Friday, July 1, 2011

On Love

We hear “love never fails.” “Love bears it out even to the edge of doom.” “All you need is love.”*
But we also hear, depending on your sources, that twenty-three or forty-one or fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. The odds are worse if the couple lives together before marrying.
Something is indeed failing here.
Last year I heard, secondhand, a point of view that I think does a lot to explain the discrepancy. Tellingly, it was from a single person whose parents had divorced when she was a child. Kim** and her sister, Lisa, who was engaged, were talking about love and marriage, and Kim told the bride-to-be, “Love doesn’t have limits.”
As a happily married person, I am here to warn you that this is a dangerous fallacy. Love does indeed have—it must have—limits. Any way of relating to someone else has expectations and limits involved. That is why your slight acquaintances do not look up your address and pop in for breakfast. That is why you don’t call your doctor’s office just to say hi. And that is why no matter how tired you are or what hour it is or how many nights in a row you’ve been doing this, you do not actually tell your toddler to “Go the F*ck to Sleep.”***

The limits of any relationship have their origins from three sources. First, limits can be imposed by others outside the relationship, including society at large. If your coworker criticizes your work during a meeting, do you stand up and punch him? Not if you wish to remain employed (your employer will presumably terminate you for such behavior) and to avoid jail (assault is against the law). Those limits come from outside any relationship the two of you have and stand independent of your personal inclinations.(Whether he would hit you back is a separate consideration.)

Sometimes limits come from the nature of the relationship itself, which serves as a framework. My mom doesn’t tell me what time to go to bed nowadays because when I reached adulthood, her authority to do so expired. The bank doesn’t give you free money because that’s not how your business relationship works. You don’t cheat on your spouse because the marriage is a monogamous relationship you’ve entered into together.

Finally, and crucially, limits come from within the relationship. Since most of a marriage is conducted behind closed doors, these limits are essential to this kind of close relationship. Each person sets limits on what he or she will DO, and what he or she will ACCEPT from the other person. So if my husband and I disagree about something and we get angry, I may think of a dreadful, vicious thing to say, but I choose not to say it. My self-restraint is a kind of limit even though it comes from within my self—it’s a healthy limit that puts love ahead of anger. But what if I did choose to say such a thing? My husband would also put forth a limit, probably by declining to converse with me any further at that point.
Likewise, I set limits on those I am in relationship with. My three-year-old is not allowed to hit, kick, or bite. My bank has been warned not to call again to try to sell me anything. And when my husband keeps doing some little annoying thing that is really making me mad, I speak up about it.Civilly.
We hold each other to a standard. If we found ourselves in a pattern of anger, and of behavior that pushed at our limits, we would know it was time to examine our choices and consider changes. Love certainly has limits, but those limits are constructed in love and in loving self-control.

* Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, Shakespeare, and the Beatles, respectively.
** Names have been changed.
*** It’s a real book.

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