WHEN lovers are thinking of marriage they are wont to protest or pledge to each other that their love, such as it is, will resist the ravages of time. A love which is only a golden moment does not meet their demands. Marriage requires of love a certain temporal extension; it involves a projection of love through time. The lover and his mistress may be content to accept love as a cross section of experience, but the husband and wife must try to imagine it as a profile extending through a course of years.
Love itself has an aspect of novelty and an aspect of recurrence. It includes an element of discovery and surprise (which corresponds on the physical level to the orgasm), and an element of sequence and development (which corresponds to parenthood). Both of these aspects of love should show themselves in a complete marriage relationship. But our traditions when they place such an emphasis on the need for a positive identification of the state of love before marriage necessarily envisage love under its aspect of discovery. And yet the need for permanence cannot be ignored. Therefore in the same breath with which a lover announces that his feelings are new to his experience, he will assert that they are not subject to change. He eagerly pledges paradoxes: that the flux of life is to be arrested, the course of time is to [p.129] be checked, that the future is to conform to this supreme present, and that love in its transitory aspect is to remain unchanged. The form of his protest reveals his deep-seated belief that time and love are not natural allies but potential enemies. His conception of love is such that he can only stand in helpless horror before the prospect that the day must come
When prettiness turns to pomp, and strength to fat,
And Love, Love, Love, to Habit.
If time operates to destroy or degrade love, its principal agency is habit. Life processes demand recurrent acts, and recurrent acts tend to become habitual. There is no escape from recurrence or habit-formation. The parting kiss bestowed each morning loses its ardor and becomes a gesture; the little favor done daily becomes a matter of course. Even acts of sex, however nature may conspire to lift them from the current of this deadly stream, are none the less borne down toward the level of habit. Habit is at once destructive and creative. It quenches the sparkle of novelty in things, but it also frees us from preoccupation with them.
Elinor Glyn and her disciples are always warning women against the danger of habits in marriage. According to their notion, one must perpetually surprise and mystify one’s husband, lest he seek elsewhere for novelty. Uncertainty is to be sustained with the utmost ingenuity. The encroachment of habit is to be resisted à outrance. The wife who finds herself “taken for granted” is already a failure.
This notion is a corollary of the tomcat view of marriage. The policy it proposes is suitable enough for [p.130] people who are playing with a transitory liaison, but it is both futile and inadequate in marriage. To resist habit-formation by coquetry is to try to sweep back the tide with a broom. The true principles of marriage require that habits be used, not that they be fought.
In order to make use of habit formation in marriage, it is necessary to distinguish between that which habit destroys and that which habit confirms. All the manifold acts which make up the routine of living together are persistently subjected to a process of degradation; they tend more and more to become automatic and to lose their zest. The bride and groom enjoy their first adventure in washing dishes together, but their older friends smile indulgently at their innocent pleasure, knowing how relentless will be the pressure toward degrading dishwashing to a chore. The chore may be cheerfully performed; it may become a treasured part of the domestic ritual, but it cannot continue through the years to have the same significance. That which begins as an adventure entered upon in exuberant spirit becomes a duty performed correctly and according to custom. It is in this way that habit attacks marriage routine. But habit does not attack benevolent activity, for benevolent activity is not a routine. It is not identified with any concrete and overt action, but with a motive, a dominant interest, which can he expressed in any action. The man who helps to wash dishes in the first months of marriage is acting domestically because his motive is to benefit his bride. If the washing of dishes later becomes a habit and a duty, and is no longer a matter of choice and decision, then this particular action is no longer benevolent. But new situations always arise and demand that choices be [p.131] made anew and interests be balanced against each other. No life can consist completely of recurrent acts. Without conscious choosing there is no conscious life. Wherever there are choices to be made the domestic motive can operate and domestic activity can take place. Time can confirm and intensify the habit of making these choices in the interest of one’s marriage partner. But nothing can preserve the glamour of novelty in things that have ceased to be new.
It behooves those who promise or expect enduring love in marriage to have an appropriate conception of love. If they demand permanence in that which cannot last, they are only courting disappointment. Let them then recognize in advance that this state of mind which they identify in themselves when they fall in love is certain to change; let them avoid the risk of envisioning their love as a thing concretely expressed in certain symbolic acts – a kiss for instance, or a warming of slippers by the fire – for the significance of these routine acts will change as the years pass. And above all, let them realize that the only love which has meaning in marriage is the active process which goes on through a period of time, not the static condition of the mind which is preliminary to a betrothal or a wedding.1
[p.132] If love in marriage is identified with domestic activity, there is no further difficulty in acknowledging the possibility of permanent love. Love and time are allies. Domestic activity and habit supplement each other. The relation of domestic activity to habit is that of creator to preserver. Benevolent activity can begin what habit will thereafter perpetuate. A domestic motive initiates an act which is designed to benefit the marriage partner – the husband helps with the dishes or the wife gives her mate first chance at the newspaper. These acts, originally domestic, will later become habitual. They no longer utilize domestic motivation; they are among the things taken for granted. They become a part of the structure and organization of the family, as the hardened skeleton of the coral polyp becomes part of the structure of the coral tree. The growth and development of the family consists in the accumulation of just such habits and the fixation of just such routines. The life history of the family is the account of this process. It is in this wise that a family grows from youth to old age. It is in this sense that a family can be a product of the creative art of its members.
The process of habit formation is of course indifferent and unselective. Nondomestic acts can become habitual as easily as domestic acts. Bad habits are as easy to develop as good ones. In many families there is a rock-ribbed routine which responds solely to the selfish demands of one member, and is not in any sense a product of benevolent activity. Father gets two eggs, sits in the best chair, and receives valet-service from mother, whom he intimidates into obedience by using gruff words or displaying a severe frown.
[p.133] Even the habits which develop from domestic acts are not always pleasant. The miscarriage of good intentions is a familiar tragedy, and quite often a misconceived benevolence will become part of the habit system of a family. The wife’s campaign against some masculine foible or her attempt to improve her husband’s taste in reading may become a persistent nuisance in the home. But as time goes on correction can be made of those errors which arise from a failure to understand one’s mate. Montaigne wrote that they only can be friends who by being long together have learned to know each other perfectly. It is the virtue of young love that it experiments and of old love that it knows. The deepening of sympathetic understanding of each other, like the accumulation of habits toward each other, is a product not of love alone, but of time and love.
“. . . love is not, as they say or give to understand, a crisis, a drama in one act. If it were nothing but that, an accident so transitory would hardly be worth the trouble of giving it notice. . . . But fortunately love, and by that I mean a faithful love fixed upon an object, is a succession, often long, of very different passions which feed life and renew it . . . the flame does not burn except on condition that it rises, lowers, rises again and varies in form and color. Nature has made provision for this. The aspects of a woman change unceasingly; one woman includes a thousand. And the imagination of the man varies the point of view. Upon a foundation, generally solid and tenacious of habit, the situation traces changes which modify and rejuvenate affection.” J. Michelet, L’Amour (Paris, 1859), p. 8-9.↩