The Hourglass of Love

Time, like the White Rabbit, is running out, and we, like Alice, follow Time down the rabbit hole into Wonderland – love’s la-la land? (The end of love, Part II)


“Time destroys all things,” reads the mantra of Irreversible, a film we’ll revisit later in the series. Does Time destroy love too?


Love is certainly susceptible to lassitude. In time, romance often show signs of wear and tear everywhere. You may stare at the gaping abyss between the high hopes and their disillusionment, only, as dear Friedrich predicted, to see it staring back at you, threatening to swallow you whole. What felt infinite found its finitude, and so do you. Did the end come too soon – or couldn’t it have come soon enough?

True, sooner or later, all things pass, love is no exception, but it is exceptional in how we wish it won’t, how we wish it endures. Together forever. Or not. So how long does love last? How long can it? Couples in modern cultures overwhelmingly break up; just a tiny fraction stay together for many years, far fewer get married, even fewer stay together ‘til death do them part – though the latter’s prospects rise significantly once couples brave the five-year mark. Why?


Love’s a drug


Relationship science” has been seeking answers since the late 1960s, first dissecting long-term love to two stages: Passionate love, full of lust, that morphs into companionate love – deep friendship with potential benefits. Where to draw the line?

Wherever we stand facing this line of fire, many suggest we hardly draw it ourselves. We don’t sit at the lustful wheel of love. Driven by biochemical actions, reactions and interactions, much like other mammals, we take the back seat (for you know what); so better just enjoy the ride while it lasts. This deterministic dance is familiar enough: testosterone handles our sex life, so our selfish gene can get its procreative way; dopamine fuels attraction and reduces our serotonin so we can lose some inhibitions, and have some fun, obsessive thoughts; finally, when we’re ready for some tenderness, endorphins and oxytocin team to make us snuggle. Just don’t expect any secretion of an endocrine gland make Citizen Kane cuddle!

For fiction authors, like Frédéric Beigbeder, L'amour dure trois ans, “Love lasts three years,” but for most experts, passion passes even sooner. Overall, the euphoric fireworks of pheromones should keep us going for six months to two years, when even the pleasures of scent descend. And if your nose struggles to detect your heart’s desire, perhaps this “most studied Love Calculator in the world” can help you know your passion – or lack thereof. Can compassion compensate for the loss of passion, substituting cuddle for seduction? We may not be that lucky. A recent study shows that time has a corrosive effect on passionate and companionate love alike. Love’s a drug until it becomes a drag.

Sometimes a better drug comes along. In Sarah Polley’s 2011 Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams plays the 28-year-old Margot, who decides to leave Lou, her husband of five years, to be with the more attractive Daniel – an unavoidable biochemical trajectory: beauty attracts beauty; and scent makes desire (that’s at least the “vehemently pseudo-Nietzschean” take one review offered).

The film, however, is less concerned with Daniel being so much more attractive; mostly, he is newer. In a revealing shower scene, Margot hears the trite-yet-sage advice, “new things get old,” but chooses to ignore. She follows her heart (read hormones?) and gets what she wants. Or not. The film’s ending unsettles that prospect too, and here’s one fine review to help us contemplate it.


The bad faith of love

Imagine you fall in love with someone who doesn’t care for you, but you can use a magic potion that will make them love you, or make you stop loving them. Would you? Most of us, I suspect, wouldn’t. We want to love, and to be loved, freely – by choice, not by chemical concoction.


And yet this is arguably what our bodies do to us – interacting, they inject us, whether we like it or not, with such love and “delove” potions. A recent biological book on love speaks of "mate choice" only to stress how little choice we actually have. “People are as free as they want to be,” James Baldwin once boldly proclaimed, but why would they, if “nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom”? With biolove, it seems, we can take a respite from freedom, as even for Baldwin “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.” We are grains of sand in an hourglass, pushed together, pulled apart, until the final deadly drop.

I take this personally. Two things terrify me most in reading and watching tales of love undone: that I might be un-chosen and that there might be no choice to begin with. These narratives of love leave little room for freedom. Who can truly choose their beloved under Chemical Cupid’s rule – the determinism of the inception of passion, the fatalism of its ending? This goes beyond individual attraction to sexual orientation: Do we choose our sexuality?


The scientific jury is still out. Investigating The Biology of Homosexuality, Jacques Balthazart concludes that “sexual orientation, both homosexual and heterosexual, is under the control of embryonic endocrine and genetic phenomena in which there is little room for individual choice.”


Still, an extensive 2019 Science study asserts that while a complex amalgam of many genes may contribute to same-sex behaviour, over 75% of homosexuality is not dependent on genes, though some of it can be driven be other biological factors, like prenatal hormonal concentrations in the womb (e.g., for a man, the more older brothers you have, the likelier you are to be gay, possibly because the mother progressively builds antibodies against an unknown male protein, more so with each son).

However indecisive the scientific evidence is, the allure of biological determinism lingers. Since the 1990s, the LGBT community’s rallying cry has often turned to “We didn’t choose this,” despite its apparent downsides: the apologetic message, the fact that there is no strong evidence that it had a very substantive impact on making public opinion more pro-gay, and the effective exclusion of queer identities that fall outside this biological determinism. Still, the appeal to nature retains its mass appeal; there are hardly better ways to run away from dilemmas, choices, and taking responsibility, than saying “it’s only natural!” or “it’s unnatural!” It is telling, and quite humorous, that a noted expert on homosexuality demands “Stop calling it a choice” and, at the same time, insists that “same-sex behavior is not an unnatural choice.”


