Loving

Conditional Romantic Love?

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Photo credit: Dave Bleasdale

When I read a Facebook post my cousin Candice wrote for the occasion of her 24th wedding anniversary, a bold statement she made stopped me in my tracks: He is not my friend, he is my husband, my partner, my lover and all of this is conditional.  I grew up going to church, I met my former husband at church, and I was always taught and always believed that love, including romantic love, should be unconditional.  Or I thought I believed it.  

Had I really believed that romantic love is unconditional, I wouldn’t have divorced my ex-husband no matter how unhappy I was, no matter what was missing from the relationship, and no matter what was in the relationship that shouldn’t have been there.  I would have done what he did: assume that we’d stay married no matter what, and let the relationship slowly deteriorate by not putting forth the effort required to keep the promises we’d made.  I will admit that very late in the marriage–we were married for twenty years–he did start trying, but it was too late for me.  I was too hurt, too disappointed, too broken, too much in need of love that wasn’t shadowed with all that hurt.   

I still believe in unconditional love, but as it pertains to my children.  I don’t know what they could do that would test my love, but I’m pretty sure that no matter what they might do, I will still love them as deeply as I do now–maybe more so.  

Back to romantic love.  Back to conditional love.  Back to thinking about marriage vows and the promises we make and break.  For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… for as long as we both shall live. That’s a promise of unconditional love, but is it honestly what we seek in marriage?  After considering again what Candice expressed, I Googled  her words, “He is my husband, my lover, my partner, and all of this is conditional.” I found a lot of crap, and then I clicked on this article by Isabeau Miller on the online magazine mindbodygreen. In What I Learned About Love By Ending My Marriage, she writes, “You wouldn’t sign a contract that said, ‘I agree to do X, Y, and Z. But if I don’t want to, you still have to hold up your end of the bargain.’ So we can’t rightfully expect that out of our relationships.”  Yes, and vice-versa.  If my spouse doesn’t do what he said he’d do, how can I keep giving and giving of myself to do what I said I’d do?  I did that for so long that I was dying inside.  

Miller goes further than discussing the frank truth that conditional love is not a bad thing and delves into six other points that are worth considering by someone who is divorcing, thinking of divorcing, or already divorced.  I wish I’d gotten to read her post back in 2006.  It would have helped me revive myself after the letdown of losing the equity built up over twenty years of marriage.  On the day my ex-husband and I signed the final agreement in a long and heated mediation session, my lawyer walked me out to the car.  He said it would take three years for me to get back to being myself.  That’s all the advice I got from anyone, that I can remember.  (Then he said, “And hey, give me a call then!”  My reaction was a look of pure revulsion.  And like many other spineless men who don’t know how to handle rejection, he claimed he was only joking.)  

In the hour and a half after that, I used an entire box of Kleenex, crying until my eyes were swollen, sobbing so loudly I worried myself.  I hadn’t known I was capable of such an outpouring of grief.  I wasn’t mourning the fact of not being with my husband anymore; I was mourning the loss of my dream of a good marriage, of the happy, healthy family life I hadn’t had while growing up.  I was mourning the fact that my children had become the children of divorce.  I lost so much of what I desired, and I felt that loss keenly.  

The other thing my lawyer told me that day was, “He said he still wants to be married!  He doesn’t want a divorce!” as though that was a surprise and a happy thing.  It wasn’t, of course.  I already knew that, but I had to walk away, even if I had to assume the burden of being the one who broke our marriage in two.  I said, with my actions, “For me, romantic love is conditional.”  I didn’t know then that’s what I was doing.  

What I said aloud was, “Bring on all the blame you want.  I can carry it.  It’s worth it.”  

7 replies »

  1. Very nice post, with good advice for anyone entering, living or ending a marriage. I’d like to give you and others some additional social facts that put American marriage and divorce into perspective (I’m a Sociologist, with focus on marriage and family among other things).
    1. We have reached a point in human history in which the average lifespan is considerably longer than it has ever been before. So when a contemporary couple swears to love one another “until death do us part,” it is a very different promise than those made in marriage vows than a century ago,nor even with years ago. It’s like I used to tell my students – you have no idea how long “until death” is until you’ve been married around twenty years and you are looking at a likely thirty to fifty more years before your promise is met. Hundred years ago,nearer images typically ended by death with twenty years. Three hundred years ago, the average length of marriage was ten years. Anyone can do ten years of marriage, even twenty years seems doable, even in somewhat less than ideal conditions. But now? Yes,msome people do it, but probably becuase b) they have somehow managed to deal with one another’s changes, or b) the learned not to expect spouse to be their full-time companion, best friend, mind-blowing sex partner and perfect in every romantic sense. Rather, they defined marriage as it has been defined for most American history – a pragmatic partnership, shored up with lots of friends (mutual and personal) and a fair mix of companionship and personal interests and time.
    2) Love is not, and has not, been the universal foundation of marriage. As Stephanie Cootz explains in her book Marriage, a History, the closet to a universal rational for marriage is economics – marriage has traditionally been a means of expanding and protecting wealth/income. In the earliest hunting and gathering societies, evidence suggests that females were “exchanged” with neighboring kin groups, ideally a kin group with no current ties with the woman’s kin, so to expand the sources of food and other supplies that were pooled together and shared between kin members. Later in history, females were married off to create expanded economic networks, greater wealth (or even to get rid of so that they do not continue to cost their family of origin money), or shore up political relations between regions and later, countries. Seven, even eight centuries ago, romantic love was celebrated but not love between spouses, no, spouses were not to be trusted. Rather, Elenorog Aquataine and her daughter held court with an idealization of platonic romantic love (or so it was presumed).

