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All We Need is Love (And a Little Elbow Grease)

By Mike Roorda | Think Pieces | June 14, 2013 | Comments ()


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Whom we love and why is a topic that threads itself through our cultural tales stretching back to when stories were told by the light of a campfire instead of that of a flat screen. The answers to those questions often reveal much about where we are as a culture, our expectations for relationships and how we define "love." A frequently quoted statistic states that only 50 percent of the marriages that occur in our generation will last. Half of the friends you watch walk down the aisle will end up deciding they've made a mistake and parting ways. Somewhere our expectations and reality have diverged and the gulf between the two seems to be swallowing relationships at a rate that should give anyone with a fiance or significant other reason to pause. To my mind, a contributing factor to this relatively new trend has got to be the difference between real love and the one we're sold.

Real love is a commitment, instead of a feeling. Not just the words, although those are important too. It's a decision made between two people to stick it out no matter what. To support the other person when they need it most, and to do the hard work, even when you don't feel like it and nobody is waiting to congratulate you. It isn't always fun, but the goal is to build something bigger than yourself, and to take comfort in the fact that even when you don't deserve it somebody will be there to offer a shoulder or an ear. When I say that real love is a decision, I don't mean to imply that it's also devoid of passion. Without the heart-skips-a-beat moments, all you have is an arrangement. The notion of picking someone for yourself based on your feelings is a relatively modern cultural development, but there's no denying that those feelings exist and are important. Our feelings, however strong they may seem, are impermanent and untrustworthy. Relying on them as a compass for making life decisions will leave you both lost and disillusioned.

The love we're sold mistakes infatuation for commitment and promises us unrealistic happiness that hinges upon another person. The warm fuzzies we feel when we see Ryan Gosling with his shirt off or Alison Brie in a sexy Santa suit are not love. The quickening of your pulse when an attractive co-worker brushes your arm is not love. The stolen glances with a stranger on the train home, while exciting, are not love. Infatuation is the soil where love can take root but as the sole source of sustenance, without commitment, that love will eventually wither and die. People are notoriously unreliable things. Given enough time they will fail you, to a one. The idea that an unhappy or unsatisfied person can be "fixed" by the addition of someone else in the equation of their lives is a setup for failure. The idea of a Disney fairy tale ending for everybody is as damaging as it is incorrect. Our "family" entertainment drilled into us as children is that women are incomplete and wanting until their own Prince Charming can come along and give their lives meaning. Nothing is said of his commitment to her, or hers to him. But, if they're both reasonably attractive and play their cards right, they get to move to a cabin and live in a world where songbirds dress you in the morning and everybody sh*ts rainbows and roses. Nobody will be able to provide you with that kind of happiness all the time. To compound the issue, if that happiness, that rush of endorphins is what defines love then when it falters or there's a hint of trouble in paradise the love you claim to hold for each other must have logically failed as well. Without commitment, love is a middle school dance full of horny, terrified and unfulfilled people selfishly looking to others to provide reassurance where they have not yet found it for themselves.

Soap operas and serialized dramas are especially egregious offenders in perpetuating the "if it feels good it must be love" lie. I can't claim to have seen more than a handful of episodes, but "Grey's Anatomy" always struck me as one such show. Characters make their coupling decisions based on how they feel about a person in the moment, not on a combination of those feelings and a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. If a relationship starts to get stale or unexciting, attentions begin to wander, and soon a new focus for their libidinous desires enters the picture. An ER with the levels of sexual dysfunction and intersecting relationships as seen on "Greys" would barely be able to function as a book club, much less a place that saves lives.

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Romantic comedies are especially guilty in this regard, to the point where it's become a predictable trope. How many of them revolve around a man or a woman winning the affections of another already involved in an active relationship? We, as the audience, are supposed to cheer for the outsider in their efforts to disrupt an already existing couple so the outsider is able to fulfill their essentially selfish desires at the expense of another's. Sure, usually one half of the couple in the relationship triangle is portrayed as undeserving to make things easier, but the dynamic remains. I would never feel comfortable in a relationship where I essentially wooed someone out of another set of arms and into my own. After all, if I can do it to them, it stands to reason that someone can (and given the precedent already set, probably will) do it to me. The fear of this love and loss is written all over our reality shows, where beautiful people compete with other beautiful people to sway their affections away from the beautiful people who are waiting patiently in the wings. "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" print money year after year based upon this premise, and the public eats it up. Who will they pick? Will it be impossibly handsome doctor number three, or the built-like-a brick-sh*thouse pilot number seven? "I feel such a connection with him/her. I really think we could spend our lives together." Really? Based on your ten minute long moment by the pool while you were both in bathing suits and an entire production crew was milling about? You're sure it wasn't just the short lived promise of joy provided by whatever happens to be under those suits? There's always going to be someone prettier, more handsome, funnier or more engaging than whomever you're currently with. We may be able to win that contest once and secure a temporary victory, but time and sheer statistics are not on our side in that battle.