Scientific analysis aside, when it comes to the subjective lived experience, many (and likely most) people would say they sense little choice in their sexual orientation or in their individual attraction. They simply feel it; Passion, let alone romantic love, just feels different than anything else. Friendship is vastly valuable, and often lasts longer than romantic love, but Joan Armatrading gets it right: yes, with a friend you can go dancing, but with a lover you could really move.

The bad faith of love is freedom’s hardest challenge since this might not be such “bad faith” to begin with – arguably, there is no flight from freedom; the latter, when it comes to love, is just an illusion. Moreover, when it comes to passion, the hormonal driver of romantic love, the stakes are much higher. Granted, we often feel that people are puppets of forces that leave them no choice; and sometimes we’re right. But with love we go straight to the heart, to what we often think makes us who we are. Human cœur turns against humanity’s core: Love vs. freedom.


Chained Choices

Can we reconcile love and freedom? Forget about the hypothetical love potion. Can we, do we, in real life, choose to take a passion potion? Perhaps we should seek hope for such chained choices where chains are pervasive – in prison. If, as Sartre once claimed, the French were never freer than under the German occupation, maybe we can locate love’s freedom behind bars. Heterosexual inmates do engage in same-sex behavior. They choose to go against their bodily instincts and use imagination to channel their desire towards what has been called “situational homosexuality.” More importantly, a recent study found that this behavior, however situational, profoundly impacted their overall sexual orientation; they have effectively chosen to become homosexual.


From sexual orientation to individual attraction, we may step outside the liberal hemisphere to visit arranged marriages - over half of all marriages worldwide. These couples presumably start with far less passion than those who follow their hormonal hearts. Do they give passion up, unwittingly grow to gain it, or can they choose to enact it? Likely an amalgam of the three, but either way, according to surveys, these chained couples do just as well when it comes to companionship, satisfaction, commitment, and yes, passion too; they certainly divorce far less. Granted, we may scorn such “prison passion,” but is “pheromone passion” truly any better? Does it really matter, for freedom, if you are in a cage, or if your body is one?

Peter Gabriel almost begs his mind to unlock his bodily cage that “keeps me from dancing with the one I love,” pleading “set my spirit free, set my body free.” And yet, sometimes, we might do well practicing interoception, heeding our body’s silent advice; our body might sense what our mind refuses to accept: that it’s time to let go, to move on to other dancers, and dances, or perhaps to just stop dancing, at least for a while.


After all, when it comes to love, it is not merely society or your hormones that may be locking you up. Worse: It could be your lover, or beloved. Caught in a vicious cycle, we may become one another’s cage, guards instead of guardians; the very way we express our pain turns into our partner’s prison.

Is there a way out of this prison? Evidently so. However hard, some of us do manage to make a golden age from our cage. True love can last long, spanning decades. Among such durable couples, about a fifth defy biologism: they keep the intensity and sexual chemistry of passionate love and eventually even get rid of the uncertainty and anxiety that accompanies their early love. Studies suggest these couples keep the triad of passion, intimacy, and commitment by mindful forgiveness and getting together through a crisis. For them, wanting and liking can, and do, go together.


In her 1929 dissertation on Love and Saint Augustine, Hannah Arendt argued, that if man “could be said to have an essential nature at all, it would be lack of self-sufficiency. Hence, he is driven to break out of his isolation by means of love… For happiness, which is the reversal of isolation, more is required than mere belonging. Happiness is achieved only when the beloved becomes a permanently inherent element of one’s own being.”

If love is a human hourglass, then the lovers’ hands can flip it; they can rock the grains of sand, if they co-choose, extending their together-time again and again and again, to the meeting place of choice, care, and craving. I fear that the worst cage is our illusion of independence; and feel that the best way out is always through true love: when your beloved's fears and wishes become your own, to face and realize together, when you can sense your beloved behind your eyes, getting into your bloodstream.

While I personally prefer the Yin-Yang way to depict this union, a simpler, and scientifically prevalent method to envision it is the Inclusion of Other in the Self (IOS) Scale, depicting the degree to which we incorporate our partner into our notion of our self. Which circles best portray you and your partner? Which picture would you like your relationship to be like? Equally important, which picture(s) do you think your partner will choose?

For circles that hardly even touch, let alone overlap, we may revisit another film with Michelle Williams, filmed just a couple of months before Take This Waltz. Curiously, here too Williams played a woman leaving her husband of five years: Cindy dumping Dean in Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 Blue Valentine. It’s a deep dark blue of tremendous beauty and dread.

Dean is charming, generous, and funny (well, he’s played by Ryan Gosling…), but fast forward five years, the exhausted Cindy grows weary of him. Having dinner at the Future Room in a cheap motel, Dean explains to her his daily routine: “I get up for work, I have a beer, I go to work, I paint somebody's house – they’re excited about it. I come home, I get to be with you. What's... Like, this is the dream.” And a nightmare for Cindy, who tries, but ultimately fails, to fake passion. Confronted by Dean at her workplace, Cindy finally confesses, “I'm so out of love with you. I've got nothing left for you, nothing, nothing. Nothing, there is nothing here for you.”


Time may destroy all things – but the truth. And we, if free, can take time into our own hands, flip the hourglass – or smash it.


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