January 13, 2005
Everlasting love

In the comments to my last post, both Lee and Christopher suggested that perhaps the problem isn't that people worship Eros so much as they worship their own self-fulfillment, which they sometimes aim to achieve through relationships. This is a good point, and in fact not long after I wrote that post I saw this article (via Eve) by a Unitarian about how consumerism plays a role in this:

During the go-go economic years of the 1980s and 1990s, when market economies triumphed over socialist economies all over the world, the consumer culture captured the hearts of Americans in new ways. To be married well in the consumer era meant to make sure that one's needs were being met and that one's options were always open. The emergence of this consumer ethic of relationships was the culmination of the spirit of individualism that has been growing gradually for more than a century. Mid–twentieth-century marriage, which featured high expectations for personal satisfaction, mutated into consumer marriage, with the same high psychological expectations but now spiced with a sense of entitlement and impermanence. (Lizabeth Cohen's book, A Consumers' Republic, documents how the consumer mentality and metaphor captured other American institutions during the last third of the twentieth century.)

While the consumer attitude toward marriage is all around, like global warming, we can detect it most readily when we are bothered by something in our mate or our marriage, and hear ourselves thinking or saying things like, "What am I getting out of this marriage, anyway?" or "I deserve better!" or "What's in this for me?" Not that these thoughts are altogether inappropriate; if your spouse is having an affair or hitting you, then focusing on self-interest is quite appropriate. But when your mate is not the lover you had hoped for, or nags you more than you want, or is not emotionally expressive enough for you, then consumer thinking suggests that you have not cut the best possible bargain in marrying this person. As one of my therapy clients recently put it, "This is not the deal I thought I was signing up for." Therapists now use the term "deal breaker" to describe reasons for divorce, as in asking a client, "Is this a deal breaker for you?"

It's become an axiom among social conservatives that the sexual revolution "won," and yet the actual sexual revolutionaries I know feel very much like they lost. And the article describes well the reason: love's liberation from religion and tradition mostly just left it vulnerable to being snatched by consumerism. Neither the True Love nor the Free Love ideals that I described earlier have really come to fruition.

This probably doesn't seem like a very controversial point because anti-consumerism is probably the most unifying issue in this neck of the blogosphere. Yet I do think that the consumer mentality sneaks into mating in ways that people may not notice. I've observed, for instance, that while some people take marital vows about sickness and health and so on very seriously, this leads them to choose a mate rather the way I'd choose a car: since I can't afford to buy a new one very often, I need one that'll need as few repairs as possible. Which brings me to a remark at Evangelical Outpost about National Public Radio, of all things:

Listening to NPR is like dating a charming and beautiful woman that has a semi-serious personality disorder; you're enchanted by her yet know you can’t commit to someone so troubled.

Yep, emotionally troubled women are fine to fool around with, but heaven forbid you should actually marry one. Why, that could be hard work!

I also noticed, coming from the other side of the political spectrum, that in my last post La Lubu said that we need to be less individualist and more communitarian and then lamented how Christian tradition doesn't give women enough agency. I've observed that a lot of leftists don't seem to realize that community and personal agency, to some degree, have to be traded off. I realize that women have generally borne the expectation of Christian obedience more heavily than men, but is the problem that women don't have enough agency, or that men are allowed to be little gods of their domains?

Another thing that article got me thinking about was how, in our society, we have an unprecedented ability to simply avoid people we don't want to deal with. So when we break up with a lover or a spouse, or fall out with a family member or friend, or even just drift away from people, you can usually just "erase" the relationship, and go on as if it had never happened.

Yet perhaps that is really an illusion. One way of reading the Gospel is this: all people are God's children, he loves them as well as you, and they're not going away. So even if you avoid touching them, talking to them or even thinking about them in this life, at the end of days they'll get in your face and say things like, "I was hungry, and you gave me no food ..." And if you're lucky, you'll spend forever in the New Jerusalem with them. So maybe Jesus' critique of us is not that we fail to form permanent relationships but that we fail to realize that we're already in them.

When I think of it that way it puts a rather different cast on all my relations to others, from a random Bangladeshi peasant to my boyfriend in high school. How would dating and marriage be different if you realized that you could never, in the cosmic sense, break up? That even if someone abuses or seduces you, you can't make them disappear?

Posted by Camassia at January 13, 2005 07:08 PM | TrackBack

Interesting conversation. I just wanted to add this little tidbit. I've heard that Eros can be translated as "want" i.e., desiring what you don't have. That makes the link between romance and consumerism even tighter, don't you think?

Posted by: Sylvia on January 14, 2005 09:26 AM

"...in our society, we have an unprecedented ability to simply avoid people we don't want to deal with. So when we break up with a lover or a spouse, or fall out with a family member or friend, or even just drift away from people, you can usually just 'erase' the relationship, and go on as if it had never happened."