There are, to my mind, positive examples of functioning, healthy relationships that we can draw from in media as well. Hank and Marie on "Breaking Bad" spring to mind. Both characters are deeply, and disruptively flawed. Hank is driven by his need for recognition and success, without which he finds himself casting about for purpose and meaning. ("They're minerals Marie!") For her part, Marie is also more nutty than not. She's nosy, overbearing and has a predilection for the five fingered discount. Both characters have provided enough ammunition for the other should either decide that they've had enough. Yet, they endure. They stand together, in the face of their troubles and the moments where they undoubtedly are feeling something other than starry eyed affection for each other. You think anybody on "Grey's Anatomy" would have stuck with McDreamy if he'd had to crap in a bedpan, couldn't leave his house and started ordering rocks minerals off of the internet? Fat chance.

Peter and Olivia on "Fringe" also had a functioning relationship that seemed to be threaded with a healthier dose of reality than we're used to getting in our fiction. Their dynamic was one of give and take, with the other always picking up the slack when either faltered. Peter was impulsive and headstrong. Olivia was emotionally wooden and stilted. Peter drew her feelings out into the open through coaxing and comforting and Olivia provided the anchor that he so desperately needed. They weren't incomplete people without the other, but their individual strengths made the other a better person. It looked like work, but then most real relationships are.

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Truthful depictions of love look more like work than we're comfortable with. It should be easy right? If it's meant to be, everything will just fall into place! No healthy relationships can survive without putting in the hours. Hank and Marie did the work, and god help them, they're the healthiest people in their family. (Besides maybe Walt Jr.) The key thing to remember though is that the work pays off. Surviving a storm together and coming out the other side provides a cornerstone you can build on rather than the smoke and mirrors that is infatuation. Real love is building something better for the future. Love isn't a state of constantly feeling like you're falling or dizzy when they're around, it's sticking around when you don't feel like it, until the feelings come back. Love is being willing to fall in (and possibly out of) love over and over again, not falling in love and then bolting the moment a shinier model comes along. With the examples we are given in the media we consume, it's no wonder that our societal expectations have begun to stray from the realities in our lives. Maybe it's time we start to try and tell some more realistic stories.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • apsutter

    This is why I love "The Kids Are Alright" and Julianne Moore's monologue from it so much. It depicted perfectly the day to day monotony that comes from being in a long term relationship. Loved how she said that marriage is a grind and that's it's just two people slogging through the shit everyday trying to keep it together.

    And I actually have high hopes for the marriages of many people from my generation. Most of my friends were incredibly smart how who/how/when they married. Many were in long term relationships and didn't do it just because they'd graduated college and they felt like it "was the next step."

  • Brite

    Dustin, sometimes you write so eloquently and honestly, with wisdom that belies your years here on this planet, that I am overwhelmed with respect for you as a writer and human being (one who has surprising depth) and feel so grateful to have encountered you. This is one of those times, thank you.

  • apsutter

    It's alright, many of the writers here often make me feel grateful that I found such a good entertainment site that also has thought provoking articles.

  • Brite

    And now I feel like a twat, because this post is not by Dustin, but Mike. My apologies, but evrything I said still stands :)

  • go_nelly

    This is a great article, full of valid points. Good stuff. That said, the only thing you've proven about Grey's Anatomy is that you don't know the show. A handful of episodes out of 9 seasons (196 episodes to date) equates to about 2%. So if we were able to watch clips of 7 or 8 randomly chosen months from your 31-ish years of life, do you think that 2% would be enough for us to make an accurate judgement about you and what you stand for? Just sayin'. As a loyal Grey's fan, I'm kinda feeling like I need to write a whole other article to counter this brazen defamation.

  • apsutter

    I think some of the relationships on Grey's are frivolous but there have also been several very good ones. Callie and Arizona are actually one of my favorite television couples.

  • Stina

    Even with this season's finale?? Just because you're angry at someone for not fully understanding what you've been through, you don't sleep with the hot new doctor! You talk. And if that doesn't work, you talk (or yell) some more. It's not fun and it's damn hard work that sometimes makes you feel like you're being torn apart, but that's what marriage is. At least you know that once your heart has been completely laid on the cutting board, you'll still have someone to help you patch it back up. Because you're both committed.

