I recently reread the short story by Raymond Carver “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” (originally titled “Beginners” which is apt here.) I’d just interviewed two very different young men in their 20s about marriage, relationships, and children and I was struck by how so little has changed since that story was written in 1981.
Carver’s story, one of my favorites, opens with three couples sitting around a kitchen table in Albuquerque with an open bottle of gin on the table and the sun setting through the curtains. They’re talking about love. They’d each been in prior relationships, which had ended in divorce and bitterness. And Mel, getting slightly drunk, is wondering how a person can love someone so wholly and then fall out of love, move on and love someone else, equally wholly. It’s that existential question: how can I be the center of someone’s life one moment and so utterly inconsequential the next?
Later, as a second bottle of gin is opened, Mel tells the story of an elderly couple who were nearly killed in a car accident—he’s a surgeon and operated on them both after the accident. The two were badly hurt and both were bandaged from head to foot. While recuperating, the husband became very depressed, even though he knew his wife was going to make it. He was depressed because he couldn’t turn his head in the cast to see her. “I’m telling you, the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddam head and see his goddam wife…. Do you see what I’m saying?”
Even then, it seems, in the heyday of divorce and new avenues, Mel was pining for that selfless, enduring love—that script that says, you marry someone and love that person wholly for the rest of your life. That she or he is THE ONE. Of course that’s not always possible, but it is and was even then the ideal we somehow crave: to be the 70-year-old couple who has been together so long that your heart breaks when you can’t turn your head and see your spouse.
Nearly 30 years later than when Carver’s story was first published, it struck me after my interviews that we’re still in that spot, wanting to find the one, that soul mate who has the power to break your heart. And yet, the doubt lingers. Today’s couples also know full well that they could be those couples sitting around the kitchen table talking about their ex’s.
The two young men I interviewed could not have been more different in circumstances or outlooks, yet they both seemed to be searching for the same ideal that Carver was writing about—enduring love.
Reed, who is a videographer by training but now working in a record store while looking for a job, met his girlfriend four years ago when he was 23. He’d dropped out of college at the time, though he has since gone back and finished a degree, and they met at a party he was throwing. It was love at first sight, he says. He followed her to New York City while she did an internship at Marvel Comics, and then back to Pennsylvania so she could finish school and he could re-enroll. He finished up while she moved to DC for a graduate degree. They live there now in a “hippy-dippy, crafty” kind of neighborhood in DC.
He would love to get married, he says, but he’s conflicted. “I have a desire to get married, but it’s sort of muddled with my activist sensibilities. I love the romantic notion of marriage binding two people together and as a display of love that your family can share in, but I also think that if two people want to be joined permanently, they should be able to do that however they want. Marriage is the accepted way, but there’s all these relationships that don’t follow that script.”
He’s leery, he says, because he’s seen so many broken marriages: His parents and his parents’ friends all divorced, and as the years passed, steadily more in his family got divorced. Marriage, he worries, is almost a detriment. Why get married if we love each other?
“People are reluctant to get married because they recognize that it might not last. It’s a scary prospect. Actually, it’s not that marriage is so scary, but that divorce is such an ugly experience.”
And yet, “many of my friends can’t wait to get married. I know a lot of men who are actively seeking someone to settle down with but they can’t find mates who are willing to take that step with them. More often, women are more marriage-phobic.” They have careers and many opportunities ahead of them, he says, and they don’t want to settle down yet.
While Reed feels conflicted, wanting to embrace the ideal of marriage but at the same time not sure he wants to be part of that clan, Brad has no doubt. A junior in college, Brad has been dating his girlfriend for two and a half years. “We realized quickly that we were looking for the same thing,” he says: a long-term deal. They plan to marry as soon as one of them gets a job after graduation.
In his family, he says, there was also an emphasis on what it is to live a fulfilling life. His parents have been married for 30 years, and he says, “coming from a big religious Italian family, it was always expected that men marry nice girls and have kids.”
"Among my friends, marriage is definitely not dead. My friends in relationships, they're all thinking, 'all right, when should I get the ring?' Many of my single friends wish they could find the girl who will settle down with them."
And then there’s Ricky, whom David Lapp interviewed for the “Love and Marriage in Middle America” project at the Institute for American Values. Ricky, at age 27, has been engaged four times, all four of which fell through. Ricky is a working-class guy with little education and a string of typical jobs: working in the kitchen at Pizza Hut, delivering pizza for Domino’s, working in construction, a stint as a mechanic—none of them well-paid or permanent.
Ricky, Lapp writes, wonders why “you have to put it in paper” if you love someone and if you know you’re going to spend the rest of your life with them. It’s too much like a contract, he says. As he says, “What good ever comes from contracts really? You end up getting screwed in the long run.”
Burned before, he’s wary. “I’m not lookin’ to fall in love,” he says, “I feel like it’s for suckers.”
And yet he writes heartfelt poetry and really does, it seem, pine to be loved and to love. After all, no one proposes to girls four times who doesn’t at some level really believe deep down in, if not the institution of marriage, then at least the prospect of enduring love.
All three of the young men, it sounds to me, want to be that man in the hospital with a wife he loves so much after 50 years of marriage that he can’t bear not to see her. And yet, whether that will be in a marriage or not is the open question. This generation is living at the endpoint of a cultural moment that was in full swing when Carver was writing in 1981. The cultural revolution that was the 1960s and 1970s has handed this latest generation many more possibilities and avenues, but now without a clear script or set of expectations.
Life can be confusing without a script to follow. But in the end, all three are looking for what Mel wanted: security and comfort that you get from another person who loves you.