Are We in the Post-Romantic Age?


Romance fades.  Everyone knows this.

The first flush of true love in marriage mellows into something less combustible. Some spouses mourn that loss quietly; some divorce when it happens; others welcome it.

I've got something else in mind, however, when I propose that we're entering a post-romantic age. New ideas and ideals about marriage are beginning to coalesce into a larger cultural mood.

There are fashions to everything -- including love and marriage.

In the 19th century, Americans mostly viewed marriage as a social institution and duty. It wasn't "about" romance, which isn't to say that spouses weren't ever in love, but that love wasn't the big point of marriage. In the 20th century the romantic ideal emerged for marriage as an emotional bond forged by love, as Stephanie Coontz has described.

But the romantic fashion of the 1900s can't last forever.  Good riddance, some would say. Already, the traditional marriage imperatives have crumbled on us: We don't need to marry for a meal ticket, for a legitimate and fun sex life (the opposite's true, perhaps), to secure social standing, to convince people we're not gay, to certify paternity, or even to raise children. Now, maybe the wobbly romantic foundations of marriage are getting revised, too.

Among other characteristics, the "post-romantic" age means that we marry people more like us than ever before. The opposites attract, "you say tomato, I say tomahto," staple of the romantic plot is over. With the strong trend toward "assortative mating," as researchers call it, like marries like today. Post-romantic spouses are more equal in the office and classroom, and more alike in attitudes, experiences, roles and goals.

By the post-romantic inflection, marriage is becoming more like other types of relationships in our lives. There's a kind of intimacy blur afoot, whereby one type of relationship blurs more easily into another, with less emotional distinction or singularity assigned to marriage. Post-romantic spouses act more like friends; friends (with benefits) act more like spouses; colleagues become "workplace spouses," spouses become professional collaborators, and so on. 

The post-romantic will tell you that the best qualities of marriage are interchangeable with other intimacies. Spouses say they're like best friends, or "soul mates." Or, they're comrades and "life partners." It would be almost louche or vapid to suggest in whatever euphemized terms that you weren't marrying your best friend but, instead, your crazed red-hot lover, because he drove you mad with lust.

Romantic poets revered the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," as Wordsworth wrote, and so do the vernacular romantics among us. Anything less is a soul-compromising sell-out. The post-romantic not only accommodates but idealizes the stable over the sublime.  If the romantic imagines himself always 25, in the throes of youthful passion, the post-romantic imagines himself always 65, seeking the comfortable, anchoring marriage of companionship that we'd crave in a retirement community. "When you're 70, you don't care about all that [emotional] stuff," says one wife. "What you care about is a companion." 

This post-romantic message gets reinforced, for different reasons and in different ways, from several quarters today, ranging from the "pro-marriage" political factions who warn that marriage takes "hard work" and isn't fun and games, to personal memoirs that contemplate settling for "Mr. Good Enough," to ordinary spouses who contentedly describe marriage as a "home base," or who cherish "the grit, and the everyday" routines of marriage over emotional vitality or inspiration.

We marry later. Marriage for the romantic was the start of the story, and the hub of adulthood out of which its other spokes were built. Today we marry in mid-plot of our lives. And many of us come to marriage pre-loved, and pre-heartbroken, so the idea of marriage as the capstone of the one-and-only love isn't quite the story. For the post-romantic, marriage is more like a mid-course adjustment.

For the romantic, passion and fidelity were the bricks and mortar of a relationship. In a post-romantic age, the status of monogamy has begun to falter. Not for everyone, of course -- especially not for those who see adultery as a cardinal sin. But for some post-romantics, there's a stirring of agnosticism or a new marital ethics around sexual fidelity.  A 2008 study finds, for example, that nearly half of wives surveyed thought they'd be forgiven for having an affair, and more than half would forgive their husbands after the fact, if they did. "Monogamy isn't the thing. Truth is what's important," explains one post-romantic wife.

The romantic metaphor of commitment and intimacy was the closed circle of the wedding ring. The post-romantic metaphor is the web. Post-romantics imagine themselves more open, more connected in different and multiple ways to people -- a change accelerated by technology.

Maybe Bill and Hillary Clinton, the prototype post-romantics, had it right: It's hard to tell sometimes where eccentric ends and vanguard begins. It could be that their marital perseverance through infidelity (and how) isn't a story of Hillary being calculating or enabling, or a story of ambition's triumph over love, but just of fidelity's slightly demoted place in the post-romantic's heart.

The romantic imagines happily ever after. The post-romantic imagines differently. Maybe marriage can be semi-happy and forever, or maybe it can be blissfully happy and not forever, but probably not both blissfully happy and forever. So maybe marriages are ideally perishable, the post-romantic reasons, good for two decades or so, to raise children, and that's not so bad. "You could have a few successful marriages in one lifetime," a wife says. Even within marriage, the post-romantics can imagine separation -- of time or space -- as a preferable thing, not a failure. Some take "marriage sabbaticals," and spend time apart; some have separate spaces in their lives.

Like most Americans I've watched "Casablanca" for years. It's a good Rorschach test of where you stand on the romantic to post-romantic spectrum. The diehard romantics root for Rick Blaine, of course; the post-romantics secretly think that Victor Laszlo makes a good case for himself, not only as a noble (albeit drab) husband but also as a genuine (post)-romantic lead. The deeply post-romantic, however, thinks that the real love story is between Rick and Captain Rains, who walk off into the foggy night at movie's end, companionably anticipating the "start of a beautiful friendship."

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