The Future of Love

In search of a new vision of intimacy

| November-December 1996

In a snapshot taken at my first “wedding,” I look deliriously happy. I am a picture book bride, dressed all in white—except for my tennis shoes—with one of my mother’s silky half slips draped over my head like a veil. My groom is wearing short pants and has one hand on his hip; the other hand rests in mine. We are six years old. The setting is a pier on the bay in Miami Beach, with the inky water in the background. We’re looking squarely at the camera, but my beloved is angling his body away from me and, in contrast to my blissed-out grin, has a look on his face that suggests he’d rather be swallowing worms. I don’t seem to notice. Neither did my mother, who wrote “The Boyfriend!” on the border of the photograph before preserving it in the family album.

We pin our hopes for happiness on romantic love so early. In elementary school, before my faux nuptials in Miami Beach, I desperately wanted to marry Danny Harris, a fellow kindergartner. Later, when I was twelve and Exodus had just been released, I believed with all my heart that if Paul Newman ever laid eyes on me, I would be his forever. So I did what I had to do: I found out where he lived in New York City, and spent the better part of my weekends camped out on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building, until the temperature dropped below freezing and I was forced to tether my dreams of true love—and my soul’s liberation—to another hero.

Freud and his psychoanalytic descendants are no doubt correct in their assessment that the search for ideal love—for that one perfect soulmate—is the futile wish of not-fully-developed selves. But it also seems true that the longing for a profound, all-consuming erotic connection (and the heightened state of awareness that goes with it) is in our very wiring. The yearning for fulfillment through love seems to be to our psychic structure what food and water are to our cells.

Just consider the stories and myths that have shaped our consciousness: Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and her handsome prince, Cinderella and Prince Charming, Fred and Ginger, Barbie and Ken. (Note that, with the exception of the last two couples, all of these lovers are said to have lived happily ever after—even though we never get details of their lives after the weddings, after children and gravity and loss have exacted their price.) Still, it’s not just these lucky fairy tale characters who have captured our collective imagination. The tragic twosomes we cut our teeth on—Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult, Launcelot and Guinevere, Heathcliff and Cathy, Rhett and Scarlett—are even more compelling role models. Their love is simply too powerful and anarchic, too shattering and exquisite, to be bound by anything so conventional as marriage or a long-term domestic arrangement.

If recent divorce and remarriage statistics are any indication, we’re not as astute as the doomed lovers. Instead of drinking poison and putting an end to our love affairs while the heat is still turned up full blast, we expect our marriages and relationships to be long-running fairy tales. When they’re not, instead of examining our expectations, we switch partners and reinvent the fantasy, hoping that this time we’ll get it right. It’s easy to see why: Despite all the talk of family values, we’re constantly bombarded by visions of perfect romance. All you have to do is turn on the radio or TV or open any magazine and check out the perfume and lingerie ads. “Our culture is deeply regressed,” says Florence Falk, a New York City psychotherapist. “Everywhere we turn, we’re faced with glamorized, idealized versions of love. It’s as if the culture wants us to stay trapped in the fantasy and does everything possible to encourage and expand that fantasy.” Trying to forge an authentic relationship amidst all the romantic hype, she adds, makes what is already a tough proposition even harder.

What’s most unusual about our culture is our feverish devotion to the belief that romantic love and marriage should be synonymous. Starting with George and Martha, continuing through Ozzie and Harriet right up to the present day, we have tirelessly tried to formalize, rationalize, legalize, legitimize, politicize and sanitize rapture. This may have something to do with our puritanical roots, as well as our tendency toward oversimplification. In any event, this attempt to satisfy all of our contradictory desires under the marital umbrella must be put in historical context in order to be properly understood.

6/5/2008 3:47:01 PM


6/5/2008 3:46:59 PM


6/5/2008 3:46:55 PM


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