Fatal Love Definition Essay

January 2006

To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We've got it down to four words: "Do what you love." But it's not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated.

The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition. Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could do what you wanted, and that was called playing. Occasionally the things adults made you do were fun, just as, occasionally, playing wasn't—for example, if you fell and hurt yourself. But except for these few anomalous cases, work was pretty much defined as not-fun.

And it did not seem to be an accident. School, it was implied, was tedious because it was preparation for grownup work.

The world then was divided into two groups, grownups and kids. Grownups, like some kind of cursed race, had to work. Kids didn't, but they did have to go to school, which was a dilute version of work meant to prepare us for the real thing. Much as we disliked school, the grownups all agreed that grownup work was worse, and that we had it easy.

Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work was not fun. Which is not surprising: work wasn't fun for most of them. Why did we have to memorize state capitals instead of playing dodgeball? For the same reason they had to watch over a bunch of kids instead of lying on a beach. You couldn't just do what you wanted.

I'm not saying we should let little kids do whatever they want. They may have to be made to work on certain things. But if we make kids work on dull stuff, it might be wise to tell them that tediousness is not the defining quality of work, and indeed that the reason they have to work on dull stuff now is so they can work on more interesting stuff later. [1]

Once, when I was about 9 or 10, my father told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, so long as I enjoyed it. I remember that precisely because it seemed so anomalous. It was like being told to use dry water. Whatever I thought he meant, I didn't think he meant work could literally be fun—fun like playing. It took me years to grasp that.

Jobs

By high school, the prospect of an actual job was on the horizon. Adults would sometimes come to speak to us about their work, or we would go to see them at work. It was always understood that they enjoyed what they did. In retrospect I think one may have: the private jet pilot. But I don't think the bank manager really did.

The main reason they all acted as if they enjoyed their work was presumably the upper-middle class convention that you're supposed to. It would not merely be bad for your career to say that you despised your job, but a social faux-pas.

Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do? The first sentence of this essay explains that. If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do. That's where the upper-middle class tradition comes from. Just as houses all over America are full of chairs that are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of chairs designed 250 years ago for French kings, conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who've done great things.

What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to think about what they'd like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one's work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can't blame kids for thinking "I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world."

Actually they've been told three lies: the stuff they've been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.

The most dangerous liars can be the kids' own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. [2] Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house. [3]

It was not till I was in college that the idea of work finally broke free from the idea of making a living. Then the important question became not how to make money, but what to work on. Ideally these coincided, but some spectacular boundary cases (like Einstein in the patent office) proved they weren't identical.

The definition of work was now to make some original contribution to the world, and in the process not to starve. But after the habit of so many years my idea of work still included a large component of pain. Work still seemed to require discipline, because only hard problems yielded grand results, and hard problems couldn't literally be fun. Surely one had to force oneself to work on them.

If you think something's supposed to hurt, you're less likely to notice if you're doing it wrong. That about sums up my experience of graduate school.

Bounds

How much are you supposed to like what you do? Unless you know that, you don't know when to stop searching. And if, like most people, you underestimate it, you'll tend to stop searching too early. You'll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents, or the desire to make money, or prestige—or sheer inertia.

Here's an upper bound: Do what you love doesn't mean, do what you would like to do most this second. Even Einstein probably had moments when he wanted to have a cup of coffee, but told himself he ought to finish what he was working on first.

It used to perplex me when I read about people who liked what they did so much that there was nothing they'd rather do. There didn't seem to be any sort of work I liked that much. If I had a choice of (a) spending the next hour working on something or (b) be teleported to Rome and spend the next hour wandering about, was there any sort of work I'd prefer? Honestly, no.

But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn't mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of "spare time" seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don't regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.

I put the lower bound there for practical reasons. If your work is not your favorite thing to do, you'll have terrible problems with procrastination. You'll have to force yourself to work, and when you resort to that the results are distinctly inferior.

To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that's pretty cool. This doesn't mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that's pretty cool. What there has to be is a test.

So one thing that falls just short of the standard, I think, is reading books. Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there's no test of how well you've read a book, and that's why merely reading books doesn't quite feel like work. You have to do something with what you've read to feel productive.

