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Life Support: Chase a fantasy, lose real love

Romantic and sexual ideals are no substitute for lasting intimacy

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Everywhere we turn, sexual images assault us: from buses, billboards, television shows, movies and novels, magazine covers, revealing clothing, Internet advertisements, and the tell-all orgies of the talk show, locker room and beauty parlor. If nothing else, contemporary culture surely teaches us that it is normal and legitimate to want sexual relationships.

Ted Crow, Post-Gazette

But how do we then explain the sky-high rates of divorce and separation, declining numbers of marriages, the quick dissolution of live-in arrangements, the huge proportion of single-person households, the Viagra mania and the scores of books and articles attesting to fundamental, even irreconcilable, differences between men and women? We might want intimate relationships but don't seem capable of desiring one another badly enough to make them last.

At first thought, it seems baffling that a nation blessed in the 21st century by such general prosperity for the majority should have the fulfillment of one of our most basic human needs -- to love and be loved -- escape so much of the population. But we have purchased our prosperity -- in a culture oriented around consumerism and obsessed with money and celebrity -- at the expense of our innermost intimate lives. We are taught to want, want and want some more, but fulfillment always seems to be receding further and further away.

We are conditioned to desire most what is least attainable. We long for the life of dashing celebrities and their fabulous relationships, ruling out the possibility of intense satisfaction in everyday expressions of love and sex with the much more ordinary people we actually love. Fans collapse in ecstasy over Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman but can't understand the irony of bestowing godlike status on those who, like Cruise and Kidman, end up separated anyway. Why not worship one's real-life mate?

Americans vacillate mainly between two ways of looking at intimacy: purely sexual or romantic, both profoundly unsatisfying. In the first, epitomized in the billion-dollar pornography industry that has edged into mainstream fare, sex is seen as an end in itself, a mechanistic pursuit of physical impulse. In the other, epitomized in romance novels, a state of blissful (and usually adulterous) desire is so idealized that the everyday reality of love in marriage is doomed to disappoint. Rarely are the two types of love seen as capable of co-existing in a relationship over the course of a lifetime.

Attempts at connection often resemble the quid pro quo of market transactions, with each party having the understood obligation to allow the other to fulfill his or her needs. In what is euphemistically called "serial monogamy," for instance, there is the impulse buy and the orgasmic moment of purchase, after which the excitement fades and sights are trained on the next purchase.

The most prominent antidotes -- the effusions of romance that paint storefronts red at Valentine's Day or the obsession with celebrity marriages -- make us focus more on feeling desire than on actually loving someone, which is the only way to produce the kind of desire that outlasts crushes and infatuation.

To what can we turn to find alternatives to today's unpalatable, and blatantly unworkable, notions of intimacy? Most television shows and popular movies offer little help. Typical is the relationship on "Friends" between the characters Ross and Rachel. When pregnant with Ross' child, Rachel has difficulty deciding between Ross and another male "friend."

Contemporary defenders of marriage largely rest their case on moral obligation, to wedding vows and to children, but this is not enough. The wording these people use is revealing: a "committed relationship" sounds like as much fun as a prison sentence. Of course we need to do better to honor our promises, but only a truly rewarding form of intimacy is capable of making us do so. The demand for sex doctors, advice columns and 900 numbers testifies to the problems many face with intimacy, but these provide only pat answers and quick fixes. Nor should we settle for condescending fare like the chick flick, the guys' or girls' night out, pop-psychology treatises like "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," or works of social science that posit the unhelpful stereotypes that men are all sexual appetite and women all nurturing.

What we do need is a wholesale reconsideration of intimacy and love, which sounds daunting until we consider the alternative: life without meaningful relationships that last.

We do see hints of an alternative. This may explain the popularity of recent films of novels such as Jane Austen's "Emma" and Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady." These writers pierced through the hypocrisy and materialism of their time.

Intimacy as depicted in "Pride and Prejudice," to take another Austen novel, differs drastically from the frenzied rush toward self-expression. The moment of initial infatuation is only the starting point of intense love. It gives way to a long process of growing intimacy, involving one's complete being, not just the purely physical, and bounded by rules of civility and tradition that set it apart as a unique, protected preserve between two people. Only over time and through concrete actions is the dashing Darcy able to prove himself to Lizzie, to make himself into one worthy of love and to prove -- and fully discover -- his love.

Wendell Berry, the contemporary Kentucky novelist, poet and farmer, also offers a radically different way of looking at intimacy. Berry likens marriage to the cultivation of the land, which requires dutiful attention, continual openness to change and an abiding faith.

But far from a portrait of a life of weighty obligations, Berry shows how commitment to particular people and places can be a source of joy. Commitments conceived in desire and fortified by love allow for a continual renewal of intense passion. His poems, such as "The Country of Marriage," "An Anniversary" and "Passing the Strait," point to the way in which love transforms fidelity into a privilege rather than an obligation, mysteriously unleashing and satisfying passions we didn't even know we had.

Given the choice between life with one's spouse and life with one's celebrity of choice, many Americans these days would opt for the celebrity. This is a recipe not for fulfillment but chronic disappointment. Ask any happily married couple if they would trade their shared existence -- the intense pleasure, beauty and even sacredness that they find in everyday acts and experiences -- for a life with Nicole or Tom. And prepare for laughter.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a history professor at Syracuse University, writes for The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Newsday.

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