  • apsutter

    Oh darn...I'm a season and a half behind. That sucks...I love them!!

  • Stina

    Oh no! I'm sorry for the spoiler!

  • apsutter

    Oh it's alright! I wait to watch it on Netflix and I have a love/hate relationship with greys anyway so I don't mind spoilers lol. I just can't watch too much of it at once because of I see to much of Meredith I want to murder her simpering ass so I tend to get behind lol

  • rio

    And we can also say that because of the commitment and sacrifice it requires you should only get in a relationship because you want to be with that person, and that person only and not because you are afraid of being alone.
    But how do you know you are doing something out of fear or out of courage? Your brain is good at plain tricks on you and make you think you are doing something for the right reason while you are in fact doing because of unconfronted traumas and fears. And then sometimes you might fall in love with an older man because of you daddy issues (im terribly simplifying cause I feel like im getting to abstract and senseless and I need a material though very reductive example, bare with me) and than a real and powerful love that makes you more than what you were before comes out if it.
    Life and love are just too fucking complicated, sorry im rambling, I never being in love, I mean I was once but I wasnt loved back and isnt love supposed to be a tennis match? If you are throwing a ball against a wall on your own that's not really love right? It's just an affectionate obsession that turn bitter and sometimes destroys you and sometimes push you in a better place you were before and sometimes does both.
    Im amazed by people that have the courage to fall in love and trust themselves to know the difference between real love and the paralyzing fear of being alone. I cant, so alone I stay, cause that's all I really know.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    This piece just makes me think we need multiple words for "love" - because true love does not necessarily mean sticking it out "no matter what." And a love that is true now may not be down the road - and there's nothing wrong with that.

    We probably also need short-term marriage contracts.

  • marya

    Or, you know, people could just date.

    My ex's father has been married 4 times. I remember thinking "You don't have to marry every single lady you bang..."

  • RayBay

    Infatuation is the soil where love can take root

    I love that line, and it's so true.

  • e jerry powell

    "Soap operas and serialized dramas are especially egregious offenders in perpetuating the “if it feels good it must be love” lie."

    But also, consider how often serialized dramas also play the "will they or won't they" trope. Love is a function of proximity/familiarity in these stories, completely casting aside the possibility that the two characters, no matter how much time they spend together (usually as co-workers), still spend sixteen hours a day away from each other, and, one hopes, around other people that might be worthy of consideration.

  • KV

    " Characters make their coupling decisions based on how they feel about a
    person in the moment, not on a combination of those feelings and a
    relationship built on trust and mutual respect. If a relationship starts
    to get stale or unexciting, attentions begin to wander, and soon a new
    focus for their libidinous desires enters the picture."

    I have had the impression that this is how most present-day relationships work. You meet someone who you consider interesting, spend some time with that person, and when the degree of interesting-ness decreases with increasing familiarity, you start to look for another. Whether this trend is influenced by the media, or the other way round, that's a different question.

  • BWeaves

    Speaking from the position of a 30+ year marriage that is still going amazingly strong:

    1. Go furniture shopping. Not to buy. Just to look and see what your significant other likes. If you like the same furniture, you'll like living together. The thought here is that you're actually going to spend more time with the furniture than with each other. If he likes modern leather and you like shabby chic English chintz, it's time to reevaluate your relationship.

    2. Since furniture shopping is a bit too personal to do early on, try going to a museum or an art show and see if you like the same type of art. Besides, it's a cheap date.

    3. I only partially joking about the first two. Marriage is a partnership, not a love affair. Nobody needs to get married to have an affair. You better be two halves of the same family unit to make it work.

    4. This week, I read in one of the Dear Abby type columns about a mother who said her daughter was just proposed to by the sweetest, nicest young man, who the daughter had been dating for 6 years. The ring, which was a family heirloom, was to die for, and the mother said she was actually a bit envious of the ring. The daughter however, was told by her friends that she deserved a new ring, not a used one. She should give the ring back and they should go shopping together for the ring. AND, that the proposal was too low key, and that she should make her fiancé do it over more elaborately. WTF? The columnist advised the mother to tell the daughter to give the ring back to the groom, so he could give it to someone else who appreciates him.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    got to #3...*phew*

  • KV

    Like # 4. Perhaps the daughter and her friends watch too much rom-coms....

  • MikeRoorda

    *Edited

    Thanks Steven!

  • Done-diddley-done.