    I admit, when my marriage ended,this knowledge was little solace, but since it has helped me take a more reasoned, less emotional view of my marriage and it’s ending. I did not have a had marriage, as there were many good times, and fond memories. And even if the marriage may have had its difficulties that became insurmountable after 21 years, we did have a very good family, and raised a child who became a very good man.

    So I like the idea of conditional love, especially as a realistic antidote to the Amrican fantasy of romantic love based marriage that puts such high expectations on a single relationship that in the past, were carried by far more people who were involved with one or both of the married couple – personal and extended family relations like friends,parents, and adult siblings. Given the high rate divorce we see today (which has largely replaced, plus some, death as a main cause of the end of marriages), perhaps the more realistic pledge of conditional love, but one that both of the partners has equal responsibility for maintaining, may reduce the pre-death end of marriage,nor at least, make it far less painful.

    • Having you comment so thoroughly and knowledgeably is a gift, Rhonda, and I thank you for it. You’ve expanded this topic and enlightened me. I hadn’t thought of how short “till death do us part” was, compared to how long it is now.

      An aside: My grandparents married in 1922 and were married for sixty-eight and a half years. My grandmother was just 14 when they married; he was 19. I’m quite sure she had no idea how her life with him would drag on and on. She is the ultimate example of someone giving unconditional love. He was not a good husband, to say the least. But he died before she did, and she had 9 years in her late 80s and early 90s to be a woman who was free to exercise her own judgment and free will. When she died, the pastor who was preparing to do her funeral said to me, “You keep saying 68 and a half years. Why do you keep saying ‘and a half?'” I said because it was true. He wasn’t persuaded that he should say “and a half” during her funeral. Then I said, “She always said it.” He still wasn’t moved. “Maybe if you’d known my grandfather,” I finally said, “You’d know just how long half a year can be.” Bingo. He smiled, and he said 68 and a half during her service. I knew there were ways I wanted to be like my grandmother and I knew there were ways I didn’t. That one, being with a man who didn’t care for her and wasn’t even nice to her, was one way I didn’t want to be like her.

      Thank you again for your enlightening comment, Rhonda. Your summation, “Perhaps the more realistic pledge of conditional love, but one that both of the partners has equal responsibility for maintaining, may reduce the pre-death end of marriage,or at least, make it far less painful,” drove it home.

      • Thank you Suzannah, and let me add that your response to me brought tears to my eyes. I loved your story about the importance of noting that 1/2 year. It reveals so much about marriage and the cost of being a “good woman” and “good wife.”
        I too, had an older female family member who was very dear to me, who stayed devoted, loving and loyal to her spouse (I think it was around 60 yrs), despite his selfishness and insecurities. I know she loved him; I did as well, but I also knew what it cost her. She gave away so much of the work that sustained her, that made her whole and gave her a sense of purpose, to satisfy his growing demands as they aged and his health declined. It broke my heart. She was such a powerful, intelligent and caring woman who gained her sense of self worth not only from caring for her husband and children, but from knowing she was making a difference in her community. She never sacrificed her family for her paid or volunteer work, and she carried all of the responsibilities and expectations associated with being a married woman with children from the 1950s on. But her spouse became too ill to leave house very often as he aged, and he expected her to stay home with him, regardless of her interests and abilities. As she gave up one activity after another, bits of her self began to wither. It was so painful to watch.
        I don’t think she quite forgave me for giving up on my marriage after twenty something years – she once said I didn’t seem to have as much Tolerance as she did – but I also think she understood, even a bit wistfully sometimes. I never could tell her that it was by watching her life get smaller and smaller as her husbands unreasonable demands and neediness grew that I decided I simply could not do the same thing. I want to be as loving and good of a person that she was, but I simply could not pay the price she paid. And of course, only I knew just how tolerant I had already been.
        Thank you Suzannah, for providing such a provocative post.

  2. I want to say that while my husband and I have conditions to our marriage, it is not void of that hormonal lust that comes crashing around two people in love or even just the heat of the moment. I still blush and even though we have both changed physically, we just have to touch one another all the time. This feeling comes from a deep trust, a trust where you know that person won’t harm you in anyway, better yet he will protect me and I will care for him as we have very sexist rolls and that’s what we like. We are also brutally honest, he can say anything he wants and I can too. It really is an amazing feeling. I am sorry for rambling, but I may have been rubbed wrong, and possibly for no reason. Without conditions, I don’t see how anyone can have the best romantic life without total unashamed honesty.

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