oriented thinking, supportive (and very well-to-do) in-laws, and more or less living up to people's expectations. The other is based on pure passion, a sort of love at first sight that's totally impractical and has no real future, or at least a highly indefinite one.

I won't tell you which one he chooses, but I must say I do not envy his position. The film's ending makes it both beautiful and terrifying. Really, you must see it for yourself.

Meanwhile, in the halls of power, the GOP is catering to its base, and I do mean base, as in lowly and vulgar. That prejudice and bigotry are all they have left to sell America is just sad.

Much activity has been generated in the blogosphere regarding this proposed marriage amendment, and one post in particular struck a chord with me that I didn't anticipate.

Shakespeare's Sister, always a joy to read when she really gets into something with passion, had some interesting things to say about love and marriage:

One of the most remarkable things about our culture is that we have the freedom to marry for love, to forge lifelong bonds based not on class or race or religion or the number of goats our dads can spare, but on a feeling so beautiful that poets have spent lifetimes trying to lay it on a page, that artists have endeavored to capture in one still but enduring moment. Operas and books and films and pop songs, so heartbreakingly lovely that they can steal one's breath, if just for a moment, have been written by people in the thralls of love, or the searing pain of its loss. Monuments have been built, wars have been fought, and some of the greatest happiness ever experienced by humankind has been born because of love.

We are blessed with the luxury of love, and, make no mistake, it is a luxury. Marriage at its best is an expression of love. When it's simply an institution to facilitate the continued existence of a society through the birth of new generations, it is a splendid functional legal contract and nothing more. When it's a sign of commitment forged out of love, it is something ever so much grander. It is the stuff of legend.

Now, please keep in mind that since I taught a class on the subject, I am clearly an expert on love (and sex, too!). (Heh.) And I've reached an interesting conclusion: the freedom to marry for love is just not worth it.

This is not the speech of one who has been scorned by love, or even by a real cynic about the subject. But I do know a thing or two about what makes for human happiness, and I think this freedom causes far more anguish than it's worth.

Shakes' Sis goes on to cite Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium (a great resource for arguing in favor of the equality or even superiority of homosexual love), but I wish to draw upon other parts of the text that seek to understand love as two interconnected but quite distinct phenomena. This distinction is not a controversial one, and has appeared repeatedly in Western and non-Western cultures throughout history.

We have on the one hand romantic or erotic love (eros) and on the other companionate love or friendship (philia). (N.B.: it's philosophy, not erosophy. Isn't that funny?)

Now, as far as my understanding of the research on erotic love goes, this passionate affect tends to be of a highly limited duration, typically lasting not more than 5 or 7 years (the old "7-year itch" isn't just anecdotal). This is one reason why so many marriages end in divorce. Generally speaking, those that last will either become entrenched in habit and quotidian ritual or, on the plus side, will evolve into a very close and intimate friendship.

Now, arranged marriages are more likely to skip the initial fling, but not always. (Truth be told, my knowledge here is more sketchy; I don't really know the research on the tendencies of arranged marriages, in particular, over time. I assume that the ones that work also evolve into a similar kind of intimate friendship, whether or not there's much passion in the beginning.)

So far, then, arranged marriages seem like a loss. They'll undergo a similar development towards roughly the same end, but there won't be that crazy ecstatic erotic phase initially.

But, with the freedom to marry "for love" comes additional burdens: extra anxiety about the future, the despair of loneliness, the pressure of finding that "right person", the fear of dying alone, the frustration of not loving someone who loves you or loving someone who doesn't, the dramatic highs and lows of turbulent relationships, the disappointment in giving up and "settling" for someone who's only good enough, and on and on.

The harsh reality of single life is another one of the costs of individualism, of a society of disconnected individuals looking for something to fill them up (when all along they just need each other--enter again Aristophanes). In truth, I sometimes wish I'd just had a marriage arranged for me so that I didn't have to worry about it so much.

But, you might ask, what then of the heedless, all-consuming passion of eros? Shall we just give up this rich facet of human experience?

That's what affairs are for. It seems to me that clandestine liaisons are far better suited for eros. These things arise spontaneously while one has some other stable situation elsewhere in life: a family, a social support network, and so on. They are exciting and dangerous. The illicit lovers' time together is precious and all too brief, punctuated by a humdrum life that pales in comparison. The thrills and anticipations just fan the flames higher.