  • Feralhousecat

    My husband and I were young when we met. Our early courtship was sweet
    enough to give you a cavity. That's all well and good but it is not enough.

    For 13 years we have lived and worked together. I think that the secret to our survival thus far is that we are friends. Neither of us has a best friend that is outside our relationship. We are best friends as well as husband and wife and
    business partners.

    When life is too traumatic, sad, chaotic or stressful for romance and passion, it is friendship and laughter that helps us to weather the storms. People often treat their friends better than they treat their spouse.

    If you genuinely like one another I think it is easier to remain
    committed to fighting fair, not holding grudges/keeping score, and
    protecting one another from the rest of the world.

  • apsutter

    I agree so much! I'm in a long term relationship and we weren't friends before we started dating but he quickly became my favorite person to talk to and be with. We also have close friends but are definitely each other's best friend. Honestly the best part about our relationship is how we talk and joke around with each other and the most fun I have is when we're out on adventures together. Some of our friends even tease us because we like each other so much and just enjoy each others company so much.

  • BabyBearStrikesAgain

    My husband and I were friends before we even started dating and are now best friends 10 years later. Sex waxes and wanes, attractiveness fades with time, but friendship will always be there. You really do have to genuinely like the other person.

  • BobbFrapples

    Real love is work and compromise, but sometimes good can come from bad. My grandparents met when he was dating another woman. Grandmother felt that he was the one for her and my grandfather agreed. They had a marriage that lasted for over 50 years until death did they part.

  • Bert_McGurt

    And people keep asking me why it took me 6 years to propose to my now-fiancee. I only want to do this once, damn it, so I'm going to be sure about it.

    Nicely put, Mike.

  • Natallica

    Wow. Let me say this hits close home. I'm currently starting a long distance relationship and thinking deeply about if it's worth it. Your piece, Mike, is feeding me with hope: we are very much in love, and if we can stand the trial of being apart until we can finally build a future together... I think that would be a pretty solid ground to stand. Thank you!

  • cheryl88

    I'm coming to the end of the long-distance portion of a relationship. We've made it over 2 1/2 years being 1300 miles apart, and now I'm getting ready to move to be with him. There have been lots of visits, and we chat online for hours every night. It's hard, but our love for each other makes it worth it. It can be done, and done well, as long as there's plenty of trust on both sides and you keep the communication open. Best of luck to you!

  • linnyloo

    In a few weeks, my guy and me are moving cross country together after spending four years apart. It can work. I promise.

    I think the thing that helped with me and my person is that we were both really secure in the fact that we knew we loved one another. I never doubted his commitment to me, or mine to him. We made time for each other, and talked about plans, and after a bit of wheel-spinning, we figured out what needed to be done to get us together and did it.

    The frustrating bit was how up in the air our timeline was. "My job is stable and financially secure. Can he get a job here? Is there a job here for him to get? Okay, the most promising lead he's had in a year has just folded. So I need to look for a job, but my hiring season is another six months away, and in the meantime, he might find a job here, but the odds of that happening are fairly slim..." Yeah. That part wasn't fun.

    Expect stupid people to say "I just don't know how you do it!" or "So when are you going to be together again?".

    But yes, it is possible, and, at least in my case, it was totally worth it.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I've done a long-term long distance. If you are equally committed, it's a no-brainer to me. My sister is a Navy wife - her husband was gone during the last months of her first pregnancy, and then later in their marriage for 18 months (and that's military distance, not job-in-another-city-text-you-throughout-the-day distance). I've dated while on tour, and while my boyfriend was on tour.

    I think it's easiest when there is an obvious, finite end to the long distance. I think a long distance relationship is great in some ways, because it keeps you from taking the other for granted, from being clingy, from being codependent. You can still really love someone, and have that love and emotional support, but you also have the time alone to learn who you are. And usually it involves making a choice to be together (though even long distance relationships can suffer from inertia). The relationship takes a different form, but I do think it's worthwhile.

  • linnyloo

    Word. For all of it, really, but especially the bit about being mutually committed and making deliberate time for each other.

  • Natallica

    First off, thanks to you both VERY MUCH for your support. We are just starting, and that's why I was feeling a little bit queasy about it. But, at the same time, we are definitely sure we want to go on and we have even discussed living together in a not too far future. It's hard sometimes to feel you want to share everything with somebody who is not there, but he always makes sure to find time (even though he works three jobs) to sit and have a long nice talk. Besides, he's smart, funny, caring, passionate and sweet. Damn, I'm in love. I hope it works!

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Me too! good luck!

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