“Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.
Amidst all the hoopla last weekend surrounding Valentine’s Day (and what would the florists in our economy do without it?), I was struck by how dramatically the celebration of love has changed in my lifetime. Of course, a lot of things have changed dramatically in the last 67 years, but when the subject is love, some basics were thought to be pretty much immutable when Sammy Cahn penned the lyrics to his popular hit tune back in the 1950s.
Of course, if you think about those lyrics, the symbolism of the horse and carriage was already anachronistic when Cahn came up with the line, so maybe that should tell us something. But if not marriage, the idea that romantic love, the kind that “makes the world go ‘round,” to borrow another mid-50s lyric, had some sense of permanence to it was pretty much a basic truism of the human condition until young people started to experiment with sexuality that was openly divorced (pardon the pun) from love in the 1960s.
It was called the free-love movement, and it was epitomized by what came to be known as casual sex, as in, “I’m doing this with you because it feels good, it doesn’t hurt either of us, and after it’s over we can have no regrets for not being in love or even caring about each other.” Yeah, that was pretty much it: just the physical pleasure (or what we thought was the pleasure) with no strings, emotional or otherwise.
It was all part of a social revolution of sorts, in which taboos were revealed for what they were (usually religiously based rules that only made sense if you believed the underlying theology) and guilt was redefined as something to be avoided at all cost, even when it might be exactly the emotion that one’s actions properly elicited.
In any event, in the years that followed, those free-love hedonists grew up, and, as they did, most of them found out that human attachments that had some sense of permanence were actually necessary, or at least desirable, in living through the years of struggle that life usually turns out to be. Love was rediscovered at some point as a legitimate, even a desirable, emotion to feel, even to cherish. And with emotion came the need to be with the other person, not just now, not just for the moment, but for always, for a lifetime, forever.
And so a generation that included many who may have dabbled in free-love, or maybe even lived it for a number of years, came to appreciate the value of the commitment to togetherness that marriage represents. Yes, divorce rates also increased, but that was a carry-over from the “feel-no-guilt” part of the free-love movement. It wasn’t that the idea of love and commitment was rejected; it just didn’t always last, and when it didn’t last, better to get out of the relationship and maybe find that same feeling and make a new commitment with someone else.
Fast forward to the new millennium and, oh, how the times have changed. Young people today are betwixt and between on the subject of love as a binding force in human relationships. Yes, they want it, but they also want lots of other things that long-term commitments may not foster, may indeed inhibit or restrict, things like freedom, careers, hobbies, privacy, selfishness. It’s hard to be selfish when you are in a loving relationship. It’s hard to dismiss the other person’s needs and desires when you’re in a loving relationship. It’s hard just to focus on what you want, need, desire, or seek for self-fulfillment when you’re in a loving, committed, long-term relationship.
Thus, the era of holding off on marriage and all that it entails is upon us. People may even choose to acknowledge their love for each other without taking the previously natural “horse-and-carriage” step of solidifying the commitment with a legally binding ceremony that starts a life-time partnership. Instead, we have “friends with benefits” relationships that are the sex-included kind of thing that Jerry and Elaine could have had on “Seinfeld” if they hadn’t been so prudish about it.
As one who lived through (and, admittedly, was part of) the free-love era and has now been very contentedly and joyously married for 35 years, I wonder where we are as a species in this brave new world. Can it be that the need for companionship (the kind of companionship that only comes from loving another person and wanting to share a life with that person) is permanently passé? Have we, as a species evolved away from that need in favor of a more nihilistic approach to life? (And what could be more nihilistic than denying the need for intimate companionship?)
In Spike Jonze’s fascinating Oscar-nominated film, “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a voice on his computer (his operating system). He does so, apparently, out of a sense of his inability to love a real, living person. We never learn exactly why his character has become so lost to the need for human contact, but his “relationship” with his computer’s voice seems to suffice, until he learns that she is not his alone. It’s a bitter realization, one that may doom him (us?) to a life of solitary despair with nothing but computer games and operating systems to fill his (our) days until love becomes wholly unnecessary. Maybe the future of the species will be couple-less, with individuals doing their own thing on their own time and only joining in love-like coupling as, if, and when they feel motivated to do so.
Or maybe love will take a different path to extinction. Maybe we’ll decide that since it is a cruel and ultimately meaningless universe, we might as well experience whatever it has in store for us with a partner, with someone to share the pain and cruel realities of it with. Maybe that’s where we’re headed: to a different kind of need, a need to have someone to share our misery with.
It wouldn’t be love, and it certainly wouldn’t require a silly institution like marriage to memorialize it, but it would probably be better than talking to a computer.