holding hands at eighty: first comes love, then comes marriage…then comes death?

Two summers ago, on a hot, sunny Saturday, I’d been shopping for wedding gowns with my friend Liz. We’d found ourselves in a strip of East Vancouver stores which all seemed to be owned by middle-aged women, several with a special taste for beige satin roses or iridescent, pearl-studded butterflies. We were beginning to doubt our ability to find something simple and light and appropriate for a Mexican beach.

As we stepped out into the bright afternoon, an elderly couple walked by, hand in hand.

“So, when you see older couples, do you think of you and J?” Liz prompted.

Since I’d asked her, rather drunkenly on New Year’s Eve, if she’d still be my friend if J and I split up, she’d been trying, in the most patient and neutral way, to help me solve the puzzle of my relationship.

“No,” I’d said, honestly. But then I’d backtracked, “Well, kind of. I don’t think to myself, ‘J is the one person for me in the whole world. I could never be happy with anyone else.’ But I feel like he’s mine. I can’t really imagine being with anyone else. You know what I mean?”

Liz smiled with her mouth but frowned with her eyes. She did not know what I meant. But how could she? She was planning a wedding with someone that, as far as I could tell, she’d never really been mad at. Someone it seemed she had absolutely no doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

The doubtlessness of people like that always got to me. Mostly because I’d never experienced it. When you find the one, you just know, people sometimes said. But this seemed false somehow, almost anti-intellectual, as if they were all arguing that atoms didn’t exist because we couldn’t see them. You’ll know he’s the one if you can imagine yourselves together at eighty. 

But how many other things had I ever been that certain about in my life, I wondered. After a sweaty day of rock climbing, I’m not the one who dives into the icy lake to get the shock over with. I know it’s easier that way, but, no, I wade in, ankles first, knees second, splashing my thighs, waiting, reserving the option of retreating to shore before I am fully immersed.

When it came to relationships, everyone had a barometer, I decided, an indicator of potential for life-long success. Did it matter that I didn’t think of J when I saw a happy elderly couple? As long as he came into our bedroom before work, stuffing the covers underneath me and saying, “Wake up, my little breakfast burrito,” how could I imagine loving another person? Even if I couldn’t see us together at eighty, I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up alone tomorrow.

My friend Duffy, who is privately (he has not even confessed this to me–too much is at stake) this blog’s biggest fan, sent me a link to an article in the New York Times on the necessary interdependence of romantic love and death. Briefly, the main argument is this:

The intensity we associate with romantic love requires a future that can allow its elaboration. That intensity is of the moment, to be sure, but is also bound to the unfolding of a trajectory that it sees as its fate. If we were stuck in the same moment, the same day, day after day, the love might still remain, but its animating passion would begin to diminish.

This is why romantic love requires death.

If our time were endless, then sooner or later the future would resemble an endless Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. It is not simply the fact of a future that ensures the intensity of romantic love; it is the future of meaningful coexistence. It is the future of common projects and the passion that unfolds within them. One might indeed remain in love with another for all eternity. But that love would not burn as brightly if the years were to stammer on without number.

Two years later, Liz is happily married, and I’m more and more convinced of her doubtlessness. I still haven’t experienced it, but, with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve tuned in to the quiet that settles in when you stop ruminating about whether or not you should continue on with the relationship you’re so invested in. Duffy says that I used to be obsessive, that he could see that doubt always lurking in my mind, but that it’s gone now.

What I like about this NYT article is its argument that romantic love cannot thrive simply because you loved someone yesterday and you wake up loving them again today. Rather, you need two things: 1-“the unfolding of a trajectory that [love] sees as its fate,” in other words, some kind of formalized commitment that leaves little room for doubt (i.e. marriage), and 2- death, or an inevitable end to that partnership.

I don’t really believe that any relationship remains truly without doubt or struggle until death. But I believe (and it is, like my belief in atoms, a belief that cannot be validated by my senses) that one must at least achieve a temporary suspension of doubt. Because without it, regardless of how much you love someone, if you cannot envision an unfolding trajectory for that love, if you cannot see yourselves together, holding hands at eighty—even if death or chance or fate’s uncooperative nature prevents that day from arriving—you can’t sustain that love.

At least, that’s what I believe today.

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