Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Love as thou wilt.


You know my feelings on your father and his anticipated reaction to TD. There's enough of you in the younger, non-racist generation, including many with grandchild-hostages, that you could probably get some leverage were your siblings willing to buck the system as well. If not, though: arbitrary connections, even if emotionally significant and of long standing, cannot (or should not) excuse this sort of abusive, controlling behavior. Even if you married a Vietnamese guy, it sounds like he'd find something else ridiculous to make you feel bad about.

Gear shift to your Scatterplot post. I’ll out myself as the person who observed that the person you end up with is not always the person you love the most in your life. Your correspondent, in his critique, is well-intentioned, but wrong. It is of course true that youthful relationships feel different from more mature ones, and that the cumulative aspect can build a strong and loving foundation from a relatively mediocre starting point (isn’t this part of how arranged marriages work?), but there’s an elephant in the room that nobody’s acknowledging, and that’s tied into the research that you linked: People settle.

People settle for relationships in which they love a little (or a lot) less than they are loved; people reduce their expectations of love (not just from Mythic to Prosaic-Realist, but from great to good or even to okay); people resign themselves to otherwise loving relationships that lack true physical or emotional intimacy. Now in some respects settling is unstable; settling for an unequal relationship seems, from the data, to be a bad bet.* But most people are just nesting, and they’ll pick someone who more or less meets their criteria because they are tired of incurring additional search costs for a mate. They might have a multi-year, loving, companionate relationship, with plenty of shared experiences to build intimacy. But who’s to say that that accumulation is actually greater than the love you shared with someone else before? This underestimates, I think, the significance of certain types of connection, and assumes that aspects of love and time in love are comparable or fungible.

If you meet someone who’s perfect for you---intellectually, emotionally, sexually, compatible in terms of life goals and temperament--- and marry, but then after ten years she gets hit by a train, is the love you felt for her going to automatically be superseded in magnitude by your decades-long, loving-but-mostly-companionate remarriage to your housekeeper? Not all relationships are going to produce the feeling of singularity that you remarked upon. Maybe they have other offsetting virtues, but it’s not that love is love is love; loving everyone is different.

This is a separate question from whether having your heart broken affects your future capacity to love. There’s no reason why the two must be linked. You learn from earlier relationships about your wants, needs, and priorities in ways that can benefit your later ones. (You can also acquire the bases for years of bitter comparisons. Mixed bag.)

That people are mostly unable to explain their desires accords with experience. Most people, even if narcissistic, are not sufficiently insightful or self-critical to analyze their own motives. Even if they could, they might not want to; who wants to tell a researcher “I was lonely and she seemed like a decent girl,” or “he had a lot of money, doc, and a foxy body”? And part of this is that our mental circuits about love and romance are wired as they are for reasons that might look absurd to us upon examination, or based on events or cultural influences we may have no conscious recollection of.** There’s a whole parallel discussion about the existence of higher-order desires going on elsewhere, but the easiest way to win that argument is not to play: what higher-order desires? People who spend a lot of time contemplating those in the relationship context are headed for tears. Maybe I don’t want to love you, or I want to want you more, or I want to have different preferences that would make it easier to find a mate: none of this is going to end well. The cynic in me (which is a big part) thinks that those who mouth Mythic platitudes but walk the Prosaic-Realist walk with little thought for the contradictions are better off than the navel-gazing scab-pickers who are constantly interrogating themselves about how they feel, and whether they should choose to love again today.

All this sounds a little doom and gloom, but my own view is tempered by the idea that, as your friend noted, we change over time. Perhaps a relationship ends not because you are unlovable, but because that person, then, couldn’t love you. Who is to say that a tiny change in circumstances might not have made things different? Too much of the fate of relationships (and life in general) depends on small things to take the demise of a partnering as evidence of some deep truth about one’s self. You can’t go back, of course, and you can’t persist solely on the ground that things could change at any time (“Do you love me now? How about now? What about over here?” etc.), but just because you weren’t what one guy needed now doesn’t mean you won’t be perfect for some other fellow later.

Apologies for the disjointedness. I wanted to get at your examples with more specificity, but that can wait for the next go ‘round. This post is already pushing TL/DR territory as it is.

* Not to bash your discipline, but sometimes social science research seems to take its inspiration from sixth grade science fairs. Unequal relationships are unstable and less satisfying? The person with more ability to walk away from a deal has more power? This is up there with “will baking soda and vinegar make my papier-mâché volcano erupt?” in terms of obviousness. The second article is much more interesting, but unfortunately is gated.

** How much of your psychosexual formation is tied to things like movies you saw in fifth grade or what your strangely attractive neighbor used to wear or whatever is a little scary. I prefer not to think about it, to the extent that I can. Also: Ayn Rand has a lot to answer for, for her crimes against the tender psyches of teenagers. That is all.
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