In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
So begins the last complete poem of Edgar Allen Poe. Published shortly after his death in 1849, middle school students for generations since often discover it as the first poem that captured their imagination while setting their earliest conceptions of what love “should” be like.
This former eighth grader was no exception. Sitting in Ms. Prosser’s lit class in 1988 while dealing with the horrible existence that is middle school, Annabel Lee was beauty, tragedy, and grace at a time that I couldn’t even tell Shelly that I liked her hair.
I remember thinking, “To love like that! To burn with so fierce a love that even the angels were jealous!” I probably resolved then and there that I would settle for nothing less in my relationships.
So began my childlike Poe phase (which was quickly replaced by my adolescent rap phase which, in turn, gave way to my twenty-something Doors phase).
For better or worse, today many relationships are guided by depictions in media far more popular and ubiquitous than nineteenth century poetry. Let’s take a test: think of the ultimate “chick-flick.” Got one? Okay, now think about how love is portrayed in the film. Is it a typical, stable marriage? Hell, no! It’s probably a tortured, brief affair with a guy from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks (Titanic, Dirty Dancing), or a tumultuous courtship that ends in tragedy (Legends of the Fall, The Notebook). Love is often depicted as most passionate or “true” outside of marriage (Casablanca, Unfaithful) or discovered when doing something crazy (Under the Tuscan Sun, Pretty Woman). Love–in the movies–is typically found when you are with someone other than your spouse, or where you don’t belong, or doing what you’d ordinarily never do.
Movies virtually all agree that love is intense and, typically, effortless. From Romeo and Juliet to A Walk to Remember, we have been lied to, people!
Most of the time, marital love is dull and uneventful. It is boring. It is waking up to bad breath and mussed hair and then going to bed with someone beside you already sleeping. It’s less jetting off to exotic locales than picking up the kids from practice. Movie love = hot bodies and no consequences. Marital love = cellulite and paying the mortgage.
But it is there! She is with you–and you blink, and twenty years go by–and she is with you, and still loves you, despite your bald head and furry ears. He is there, and knows what you like on your pizza and all about your relationship with your mother. He loved you then when you could turn all the boys’ heads and now when you’ve got a double-chin. Marital love is present, not needing to be chased or won. (Which isn’t to say that marital love doesn’t take work. See our September 18 post.)
Don’t be beguiled by fiction that tells you that love is a matchstick that, once struck, flares beautifully and glows intensely. Marital love is a charcoal; it lights stubbornly, and when it does, only burns dull gray and orange.