Politics & Policy

The Mendacity of Hope

Love, or something like it.

Twenty-odd years ago in England, a thirtysomething female acquaintance told me she would be getting married to her current boyfriend. I knew the guy — amiable, sane, and healthy enough, if unambitious and trending towards portly. Knowing my friend’s long dating history, I asked rather impertinently: “This is the real thing at last, then?” She sighed and shrugged. “Oh, he’ll do.” So he did: They are still together, and decently happy, so far as one can ever judge these things.

Having previously unmasked myself in these columns as an incurable romantic, at least when confronted with overwhelming evidence of the human hunger for love, I suppose I ought to have disapproved of that lady’s having “settled.”

I ought likewise to disapprove of Lori Gottlieb’s piece on “settling” in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Lower those expectations! Ms. Gottlieb exhorts her fellow Gyno-Americans.

Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. In fact I am not without sympathy for the “settle” mentality, for reasons I’ll try to explain.

Let’s first acknowledge that love is, and always will be, the ideal for most of us. A life empty of love is a very melancholy thing to contemplate. I say this with some conviction, having just been contemplating one such life.

I have been trying to write an article — trying, and finding it quite unusually difficult — about the 19th-century English essayist William Hazlitt. At the age of 42 Hazlitt, a sensitive and intellectually brilliant but psychologically rather peculiar man, fell deeply in love with his landlady’s daughter, an uneducated clod of a girl, nineteen years old, who let him fondle her but did not care for him.

When he lost the girl to a rival, Hazlitt’s spirit left him. He died eight years later, after a marriage (his second) that seems to have been loveless. Towards the end he wrote: “I have wanted only one thing to make me happy; but wanting that, have wanted everything!” What he wanted — in the older sense of “lacked”– was the experience of being loved. It is a dismal story, though an endlessly fascinating one. It has generated a considerable literature, including at least two novels (this one and this one), as well as Hazlitt’s own unsparing chronicle of the affair. Jon Cook published a new account of the landlady’s-daughter business last year, which is the occasion for my attempt to write about Hazlitt.

The poet Philip Larkin (“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”) caught the pathos of lovelessness very well in his poem “Faith Healing”:

… In everyone there sleeps

A sense of life lived according to love.

To some it means the difference they could make

By loving others, but across most it sweeps

As all they might have done had they been loved.

So love, yes; lovelessness, please no. This still leaves room for a lot of possibilities, though.

While love and marriage may indeed, as the song tells us, go together like a horse and carriage, a spirited horse is a very fine thing all by itself, even if sometimes dangerous; and a well-constructed carriage generally includes a motor that will keep it going along the road long after the horse has been put out to pasture. “A league of friendship at last, not of love,” was Dr. Johnson’s view of marriage.

Contrariwise, you may get the carriage moving of its own accord, in hopes of picking up a horse along the way. As mothers tell daughters in countries where arranged marriages still go on: “Oh, love, love — that’ll come later, with any luck. First you have to get married.”

You can’t separate the thing from culture and individual personality. From poor Hazlitt at one extreme, pining to have what (in my opinion, and I think at last his own, too) he constitutionally could not hope for, to Jack and Esther Knowles at the other, married in their teens and separated only by death, still doting on each other, 70 years and 13 children later, one of those children my mother.

What everybody wants to know, of course, is: What can you do to improve the odds? Here comes science to tell us. Long-married couples — presumably of either the love-match or the “settled” variety — can strengthen their bond by a dash of novelty. So says a report in the New York Times, anyway.

The theory is based on brain science. New experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love, a time of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts about a new partner. (They are also the brain chemicals involved in drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.)

Poor Hazlitt is nodding agreement somewhere on that last.Most studies of love and marriage show that the decline of romantic love over time is inevitable. The butterflies of early romance quickly flutter away and are replaced by familiar, predictable feelings of long-term attachment.

But several experiments show that novelty — simply doing new things together as a couple — may help bring the butterflies back, recreating the chemical surges of early courtship.

I’m sure that’s true, though this area should be entered with proper caution. If it’s novelty you want, after all, the Coolidge Effect is one way to go. I think also that women are more likely to hanker after this novelty stuff than men. As Lori Gottlieb notes:

My friend Alan, for instance, justified his choice of a “bland” wife who’s a good mom but with whom he shares little connection this way: “I think one-stop shopping is overrated. I get passion at my office with my work, or with my friends that I sometimes call or chat with — it’s not the same, and, boy, it would be exciting to have it with my spouse. But I spend more time with people at my office than I do with my spouse.”

“Love is of man’s life a thing apart,” said Lord Byron, who knew a thing or two about it; “It is a woman’s whole existence.”

Net-net, I think we should all start out hoping for the best, but keep in mind that hope can be a terrible liar. If the best doesn’t show up, we should “settle”– as St. Paul said, it is better to marry than to burn — and then make the best we can of it.

Love, like other kinds of happiness, has a way of showing up when you least expect it, as a by-product of something else you are doing. If that something else is the building of a family and the raising of children with someone you have settled for, take the deal: you won’t find many better ones.

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