Practice of love: the test of time
We commonly encounter two opposed discourses on love, one idealistic and full of enchantment, where love is a matter of disinterested feeling and uncalculated self-devotion; the other cynical and disenchanted, where love comes down to a strategy for obtaining material goods and/or sex. In Pratique de l’amour: le plaisir et l’inquiétude (Paris: Payot, 2016) [The practice of love: pleasure and concern], Michel Bozon takes quite a different perspective, viewing love as a practice inscribed in time and that brings intensity to our lives. He successively discusses three “moments” in the experience: falling in love or love’s beginnings, conjugal stabilization, and désamour or falling out of love.
Often love’s beginnings are thought of as the only true experience of the feeling or meaning of the word. In this period one gives intensely of oneself, and words, objects acts circulate and are reciprocated. But then comes a time when one has nothing new to offer one’s partner. At that point the relationship must either be redefined or cease to be. By the time a love relationship becomes a stable conjugal one, has love itself evaporated? There are two pitfalls in discussing manifestations of feeling in couples. First, it is a mistake to assume systematically that two people living together are in love. But it is just as inaccurate to claim, as is often done in magazines, that living together kills love and that conjugal habits and routine will inevitably bring to naught the initial surge of feeling.
It is true that becoming a stable couple means creating a shared sphere grounded in a stable environment furnished with objects acquired and/or used together and in the development of shared routines. Within this framework, one’s partner’s behavior becomes highly predictable. At this point conjugal life seems characterized by a series of alternating “weak” and intense moments. There may be long moments of aloofness in which no particular rapport is felt and a kind of emotionally un-invested conjugal cooperation takes over. Intense moments occur less often, intermittently, and to some extent unpredictably: an instant of perfect mutual understanding (no need for words), tacit agreement, the easy sharing of a sudden, powerful thought, moments of re-union as it were, when the two partners rediscover each other. Or there are activities done as “lovers” that may be thought of as celebrations or deliberate attempts to resuscitate the time of love’s beginnings.
And there is the couple’s sexual life. It is often thought that conjugal sexuality is threatened by repetition and that this is one reason couples fall out of love. However, conjugal sexual life can be a reassuring frame or boundary: it is not about creating the unexpected or “getting to know” a new partner but is instead a relatively ordinary ritual of “couple maintenance”—a moment for creating shared intimacy of a sort that enables the partners to break free of their daily environment, a moment that may lead to or facilitate tension-free exchanges. Sexuality has become a necessary component of the couple’s life, though it may not be the central moment.