Believe it or not, love — as we see it now — is not exactly as it has been seen throughout the ages.
First of all romantic love is a relatively new invention. Sure, the Romans had romantic poetry — only let’s be honest here, for a little while, it was more like erotic poetry. The shadings of love and sex were as confused as they are in the modern romance novel. Hold on to that, it might come in handy.
In Rome though, as far as I can tell, the ideas of romance and love were separated, at least for the patricians, even if there were some touching legends of old married couples in love who asked to die together.
In Shakespeare’s time the idea that Romeo and Juliet would choose to marry because they were in love with each other was a little scandalous and at the same time the vanguard of a new way of doing things.
Sure, forget all the stuff about the families at each other’s throats and all, those two crazy kids in love would still be shocking if all they wanted to do was marry in defiance of those that their families would prefer they pair with.
You see, in Shakespeare’s time human society had a little more… give. There was more wealth, enough not to live so close to the bone (while all of them were still unimaginably poorer than anyone today, mind you), so there was a bit more room to indulge in romantic fancies and marry someone because you fancied them, instead of for solid qualities, like a woman being able to hold a pig under each arm, or a man being able to plow a field all by himself if the ox was feeling poorly.
Okay, I’m joking – a little – but the truth is that for most of human history humans have married for reasons other than a nicely turned ankle, or a fascinating smile.
Life being brutish, short, and frankly all work and no play, it was more important to marry someone who could help in your trade or even bring a bag of money to expand the business. Marriages were often arranged within professional groups. If you were the daughter of a craftsman, you’d probably have a marriage arranged to his lead apprentice. If you two loved each other, so much the better, but generally getting along well and not fighting too much was enough.
The nobility was always interested in “love” in the romantic sense. Look at how far Henry VIII went to get Anne Boleyn. (And again there note the confusion between love and great sex.)
Most of the time, though, they married the person that suited their income and station and had affairs on the side.
I no longer remember how many Americans are descended from Edward III (oh, sure, a lot of Englishmen, too) but there are a lot of them. Most of us are descended from at least a couple of kings, and a lot of noblemen, because, well… they had romantic loves. Lots of them. By the dozen really.
Love as experienced by the nobility, in all but a few cases, was a fleeting thing. You could say they married and divorced as much as our Hollywood celebrities, except that romance and marriage didn’t often go together for them. So they dropped mistresses like trees drop leaves in the fall.
Our present time inherited the romantic ideas of, well, the romantics, and therefore we dream of falling in romantic love and staying in romantic love all the time with one person for the rest of our lives.
This is all the stranger considering how many of us manage it (that thing about one in two marriages? They’re comparing the number of marriages in a year to the divorces in a year, not taking into account that the divorces in that year come from everyone who married in the last fifty years or so) even though we live much longer than our ancestors, have more material goods than any nobleman ever commanded and change occupations and interests more than any other set of individuals in history, really.
Despite all these resources, an infinite ability to cheat, and the fragile foundation of “love”, most people try really hard to stay together, and a lot manage it.
If you’re about to embark on this adventure, let me give you some advice from the height of my 32 years of marriage:
- Unlike the romance novels show, love isn’t all made of sex. Regardless of how much you want your sweetie and how hot he/she is, there will be dry periods: illness, separation, and just plain life will conspire to make it very hard to meet that way. This doesn’t mean your marriage is over or that love is no longer there. Bide your time and make the occasion. And remember there are other reasons to be married. Like what, you say? Well, let’s say that those ancients had a point when they insisted on common interests.
- You don’t have to love everything he does, but you two must share some interests and tastes. Even if your common interest is hearing the other talk about his/her interests. I can’t compose music, but I love to hear my husband play. And though we both write our styles are very different, but we read each other’s work. And though he has no interest whatsoever in politics, he knows when to let me rant till I stop foaming at the mouth.
- Be friends. Being friends is a good foundation when everything else goes awry and life is hitting you on the nose like a rolled up newspaper.
- There will be times you don’t like each other very much. In fact, under the pressure of jobs and kids, there will be times you can barely stand each other. All I can say is try to make opportunities to talk and hold onto … charity towards the other person. Because one day when you least expect it, you’ll realize that yeah, things have been rough, and you’ve been getting annoyed that you’re the only person in this household who does dishes and changes diapers even though both of you have jobs, but you still love your spouse very much, and there’s nowhere else you’d rather be. Love is a feeling that comes and goes. If you’re lucky – we are – it’s there most of the time, but sometimes you must make do with friendship and even duty. And then the feeling returns.
- It’s worth it. Not only does the feeling of love return, but when it does it’s at a much higher level. I no longer remember where I read it, but at some point, I read, there is more passion and love in a 20-year marriage than in any hundred romances with star-crossed lovers. Whoever said it was right. If you don’t stick to it you’ll never experience the really good stuff.
- Make time for each other. That will diminish the low points and increase the high points. It will also keep you growing together – forming similar or compatible interests, remembering what the other person likes, etc, – rather than apart. We all work much too much, something else that’s peculiar to our times in a way (yes, people in the past had more brutal jobs, but most were circumscribed by the time from sun up to sun down. We extend that time into the wee hours of the morning, then get up early to work again). But despite it, you must make time to keep your relationship going. Again, it is worth it. It will pay for itself many times over in companionship, love, and yes, romance.
And now grab your sweetie and go work on your relationship.