I think the best test is one Gino Lee taught me: to try to do things that would make your friends say wow. But it probably wouldn't start to work properly till about age 22, because most people haven't had a big enough sample to pick friends from before then.

Sirens

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn't worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don't even know? [4]

This is easy advice to give. It's hard to follow, especially when you're young. [5] Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you'd like to like.

That's what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you're going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you'll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That's the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn't suck, they wouldn't have had to make it prestigious.

Similarly, if you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what's admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.

The other big force leading people astray is money. Money by itself is not that dangerous. When something pays well but is regarded with contempt, like telemarketing, or prostitution, or personal injury litigation, ambitious people aren't tempted by it. That kind of work ends up being done by people who are "just trying to make a living." (Tip: avoid any field whose practitioners say this.) The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in, say, corporate law, or medicine. A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn't thought much about what they really like.

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?

This test is especially helpful in deciding between different kinds of academic work, because fields vary greatly in this respect. Most good mathematicians would work on math even if there were no jobs as math professors, whereas in the departments at the other end of the spectrum, the availability of teaching jobs is the driver: people would rather be English professors than work in ad agencies, and publishing papers is the way you compete for such jobs. Math would happen without math departments, but it is the existence of English majors, and therefore jobs teaching them, that calls into being all those thousands of dreary papers about gender and identity in the novels of Conrad. No one does that kind of thing for fun.

The advice of parents will tend to err on the side of money. It seems safe to say there are more undergrads who want to be novelists and whose parents want them to be doctors than who want to be doctors and whose parents want them to be novelists. The kids think their parents are "materialistic." Not necessarily. All parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would for themselves, simply because, as parents, they share risks more than rewards. If your eight year old son decides to climb a tall tree, or your teenage daughter decides to date the local bad boy, you won't get a share in the excitement, but if your son falls, or your daughter gets pregnant, you'll have to deal with the consequences.

Discipline

With such powerful forces leading us astray, it's not surprising we find it so hard to discover what we like to work on. Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money. How many even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions.

It's hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don't underestimate this task. And don't feel bad if you haven't succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you're discontented, you're a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial. If you're surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find contemptible, odds are they're lying to themselves. Not necessarily, but probably.

Although doing great work takes less discipline than people think—because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don't have to force yourself to do it—finding work you love does usually require discipline. Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do when they're 12, and just glide along as if they were on railroad tracks. But this seems the exception. More often people who do great things have careers with the trajectory of a ping-pong ball. They go to school to study A, drop out and get a job doing B, and then become famous for C after taking it up on the side.

Sometimes jumping from one sort of work to another is a sign of energy, and sometimes it's a sign of laziness. Are you dropping out, or boldly carving a new path? You often can't tell yourself. Plenty of people who will later do great things seem to be disappointments early on, when they're trying to find their niche.

Is there some test you can use to keep yourself honest? One is to try to do a good job at whatever you're doing, even if you don't like it. Then at least you'll know you're not using dissatisfaction as an excuse for being lazy. Perhaps more importantly, you'll get into the habit of doing things well.

Another test you can use is: always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don't take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you're producing, you'll know you're not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you're actually writing.

"Always produce" is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you're supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. "Always produce" will discover your life's work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.

Of course, figuring out what you like to work on doesn't mean you get to work on it. That's a separate question. And if you're ambitious you have to keep them separate: you have to make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible. [6]

It's painful to keep them apart, because it's painful to observe the gap between them. So most people pre-emptively lower their expectations. For example, if you asked random people on the street if they'd like to be able to draw like Leonardo, you'd find most would say something like "Oh, I can't draw." This is more a statement of intention than fact; it means, I'm not going to try. Because the fact is, if you took a random person off the street and somehow got them to work as hard as they possibly could at drawing for the next twenty years, they'd get surprisingly far. But it would require a great moral effort; it would mean staring failure in the eye every day for years. And so to protect themselves people say "I can't."

