Valentine’s Day: The Myth of Love and Desire

The most recent short lived celebrity marriage lasted only two weeks: Rachel Snider is filing for divorce from Terrell Owens, claiming he only married her for her money. Yet, in announcing her plans to divorce Terrell, Rachel says this of their relationship: “I really valued his love and friendship for 5 years. Out of the love in my heart, I tried to help him. We had a secret relationship for 5 years and I married him for love.” We can’t help but wonder, what the heck happened? If we believe her explanation, we have to believe that she misread him completely for five years. That’s possible, of course, but the phenomenon of marriage vows destroying relationships is not unique to Rachel and Terrell. Brief celebrity marriages appear regularly in the tabloids – Britney Spears and Jason Alexander lasted 55 hours; Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra hung in for all of 9 days; which makes Nicholas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley look like an old married couple after a whopping 107 days of wedded bliss. I remember when my husband and I got married in 1979, not a few of our friends warned us that marriage would spell the end of our love. These friends of ours were resolutely committed to making no formal commitment to each other. They believed in the love-destroying power of the legally binding agreement and so they maintained a safe distance from marriage the way you might give wide birth to a rattle snake.

The fact that vows can sometimes end love can teach us a lot about how we fall in love in the first place. When vows go wrong we get a glimpse behind the myth of romantic love. The mimetic anthropologist, Mark Anspach, summarizes the Hollywood version of the myth in his article Giving and Loving, or What’s the Most Important Thing?:

Much of contemporary culture tells us that the most important thing in anyone’s life is finding true love: not giving something, but loving someone… That special someone, Mr. or Ms. Right, who was created to be the perfect mate for you. In Hollywood love stories, there are always obstacles and misunderstandings to be overcome before both parties realize that, yes, they were made for each other – at which point the music soars to a crescendo and the movie ends.

Because Anspach uses mimetic theory to analyze culture, he is keenly aware of the way that obstacles can intensify desire. The more an object seems unattainable, the more valuable it appears to be. The fairy tale princess under a witch’s spell, imprisoned in a castle in the center of an impenetrable forest is a perfect metaphor for this idea. The most desirable is that which we cannot have without a fight. Why is that? Because it’s not necessarily true. How many of us have been disappointed after a valiant pursuit of a lover who finally consents to our entreaties? Too many, I’m afraid. The reason that we connect unattainability with desirability is because our desire is always mediated for us by another person.

To understand what I mean by that we have to see through another myth, the myth of spontaneous desire. Our desires for things or people or positions of status and power do not arise spontaneously within us nor are these things imbued with innate desirability. If that were so, advertisements would be pointless! Advertisers know that our desires need to be aroused and given direction, they work overtime to grab our attention and point it at their products, trying to convince us that without their products our lives will be incomplete, unfulfilled and generally blah. In other words, they count on us to imitate (mimetic means imitation) the desires of the models in their ads.

When we are young and our desires are being shaped by those around us, one thing we learn fairly early is that the things our parents value the most are the things we cannot have! We are not allowed to touch dad’s autographed baseball or the vase Aunt Millie left to mom. Why? Because of how valuable mom and dad think those things are and we know they value them because of the obstacles they have put in our way. Do you see how easy it is to mistakenly equate obstacles with desirability? Instead of falling in love with another person, we can become enthralled by “obstacles and misunderstandings” so much so that without them love cannot survive.

Failing to understand the basics of how desire works can get us all tangled up in our pursuit of love. In my book, The Wicked Truth About Love: The Tangles of Desire, I identify five tangles that many of us fall into and one of these is the Super Hero who has confused love with impossible odds. Like cartoon heroes who defeat powerful opponents to save the day and then retire to their secret hideout until the next crisis, Super Hero lovers depend on obstacles to keep their love alive. Once they have attained the love of someone who resists their advances, their love can fizzle. For the Super Hero lover, marriage can be the outward sign that all obstacles have been overcome. Before the honeymoon is over, the one whom we couldn’t live without, descends into ordinariness.

Is that what happened to Terrell and Rachel and the other short lived marriages? I can’t say for sure, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it played some part because of how quickly their love died. This Valentine’s Day, when the myth of romantic love is hard to avoid, it might be fun to take the Tangles of Desire quiz to see if you can sort out the truth from the myth in your own relationships. You might discover that you fall into the Super Hero tangle or one of the others: Best Friend Forever, Celebrity Chef, Rock Star, Sidekick, or the most surprising one of all that reveals love at its best, the Custodian. Enjoy the quiz and happy Valentine’s Day!

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4 replies
  1. Allen Johnson
    Allen Johnson says:

    Thank you for an interesting blog post, Suzanne, in particular the mimetic theory of “the chase.” Courtship indeed must be saturated with intertwining, compounding mimetic play.

    Marriage is universal throughout all known human history and myriad cultures. Clearly from a Girardian anthropological understanding, marriage is ritualized to maintain social order in the face of powerful and potentially violent human sex drive and attendant mimetic potentencies such as jealousy. But in our modern era as these underpinnings of marriage are demythologized and deconstructed, what now is the meaning and purpose of marriage covenant both for a couple as well for social order?

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    • Suzanne Ross
      Suzanne Ross says:

      Thanks for the question, Allen. I think that the marriage covenant is only as effective as the couple’s commitment to it. Unless a couple views their relationship as their most valuable possession, something they are both willing to make sacrifices for, then a marriage covenant is only worth the paper it is written on! Couples, and society as well, often don’t see that personal fulfillment and real joy are the result of sacrifices made on behalf of the marriage. Within the cult of individualism and personal freedom that is America today, this is sometimes a hard case to make!

      Reply
      • Allen Johnson
        Allen Johnson says:

        I agree with your statement that “the marriage covenant is only as effective as the couple’s commitment to it.” That is the reality of today’s modern era in our Western society. But what then does such a marriage mean for society as a whole? Does society have a stake in whether couples succeed in their marriage covenants? Is there a correlation between the vigor, stability, and peacefulness of a society and the vigor, stability, and peacefulness of the marriages within a particular society?

        Evolutionary theory coupled with Girardian mimetic culture theory, to my thinking, would see marriage as a safeguard to passing “ones own” genes to the next generation by controlling violence in the sex/procreation drive. Many animal species, typically the males, are violent in their competition for females in order to pass on their genes. The human species would long ago have passed into oblivion without mechanisms to modulate those drives. But now, procreation of offspring are not the primary reasons for marriage. So what is the social basis for marriage today?

        Reply
        • Suzanne Ross
          Suzanne Ross says:

          I wish I knew the answer to your question, Allen. Do you have any ideas? My only idea is that it will continue to be a benefit to society to have content and committed family units, with or without children, who may be less prone to rivalry and conflict because they know they are loved. That’s all I got!

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