And let's face it, adultery is a fact of human existence. I think I'd feel like I'd missed out on something if I never get to have an affair (although I advocate open marriages, which I think can still maintain some of the allure of covert couplings if the partners have the right kind of agreement: say, they don't talk about who else they're seeing, they don't even say when they are seeing someone else and maybe even try to make a game of it by keeping such things secret, they always use protection and extra precaution with outside partners--really, I think this open marriage thing could work, if I found a reasonable partner sufficiently disillusioned about the absurd posturings of human existence; a Beauvoir to my Sartre, if you will).

The problem with marrying for love is that we pretend that love is just one thing, some kind of amazing fairytale passion that's supposed to persist forever and ever. In the movies, we always want the characters to drop everything, even ongoing stable relationships, and go after their heart's true love. But what movies typically don't show is what happens 5, 10, 15 years down the line. What then happens when there is neither passion nor order?

Of course here Match Point is again highly fascinating for showing a strange and profound resolution for this kind of conflict. (Closer would be another movie in which these themes are explored in a nonstandard, highly thought-provoking direction.) Match Point is really a film about the ultimate meaninglessness of existence.

But the cure for meaninglessness is human companionship. I contend that we'd avoid so many problems and so much existential angst if we just had more structured social support systems, including marriages that were contractual arrangements geared toward certain ends and with negotiable terms.

Who says love (eros) and marriage must go together like a horse and carriage? I mean, just look at the success of the horseless carriage or "automobile".


But, this is all just absurd... *sigh* (I could probably use some companionship.)


Chris Parsons said...

I'll begin by stating that I disagree that creating a highly regimented system would avoid "so many problems and so much existential angst." Human beings are different - the essence of human rights are to recognize and protect differences - and feel the need to express themselves in different ways. The ability to cast aside the orderly world and erupt in joyous play is something that is lacking in this world, and if people were more willing to admit that they were "playing" when in love then I think they'd be happier. A central issue with marrying for love is that most people lack a genuine understanding that love is playful, whereas a longterm relationship has the chaos of play mediated by normative ordering metrics. The solution isn't to restrict marriage to philia, but to educate and inform people about the risks of marrying solely for eros. If they refuse to listen, then that's right right; all people are free to make bad decisions, though some decisions will admittedly carry with them punitive measures.

If people were prevented from marrying for love then one of many differences between how people could interact and express themselves would be limited, and this would cause existential angst of its own - the notion that a person is placed on the world for a finite period of time and is denied mobility demonstrates the absurdity of being mobile, but only insofar as it is political expediant. Freedom in this sense would be absurd and tied to a subjective decision concerning the wellbeing of citizens.

Now you leave room for affairs as an avenue of eros, but that in itself is restrictive - why can't one be in a marriage based on eros and have an affair based on philia or based on eros? It strikes me that you could be too starkly limiting the boundaries between these two modes of intimacy. Alternate, I could be talking out of my ass :P

Of course, I'm planning on spending thousands of dollars to see if its eros of philia that's on the other side of the Atlantic, so I might be just a tad biased :P

Emmaleigh said...

I read this in The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon and it reminded me of your post which I read earlier in the day. I thought I would share:

"Of madness in young women from love, the most effectual remedy is marriage."

specter_of_spinoza said...

Chris, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

Of course I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't be allowed to marry for love, or for whatever reason they want. I myself am being playful here, and just trying to think about the downsides of something that is often taken as an unqualified advance over traditional societies.

Your points are well-taken, although I'm skeptical that the problem is primarily one concerning insufficient playfulness. People definitely take too much of life seriously--and work way damn too much!--but I'm not sure I see the force of your more subtle point.

Anonymous said...

Hey Matt,

I also liked Closer and Match Point and share some of your views about love and marriage.

You should check out Allen's earlier (1987?) Crimes & Misdemeanors. Even better than MP, with much of the same nihilism and even some similar plot threads.

- Alex

Anonymous said...

This might be coming very very late but I got here through googling "love is overrated". Mainly because I am in a situation with someone who professes his love for me and wants to marry me but I am also at a dilemma because people say he isn't good enough for me and that I am settling too low based on the fact that he isn't physically attractive enough and a lot older than I am. So for me right now, its all about people's expectation vs is love real?I am trying to decide.

Some points you mentioned about how long it lasts and how films never show what happens in 5,10, 15 years time, is something I have always thought about too...

I am still pondering so much but I agree with almost everything you said here. U gave many gr8 points!