by Max Sirak
Everything I believe about love I learned from an animated fox when I was seven. Needless to say, it hasn't really gone well for me since. It turns out, Disney movies from the 70s aren't the best teachers. At least, not when we're speaking about the intricacies of love, romance, and human relations in the non-animated world we all happen to inhabit. Thankfully, it only took me 28 years to learn this.
For whatever reason, the 1973 version of Robin Hood influenced me greatly. In fact, it's the only Disney feature I own. It's the cartoon tale of an oft-cross-dressing fox and his best friend (a bear) as they take down an usurping tyrant (a lion) with mommy issues. There's a lot of singing. And, for some reason, neither the fox nor the bear ever seem interested in eating their rabbit or mice friends.
There's a lot about the film I love. The charming roguish hero who bucks the system and goes his own way speaks to my heart. The emphasis on giving to the less fortunate is a nice sentiment. The truth that wealth and legal power do not for virtue make should be a part of our cultural narrative. Just like the idea that being poor isn't a crime. These are all good messages.
It's the love story that kills me. Maid Marian and Robin Hood. The only two foxes in an anthropomorphic, musical world full of mammals (with a couple of reptiles and birds scattered about). They were born – not only to be together – but to be married. A perfectly matching pair. Soul Mates. True Love. And, at one point, both wistfully daydream about being with the other – Maid Marian, high aloft in her tower, gazing out a window with her chin in her paws, and Robin Hood, pleasantly distracted, absently burning dinner. “Ah, young love,” we hear repeated over and over by Friar Tuck and Lady Cluck.
Before the fated archery contest, Robin Hood says to his pal, Little John, “Faint hearts never win fair ladies.” And, after he wins both the contest and his vixen, we hear lines like, “I can't live without you,” “I love you more than life itself,” and, “Life is brief but when its gone love goes on and on,” are sung or said.
Sure, it's sweet and innocent, right? No. It's destructive and toxic.
Let's Take A Step Back
Historically speaking, these vulpine ideals haven't always been in vogue. 3,791 years ago, in Syria, a king married a girl from a neighboring village. It wasn't a decision born of passion, it was a business transaction. He wanted to secure safe passage and trade, so he got hitched. Then, seeing how well it worked for him, he proceeded to marry off his eight daughters to other neighboring rulers. Thus began dynastic marriage.
And – last it did – for the next 3,587 years. But then, in the 12th Century, something started slowly that would ultimately change our views of love and marriage. Traveling court poets (troubadours) and their ideas of Romantic Love began gaining traction. Here, in the Middle Ages, we see the rise of True Love, love being won by actions, and love based on feelings with no mention of marriage (or sex, for that matter). This is advantageous. It allows the beloved to stay idealized. He or she gets to stay perfect. And – you don't have to worry about practical considerations of doing laundry with them.
This version of love grew to be so popular, it was widely accepted for those dynastically married to have lovers on the side. One of the best examples being Louis XV. He was married for the purposes of state, tradition, and family while keeping a handful of mistresses (even one in a fireplace!) for passion, sex, and inspiration.
Eventually, in Gretna Green, Scotland – in 1812 CE – the scales tipped and we see the first romantic marriage. A young couple from England crosses the border, with no fucks to give about what their parents say, and tie the knot based on how they feel. This is huge. It represents the wedding of romantic love with life partnership. Where once the two were separate, equal, and accepted – they became intertwined.
This elopement is the birth of our modern conception of love, summed up best by Jane Austen. “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.”
Taking Two Steps Forward
Now, this twining is all we see. Everywhere. And it's hazardous. Because love and marriage aren't like math and science – they aren't taught to us in fifth period after recess. So, we have to figure them out on our own. And, given the age where all this starts to happen – mom and mom, dad and dad, or mom and dad's influences are all on the decline. Which means we turn our attention to other sources like the media we consume.
(Look – I know there's a difference between entertainment and reality. I'm guessing seven year old me knew foxes didn't sing, snakes couldn't fly in balloons, and lions didn't suck their thumbs. But I'm talking sub-text and sub-conscious here.)
This is a problem. Because, when you look around, all you see are half-truths at best and outright deceits at worst. True Love – the kind that never ends, fades, or dulls in its intensity and it's time to leave if it does – is a myth. The concept of Soul Mates – that there's one single person out there in the world, who, if you find them, will Jerry-McGuire-complete-you – is superstition. Worst of all, is Romantic Love, with all its emphasis on feelings, leads to good life partnerships.
What few of us are taught is there are two separate types of love. Jonathon Haidt, in his book Happiness Hypothesis, calls them passionate and companionate. One you fall into. One builds slowly. One is based on an intensity of feelings and a pendulum of passions. The other rests upon a foundation of caregiving and trust. One ignites quickly, hotly, and brightly. The other is a slow burn. And one doesn't automatically become the other.
“Passionate love is a drug. It's symptoms overlap with those of heroin (euphoric well-being, sometimes described in sexual terms) and cocaine (euphoria combined with giddiness and energy)” (Haidt). This is the love of crushes, infatuations, pining, poetry, acting the fool, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. It's the one of Louis XV and his mistresses. But, it shouldn't be the basis of marriages. Because, “…if passionate love is a drug—literally a drug—it has to wear off eventually. Nobody can stay high forever.” (Haidt)
The other type of love, companionate, is less scintillating and sexy but far more important for choosing a long-term partner. It isn't “love at first sight.” You don't “just know” that he or she is “the right one.” It takes time. It takes caring. This is the love of dynastic marriages, arranged marriages, long marriages, and it's based more on intellect than feelings. It's the love between Louis XV and the mother of his children.
The thing is – people on the path of passionate love can hop over to the companionate trail – but it takes a conscious choice. Remember, all those groovy speedball-esque feelings will fade. And, if you believe in the myth of True Love, then chances are you're going to bail when the reality of the person next to you comes crashing down.
We've all been there, right? That moment of clarity where it feels like you are suddenly seeing your lover for the first time. You get panicky. You hear B.B. King start singing. And you ask yourself, “Shit. Now what?”
This is the point where passionate love can turn into companionate love. But only if everyone is on the same page. Passionate love doesn't ever level-up and become companionate. You have to choose to go that route. If you genuinely know, not feel, you two are a good match for each other, and life's better with them around – then don't jump ship. The magic fading isn't a sign that it was never meant to be. It just means you're comin' down off the love-drugs.
So – the next time you fall hopelessly in love – remember it can't last, which is probably why they call it hopeless. And the next time you fall out of love – press pause, take a breath, and make an intellectual decision because that snoring, drooling, loud-eating person next to you could be the life partner you've always wanted.
Foxes don't sing. Drugs don't last. So maybe it's time we think more deeply about love.
* * *
Max is a copywriter and co-hosts a podcast called Ignorant and Uninformed