Another related line you often hear is that not everyone can do work they love—that someone has to do the unpleasant jobs. Really? How do you make them? In the US the only mechanism for forcing people to do unpleasant jobs is the draft, and that hasn't been invoked for over 30 years. All we can do is encourage people to do unpleasant work, with money and prestige.

If there's something people still won't do, it seems as if society just has to make do without. That's what happened with domestic servants. For millennia that was the canonical example of a job "someone had to do." And yet in the mid twentieth century servants practically disappeared in rich countries, and the rich have just had to do without.

So while there may be some things someone has to do, there's a good chance anyone saying that about any particular job is mistaken. Most unpleasant jobs would either get automated or go undone if no one were willing to do them.

Two Routes

There's another sense of "not everyone can do work they love" that's all too true, however. One has to make a living, and it's hard to get paid for doing work you love. There are two routes to that destination:

The organic route: as you become more eminent, gradually to increase the parts of your job that you like at the expense of those you don't.

The two-job route: to work at things you don't like to get money to work on things you do.
The organic route is more common. It happens naturally to anyone who does good work. A young architect has to take whatever work he can get, but if he does well he'll gradually be in a position to pick and choose among projects. The disadvantage of this route is that it's slow and uncertain. Even tenure is not real freedom.

The two-job route has several variants depending on how long you work for money at a time. At one extreme is the "day job," where you work regular hours at one job to make money, and work on what you love in your spare time. At the other extreme you work at something till you make enough not to have to work for money again.

The two-job route is less common than the organic route, because it requires a deliberate choice. It's also more dangerous. Life tends to get more expensive as you get older, so it's easy to get sucked into working longer than you expected at the money job. Worse still, anything you work on changes you. If you work too long on tedious stuff, it will rot your brain. And the best paying jobs are most dangerous, because they require your full attention.

The advantage of the two-job route is that it lets you jump over obstacles. The landscape of possible jobs isn't flat; there are walls of varying heights between different kinds of work. [7] The trick of maximizing the parts of your job that you like can get you from architecture to product design, but not, probably, to music. If you make money doing one thing and then work on another, you have more freedom of choice.

Which route should you take? That depends on how sure you are of what you want to do, how good you are at taking orders, how much risk you can stand, and the odds that anyone will pay (in your lifetime) for what you want to do. If you're sure of the general area you want to work in and it's something people are likely to pay you for, then you should probably take the organic route. But if you don't know what you want to work on, or don't like to take orders, you may want to take the two-job route, if you can stand the risk.

Don't decide too soon. Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if they got the answer to some math question before the other kids. They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it's wrong.

A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell "Don't do it!" (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.

When you're young, you're given the impression that you'll get enough information to make each choice before you need to make it. But this is certainly not so with work. When you're deciding what to do, you have to operate on ridiculously incomplete information. Even in college you get little idea what various types of work are like. At best you may have a couple internships, but not all jobs offer internships, and those that do don't teach you much more about the work than being a batboy teaches you about playing baseball.

In the design of lives, as in the design of most other things, you get better results if you use flexible media. So unless you're fairly sure what you want to do, your best bet may be to choose a type of work that could turn into either an organic or two-job career. That was probably part of the reason I chose computers. You can be a professor, or make a lot of money, or morph it into any number of other kinds of work.

It's also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like. Conversely, the extreme version of the two-job route is dangerous because it teaches you so little about what you like. If you work hard at being a bond trader for ten years, thinking that you'll quit and write novels when you have enough money, what happens when you quit and then discover that you don't actually like writing novels?

Most people would say, I'd take that problem. Give me a million dollars and I'll figure out what to do. But it's harder than it looks. Constraints give your life shape. Remove them and most people have no idea what to do: look at what happens to those who win lotteries or inherit money. Much as everyone thinks they want financial security, the happiest people are not those who have it, but those who like what they do. So a plan that promises freedom at the expense of knowing what to do with it may not be as good as it seems.

Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it's rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you'll be more likely to arrive at it. If you know you can love work, you're in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you're practically there.







Notes

[1] Currently we do the opposite: when we make kids do boring work, like arithmetic drills, instead of admitting frankly that it's boring, we try to disguise it with superficial decorations.

