In Praise of Short-term Love

We tend to think only love that lasts forever is “real” love. But there’s a lot to be said about romantic relationships that don’t

I am a champion of short-term love. That is how I have lived my entire life although, granted, I did say, “I do” twice with the presumption that those marriages would be forever. That’s all I knew, that was the romantic script; I didn’t know that we had choices. But we do.

I have long wondered why we consider lifelong love to be kind of love, especially since most of us fall in and out of love with several people before we find someone we actually might want to in love with for the rest of our life — we even want that at all and they want the same thing. I don’t know of any research that indicates that love that lasts forever improves us in any way — makes us smarter, more resilient, more creative, kinder or a better person, although there are some dubious claims that it makes us happier and healthier. But this is what we are up against — a belief that only those who find and maintain long-term love will be truly happy.

As philosopher Alain de Botton states,

We should beware of succumbing to the debilitating feeling that because it didn’t last forever, it can have been nothing at all. … We need to have an account of love which allows that a relationship can end without anyone having viciously or pathologically killed it prematurely, for only against such a backdrop can we reduce the debilitating quantity of bitterness, guilt and blame otherwise in circulation. How we see the endings of love depends to a critical extent on what our societies tell us is ‘normal.’ If it was meant to last forever, every ending will by necessity have to be described as a horrifying failure. But if we allow imaginative space for short-term love, then an ending may signal a deeper loyalty, not to setting up of a home and domestic routines, but to a deep appreciation and admiration one felt for someone for a time; we’ll walk away with a fair and generous sense of all that has been preserved and enhanced by the relationship not being forced to last forever.”

Until death? Not really

Nowhere is that more apparent than in marriage. It’s “until death do us part,” right? Of course, we know many marriages don’t make it “until death” — in 2013, 4 out of 10 people tying the knot in the United States had been married at least once before, according to the Pew Research Center. And while divorce seems to be decreasing among 30- and 40-somethings — g — it’s about 50 percent and growing for those aged 50 and older.

In truth, marriage wasn’t always “until death.” The earliest marriages were basically casual agreements between families or clans as a way to foster “peaceful relationships, trading relationships, [and] mutual obligations.” And, let’s be honest, people didn’t live all that long and “until death” relationships rarely lasted 50, 60 or 70 years. But then the church, which was originally vehemently against marriage, got involved — mostly because they realized they couldn’t stop it — and marrying “until death” was thrust into our wedding vows, starting in the mid-1500s.

And that expectation holds true today even if millennials have tweaked their marital vows to avoid that language. Despite the number of divorced people around us, we still believe that love and certainly marriage last forever, which is why we are inundated with articles and books on the “secrets” of long-lasting love. Because there’s a lot of fear — and shame — if your marriage doesn’t last. As Astro and Danielle Teller write in their book , “the narrative is, true love, if it exists at all, by definition exists with the person you said ‘I do’ to. After that, you are expected to finish what you started, heart’s compass be damned. Your spouse may change, cheat, or cease to love you altogether, but a promise is a promise.”

The “until death” mantra has even expanded now that same-sex couples, who couldn’t legally marry for so many years, increasingly can across the globe, and are thus feeling the pressure to marry — and stay married.

Pressure to stay together

But, there’s just as much pressure for unmarried couples to stay in their romantic relationships. In recent studies, many people said they stayed in a romantic relationship because of social pressure — their parents or friends would disapprove of a breakup, or breaking up would make things awkward with mutual friends. Isn’t that weird that we would worry more about what our friends and loved ones would think, rather than what we know to be best for ourselves?

I have to admit that I have experienced that in the handful of romantic relationship I’ve had since my second divorce. “How are you two doing?” is something I heard a lot from friends, admittedly well-meaning friends who want to see me happy. I never was asked that when I was married, but as a single woman in a romantic relationship, I was. Why? Were my friends gauging where I was and what would become of us — would we stay together, live together, get married, maybe even get married live together? (not my choice). Whenever I was asked “How are you two doing?” it felt like people were expecting that whatever relationship I was in would like there was a that we go to.

Is it time to let go of forever?

For many of us, unless there’s a ring is on it, there’s a lot of relationship uncertainty that makes us feel uncomfortable; we wonder, will this relationship last? But we also know that even rings don’t necessarily mean forever. Maybe needs to be removed from the conversation, replaced by,

There are push and pull factors that determine whether couples stay together or not. Push factors are from the couple themselves, the desire to be together. If you care about someone and love that person, you’re going to want to continue to care for and love them. I believe that really should be the only thing that matters. Pull factors are what I mentioned before — the pressures couples feel from parents, friends and society to not only want to in a long-term stable partnership, but also that once they have a relationship they stay together. That belief can become internalized and thus reinforce a couple’s own expectations about the relationship and whether it lasts or not.

And now, social media is playing a part in that pressure.

Most of us present the most idealized version of ourselves online so whatever we’re putting out there tends to skew positive and perhaps inauthentic. After all, our romantic partner is checking out what we’re posting as well as our friends and loved ones — who’s going to bitch and moan about our love life online? So there’s no surprise that studies have shown that romantic partners feel pressure to present their relationship positively online, even if that relationship is really troubled.

Longevity alone does not mean success

Now, I have nothing against relationships that last forever, even if they aren’t necessarily happy, healthy relationships. If a couple wants to keep a partnership going no matter their reason, even if it’s just lethargy or complacency, that’s fine. But I don’t think we should celebrate it as a successful union as we often do when we congratulate people on their anniversaries. Longevity alone shouldn’t be the marker of a relationship’s success.

Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that women should have three husbands: one for youthful sex, one to raise children with, and one for companionship in old age. Of course nowadays, you wouldn’t have to have a husband to get that youthful sex or even to raise children with, and, granted, not every woman wants children. Still, what she’s saying is the perfect partner for youthful sex may not be the best person to mother or father your children; why would it be wrong to seek out the right person to love for the “task at hand” at a particular time in our life? Looking at it that way, short-term love makes a lot of sense.

Short-term love and ‘home’

So, to go back to Alain de Botton’s thoughts — “if we allow imaginative space for short-term love, then an ending may signal a deeper loyalty, not to setting up of a home and domestic routines, but to a deep appreciation and admiration one felt for someone for a time.”

But he’s wrong — you set up a home and domestic routines with someone for a limited time, and have a loving partnership. What’s wrong with that?

At this stage of my life — midlife — I’m not sure I really want or need a romantic relationship that is all about the “setting up of a home and domestic routines.” I did that, twice. But I would certainly welcome romantic relationships that offer “a deep appreciation and admiration” no matter how long they last. Would you?

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women