I am guilty of this in the past. It's more complicated than just me deciding to do it because I didn't want to "deal" with people, but I'm still very guilty of this. It's a combination of what you're describing and things like moving away from my hometown to go to university, etc. I often think about re-connecting with some of those people who really hurt me (so much so that I became suicidal for a spell). I really don't have any way to find any of them except through Google searches I suppose, but I think sometimes it would still be a good idea to maybe try one day, now that those hurts have been long forgotten and forgiven from those 8 years ago.

I am only now in a place in my life where I think such things are important-- I didn't used to be. So, thank you for this post.

Posted by: Eric Lee on January 14, 2005 04:02 PM

Dear Camassia,

Isn't part of the story, as the Anglican sociologist Paul Germond has written, that we live in the immediate aftermath of a "licence-granting, licence denying command economy" for sexuality? "In such an economy, for better of worse, sexual activity was part of a structured, controlled process that was intended to serve the principle interests of the society." This sort of economy now seems, no matter where one stands on homosexuality, unrecoverable.

The Solemnization of Matrimony of the Prayer Book of 1662, for instance, effectively granted a licence for sexuality after listing certain normative conditions: that matrimony would be used for "the procreation of children," as a "remedy against sin and to avoid fornication" and, thirdly, "for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other." These are all communal considerations. Earlier and less happily, St Thomas Aquinas could licence the permission of prostitution on the grounds of social ecology: "Take away the sewer and you will fill the palace with pollution. Take away the prostitutes from the world, and you will fill it with sodomy" (ST II-II, 10.11).

Now, of course, sexuality has largely been dislocated from such communal and familial concerns, and, in more extreme cases, even dislocated from the rest of an individual's life into anonymity. This "narrowing of sex" does leave sexuality terribly vulnerable to the exploitation of a widespread consumerism, but the larger difficulty is that sexuality has been privatized. In Anthony Giddens' words, "it is something each of us 'has', or cultivates, no longer a natural condition, which an individual accepts as a preordained state of affairs."

We can either try to improbably return to some sort of "preordained state of affairs" that would licence only some expressions of sexuality, or we can try to look more closely at sexual experience itself. Regarding the latter possibility, the Archbishop of Canterbury has written -

"Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body."

This might be getting us somewhere.



Posted by: Neil on January 14, 2005 06:33 PM

Regarding your comment about the last post: yeah, I'd say both. The door has been shut in the face of women, and men have been little gods.

As for consumerism entering the realm of relationships, I agree with you. However, I think it's an oversimplification to say that's the only or even the main contributing factor in relationship dissatisfaction. I mean, Bertrand Russell was pointing out that when you combine educated women with a heterogeneous society, you can expect the divorce rate to climb, and that was long before the mass media machine and its ensuing consumerism. I think there is a part of human nature that always wonders if the grass is really greener, regardless of market forces, ykwim? And also a part that is willing to make a great leap (in any direction) given the opportunity....the key word here being "opportunity". When you have no (or feel you have no) alternatives, inertia is the stronger force.

I also thought "yow!" when I saw your statement on "fewer repairs". Yes, you are talking about me---but I think of that outlook as a positive! I mean hell, I done been through the wringer enough times; for me to look for a "fixer-upper" is sorta like asking a survivor on the Titanic "so, when ya gonna take your next cruise?!" Sure, life's tough and we all have our problems, but to continue your automotive analogy: faded paint I can deal with, but a blown transmission? fuggetaboutit, that baby ain't goin' anywhere. Maintenance, yes; overhauls, no.

I'm no big fan of the mercantile atmosphere that surrounds too damn much of life in these United States, but market analogies have one big weakness: they don't take time into consideration. Look at advertising....it all happens in the Eternal Present, constantly updated, always right to the minute. It's designed to get us to forget about time. Yet time still marches on. The hours of our lives. See? In that light, doesn't it make sense for people to exercise some caution in a relationship? You're burning daylight here---so burn it well.

Posted by: La Lubu on January 14, 2005 07:49 PM

"... is the problem that women don't have enough agency, or that men are allowed to be little gods of their domains?"

Married men are twice as likely to be involuntarily divorced as married women. Men in general are at least as romantically and sexually frustrated in their youth as women, if not more so. They're exactly as likely to get fired, go broke, or be maimed as women are, and thus just as likely to become unattractive to their mates through a life reversal. They're just as mortal and fallible.

What's with this "little gods" theory?

Posted by: Erich Schwarz on January 15, 2005 02:02 AM

P.S.: My own romantic history hasn't been all that happy -- but nothing has made me value Eros more highly than reading the last two posts here, and imagining a society where falling in love *wasn't* allowed because we were all supposed to have some religion-approved communitarian marriage or equally communitarian celibacy.

It reminds me of Rousseau saying that if he were living in the Muslim world where sex was mandated by the religious authorities, he'd be "a bad Turk".

