There are a lot of tropes around relationships—good, bad, and just interesting. In Sense and Sensibility, one of my favorite novels, the two sisters deal with love in very different ways. One of the sisters, 16-year-old Marianne, is passionate and romantic and tempestuous. She’s convinced that if she doesn’t give herself over to her feelings wholeheartedly then they aren’t authentic.
It’s a very teenaged sort of view, a bit like “I cannot rein in my self-expression because my emotions are Real and True and to restrain myself would be to act falsely. Also my love is clearly valid because it prevents me from sleeping. (But that’s okay because I’ll spend the nights writing poetry about your eyes.)” In Marianne’s eyes, anyone who can stay level-headed and proper can’t really be in love, it’s too “cold-hearted”.
It seems as if there’s this narrative our culture still holds onto, wherein Marianne-style Tortured Love is somehow seen as more valid than level-headed love. Maybe it’s just because Tortured Love stories can be drawn out over more episodes, thus making more money off advertising. Maybe humans are just suckers for drama. But you don’t have to be nauseated by extreme emotion in order to be truly in love.
An acquaintance recently commented that she’s crying all the time, so that has to be good, right? Clearly it’s a sign of True Love! And…maybe it is. Sometimes you’re just overloaded with emotion and hope and gratitude and you have to process it through a good cry. That’s fine, and that seems to be what’s going on with her. But sometimes it’s that things aren’t quite adding up and you’re happy(?) but confused but hopeful but scared. Sometimes that turns out fine and sometimes it’s not fine at all.
For instance, I ran across a blog post that excerpted Fifty Shades of
Crap Grey. I know, I know, I’m years behind here. But stay with me. This book is a bestseller, it’s wildly popular, and the content is horrifying. The main character is bursting into tears because she’s terrified of her love interest, and he never listens when she says no (ever), and there are grievous misunderstandings of what the word consent means. This is being presented as an appealing example of Tortured Love and a reasonable way to begin a relationship. It is actually all the classic signs of abuse, including a grooming stage and deeply concerned friends.
Especially when we’re young, it can be kind of fun to experience the emotional Roller Coaster of Truest Love—once. But I think we’ve all rolled our eyes at the TV screen after a show draws out the will-they-or-won’t-they story arc too far, and the drama isn’t pleasant in real life. I wouldn’t say rocky, highly-emotional starts are false or lesser or guaranteed to fail, but there’s a middle ground between “perfectly easy love at first sight” and “epic saga of pain and doom and destiny.” It’s okay to be comfortable.
I asked a friend once what had surprised her most about marriage. She had fifty years with her husband. She answered without hesitation: “How much fun it was.”
It was a lot of work, of course, but they had a great time. They took joy in each other, they stayed on the same team, they shared the best adventures, and they had fifty years of fun. It wasn’t a torment, it was a delight.
Sometimes, the epic-tormented-hearts-on-fire thing is just immaturity. I remember how unbelievably intense my feelings were when I was sixteen, seventeen, nineteen. You can have genuine feelings that aren’t ferociously intense, and you can have fierce feelings that don’t make you unhappy. Remember, Marianne wasn’t some experienced authority on love, she was a teenager who didn’t know any real young men and who read too much poetry. And in the end, she grows up. She learns how to channel her emotions in a way that’s balanced and healthy. And (spoiler alert) she ends up with someone wonderful, someone she got to know through a pleasant, stable courtship. Her feelings are as true as ever, but instead of torture, it’s a joy.
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(Sidebar: there’s a rather lovely defense of Marianne here.)