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