[2] One father told me about a related phenomenon: he found himself concealing from his family how much he liked his work. When he wanted to go to work on a saturday, he found it easier to say that it was because he "had to" for some reason, rather than admitting he preferred to work than stay home with them.

[3] Something similar happens with suburbs. Parents move to suburbs to raise their kids in a safe environment, but suburbs are so dull and artificial that by the time they're fifteen the kids are convinced the whole world is boring.

[4] I'm not saying friends should be the only audience for your work. The more people you can help, the better. But friends should be your compass.

[5] Donald Hall said young would-be poets were mistaken to be so obsessed with being published. But you can imagine what it would do for a 24 year old to get a poem published in The New Yorker. Now to people he meets at parties he's a real poet. Actually he's no better or worse than he was before, but to a clueless audience like that, the approval of an official authority makes all the difference. So it's a harder problem than Hall realizes. The reason the young care so much about prestige is that the people they want to impress are not very discerning.

[6] This is isomorphic to the principle that you should prevent your beliefs about how things are from being contaminated by how you wish they were. Most people let them mix pretty promiscuously. The continuing popularity of religion is the most visible index of that.

[7] A more accurate metaphor would be to say that the graph of jobs is not very well connected.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Dan Friedman, Sarah Harlin, Jessica Livingston, Jackie McDonough, Robert Morris, Peter Norvig, David Sloo, and Aaron Swartz for reading drafts of this.

The innovation of happy love didn't even enter the vocabulary of romance until the 17th century. Before the 18th century -- when the family was primarily an economic unit of production rather than a hothouse of Oedipal tensions -- marriages were business arrangements between families; participants had little to say on the matter. Some historians consider romantic love a learned behavior that really only took off in the late 18th century along with the new fashion for reading novels, though even then affection between a husband and wife was considered to be in questionable taste.

Historians disagree, of course. Some tell the story of love as an eternal and unchanging essence; others, as a progress narrative over stifling social conventions. (Sometimes both stories are told at once; consistency isn't required.) But has modern love really set us free? Fond as we are of projecting our own emotional quandaries back through history, construing vivid costume dramas featuring medieval peasants or biblical courtesans sharing their feelings with the post-Freudian savvy of lifelong analysands, our amatory predecessors clearly didn't share all our particular aspirations about their romantic lives.

We, by contrast, feel like failures when love dies. We believe it could be otherwise. Since the cultural expectation is that a state of coupled permanence is achievable, uncoupling is experienced as crisis and inadequacy -- even though such failures are more the norm than the exception.

As love has increasingly become the center of all emotional expression in the popular imagination, anxiety about obtaining it in sufficient quantities -- and for sufficient duration -- suffuses the population. Everyone knows that as the demands and expectations on couples escalated, so did divorce rates. And given the current divorce statistics (roughly 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce), all indications are that whomever you love today -- your beacon of hope, the center of all your optimism -- has a good chance of becoming your worst nightmare tomorrow. (Of course, that 50 percent are those who actually leave their unhappy marriages and not a particularly good indication of the happiness level or nightmare potential of those who remain.) Lawrence Stone, a historian of marriage, suggests -- rather jocularly, you can't help thinking -- that today's rising divorce rates are just a modern technique for achieving what was once taken care of far more efficiently by early mortality.

Love may or may not be a universal emotion, but clearly the social forms it takes are infinitely malleable. It is our culture alone that has dedicated itself to allying the turbulence of romance and the rationality of the long-term couple, convinced that both love and sex are obtainable from one person over the course of decades, that desire will manage to sustain itself for 30 or 40 or 50 years and that the supposed fate of social stability is tied to sustaining a fleeting experience beyond its given life span.

