Monday, September 10, 2007

Romantic Illusions

by Emma Kaufmann

I sometimes feel like marriage as it is today is some
sort of anachronism from the past. It seems like
feminism should have changed it all for the better,
and it did change it, certainly, but whether it was
for the better, I'm not so sure. Firstly, sexual
pleasure got all mixed up into it. Now women are
expected to demand sexual pleasure in marriage and if,
after working at the sex by reading countless articles
on 'How to Spice up Your Marriage,' things are still
rather poor on the bedroom front, then one should
simply cut one's losses and head for the door.

It is a well documented fact that sexual disgust for women in marriage was
once part and parcel of the marriage contract, and a very useful one at that.
In the eighteenth century, when marriages were still made as business
arrangements, it was necessary, nay even desirable, to make your wife think
sex was an unbearable chore so that she would never even consider leaving.
Since many women probably didn't have any lovers before marriage and
consequently had no point of comparison, once they got married and found the
marital sex to be awful (as I would guess it usually was, seeing as people did
not choose each other on the basis of sexual attraction), sex became linked in the
wife's mind with disgust, and she didn't crave physical relations with someone
else outside of the marriage.

Women throw up their hands at how in the old days, men and women made
marriages based on pragmatic choices that had little or nothing to do with love.
Apart from the fact that women no longer become the legal property of men
when they marry, however, we still choose partners in the same old ways. Most
people marry others of a similar or higher social status, calculating their long
term earning and investment potential. Women and men also usually marry
partners of equal physical attractiveness. Physical attractiveness and good
education/job are the reasons people choose their partners and yet, who would
admit it? It is always dressed up as, 'I fell in love with him', or 'our eyes met
across a crowded room'.

But falling in love is so natural, you may reply, it's as natural as breathing.
But is it? Is it really? Is there any evidence that people en masse 'fell in love'
with each other in the past? Some did, but passionate love tended to be
an unstabling influence on society and was not encouraged. Happy love
did not even enter the vocabulary of romance until the seventeeth century,
and many historians believe that romantic love is a learned behavior that
became fashionable in the late eighteenth century, along with the new
fashion for reading novels - the novel itself being a radical cultural form that
explored 'individuality' for the first time.

For the Greeks, passionate love was a disordering and thus preferably
brief experience, in opposition to the goal of marriage, which was to
create a well-balanced household. Marriage was certainly never the journey
towards self-fulfillment that it has become today.

The mixing of romantic love with marriage is, I would say, the fundamental
problem in today's marriages. On the one hand, you are told to ‘work’ at
your marriage and to suppress desires to have affairs, yet, on the other hand,
you are told that falling in love is the greatest thing that can happen between
two people. And once the buzz is gone from your relationship, what to do?
No wonder, I think, that so many people are having affairs and the divorce
rate is so high. There seems to be a fundamental flaw in the concept of
marriage today. It is meant to give so much to people, yet gives so little.
And with so many now playing away, or, more commonly, reaching
for the Prozac, I wonder if this is progress?
What do you say?


nutmeg said...

I have to believe that romantic love is an integral part of at least my own marriage. I may have to work harder for it, schedule it, even ask for it on occasion - the roller coaster may not run as often as it did when we 'fell in love', but it's still running and the highs just get higher. As for past evidence, I just have to think of the works of Sappho.

Thanks for the thoughtful post!

AmandaD said...

I find that my marriage, and I apologize for sounding trite, gives me back what I put in. There are times when checking out can threaten to occur as we cope with careers and parenting, but ultimately our every moment is enriched by attending to our relationship, working, challenging and loving. I guess the progress is individual to each marriage.

Very interesting post.

The Farmers Wife said...

You make some very interesting points here E, especially about romantic love not becoming fashionable until the 18th century.

I wonder how many of the failed marriages do so because we are brought up to believe that love conquers all and with notions of happy endings. Quite a lot I'd bet.

When I first met the The Farmer I didn't fall for him straight away. I respected him, liked him, I enjoyed his company and he made me laugh. The other stuff, love, passion etc came later and I believe we have a very strong connection to each other.

When I look back on other relationships I have had, the kind that started with an explosion of passion and "love" I can see how easy it would have been to jump in too deep (marriage, kids) based on that rush of feelings and not caring about the practical side of things (finances, reliability, suitability) which must, I believe, have some bearing on who you settle down with.

Mama Zen said...

Very interesting post. You make a great historical point. Romantic love (as we currently know it) is pretty much a creation of literature and the age of chivalry.

EmmaK said...

nutmeg...certainly, romantic love is part of my own marriage too...I just think that maybe many people have too high expectations of marriage and that they should be more realistic about things before tying the knot!

amandad...Yes, one really does have to work at a marriage, doesn't one? I suppose my piece was simply designed to make us think that actually modern marriage is a totally artificial constuction and not 'natural' at all.

the farmers wife...It was like that too for me when I met my husband: I respected him, liked him, I enjoyed his company and he made me laugh. The other stuff, love, passion etc came later and I believe we have a very strong connection to each other.

But girls aren't taught that, are they? They are taught that love comes in a flash of lighting when you meet your soulmate and I'm not sure such romantic propaganda is all that useful!

mama zen....It certainly is interesting to think about marriage in the sense that it is really just a business contract that got all mixed up in tales of romance...although not many people think of it like that.

Tom Paine said...

Having a one-size-fits-all template for life is going to lead to this kind of problem. Simply put, not everyone should marry, and marriage should not always be seen as "forever after" without change. We change as we age, so why shouldn't our desires, needs and expectations?

Romantic love lasts on average 3-5 years. After that is when it gets interesting.

having my cake said...

Connection and Communication. Lust just doesnt last forever so you need to find ways to communicate to perpetuate the connection.

melody is slurping life said...

Anything worth having is worth working for...marriage included. I believe you have to be selfless in order for a marriage to work. I believe we have to be selfless in order for life to work.

Provoking post. There is more to any family relationship than love.

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