How do we fight for a better love ethic anyway?

This year has taught me that love is a skill that is lost to many of us because, among other things, we prioritise romantic love and are taught to let instinct guide us in it – a farcical notion propelled by centuries of consuming popular Romantic literature and decades of Hollywood narratives about “love at first sight’’ with very few movies dealing with what actually happens after you’ve found love.

The high divorce rates tell us that feelings are unreliable. Our poor understanding of how to conduct love in relationships has left many of us burnt by our dashed expectations of it – divorced, unhappy or stuck in bad relationships because people don’t know who they are without their partner or fear being alone or disappointing others.

For one of the most influential areas of our lives, it’s odd that people living in the modern Western paradigm still haven’t got this part of life quite right. We know how to get to space but haven’t figured out quite how to maintain lasting healthy romantic relationships.

Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love has some refreshing philosophies on how to love realistically, contained in the story of a couple juggling careers, children and a relationship … and struggling.
It had me re-evaluating the idea of love altogether and accepting that there is no ideal relationship, but some handy ways to expand our understanding and normalise the frustrations of love. For instance, regarding marriage.

Marriage, the model for how we sanctify love, has quite obviously become outdated in a world where women aren’t (or should no longer be) property, life expectancy is much too long for the ride-or-die approach and the bacon has ditched patriarchy to be brought home by women too (though still not in equal portions).

Yet wedding planners are still in business and thriving. Why? Because the capacity to love is still there – but we need better, wider ways to love.

One overlooked contributing factor to the difficulty of relationships is the role of capitalism, which champions the nuclear family model. Two people are responsible for working to earn money, maintaining a stable home environment, taking good care of children, maintaining a spark and a healthy sex life in their partnership, dealing with family and life’s unpredictable predicaments and being responsible with finances.

Add to that self-care, having job and career fulfilment, thriving friendships, physical health and beauty. Where 50 years ago, the duties of raising children were shared with extended family members, mitigated by cheaper and different living situations and a more communal approach, today all the pressures of succeeding in our personal lives are left to two people who are under extreme and perpetual pressure from all angles.

Many people probably end up cheating not because they don’t love their partners, but because adulting today is a little too much for them. And they just want pockets of their lives where they can be irresponsible and carefree. Should we be surprised at the outbreak of mental illnesses since our neoliberal democracy?

In a typical urban environment such as Johannesburg, there isn’t a single one of us – gay or straight, monogamous or polyamorous – that are spared, from the pressures of life. Maybe Number 1 has “found the pots” because over at Nkandla, the polygamous situation might be the cause of why his professional life is so actively juicy.

If we lived in environments where so much of our time was not allocated to finding, making and maintaining money to survive, we might have more joy in our lives and a different success rate at love.

And what does this do to our greater capacity to love those outside of personal circles? In this context, how much extra time do each of us have to love thy neighbour? What does this mean for national love, for improving the state of our interpersonal relations as colleagues, neighbours, different ethnic groups and different genders and sexual orientations?

In this context, is it possible to build solid, ethical, peaceful societies where integrity, trust, honesty, community and care are practiced as a general cultural approach to existence?

People have an immeasurable ability to extend themselves to others. We know this in times of tragedy and grief. We know the role of hope and unity in victory.

If love is a skill, as De Botton argues in his book, how can this skill be used to improve our public lives? Our capacity to love is misspent by only loving those in our immediate surroundings. Love’s true work is in loving faraway people, especially those who are ideologically far away, those who are different to us.

There are no ideals, there is only room for efforts to improve the current state.

That said, how can we deploy love in the F-bombs that 2016 has rained upon us as a global society? From the Penny Sparrows to the Guptas, the assault that is Donald Trump’s existence and Jacob Zuma’s persistence, the untimely deaths of icons such as Prince, Makhenkesi Stofile and David Bowie, the State of Capture, the death of Khwezi, Haiti and #FeesMustFall. What does it mean to fight for a love ethic in difficult times?

Iimbali is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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