Flowers and candy not a stand-in for honest commitment
Relationships need to be built on something besides raw emotion
It’s that time of year again. We are approaching our annual exorbitant festival of eroticism; that stalwart celebration of superficial appreciation of others, bad chocolate and commercialized obligations. As with most things, there are aspects to revile and those to commend. Perhaps it’s cliché to assault the commercialization of Valentine’s Day. Nonetheless, it seems a fitting time to reflect on love and what it means, both individually and as a society.
Any consideration of love and relationships in modern society must begin with the observation that we are in a crisis, at least in how we relate to each other. Anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of marriages end in divorce, with the rate trending upward for those on a second or third marriage. A simple survey of children in any school, whether middle-class or high-poverty, will reveal a startlingly high percentage of single-parent households.
Some say that this is no crisis. Instead, this is the result of free individuals choosing their associations. They might say that single parents are just as capable at raising healthy, well-adjusted children as a two-person household. However, this does not mean that the loss of our ability to commit to meaningful, long-term relationships has no negative consequences on its own, or isn’t a personal tragedy that harms the well-being of children and adults alike.
Even without considering the consequences of failed relationships to third parties, we can consider the current state of marriage in crisis simply based on observable social attitudes. People form and dissolve relationships at astonishing rates. Reality TV and personal observations easily depict the callous and shallow quality of relationships, and the speed at which they are abandoned.
Surely, adults have the right to leave a relationship and absolutely should when they are being mistreated. But perhaps this would happen less often if we approached relationships with a different attitude altogether — not the leaving, but the mistreatment itself.
Too often, we treat love as something that happens to us. We speak of being “in love,” of being captivated or entranced or bewitched; conversely, breakups and divorces often are brought on because the two parties have “fallen out of love.” The language used reflects the image in our common consciousness. Love cannot be controlled. It cannot be instigated or summoned on command, nor prolonged past its demise.
Conveniently, this attitude provides an easy excuse for beginning both ill-advised relationships and ending unsatisfying ones. We expect that these feelings are bequeathed on us, or not. Consequently, we act appropriately when feelings of attraction or lust appear and when they dissipate.
We and society as a whole suffer for this attitude. Instead of acting as if love plays us for fools, we should embrace love as more than chemistry that spontaneously occurs between two people. We should define love as a calling and a commitment.
Marriage, or other long-term relationships, require a measure of selflessness and discipline. Perhaps this sounds cruel to expect, but that’s exactly the point: Our obsession with personal freedom and the pursuit of happiness has imprisoned us in our own hedonistic desires, leaving us incapable of forming or committing to lasting, loving and truly fulfilling relationships. We have elevated the fleeting pleasures of sex and hormonal attraction above the deepness of truly loving another person. We chase transitory feelings and wreak havoc as we go.
Ironically, instead of constraining us, commitment has the power to free us of those desires and bequeath us a more profound satisfaction. Telling a person that you love them should mean more than that you are in love with him or her. It should even mean more than that you are possessed with positive feelings toward someone. Emotions are transient, and are arguably little more than a result of neurochemical processes. Not to say that love can’t begin with romantic attraction but that passion can only be sustained with a decision backed by one’s full force of will.
I’m not at all saying that people should stay in unhappy relationships just for the sake of obligation. I am suggesting that a different attitude toward relationships and happiness could make the failure of relationships a much less frequent part of life.
Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, and maybe it wouldn’t drastically alter society even if everyone changed their perspective on love. But I can’t help thinking that children would suffer less if their fathers left less, that love would fail less if we expected more of ourselves and that we would all love each other more if we occasionally put others first.
Our failure to love each other and especially uphold our most solemn vows is one of the great tragedies of American life. This Valentine’s Day, let’s not be lovestruck by Cupid, but instead actively, deliberately and fully love each other.