Is The Myth Of Eternal Love A Pretty Lie?

Is there a time limit on true love?

In the wake of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise’s much-publicized breakup, it seems that the new Big Question For Society is time-release marriages, as discussed by Matt Richtel in the hallowed pages of the New York Times. That is: marriages on a contract basis, lasting a few years or maybe 20, whereby we no longer swear eternal fealty but instead pragmatically plan for a breakup at some pre-appointed time.

It is an idea I have seen before, though nowhere so mainstream as the Times. My favorite author Tanith Lee wrote about it in her brilliant science fiction book Biting The Sun, which was published over 30 years ago. Lee anticipated all kinds of things, including social media, but the beauty of her work is her deft emotional touch.

Lee’s characters can get married for any contract-period they like, although certain fashions prevail at certain ages. She also foresaw the main difficulty of such an approach, though. As Lee describes one of the main character’s relationships, the character suggests to her lover that they get married for years and years and years. It’s a magical moment. Then the two break up, a short time later, with shattered hearts.

Another artist (whose name I have shamefully forgotten) once said that you can tell love is real when you don’t believe it will end.

I’ve had more than my share of long-term romantic attachments; I recall one in particular, a boyfriend from my teens. I was an awkward self-conscious girl with constant anxiety about being too “high-maintenance.” Because of my fear of being “demanding,” I told him never to buy me flowers; he responded by buying me fake flowers. He always wanted to make sweeping promises about the future: “I’ll never hurt you.” I got angry when he said things like that. I wouldn’t let him, and as I insisted that he never say such things, I watched his face fall. Later, I felt vindicated when the relationship ended.

But the relationship lasted a whole year, so was it a failure, or a short-term success? And did the promises help me feel safe with him? One of the harder realizations of my adult years has been recognizing how insecure I made some men who cared about me. I have insisted on being careful with promises; I have refused to make those glamorous, glorious, grandiose statements about the future. It took me a while to see that the guys who felt at peace with my realism were the ones who didn’t love me. The others were hurt, and perhaps rightly so. It would have reassured them, I think, for me to be more unreasonable.

A psychological study published in 2011 found that “people who had the most positive relationship feelings and who were most motivated to be responsive to the partner’s needs made bigger promises” than others. The question, of course, was whether people kept those promises; it turns out that most people made the promises when they felt strongly, but only the people who were good at keeping promises actually kept them. In other words, people with strong feelings often made promises, but only the honorable ones kept them. Makes sense when you think about it, right?

At the end of Richtel’s article, he cites a sociologist who suggests: “Ban all performative weddings, ban all crazy expenditures. Ban the marriage pages in The New York Times. Ban those things that turn otherwise sensible people to start buying into that fantasy.” Well, OK; it may be true that U.S. culture is what makes us want certain specific signals, like irrationally huge white weddings and ornate diamond rings.

But I suspect that there’s something deeper behind these performative promises: a timeless human urge to express love in the most meaningful ways that we can. Perhaps this can be reined in with short-term marriage contracts, and perhaps it can’t. It certainly can’t be managed by eliminating our current signals of love. People will just find new ones.

I do believe that a social model of relationships that acknowledges their sometimes-ephemeral nature would be great. Most people will fall in love and break up multiple times—if not many times—and social support is a godsend when that happens. Like Richter, I am a child of divorce, and I wonder sometimes how it has affected me. But I’d like to have a family someday, and I’d be thrilled to have a long-term loving relationship too, and I haven’t given up on that ideal yet. Perhaps the myth of eternal love is a pretty lie. But pretty lies exist for a reason: They keep us committed and help us make meaning out of our lives.

Inevitably, people in Richter’s article talk about how we ought to have “an acknowledgment that marriage is not a sexfest with a flawless best friend but something that takes enormous investment.” Absolutely. But the kind of work that a relationship demands isn’t just doing the dishes and having Serious Discussions About Feelings at the kitchen table. The performance is part of the work.

Clarisse Thorn is a feminist sex writer who specializes in alternative sexuality and has given workshops all over the USA. She wrote a book about masculinity, dating dynamics, and sex theory called Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser; she’s also got a best-of collection called The S&M Feminist.

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