And the whinging about how Eros favors the young and arrogant reminds me of Harrison Bergeron. Yeah, it's unfair that young hot people are more sexually attractive than older less juicy folks. And it's also unfair that I can't make a million dollars playing basketball like Michael Jordan.

I mean, ugh. Give me the worst heartbreak over what religion would do to love if it could!

Posted by: Erich Schwarz on January 15, 2005 02:09 AM

Erich, I interpreted the phrase "little gods" to refer to an ability and a willingness to abuse power, position, and privilege. Where I come from, men hold far more of those trump cards than women, so I didn't have a problem with that phrase.

Don't even get me started on the "involuntarily divorced" trip.

Posted by: La Lubu on January 15, 2005 10:37 AM

Having been married, having experienced the wasting-away of the love of that inspired that marriage, and having been divorced, I think the Unitarian commentator in Camassia's post is blowing smoke. My wife and I did not enter into marriage with the slightest sense of impermanence; we were deeply in love and expected to be that way forever. You can fault us for not having awakened to our drift and alienation earlier than we did, but once we saw how threadbare our marriage had become, we worked hard in counseling for a long time to try to stay together. In the end our choice was to remain tied together despite having become strangers to one another, or to divorce, and we chose the latter. Our divorce process was not "spiced with a sense of entitlement." It was wrenching and painful, and it left us questioning ourselves at the deepest levels.

Perhaps our experience was unique. Maybe there are lots of people out there who get married under the notion that "we'll try this for a few months, and if it doesn't work we'll just get a divorce." To me, such people sound like straw men.

Moreover, I find that commentator's conception of marriage distasteful. Look at his narrow rendering of marital problems: People are out of line complaining about verbal abuse or lack of intimacy, but someone who's been cuckolded has a sympathetic case for divorce. In other words, you're selfish if you expect emotional connection and loving treatment from marriage, but if someone else pokes his penis at your wife, she becomes damaged goods and you're entitled to a refund. That view of marriage strikes me as so reductive and materialistic that I can't really take him seriously when he criticizes "consumerism" in other people.

Next, let's be clear on what it means to exalt "communitarian" and "familial" interests in one's marriage: it means remaining yoked to someone who detests you, in order to please other people who aren't sharing your unhappiness. I understand that some people may have religious objections to divorce, and I don't mean to challenge those. You may believe that God expects you to come home each night and sleep next to another person's anger and resentment, while constantly churning with your own such feelings as well; in that case I respect your sense of duty. But to live that way to please your family, or your community? Why? Trust me; whatever you're preserving in that situation has little to do with love.

Finally, Camassia, I have to take you to task just a little bit. You sound critical of people who seek out a mate "that'll need as few repairs as possible," but one could just as easily characterize that behavior as searching for a mate that presents the best possible indication of long-term compatibility. I'm somewhat at a loss as to why that bothers you, since the rest of your post tends to be critical of *short-term* thinking in relationships.

Posted by: Tom T. on January 15, 2005 08:16 PM

Camassia, that comment sounded angrier than I meant it to, and I apologize for my tone. I got worked up about the subject matter, but I particularly didn't mean to sound like I'm upset at you.

Posted by: Tom T. on January 16, 2005 08:57 AM

Regarding the "little gods" remark, as I said I was addressing the historic conception of "Christian marriage," which was certainly patriarchal. The question is whether the solution to this is to grant women more personal agency, or take men down a few notches. I'm not going to get into an argument about who has more power on America's domestic front nowadays.

Elsewhere in the Unitarian's article, he does grant that there are sometimes good reasons for divorce. He also says, not long after the bit that I quoted, that of course few people go into marriage with an entirely consumerist attitude. But he says that in his practice as a marriage/family counselor, he's seen a lot of people break up who probably didn't have to, and whose divorce hurt a lot of people besides each other. So I'm not advocating a position that couples ought never to separate, I'm just saying that the consumer attitude towards marriage has led a lot more of them to do so.

Also regarding community involvement in marriage, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing obviously depends on the community. It can absolutely be a negative thing if the group in question uses marriage for Machiavellian political maneuvering and such. But if you take seriously the idea that Christianity is supposed to bring a different sort of community, that would also mean a different sort of community involvement in marriage. The article I cited, for instance, writes about how community support can help marriages through the rough patches, which is different from saying you have to suck up and hide your grave marital problems for the sake of the neighbors.

Posted by: Camassia on January 16, 2005 02:29 PM

Yet I do think that the consumer mentality sneaks into mating in ways that people may not notice.

My shock was to learn that consumerism wields its ugly head in the bedroom. Some of my wife's friends expect something in return for sexual largesse, in terms of you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. I think it's offensive to make sex transactional.

Posted by: name withheld by request on January 18, 2005 12:03 PM
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