Marriages used to be about property and politics. Your families decided who’d benefit the most from this family merger, and then you were committed – not because you were happy, nobody really expected happiness, but because betrothal was a glorified business contract. Breaking it brought troubles for everyone. Best to tough it out.
The cultural legacy of that can be seen in the way we overvalue long-term relationships. Watch the way performers work a crowd: they’ll always ask a couple how long they’ve been married, and if the answer is sufficiently long, they’ll always relate that number breathlessly to the crowd: “Twenty-five years!” And the crowd will cheerfully applaud because these two people have been together a long time and long is good.
But stability comes in all forms, and only some of them include love.
Some twenty-five year relationships are the sort where they don’t really like each other, but they’ve learned to sort of slide past each other as much as possible. And if you watch, you’ll see the survival mechanisms for that: the half-listened to conversations, the eye-rolling shrug whenever someone notes something annoying about their partner, the weary willingness to do all of the chores their partner’s too incompetent or disinclined to do.
Some stability involves living almost separate lives, with two different friends groups because these two people want entirely different things. Some stability involves hanging out with each other because they don’t have any other friends, and going to a movie you hate with someone you don’t care for is still theoretically better than being alone.
Some stability involves great gaps in communication, the arguments you never have because if you open up that seal then this relationship is over. So you don’t discuss the kids you wanted, or the sex you wanted, or the life you wanted, because that would destroy this stability. Some stability involves constantly bickering about those unachievable goals, tossing the blame back and forth like a hot potato, a never-ending state of trench warfare.
Some stability involves shaping yourself to the role: breadwinner. Dutiful housewife. Business partner. Maybe you discovered at some point you didn’t want that role, but it’s better to carve off the parts of yourself that don’t fit than potentially rock the boat.
And a lot of stability involves confusing fondness for love. Human beings are hard-wired to form attachments to the things they rely on: soldiers have been known to sentimentally risk their lives in battle to rescue a bomb-defusing robot whose whole function was, literally, to stop them from risking their lives.
If you hang around someone for long enough, you often grow fond of them – maybe their quirks are irritating, but they are known quantities and you have discovered the workarounds. You’d miss them if they left, not necessarily because you like them, but because you’ve come to expect them – kind of like the way your new phone looks weird if you’ve lived with a phone with a crack in the screen for long enough.
But fondness isn’t love. It isn’t an active quantity. Fondness is just something that accretes like a tarnish on a penny, often arriving whether you’ve worked to get it or not. Love is a happy expectation, something that puts a spring in your step – fondness is just sinking back into the couch and realizing it hurts your back in the way that it’s always hurt your back, and the part of you that craves routine is happy for the hurt.
And you’ll see people in long-term relationships going, “I love them.” And while I’m not quite willing to write off fondness as not a form of love, I will say it’s one of the lower grades thereof. They don’t have a lot of love in these kinds of relationships.
What they have is stability. They know what’s going to happen today, and tomorrow, and the day after. It’s not great, but they’ve learned how to bear it. It’s going to stay this way for as long as they’re willing to stay, and leaving it might mean they get something worse.
And they get applause. People cheer. People are thrilled to meet people who’ve been together for so long because length is good, you’re supposed to stay together, it’s like being thin in that sometimes being thin is because you’re so goddamned sick you can’t eat but hey we all want thinness and we don’t care how we get it.
These people have stability.
They long for happiness.
Unfortunately, for them, in this circumstance, the one is the enemy of the other.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.