The Arc of Love
How our romantic lives change over time.
Posted Jul 02, 2019
This article features the first and last sections of my recent book, The Arc of Love: How our romantic lives change over time (University of Chicago Press, 2019). I hope that these brief passages will entice you to read what is in between.
This book is about long-term romantic love and how we go about developing it—or fail to do so. It is about building the foundations for such love and dealing with the difficulties that inevitably emerge in such a challenging and critical construction project. The reader will discover the good news that there is no reason to despair: Enduring love can be achieved. And, as we shall see, time plays a leading role in this process.
I take an optimistic perspective. Not only is enduring, profound love possible; it is also more common than most of us think. Yet the romantic road is often bumpy and long.
Enticing romances encounter many blind alleys. How is the would-be lover to know when such romances are promenades for flourishing love, and when they are dead-end streets? In these pages, I provide some helpful signposts along the “freeway of love.”
Love is not all you need; but if you have enough of what you need, and love infuses life with joy, your life is more likely to be a many splendored thing.
The possibility of long-term romantic love
“There is only one serious question. And that is . . . how to make love stay?” —Tom Robbins
The first stop on our journey toward the heart of love will consider long-term romantic love. The endurance of romantic love has been debated from time immemorial. Despite this fact, however, we still do not have a handle on how love survives time.
In the field of philosophy, the discussion has centered on the question of whether love is conditional, that is, whether it is dependent on anything. Aristotle, for instance, believed that it is; according to him, love can end if the beloved changes for the worse.
Other philosophers, notably Plato and Emmanuel Levinas, considered love to be unconditional; in their view, love can last for a lifetime. In the field of psychology, one also finds conflicting views concerning the possibility of long-term romantic love.
Will You Love Me Tomorrow?
“Tonight you’re mine, completely . . . but will you love me tomorrow?” —Carole King
Carole King asks the burning question of the romantic lover: Will you love me tomorrow? In other words, will the feeling that I am your beloved last only until the morning sun rises, or will it last for many years? To this question, we might add our own: Must romantic love endure over time in order to be considered profound? Can brief romantic affairs be fully satisfied?
As a young boy, I devoured Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and Amos Oz’s My Michael (1968). These romantic tragedies served as cautionary tales, warning of the consequences to passion withering and love dying.
Take the undoing of Emma Bovary, who tries to relieve the banality of her life through a series of adulterous affairs. Ultimately rejected by her lovers and deep in debt, Emma swallows arsenic. Like her, Hannah Gonen (Michael’s wife) is drenched in dreams but stunted by her marriage to an unimaginative man. As time goes on, her marriage deteriorates into sadness and depression, and her dreams—along with her sanity—are quashed.
Emma and Hannah appear to be victims of a myth, a dangerous romantic ideology enshrined in both our recordings and our rituals: True love overcomes all obstacles (“There ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to you”); and love lasts forever (“till death us do part”). This seductive notion assumes both the uniqueness of the beloved and a kind of fusion.
Soulmates are meant only for each other: Lovers form a single entity, and each of the partners is irreplaceable. The lover’s attention is focused on nothing but the beloved (“When a man loves a woman, can’t keep his mind on nothing else”). Ideal love is total, uncompromising, and unconditional. Hell might be freezing over, but true love will endure.
While such romantic ideology retains its allure, the idea that passion can last a lifetime has lost its luster in modern times. We have all witnessed an increasing gap between the desire for an enduring romantic relationship and the probability of its fulfillment. Breakups, not long-term relationships, are the norm.
In many societies, about half of all marriages end in divorce, and many of the remaining half have at some point seriously considered divorce. Love is a trade-off, the prevailing wisdom goes—we can either soar briefly to the highest heights of passion, or we can be content with a meaningful friendship for many years. Is it then fruitless to despair, as do Emma and Hannah, because having both is impossible?
And yet . . . popular culture celebrates long-term love. Moreover, most people, including the current generation of adolescents, continue to believe in the possibility of such love. A survey of young adults (ages 18–29) in the United States revealed that the vast majority holds highly optimistic views about marriage, with 86 percent expecting to have a marriage that lasts a lifetime.
However, such love is under attack in contemporary society, where novelty rules, and change is the absolute order of the day. Thus, we are confronted with a paradox: The idea of love demands that it be endless, lasting until “the sun shines no more,” while our lives are littered with crumbling relationships.
“Love and eggs are best when they are fresh.” —Russian proverb
“Love and eggs taste best when they are fresh.” —Russian proverb (revised)
When it comes to eggs, we look for two things—taste and nutritional value. And it is when eggs are fresh that these are at their peak. Life gets more complicated when love is at stake. The intensity of excitement (the “taste”) is strongest when love is fresh, but the profundity of the connection (the “nutritional value”) is often best when love is mature.
While the old saying has it that “revenge is a dish best served cold,” I believe that romantic love should never be cold. It does not need to be served at the boiling point, however; warm is very good as well.
In this book, we have traversed the highways and byways of love. The journey has cast doubt on the prevailing popular attempts to make love as fresh as it was at its very beginning. When freshness is foremost, we are setting ourselves up to lose the battle for long-lasting profound love before the war has begun, as there will always be fresher and tastier occasional romantic affairs than the present one.
I am not the kind of romantic nutritionist who advises giving up enjoyable but non-nutritious food while promising that, ultimately, we will feel better without it. I do not recommend giving up intense, wild love—on the contrary, in my view, we are witnessing a renaissance of romantic intensity and excitement, and this is a positive development. However, these new circumstances have disturbed the balance between intensity and profundity to the extent that romantic profundity is becoming harder and harder to achieve.
When the bond between partners is nourishing, and lovers bring out the best in each other, they become calmer, happier, and healthier. In this way, they discover new tastes in their ongoing romantic relationships. People who live in a romantic environment that helps them flourish continue to surprise themselves and their partners, making each other the sunshine of their life.