When I first began to date Tim in college, I took to emailing my younger sister to get her advice. (You see, she is the emotional one, and I am the logical one. We’re better balanced now, but four years ago, less so.) In discussing our respective love lives, it was that word exactly that came up — love. What is love?
I just finished a book called Talk of Love by Ann Swidler. I found out about it from a post on Sociological Images. Ann Swidler conducted a study about the way that a narrow population of white, suburban, heterosexual California couples and how they talked about love. She took their comments and framed two cultural models of love.
- Love is a clear, all-or-nothing choice.
- The person you love is unique, and idealized.
- Your choice to love is made in defiance of social forces.
- The choice to love permanently resolves an individual’s destiny.
In other words: “They met, and it was love at first sight. There would never be another girl (boy) for him (her). No one could come between them. They overcame obstacles and lived happily ever after.” (113) This is easily identified as the mythic love that appears in books and movies, the kind of love that people like to scoff at.
- Real love is not sudden or certain. It grows slowly and is often ambivalent and confused. Love does not require a dramatic choice but may result from circumstance, accident, or inertia.
- There is no “one true love.” One can love many people in a variety of different ways.
- The kind of love that leads to marriage should not depend on irrational feeling in defiance of social convention, but on compatibility and on practical trains that make persons good life partners. The fewer obstacles that people have to overcome, the happier they are likely to be.
- Love does not necessarily last forever. Love and marriage do not settle either personal identity or social destiny. Rather ‘than guaranteeing that one will live ‘happily ever after,’ love requires continuing hard work, compromise, and change.
This is the kind of love that, as the Sociological Images post states, drives both the psychological and religious self-help industries. It is the kind of love that I identify in the day to day struggles of being married.
Swidler goes on to argue that the two concepts of love are used differently by the same people, that both are coherent cultural constructs that help us navigate our confusing world.
What I mean to say (and Swidler argues) is that people use the “realistic” view of love to manage and interpret ongoing relationships, and struggle with the day to day realities of being married.
However, the mythic formula is used to formulate arguments on whether or not to marry or stay married. The mainstays of a “decisive choice” and a “unique other” are available because one is either married or they’re not, and one is only married to one person at a time. The institution of marriage is governed by this mythic understanding. The mythic understanding upholds the instution of marriage, and the institution of marriage upholds the mythic understanding.
For me, this has all sorts of implications.
As a writer, it means that romances in the modern sense has to have several dimensions to be realistic — one where there is a lot of certainty, and one where there is potentially a lot of ambivalence. If characters want to get married, it means that they will convince each other and their families of the certainty of their love. If they don’t want to get married, they will probably be a lot less certain, and conflicts with their friends and family may arise.
As an LGTBQ Ally (As an ally, I am always in training. Feel free to correct me, those who self-identify), it puts a whole new spin on the fight for equal marriage rights. For one, there is a school of thought within the movement that marriage is not radical enough. On the other hand, there is a school of thought that says that without marriage, love relationships will never be legitimate in the mainstream heterosexual understanding of love relationships.
As a married person, I recognize that the growing uncertainty of marriage in our society contributes to the need to understand love differently. (Oh, the books that I have read and will continue to read on the self-help marriage subject!) But, as Ann Swidler says, as long as people want to believe that love lasts forever, the mythic love ideal will last.
What do you think?
What is love? Do the visions of love that Ann Swidler put forth make sense to you? Are there other understandings that you would propose? (Ha, pun unintended!)