Staying in Love

I am going to argue today that it is possible and that for a certain kind of person—I am that kind of person—it is a really good idea. Now, during what my wife, Bette, and I call “the Valentine season” seems like a good time to try out the argument.

I will argue that it is not easy to stay in love, but first I would like to argue that it is hard to give a clear meaning to the phrase. That being the case, I would like to spend some time on what I do not want to convey by using it.

I don’t mean staying infatuated. I know from experience that the period of infatuation feels absolutely terrific. I know it doesn’t last all that long. I know that trying to get it to last longer than it should will fail and will feel bad. I know that making binding decisions under its influence is short-sighted at best. And I knew all that before I learned that the Latin at the heart of “infatuated,” was fatuus, which means “foolish.”

I don’t mean staying in lust. Nothing against lust. It is a wonderful component in a much more complex and satisfying relationship. It is virtually a language of its own. But it isn’t the whole relationship and when it is treated as if it were, it distorts other parts of the relationship, some of which are a good deal more important over the long haul. My idea of the ideal arc of married lust is that you are consumed by it, then you perform it confidently, then you remember it fondly together.

I don’t mean just “not violating” the real promises on which the relationship is based. I do mean really fulfilling, as opposed to just “not violating,” the promises on which the relationship is based, but that is a much more difficult idea. There are the formal promises, like the ones in the marriage ceremony. I am a fan of those promises [1] but there are other, crucially important but usually unarticulated, promises, which are at the heart. I discover only gradually what those promises were. I may learn how to say what they were before my wife does, but she knew them first. She knew when those promises were being kept and when they were not. For me, “really fulfilling” those promises requires that I know what they are—I know that is not true of everybody—and if she can’t tell me, I need to learn in all the other ways I learn.

And finally, I don’t mean simply doing the things that love requires. Loving anyone—this is much broader than the romantic mode—means wishing him or her well; it means doing what you can to support the hopes or, when necessary, to share the griefs. I came eventually to love my parents that way. I love my brothers that way. I love my kids that way.

When I talk about “staying in love,” I am talking about the kind of feeling that helps me do those things. It is fuel for the relationship; it isn’t the goal of the relationship. But it also feels really good.

Elements of Staying in Love

You might not have noticed, but in the last few paragraphs, some major distinctions were made. Here are two. When I talk about “being in love,” I am talking about emotions, not intentions. When I talk about those feelings as fuel, I distinguish what works as fuel for me from what might work as fuel for someone else.

That means that it is the function that unites the whole category and it is the particulars that have the desired effect on the lovers. And it is the particulars I know most about. Take this picture for instance. This was taken on our first actual date—the one after the introductory coffee at Starbucks. We had seen a movie and were wandering around the mall. I asked if she would mind if I took some pictures. She was fine with that. [2] This is the picture I wanted, but I was having a lot of trouble describing how I wanted her to pose for it. Where are the elbows, where are the hands, etc. She said, “I see what you’re getting at,” and put herself like this. This is exactly what I had in mind, but she got there by imaging what I might have wanted. I still get a lift out of that.

There is a lot of celebration of independence for women these days and very little celebration for marriage. And marriage, a good one anyway, is an interdependence tailored to the personalities of the partners. So she has devised a way to “perform” dependence now and then as a favor. These are the little gestures that used to be thought of as “good manners” and which, after a period of being vilified, [3]are now mostly ignored. We still do them because they still enact the “being in love” part of the relationship and in that way, they fuel all the other parts.

It might well be—I haven’t asked her—that she would prefer to do them herself, but that she offers me the chance to do them “for her” because she knows how it affects me. (I’m talking about seemingly inconsequential things like holding doors and seating her at a table.) If that is true, then pretending that I am doing it for her actually accomplishes doing it for us. The gift of these little performed courtesies is generous, assuming that they are done more for me than for her, and they are smart, too, because they fuel the relationship that is so important to us both.

One final example. Early in our relationship she asked me to read a book called The 5 Love Languages. I didn’t like it much on first glance, but eventually it occurred to me that if I could find out how she “hears” my love for her, I could speak it in the language she hears best. In all candor, I prefer to offer expressions of love in the language I like best. Who wouldn’t? But if these expressions are going to fuel the relationship, they are going to have to be heard and understood, so “what they are for” has to take priority over “the form I like best.”

For reasons that still baffle me, Bette “hears” love in what the book calls “acts of service.” Remember, as you mull this, that my helping her on with her coat is not a service to her. Her receiving it gracefully and with attention is an act of service to me. So what counts as acts of service to her? You wouldn’t believe it. It is things like keeping the table from always being a clutter of books and papers; it is like taking the garbage out; it is things like getting the dishes off the counter and into the dishwasher and then out of the dishwasher and into the cupboards.

It took me a little while, I confess, to get over the idea that doing all these chores were a way of earning expressions of love. I wouldn’t like them at all if I thought of they as buying something. I thought for a little while of old Laban switching brides on Jacob and then extorting another seven years of chores out of him so he could get the one he had actually chosen. That’s not the best part of the Jacob Cycle.

But eventually, it occurred to me that the gift is seeing “what needs to be done” the way Bette sees it. It is, in fact, exactly like her posing for the picture at the mall. She understood the picture I had in my mind and did that even when I couldn’t describe it. All these chores are just my understanding the picture she has in her mind and doing what I can to make it happen.

Am I right about that? Of course. It fuels “being in love” feelings in Bette which act as the fuel for the marriage. The marriage isn’t about the fuel. It’s about the destination (and also the journey, for those of you who are destination-phobic) but the relationship between having enough of the right kind of fuel and actually getting where you are trying to go—that relationship ought to be clear to everyone.

And finally, it is getting clear to me.

[1] My wife, Marilyn, was sick a long time before she died. We went through a lot of difficult things together and every now and then, she would say, “Do you remember that ‘in sickness and in health’ part of the vows? I think this is what they were there for.” She said it with a smile and she was right.
[2] Unlike a much earlier date, who responded to the idea as if I might want to post it on a Lost and Found bulletin board or at the Post Office.
[3] About a man holding a door for a woman, for instance, I remember the title of a paper given at a sociology conference: “The Hand That Holds the Doorknob Rules the World.” Pretty vivid, don’t you think?

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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