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But Do You Love Him? March 1, 2001
The notion of romantic love can be pretty confusing
by T.L. Morris
ell, tell me this,' asked Sam about his nephew, my errant husband. 'Do you love him?' Sam had called to find out why my husband was absent from work, so I had to tell him about the night before.
'He's gone, Sam. He just left last night,' I'd disclosed, uncomfortably.
Now, I did not feel particularly obliged to answer Sam's follow-up question about love - but it was a good question to ponder.
The simple answer, of course, was what I muttered, 'I really don't know at this point, Sam,' though that didn't begin to describe the full measure of my confusion.
I am, at almost forty years, damned tired of the whole concept of romantic love.
My journey down the romantic love path began a little differently than most. It all began in high school, when I enjoyed studying people and what makes them click. I dabbled in astrology and tarot, hoping to find a key to people's behavior. I relished the rare occasions when my Psychology or Family Living instructors actually got into deep discussions about why people do what they do, instead of the usual Values Clarification exercises that were assigned in public schools back then. Those classes started me thinking about love and marriage in terms of anthropology or sociology, as cultural artifacts and societal norms.
My early romantic relationships mirrored my precocious ponderings about love. I was far too serious and required heavy conversation from my partners. I wasn't very good at just having fun - I wanted to change the world, and there was a lot of work to be done.
Despite my serious meditations on love, I found myself, like many of my peers, married and divorced soon after high school. My new focus became my career. I was completely hooked on the concept of family as a basis for everything in this world, so I pursued my life's ambition of studying and working with families. My personal relationships, too, were centered on the importance of family. I searched for a man who thought, like I, that where one is raised and by whom are questions more important than any.
After struggling through my twenties, a string of men behind me, I finally found that certain man, and we immediately pursued our mutual longing - to have a child. Alas, having a child has thrown a wrench in my mind's gears: I thought I knew what love felt like. Now I'm not so sure.
The notion of 'love' makes perfect sense when you have a child. It's easy to know what love is when you express it day in and day out in a tangible way. I've never found it difficult to say that I love my child. Maybe, like a lot of mothers (and fathers?), the emotions that rushed through me when I was pregnant and then delivered my son will always be the definition of love for me.
That's different, of course, from what I am expected to feel for a man, even one with whom I've stood before an audience and pledged my troth. Question is, how am I supposed to feel?
A long time ago, an acquaintance commented that she loved her new husband so much, she even enjoyed picking up his dirty socks. Is that how romantic love feels? If so, I've missed that boat entirely. Even when I still liked my husband a lot, I never catered to his needs above my own. Am I as hard-hearted as he has accused?
I don't think that others would consider me hard-hearted... though there was that time my co-workers could only come up with 'professional' when asked to describe me during a weird administration-staff focus group. Admittedly, there were times when I felt so completely exhausted by clients that I had little, and sometimes nothing, left to give at the end of a workday. I no longer believe the old prompt to 'Give until you hurt, then give some more,' and I suspect that emotionally healthier people have never even heard it. There is indeed a limit to caring.
Many times I have responded to my husband's desperate queries about how I feel toward him with a reference to caring. I do care about him, what happens to him. Even at our worst, when I am raging and fantasizing about doing really horrible things to him while someone holds him down (because there's no other way that I could do such horrible things to him), in reality, I would hate to receive a call from an ER saying that he's there. I also care that he has such a hard time just getting by on a daily basis, through a life that is rather mundane and simple. I care that he has no real friends at this point in his life, and that he misses his brother back home tremendously.
That I care, though, does nothing to assuage his pain when I tell him. Instead, he only asks again. My response never settles into his brain. It's as if the words literally drift through his head and out again. That's often where the fighting begins.
I grieve over and covet what I see some couples having, what look to be loving relationships. My neighbors on one side, newlywed in the truest sense, are always putzing about in their yard, digging, planting, and I happen to know that they are trying to get pregnant. I've never heard a raised voice from their house; I'm sure they've learned to close their storm windows when we get going over here.
Some of my friends seem to be enjoying their relationships in varying degrees of length and commitment - I think some could easily be said to 'be in love.' When I look at these other couplings and the individuals in them, I can't help but mentally compare notes with my own life, and I always come up short. I'm not even sure if I ever was 'in love' with my husband.
Does being in love mean that you enjoy picking up your partner's socks?
I feel no qualms in telling people that I married to have children. In fact, there was a time when my husband agreed with me on this reasoning. It's a statement, however, that carries a lot of mixed messages for people who hear it. Rather than continuing to live with my husband out of wedlock, I married him because I think it's a more practical situation within which to raise children in our society. That said, if children were the only thing that I hoped to get from this man, I would not have taken the leap of faith.
Does that mean that I don't believe in marriage? I cannot say with conviction, yes or no. In many respects, marriage is an outdated institution. There is no longer a real need for anyone to get married; we can do almost everything in this world without it. My husband and I lived together without legal ties for nearly four years. We were committed to each other. The real differences are the legal standing and related financial issues, which are pretty crucial to life when children are a consideration. So, we got married.
On the other hand, a big part of me sentimentalizes that it's a sweet notion, to commit to living with one person, forsaking all others until death. Sweet, but really stupidly done in many cases. I do think that some folks get it right - my own parents have managed to stay together since their meeting in junior high, incredibly. No, I think that people who want to get married should get married, whatever their reasons.
So, as we separate, my emotionally starved husband and I, the ambivalent caregiver, does it really all come down to this one question? Is it really the case that love prevails in all adversity? If so, is there a certain quantifiable amount that is needed, and how is it measured? If I really loved him, would I let him leave, and even occasionally relish the time apart?
'But do you love him?' Sam's question echoes in my head.
I still don't know.
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