Many years ago I was in a park in Paris with a girl named Sandrine who was pining away for a boy named Pierre. She picked a flower and started pulling off its petals, but rather than the familiar refrain "He loves me, he loves me not," she carefully intoned: "He loves me a little, a lot, passionately, madly, not at all."
I instantly thought that Sandrine was one clever French girl until I learned that, no, this is the standard French refrain. This is how the French are groomed to think about love from an early age: not in the absolutes of total love or utter rejection, but in nuances and a range of possibilities. It dawned on me at that moment that while we Americans are groomed to seek happy endings and closure, the French are more comfortable with emotional subtleties and ambiguity. While we grow up thinking about love in black and white, they grow up inscrutably grey.
As post 50s swell the ranks of the online dating market looking for love, this French flower metaphor takes on new luster that merits reflection. God knows we've lived long enough to question some of our more tenacious love clichés. Still, some of them persist, like the idea that finding enduring happiness is possible with a soul mate or perfect partner, if only we look hard enough and consider the right variables. Unfortunately, the teeming array of dateable humanity available online offers the promise that Mr. Right may be lingering right on the next page view.
The pursuit of happiness is written into our Declaration of Independence, after all, and the pursuit of the Happy Ending (ideally with that soul mate) is written into our culture. Both continue to have a vice grip on our hearts. Despite divorce rates and all signs of trouble in paradise, we often feverishly invest in the hunt for a mate and, once found, in the business of marriage (the wedding, the blitz, the bling).
This stands in stark contrast to the French, who not only prefer to cohabitate rather than marry, but are also wary of perfection. "If anything looks too good to be true," my French friend Marie-Louise once said, "it probably is." They also believe that personal love is a matter of private business, which goes a long way toward explaining the shock Marie-Louise expressed when she stumbled on the wedding announcements in the style section of The New York Times for the first time. "The only time you see announcements published like this in France is if royalty married, or if you are in a tiny village where everyone knows everyone else and the butcher's daughter is marrying the mayor's son," she said. "America is like one big European province."
Publicly trumpeting true love and the hope of enduring happiness in this way is suspect to the French, because every expression of true love (he loves me!) holds the possibility of its counterpart (he loves me not!). And isn't that the hidden allure of reading wedding announcements? "The straight woman's sports pages" is how Carrie Bradshaw described them in Sex and the City, and she got it right. We may read them out of sheer curiosity, peppered with sprinkles of envy. But we might also read them for the lush perversion of wondering, despite the perfect happiness that radiates from each photo, when these couples might unravel at the seams. If we're interested in the thrill of victory, we're equally compelled by the agony of defeat that seems to linger implicitly behind any image of perfection. How else to account for our interest in celebrity marriages and divorces? The reality, of course, lies somewhere in that messy landscape between love and rejection, happiness and sadness. In other words, the reality lies in those grey zones.
The French also understand that what creates chemistry and ignites passion has very little, if anything, to do with the factors and algorithms of online dating. So, apparently, do two professors of social psychology who explored the algorithms of online dating web sites and laid out the following conclusions in a New York Times Op-Ed piece: First, the information that these algorithms collect, which might seem concrete and black-and-white (your taste in film or music, your religious or ethnic persuasion, whether you fly-fish or bungee-jump), in fact "accounts for only a tiny slice of what makes two people suited for a long-term relationship."
Furthermore, the forms of similarity advertised by dating sites "provide a meager foundation for an enduring relationship." Finally, according to two extensive studies reviewed, similarity on personality traits and attitudes "accounted for a mere 0.5 percent of how satisfied spouses were with their marriages, leaving the other 99.5 percent to other factors."
So what's going on with that other 99.5%? It's the grey zone -- the intangible, emotional, irrational -- and for the French, everything is in these grey zones. To use a hackneyed but true cliché, it's not the destination that counts but the journey. The emotional integrity of a relationship can lie in the experience of it alone and not necessarily in its outcome or ultimate resolution. In other words, there's a very French willingness to accept that a relationship might not necessarily go anywhere in particular -- no closure, no marriage -- but that it still might be an essential and necessary experience of love and being human.
"He loves me a little, a lot, passionately, madly, not at all."