Lest the title of this post leads you to believe that I am about to recount the major details of my college love life, this is, rather, another tale of how the terms we use to define ourselves and our relationships operate as strategies rather than simple, obvious descriptions. As an example of this, I often ask my students what it means to “be in love,” whereupon they usually talk of romance, giddiness, and a strong chemistry between two people. But when I ask them how they think their parents might answer that same question, they often get uncomfortable – quickly – for it doesn’t take a room of eighteen year olds very long to figure out that their parents may actually behave in the ways that they were just indicating.
This double standard reveals the manner in which we deploy this term “love” as a rather singular ideal of romance and strong affection at the same time that we withdraw it from those that we like to think are in love…without the details. This strategy also works to portray love as a lofty state, even when we’re using it to describe situations that are often anything but positive. While most can recognize that being “in love” is not all champagne and roses, that highly romanticized ideal has not lost its popularity. I don’t remember who it was who defined nostalgia as a memory without the pain, but the identifier “love” often works in a similar way: it indicates certain salient characteristics of a relationship (generally speaking, some sense of alliance with someone else) but conveniently abandons the other dynamics. All of this works to create an image of something that is usually positive and rewarding to our present self- interest and self-understanding, even when the situation might have been depicted much differently.
Take this scene, for instance: It’s 2 AM, and I have been awakened by a child who has puked all over her bed. (I am wishing intensely that I had not served spaghetti the night before.) When my husband, who was not initially awakened by the sick child, realizes the gravity of what we’re dealing with, he gets up and helps me clean.
This is a nice, and true, story (although, for the record, he only did that once without complaining). But there is a reason that Hallmark does not sell a card that reads: “The way you make me feel when you and I are trying not to gag at the vomit produced by our child – that is LOVE.” The frustration of being awakened abruptly, the frankly disgusting task of clean-up, the knowledge that another one us is likely to fall ill in the coming days – I can think of hardly any positive emotion that I actually felt at the time. But as years have passed since that particular night, I can now find humor, and even affection, in that memory. What once was mostly negative has been transformed into something much different thanks to my own social and psychological interest in casting my personal relationships as largely positive things.
What all of this may indicate is that these self-imposed double standards – of completely asexual but otherwise affectionate parents, or of miserable moments creating life’s best memories– are evidence of the utter flexibility of highly popular symbols. So long as being in love is glorified as a valuable piece of cultural capital, then chances are that love will always be in the air.