Of course, the parties involved must ''work'' at keeping passion alive (and we all know how much fun that is), the presumption being that even after living in close proximity to someone for a historically unprecedented length of time, you will still muster the requisite desire to achieve sexual congress on a regular basis. (Should passion fizzle out, just give up sex. Lack of desire for a mate is never an adequate rationale for ''looking elsewhere.'') And it is true, many couples do manage to perform enough psychic retooling to reshape the anarchy of desire to the confines of the marriage bed, plugging away at the task year after year (once a week, same time, same position) like diligent assembly-line workers, aided by the occasional fantasy or two to help get the old motor to turn over, or keep running, or complete the trip. And so we have the erotic life of a nation of workaholics: if sex seems like work, clearly you're not working hard enough at it.

But passion must not be allowed to die! The fear -- or knowledge -- that it does shapes us into particularly conflicted psychological beings, perpetually in search of prescriptions and professional interventions, regardless of cost or consequence. Which does have its economic upside, at least. Whole new sectors of the economy have been spawned, with massive social investment in new technologies from Viagra to couples' porn: capitalism's Lourdes for dying marriages.

There are assorted low-tech solutions to desire's dilemmas too. Take advice. In fact, take more and more advice. Between print, airwaves and the therapy industry, if there were any way to quantify the G.N.P. in romantic counsel, it would be a staggering number. Desperate to be cured of love's temporality, a love-struck populace has molded itself into an advanced race of advice receptacles, like some new form of miracle sponge that can instantly absorb many times its own body weight in wetness.

Iinexplicably, however, a rebellious breakaway faction keeps trying to leap over the wall and emancipate themselves, not from love itself -- unthinkable! -- but from love's domestic confinements. The escape routes are well trodden -- love affairs, midlife crises -- though strewn with the left-behind luggage of those who encountered unforeseen obstacles along the way (panic, guilt, self-engineered exposures) and beat self-abashed retreats to their domestic gulags, even after pledging body and soul to newfound loves in the balmy utopias of nondomesticated romances. Will all the adulterers in the audience please stand up? You know who you are. Don't be embarrassed! Adulterers aren't just ''playing around.'' These are our home-grown closet social theorists, because adultery is not just a referendum on the sustainability of monogamy; it is a veiled philosophical discussion about the social contract itself. The question on the table is this: ''How much renunciation of desire does society demand of us, versus the degree of gratification it provides?'' Clearly, the adulterer's answer, following a long line of venerable social critics, would be, ''Too much.''

But what exactly is it about the actual lived experience of modern domestic love that would make flight such a compelling option for so many? Let us briefly examine those material daily life conditions.

Fundamentally, to achieve love and qualify for entry into that realm of salvation and transcendence known as the couple (the secular equivalent of entering a state of divine grace), you must be a lovable person. And what precisely does being lovable entail? According to the tenets of modern love, it requires an advanced working knowledge of the intricacies of mutuality.

Mutuality means recognizing that your partner has needs and being prepared to meet them. This presumes, of course, that the majority of those needs can and should be met by one person. (Question this, and you question the very foundations of the institution. So don't.) These needs of ours run deep, a tangled underground morass of ancient, gnarled roots, looking to ensnarl any hapless soul who might accidentally trod upon their outer radices.

Still, meeting those needs is the most effective way to become the object of another's desire, thus attaining intimacy, which is required to achieve the state known as psychological maturity. (Despite how closely it reproduces the affective conditions of our childhoods, since trading compliance for love is the earliest social lesson learned; we learn it in our cribs.)

You, in return, will have your own needs met by your partner in matters large and small. In practice, many of these matters turn out to be quite small. Frequently, it is the tensions and disagreements over the minutiae of daily living that stand between couples and their requisite intimacy. Taking out the garbage, tone of voice, a forgotten errand -- these are the rocky shoals upon which intimacy so often founders.

Mutuality requires communication, since in order to be met, these needs must be expressed. (No one's a mind reader, which is not to say that many of us don't expect this quality in a mate. Who wants to keep having to tell someone what you need?) What you need is for your mate to understand you -- your desires, your contradictions, your unique sensitivities, what irks you. (In practice, that means what about your mate irks you.) You, in turn, must learn to understand the mate's needs. This means being willing to hear what about yourself irks your mate. Hearing is not a simple physiological act performed with the ears, as you will learn. You may think you know how to hear, but that doesn't mean that you know how to listen.

