Pop culture's ideas about relationships are hard to escape, and counter to the very thing we so hope to find.
What a difference a year can make, especially in the pop culture world. Twelve months ago, ABC was bringing up the rear in the network prime-time race. Today, thanks in large measure to "Desperate Housewives," its stock is, in every sense of this cliché, on the rise.
"Desperate Housewives" tells the parallel stories of five women, four alive and one dead, who live on an idealized suburban street named "Wisteria Lane." While, to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, each of these women is desperate in her own way, none of them can be called an endorsement for marriage. That's OK because the last place anyone should look for advice on love and marriage is on the screen, no matter what size it is.
By way of anticipating the obvious objection, no one consciously watches a television show or movie hoping to gain insight of how they should live and love. However, if we were impervious to what we see and hear onscreen, advertising wouldn't exist. Whether we intend it or not, many of our ideas regarding love come, more or less directly, from the screen. Like Meg Ryan in "Sleepless in Seattle," we expect at least some correspondence between life and the movies.
The problem is that most of what we've learned from media isn't only untrue, it's destructive. Success in marriage, or life in general, for that matter, requires a conscious rejection of many of these lessons.
One of these lessons is on display in an advertisement for a well-known piece of home exercise equipment I'll call the "Arrow Bend." It's a "before and after" testimonial featuring a guy who went from clinically obese to looking like an underwear model. In an obvious reference to the Subway commercials featuring another formerly obese guy, Jared, Mr. Arrow Bend tells us he's heard about people who "lost weight eating sandwiches." However, he hastens to add, he doesn't see them "taking their shirt off on national television."
Even though doctors and public health officials would be ecstatic if all Americans emulated Jared, it isn't enough according to the folks at "Arrow Bend." What matters isn't health or even fitness; it's "hotness." In case you didn't get the message, the other ad for "Arrow Bend" features a "50-year-old grandmother" who is built like a porn star cavorting in a pool with a much younger man. This ideal of physical beauty is what we should aspire to, the ad teaches, both in ourselves and in a potential mate.
I'll spare you the whole "true beauty lies within" spiel. Instead, I'll just point out that the ideal promoted by "Arrow Bend" and the other purveyors of the hotness myth is available to only a few. The rest of us can't reasonably aspire to these standards. It's not because we're lazy or undisciplined or any other personal shortcoming unless you regard your genetic make-up as a personal shortcoming.
The combination on display in these commercials — especially the "50-year-old grandmother's" — is rare in nature. Still, that doesn't keep the entertainment industry from treating it as normative. The result? According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 15 percent of young American women "display substantially disordered eating attitudes and behavior." And that doesn't include those who have been diagnosed with eating disorders.
Surprised? You shouldn't be. Many of the actresses and most of the models you see meet one of the criteria for anorexia nervosa: body weight that is 15 percent or more below normal. Given physically-improbable role models and ideals, is it any wonder that millions of young women are undergoing plastic surgery and follow "nutritional" plans that treat cigarettes and diet cola as dinner?
Even if you've avoided the more destructive consequences of the hotness myth, you're probably not immune from its effects. Chances are that what you look for in a potential mate is influenced by this myth. But life and love are hard enough without comparing others and being compared to an improbable ideal rather than a real person.
Another myth that replaces real people with improbable ideals is what Lee Siegel of the New Republic calls "relationshipism." He coined the term in an essay about the recently-concluded HBO series "Sex in the City" entitled "Who is Carrie Bradshaw Really Dating?" His answer was that she was dating an idea of single life in New York. In this idealized place, it's possible to be with other people "without exacting from the ego a price for being with other people."
You don't have to live in New York or even be single to emulate Bradshaw where it matters most. Pop quiz: when was the last time you heard the interaction between two single people referred to as anything other than a "relationship?" OK, maybe "seeing each other" but "relationship" is definitely the default. The problem is that, as Siegel points out, "a 'relationship' is not to be confused with a union. It is an ongoing argument between two stubbornly sovereign selves about the possibility of a union."
In a "union" there is the real possibility that the line between the self and the other will be blurred or even erased. In a "relationship" that line is always clear. In fact, a disproportionate amount of the energy expended in a "relationship" is devoted to maintaining the line. What matters is the preservation of our sense of self. Anything that impinges on that sense is to be avoided.
While "relationshipism" doesn't preclude affection or even love, its emphasis on self-preservation impoverishes them. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote about what the Greeks called Eros by which Lewis meant what "we call 'being in love;' or if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are 'in.'" While Eros involves desire, that desire, and the connection it longs for, transcends the merely physical. While the self doesn't cease to exist, it is given away to the other.
Eros risks this kind of self-annihilation because it understands that "to love at all is to be vulnerable." It knows that "the only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."
This was more than fancy rhetoric for Lewis. In his 50s, Lewis experienced the kind of "happiness that passed [him] by in his twenties" when he met and married Joy Davidman. For four years, he and Davidman "feasted on love." Then, she died. Her death devastated him, in large part because he never expected to feel what he had felt with her. In his anguish, he asked "Oh, God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell, if it's now doomed to be sucked back into it?"
While his grief caused him to question God's goodness, it never led him to regret having met and loved his wife. He came to understand that letting her go, even at the cost of his own pain, was part of loving her. "How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back" was how he put his acceptance.
Relationshipism, with its fixation on self-preservation and one's "needs," could never produce that sentiment. It won't permit another person to have that kind of power over the sovereign self. Eros, as described by Lewis and others, is love for a real person, not because of what they can do for us but because of who they are. (This makes the way that "erotic" has become synonymous with "pornographic" especially unfortunate.) Eros longs to possess and be possessed. Relationshipism talks about two people "hooking up." Set aside the sexual connotations of that expression and you're still left with language best suited to describe meeting at an airport or a ballpark.
Loving someone for who they are and being willing to sacrifice your sense of self are, of course, a pre-requisite for marriage. It's a union between two real, not idealized, people, each of whom commits himself or herself wholeheartedly to a flawed human being. It only works if we remember this. Of course, to remember something, you have to know it in the first place. A good place to start is by ignoring most of what you see onscreen.
Copyright 2004 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.