One of the big assumptions of our times is that if love is real, it must by definition prove to be eternal. We equate genuine relationships with life-long relationships. We appear fundamentally unable to trust that a relationship could be at once sincere, meaningful and important – and yet at the same time fairly and guiltlessly limited in its duration.
A great many of the pleasures and virtues of relationships do only reveal themselves over time, once trust has been established and loyalty fully demonstrated. Not least, children always benefit.
But it’s because the charms of the long-term are so clear in our collective imaginations that we should acknowledge the danger of cruelly and normatively suppressing all the legitimate claims of short-term love.
So much can go right with short-term love:
- When two people know they don’t own one another, they are extremely careful to earn each other’s respect on a daily basis.
- When it isn’t forever, we can let differences lie. If the journey is to be long, absolute alignment can feel key. But when the time is short, we are readier to surrender our entrenched positions, to be unthreatened by novelties and dissonances.
- Very few of us come out well from being closely observed, 24 hours a day, in a limited space. These may simply not be the preconditions for getting the best out of some of us.
- Inviting someone to marry you is really not a very kind thing to do to someone you love, because it’s going to drag the beloved into a range of really rather unpleasant and challenging things: doing the accounts with you, meeting your family regularly, seeing you exhausted and bleary-eyed after work, keeping the living room tidy, bringing up a child.
- Long-term relationships reward some qualities – especially the administrative ones – but obscure others, for example, those related to skills at having interesting speculative conversations about ethics or psychology late into the night.
We should beware of succumbing to the debilitating feeling that because it didn’t last forever, it can have been nothing at all.
In other areas of life, we know that ‘going on for ever’ isn’t the ideal (even when something is very good).
We need to have an account of love which allows that a relationship can end without anyone having viciously or pathologically killed it prematurely
How we see the endings of love depends to a critical extent on what our societies tell us is ‘normal’.
If we allow imaginative space for short-term love, then an ending may signal a deeper loyalty, not to setting up of a home and domestic routines, but to a deep appreciation and admiration one felt for someone for a time