The definition of love is not determined by the way we believe most people act with their lovers.
One of the best essays ever written about marriage is Truman Capote’s Mojave, available in his collection Music for Chameleons. I teach this book every semester in a remedial community college English class, and have been doing so for about five years. I’m always struck by the discussions it generates and feel they illuminate what many of us believe about love.
The essay concerns a young woman, Sarah Whitelaw, married to George, a member of New York’s very elite upper class. Sarah, however, is dissatisfied with George (to put it mildly), and she has an affair with her therapist, Dr. Bentsen. One day it dawns on her that she loathes the Dr., a disgusting and manipulative twit, and she dumps him.
Afterwards, Sara comes home to have a lengthy, very intimate conversation with George—in fact, her husband delivers a clever, brilliantly written monologue. By the end of the essay, Capote reveals that Sarah has been arranging sexual affairs for her husband, all while he has been turning his eyes away from her own trysts.
The essay is not simply about dissatisfaction. It’s about betrayal, sexual possession and control—ultimately, it’s also about forgiveness and compassion. George tricks Sarah (he gets her drunk) into becoming pregnant and threatens her with divorce if she has an abortion. She ends up having a difficult delivery and, afterwards, cannot handle even the thought of sex with George again. Of course, she’d lose a lot from a divorce; it’s also clear, certainly by essay’s end, that despite all their hardships, Sarah and George really do love each other. When she goes through potential sex partners for him, she does not merely think about which ones will stay within certain bounds. Sarah also wants him to have pleasant experiences.
Students, most of them younger than 23, always have very serious trouble with Sarah’s arrangement. I ask them if hers is an act of love. It’s rare for any of them to believe that it is. Most of them believe that, even though Sarah will not have sex with her husband, George should still be expected to remain “faithful” to her. George should remain in a sexless marriage, either because he deserves punishment for his manipulations or because it’s the moral thing to do.
I’m not revealing the entire complexity of George and Sarah’s marriage—it’s loaded with guilt, deception, passive-aggressive anger, and Sarah’s low self-esteem leads her to make rather masochistic decisions. George is also self-conscious and seeks feelings of power through sexual conquest. But now in his early 50’s, he begins to feel less and less attractive to younger women. A kid half his age eventually steals a lover from him.
Interestingly, Sarah and George have completely open conversations about all these things. While George has been withholding some information from his wife, in the end everything is revealed. Quite typically, Capote leaves the ending suggestive but also open-ended: it’s possible to interpret that Sarah might be thinking about trying to rekindle the sexuality they lost. They’re stuck with each other, so they must make the best of it one way or another. Their marriage and life should improve dramatically, they seem to conclude, if they just forgive and start again.
Students, however, believe Sarah and George cannot possibly feel love. The reason is very interesting. The students claim they could not themselves behave the way George and Sarah do. They could not be this open with their lovers, certainly not about extra-marital affairs, and they say they would never allow a lover to seek satisfaction elsewhere. They’d cheat if they wanted to, and some of them even admit in public that they have cheated on lovers or spouses. But they would have no reason to admit it to their lovers unless they were caught.
So follow the logic: because Sarah and George act differently from how my students understand “love”, it means George and Sarah cannot possibly feel it sincerely.
When I ask them if they agree that we’re not really in love if we desire to control our partner’s behaviors and thoughts, no matter how they have harmed us, they agree in principle but not in practice. What should we do, I ask, when we realize we cannot satisfy the people we love, sexually or otherwise? If we are interested in a lover’s welfare and happiness, how should we act? Some students will say that we should let them go. The majority, however, admit that their primary goal is not to love but to possess. If we cannot satisfy our lovers, they have to learn to deal with us. After all, they agreed to be ours.
What bothers me about these conversations is the ultimate conclusion. Sarah, they believe, cannot be expressing love when she’s acting in an unusual way. But my students’ possessive behavior—their desire that their partner hold on to the rules even when they’re getting nothing out of them—is normal and common. Therefore, it’s actually love because a majority can’t be wrong. When I ask them if Capote can be criticizing most of our relationships as expressions of possession and control, not love, they disagree strongly. It can’t be true. If it were, Capote would be criticizing them.
Of course, he is criticizing so many of us, himself included. We are taught that our lovers are people we have, players in a pantheon where we play monarch.
I wonder what can be done to change this cultural assumption. How might it affect our overall health and satisfaction if we could find a way to transform this idea? Where should it begin?
Photo by Marilia Almeida/Flickr.