Love Lost in the USA: Can Science Find It?
In 1962 two kids were hiking along the crest of a mountain in the Hudson Valley when one of them takes out a knife and carves their initials into a tree. They were married 47 years. How did he know? How did it last?
Currently the divorce rate is one in two, maybe higher in some regions of the country. It is so common, our culture so saturated with scandal and heartbreak, the statistic barely raises an eyebrow -- even in more traditional and conservative circles.
One friend told us that he'd thought about getting married again but then he rethought it because he found out there was a 50/50 chance it might last. He is far from alone. Americans seem to have an issue with intimacy.
What raises eyebrows is longevity, love that does last, initials carved into a tree 50 years ago that could still be carved into a tree today.
While married couples tell only of their own experience, the "experts" talk about marriage and love as if either one were in fact a science, as if there were some way to predict, control, or warranty the outcome. On website after website, in book after book, they tell us what to do and what to look for.
The authors of Lasting Love: The 5 Secrets of Growing a Vital, Conscious Relationship, wrote: "If you want a close vibrant love relationship, you need to become a master of commitment." I could scarcely believe that a whole book had been dedicated to something so basic. Even though I had to grant that sometimes wisdom is a firm grasp of the obvious and there are clearly people who think they can have a good marriage without actually acting married or doing what it is that marriage requires, to me it was like saying if you want to get wet, get water. Have we gotten to the point where we need that sort of elementary guidance?
Perhaps so. Scientific American Mind ran an article titled "The Happy Couple." In it, the author, Pileggi, states that how your mate responds to good news is as important, if not more important, than how well they support you when times are difficult. "In the past few years positive psychology researchers have discovered that thriving couples accentuate the positive in life more than those who stay together unhappily or split do. They not only cope well during hardship but also celebrate the happy moments and work to build more bright points into their lives."
So people who have a good time together and have a good time having a good time stay together? Stunning.
One writer, Dee Anne Merriman, chose seven match areas to consider: physical appearance, emotional maturity, lifestyle choices, financial style, value structure, marriage and sex, and intelligence. All of these make fine sense until you begin to notice the inherent problems: They are all presented as if, one, there were actually a surefire way to gauge or assess those match areas, two, a way to centrifuge and separate a person as if he or she were a blood sample, and, three, even an idea of how to line those areas up between two complex beings to produce the "perfect" relationship.
I began to consider the possibility that this sort of pseudo-empiricism is part of the reason people experience such frustration with love and keep vainly trying to find the "perfect" match; the more I researched the so-called science of love, the more I was left wondering if it can ever be so well-planned or so conscious. I know I made my own "list" before I met my husband and, still, with as much "expertise" up my sleeve as anyone, my marriage certainly surprised me. It surprises me every day with its goodness, its fortitude, and the love that carries us forward -- to no credit of my own, I am sure of that.
Did Cheryl and Bill ever think about things like that before they got married -- match areas, accentuating the positive, lifestyles?
"We talked about goals -- children, those things -- but not like people do now. We were also very different. I was responsible and more grounded. Bill was... adventurous, impulsive. I was more restrained. He was an open book."
And they were different for as long as they were together. So are many of the people I know in long-term relationships or marriages. And not just superficially different -- fundamentally so. Their marriages stand as a counterpoint to everything we are being told about how to find true love.
There is a debate deep at the heart of all this: Is love, in fact, a matter of the heart or the brain? Some would say it "depends" on what you mean by love. But I think for anyone who has actually loved another -- whether that's a child or a partner, a friend or a pet -- there are no "depends." While there is an element to it that is ineffable, inexplicable, eternal, when you feel it, there is simply no question as to its truth or meaning. It's as solid as oak, so that over the years as you move together through the first flush of Eros into friendship and familiarity, surf mighty high waves of irritation and frustration, it does not crash onto shore or ebb with the tide. It stays still. It digs in roots and holds strong.
C.S. Lewis wrote, "This is one of the miracles of love: It gives a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted."
I would think of love as Lewis did, then: as a miracle, as an expression of something both lusciously earthy and other-worldly, as a heavenly two-step, a delight of the Divine. It is not empirical. How can it be when it is a heart carved into a tree and a love that still stands, long after the tree itself has returned to the forest?
We started out on the trail full of childish hope. Maybe, just maybe there would be a trail of crumbs, a sign, something that would lead us to the tree in a mountainside full of trees. We walked for hours.
It took little time until we noticed that most of the growth along the trail was quite young, from saplings to trees perhaps a foot in diameter. The older trees were set far back or lying in enormous pieces on the ground.
Fifty years. The one they carved would have to be closer to 70 or 80 years old. A tree would grow and see quite a bit in that time -- flooding rains, ice storms, winds, drought. The odds of us finding Bill and Cheryl's tree looked worse as time went on.
Then we saw a tree that finally made me accept the fact that we'd be leaving there without the photo we wanted. On a relatively young beech were two sets of names. It was the only tree we found with anything carved on it at all. The interesting thing was that the letters had been growing with the tree and were starting to widen and callous, looking in some parts indistinguishable from the bark. The names were becoming the tree. The tree had made the couple part of itself.
As we left, I found a poetic justice in that. They, their young affection, that day, that moment, had become part of that whole forest.
Thinking of that tree, of those two kids climbing a mountain and opening their hearts for all the world to see, of the future that would bring both drought and abundance, of children and business, of their last years together and their utter devotion, presenting love as a science reveals at best a profound lack of imagination and, if true, would leave most of us without much hope. I have never seen a list work.
So, as I often do for my articles, I asked my husband what he thought of this whole journey, the initials, whether there is a way to know, whether love can last anymore without people going to experts for answers or techniques. And, in his usual Montanan manner, to respond to the question, he took me out to our backyard and carved our initials into a tree.
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