With two individuals required to coexist in enclosed spaces for extended periods of time, domesticity requires substantial quantities of compromise and adaptation simply to avoid mayhem. Yet with the post-Romantic ideal of unconstrained individuality informing our most fundamental ideas of the self, this can prove a perilous process. Both parties must be willing to jettison whatever aspects of individuality might prove irritating while being simultaneously allowed to retain enough individuality to feel their autonomy is not being sacrificed, even as it is being surgically excised.

Having mastered mutuality, you may now proceed to advanced intimacy. Advanced intimacy involves inviting your partner ''in'' to your most interior self. Whatever and wherever our ''inside'' is, the widespread -- if somewhat metaphysical -- belief in its existence (and the related belief that whatever is in there is dying to get out) has assumed a quasi-medical status. Leeches once served a similar purpose. Now we ''express our feelings'' in lieu of our fluids because everyone knows that those who don't are far more prone to cancer, ulcers or various dire ailments.

With love as our culture's patent medicine, prescribed for every ill (now even touted as a necessary precondition for that other great American obsession, longevity), we willingly subject ourselves to any number of arcane procedures in its quest. ''Opening up'' is required for relationship health, so lovers fashion themselves after doctors wielding long probes to penetrate the tender regions. Try to think of yourself as one big orifice: now stop clenching and relax. If the procedure proves uncomfortable, it just shows you're not open enough. Psychotherapy may be required before sufficient dilation can be achieved: the world's most expensive lubricant.

Needless to say, this opening-up can leave you feeling quite vulnerable, lying there psychically spread-eagled and shivering on the examining table of your relationship. (A favored suspicion is that your partner, knowing exactly where your vulnerabilities are, deliberately kicks you there -- one reason this opening-up business may not always feel as pleasant as advertised.) And as anyone who has spent much time in -- or just in earshot of -- a typical couple knows, the ''expression of needs'' is often the Trojan horse of intimate warfare, since expressing needs means, by definition, that one's partner has thus far failed to meet them.

In any long-term couple, this lexicon of needs becomes codified over time into a highly evolved private language with its own rules. Let's call this couple grammar. Close observation reveals this as a language composed of one recurring unit of speech: the interdiction -- highly nuanced, mutually imposed commands and strictures extending into the most minute areas of household affairs, social life, finances, speech, hygiene, allowable idiosyncrasies and so on. From bathroom to bedroom, car to kitchen, no aspect of coupled life is not subject to scrutiny, negotiation and codes of conduct.

A sample from an inexhaustible list, culled from interviews with numerous members of couples of various ages, races and sexual orientations:

You can't leave the house without saying where you're going. You can't not say what time you'll return. You can't go out when the other person feels like staying at home. You can't be a slob. You can't do less than 50 percent of the work around the house, even if the other person wants to do 100 percent more cleaning than you find necessary or even reasonable. You can't leave the dishes for later, load them the way that seems best to you, drink straight from the carton or make crumbs. You can't leave the bathroom door open -- it's offensive. You can't leave the bathroom door closed -- your partner needs to get in. You can't not shave your underarms or legs. You can't gain weight. You can't watch soap operas. You can't watch infomercials or the pregame show or Martha Stewart. You can't eat what you want -- goodbye Marshmallow Fluff; hello tofu meatballs. You can't spend too much time on the computer. And stay out of those chat rooms. You can't take risks, unless they are agreed-upon risks, which somewhat limits the concept of ''risk.'' You can't make major purchases alone, or spend money on things the other person considers excesses. You can't blow money just because you're in a bad mood, and you can't be in a bad mood without being required to explain it. You can't begin a sentence with ''You always. . . . '' You can't begin a sentence with ''I never. . . . '' You can't be simplistic, even when things are simple. You can't say what you really think of that outfit or color combination or cowboy hat. You can't be cynical about things the other person is sincere about. You can't drink without the other person counting your drinks. You can't have the wrong laugh. You can't bum cigarettes when you're out because it embarrasses your mate, even though you've explained the unspoken fraternity between smokers. You can't tailgate, honk or listen to talk radio in the car. And so on. The specifics don't matter. What matters is that the operative word is ''can't.''

