Love in the Time of Reckoning

February 14, 2018 By Kelli María Korducki

A few months ago, an older male friend of mine texted unexpectedly with a recommendation, or maybe more accurately, a request: I should make sure to include somewhere in the book I was writing that romance is a lie. I wish someone had told me that years ago, he wrote. The remark wasn’t totally out of context; I was familiar with my friend’s decades-long history of thwarted romantic interludes, and he knew that by this particular moment my manuscript had taken over my life. We’d had dinner a week or two prior. Lately, the material I was covering was all I could talk about with anyone.

Photo credit: Laurel Golio

See more details below

My friend was married once for a short time, some 25 years ago. I was present at the wedding—his flower girl, in fact. He’d been a college friend of my father’s, and then much later became a friend of my own. In between, he was an uncle figure who emerged intermittently from his transplanted European, and then New York, existence, producing gifts of international candies and subscriptions to The Economist before average North Americans knew what the magazine was. I adored him and was fascinated by his globetrotting life. I didn’t know grown men my father’s age who didn’t have wives and children. His life, frankly, seemed much more interesting. I wanted an interesting life, too.

I learned much later, as an adult and a friend, that what he’d wanted for himself throughout the adventures of his interesting life was the status quo: a family, a partner. His work introduced him to scholars and diplomats and minor European aristocracy, put him on the Trans-Siberian railroad with a future famous photographer and in the economic brain trust of a newly reunified Berlin. He has great stories, and he would probably trade them in an instant.

Now in his early sixties, my friend rejects romance. I don’t know if he genuinely disbelieves or if he would, rather, prefer to. His life experience and the experience of so many of his contemporaries has taught him that the heart’s wants are untenable, a fragile criterion upon which to rest desires for partnership and family formation. Like me, like my father and mother, my friend was raised strictly Catholic. Catholics view marriage as a holy sacrament, a fusion of souls. When you throw in a variable so volatile as the human emotional apparatus, that celestial rite amounts to a terrifying amount of pressure.

Since my friend’s marriage, a lot has happened. Culturally, and with specific regard to the way gender dynamics are treated in the mainstream discourse, we’ve collectively performed something akin to advancement. The evidence that springs most readily to my mind, and probably also to others who, like me, came of age in the late-1990s, is the public’s treatment of Monica Lewinsky. The 24-year-old White House intern, whose affair with President Bill Clinton infamously became the center of an infidelity-cum-perjury scandal, was a favorite late-night talk show punchline and target of bipartisan vitriol, and a flip last-minute Halloween costume for years to follow. Recalling the ritual hazing the public collectively foisted upon the young Lewinsky draws into sharp relief the ways in which we, somehow, have since come to know better.

In the age of #MeToo, it’s difficult to imagine directing the same pointed indignation we reserved for Lewinsky 20 years ago—a young woman barely out of her teens—for falling under the sway of her charismatic, married boss who, by the way, happened also to be the president of the United States. We have changed. We’ve gotten better at expecting that power be exercised as responsibility, as opposed to free license. We’re even beginning to accept the uneasy ways in which progress problematizes the not-so-distant past and underscores our wrongs.

 

"We are culturally woke, yet conspicuously short on an easy framework for enacting the change we espouse on Twitter. We’d start the revolution, but in this economy, who has the time?"

 

But what hasn’t changed is the nature of romantic relationships in and of themselves as reproductions of the power dynamics outside their cozy respective confines. And power dynamics, regardless of progress, have seen continued perpetuation in familiar forms. We are culturally woke, yet conspicuously short on an easy framework for enacting the change we espouse on Twitter. We’d start the revolution, but in this economy, who has the time?

Romantic partnership is heteronormative, patriarchal, and increasingly irrelevant. There is no practical reason to continue viewing partnership as singularly defined by two people who agree to mutual, monogamous sexual access and property rights. You probably already know this, but as long as people swarm corner stores for cellophane bouquets in the asscrack of February, it bears repeating. What is thought of as “normal,” what is accepted as fact, is a script written by precedent. You know this, too. If people before you have done a thing for a long enough time, you will either also do the thing or not, and feel compelled to justify your decision to diverge.

My generation sometimes behaves as though we invented the rituals of partnership. Apps make us feel like pioneers. Really, though, it was our great- and great-great grandmothers’ cohorts who did it first, newly urbanized and recently waged, when they launched what we call “dating.” The cosmetics industry boomed in the 1920s, thanks in large part to the rise in single women with a little spending money of their own amid a climate of competition for beaux. Endowed with lesser earning power and correspondingly diminished social influence, women’s romantic freedom extended only insofar as the men whose affections they were able to attract and secure.

And what was the end goal? Marriage, nuclear family, economic stability. These days, that’s less of a given, but still the norm. Sixty-six percent of Canadian families are headed by a married couple, and an additional 18 percent are led by unmarried, common-law couples effectively ensconced in marital analogues. The objective among both cohorts is largely the same: two people, together, for as long as they can bear. Ideally, until one or the other is dead.

Marriage is treated as a human right. It isn’t, really—it’s a legal contract—but legislative restriction can make obtainment seem like freedom. A vocal contingent within the gay liberation movement of the 1960s, ‘70s, and beyond made a point of rejecting the dual conceits of marriage and monogamy, these archaic and self-interested inventions of a society that didn’t want them in the first place. Though same-sex marriage has been internalized in Canada and elsewhere as a tremendous victory for LGBTQ rights, Paul Gallant writes in The Walrus that, under his tenure as managing editor at the queer Canadian newspaper chain Xtra, the 2003 provision of same-sex marriage in Ontario was seen in-office as “a marginal development, a meagre success of neoliberals and their lawyers.”

 

"From family, faith, social institutions, the culture, and the law, most people will have internalized a framework for how partnership should be done."

 

“Weren’t the shackles of marriage—its oppression of women, its stifling mandate of monogamy, its failure to recognize the capriciousness of desire—exactly what the movement was fighting against?” Gallant recalls wondering. The imposition of marriage as a North Star for partnership seemed, if not antithetical to gay liberation, then a hindrance to its potential: the freedom inherent in having no choice but to invent what loving should look like.

While the option to invent is theoretically still available, a tremendous majority of us will never be afforded the freedom of formlessness. From family, faith, social institutions, the culture, and the law, most people will have internalized a framework for how partnership should be done. My generation did not invent the model of two people, sharing love and assets, forever and ever, but we are in the position to challenge its limitations. I think of my friend’s advice, the advice of a person who has loved and been loved and been punked by “forever.” I think I could be inclined to draft a better blueprint, but in this economy, who has the time?

 

 

*  *  *

 

Kelli María Korducki is a journalist and cultural critic. Her byline has appeared frequently in the Globe and Mail and National Post, as well as in the New Inquiry, NPR, the Walrus, Vice, and the Hairpin. She was nominated for a 2015 National Magazine Award for "Tiny Triumphs," a 10,000-word meditation on the humble hot dog for Little Brother. Her essay collection Hard To Do: The Surprising Feminist History of Breaking Up comes out May 2018 from Coach House Books. Korducki is based in Brooklyn and Toronto.

 

 

loveweek_header

 


Discuss


comments powered by Disqus