Thus is love obtained.

Certainly, domesticity offers innumerable rewards: companionship, child-rearing convenience, reassuring predictability and many other benefits too varied to list. But if love has power over us, domesticity is its enforcement wing: the iron dust mop in the velvet glove. The historian Michel Foucault has argued that modern power made its mark on the world by inventing new types of enclosures and institutions, places like factories, schools, barracks, prisons and asylums, where individuals could be located, supervised, processed and subjected to inspection, order and the clock. What current social institution is more enclosed than modern intimacy? What offers greater regulation of movement and time, or more precise surveillance of body and thought, to a greater number of individuals?

Of course, it is your choice -- as if any of us could really choose not to desire love or not to feel like hopeless losers should we fail at it. We moderns are beings yearning to be filled, yearning to be overtaken by love's mysterious power. We prostrate ourselves at love's portals, like social strivers waiting at the rope line outside some exclusive club hoping to gain admission and thereby confirm our essential worth. A life without love lacks an organizing narrative. A life without love seems so barren, and it might almost make you consider how empty the rest of the world is, as if love were vital plasma and everything else just tap water.

Exchanging obedience for love comes naturally -- after all, we all were once children whose survival depended on the caprices of love. And there you have the template for future intimacies. If you love me, you'll do what I want -- or need, or demand -- and I'll love you in return. We all become household dictators, petty tyrants of the private sphere, who are, in our turn, dictated to.

And why has modern love developed in such a way as to maximize submission and minimize freedom, with so little argument about it? No doubt a citizenry schooled in renouncing desire instead of imagining there could be something more would be, in many respects, advantageous. After all, wanting more is the basis for utopian thinking, a path toward dangerous social demands, even toward imagining the possibilities for altogether different social arrangements. But if the most elegant forms of social control are those that came packaged in the guise of individual needs and satisfactions, so wedded to the individual psyche that any opposing impulse registers as the anxiety of unlovability, who needs a soldier on every corner? We are more than happy to police ourselves and those we love and call it living happily ever after. Perhaps a secular society needed another metaphysical entity to subjugate itself to after the death of God, and love was available for the job. But isn't it a little depressing to think we are somehow incapable of inventing forms of emotional life based on anything other than subjugation?

Steve (top): ''When we got together, we immediately merged our finances. Chuck owned a lovely home in Sausalito, and to my total astonishment, he made me joint tenant with him. We have always maintained one checking account, and all of our investments and everything are in both our names. That is about as formal as a gay couple can get. And I think, like a lot of couples, it has helped us get through rough spots in life. When your lives are totally intertwined, it makes more sense to resolve issues than to start cutting things apart most of the time.

''At this point, after 30 years, Chuck and I have very few rules in our relationship. We don't have a rule, for instance, that you can never go out on the other one. We realized from time to time the opportunity would present itself, and we also realized that if we turned down every opportunity that presented itself to us, eventually we might begin to resent each other. So we said, O.K., you can go ahead and do it, but never make a date that leaves me sitting at home while you are out with someone else. And we have never done that. From time to time we have had affairs with other people, or moments of sexual release, but they were recreational.''

Chuck: ''Jealousy probably breaks up more gay people than anything in the world. I guess that goes for all couples. And jealousy is caused by a lack of trust. The one who lacks trust the most and is accusing the other of cheating, he's usually the one who is cheating. Jealousy is based on guilt, an awful lot. But if you are absolutely convinced that the person you are with is totally open to you, that nothing is hidden, there won't be problems, ever. I know that Brad Pitt could not walk in this house and take Steve away from me. I am absolutely convinced of that.

I have total confidence in that. In my case, it is Michael York, but I go way back. And when you know that, sex is really an unimportant aspect, in terms of the deep emotions of your relationship. There is a movie called 'Relax . . . It's Just Sex' -- I love that title. It is only sex; it has no deep-seated meaning. It may seem to be a part of romance -- certainly it jump-starts it -- but as the years go by, it becomes more of a bonus to the relationship. There are no earthquakes that can happen as a result of sex.''

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