What Is Love Without Loyalty? Why Devotion Trumps Passion

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Is loyalty love's friend or its enemy? Does love bring us together or rip us apart?

With the likes of Weinergate and Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child ruling the news, it's not often loyalty, but her deceitful opposite—betrayal—that dominates headlines. Anthony Weiner Resigns From Congress: Was This The Right Move?

Is loyalty love's friend or its enemy? Does love bring us together or rip us apart?

With the likes of Weinergate and Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child ruling the news, it's not often loyalty, but her deceitful opposite—betrayal—that dominates headlines.

We face what Love in the Western World author Denis De Rougemont called "the passion-fidelity dilemma." We want love that lasts, but we also want passionate intensity, and we suspect that we will at some point have to choose which love is worth having, the epic but brief romance, or the companionship that goes the distance. We suspect that passion is like ripe peaches—short-lived, but much to be preferred over fruit canned in cloying syrup. Love isn't shelf-stable.

Those who advocate passion over loyalty celebrate Eros' tendency to smash the crockery. Real love, they argue, is unconstrained by stodgy, boring old notions of fidelity; real love proves its primacy by transgressing the petty boundaries of bourgeois morality; real love demonstrates itself by transcending inhibition and propriety. The Passionists view loyalty as a wet security blanket. They are bored by loyal love, which they think makes us little burghers of the heart—trustworthy, yes, but dull and uninspired.

And what a mistake they make.

Love that isn't inspired by the possibility of permanence is no sort of love at all. No one dreams of someday "hooking up." We aren't riveted by tales of lovers who are indifferent to the question of whether their relationship will last. The real benchmark of love isn't a matter of counting sighs but taking the measure of devotion. To say that someone is "afraid of commitment" is to say that he isn't, in any significant way, in love at all. When Meg Ryan's character in When Harry Met Sally finds out her old boyfriend is going to marry his secretary, she blubbers to Billy Crystal, "All this time I've been saying he didn't want to get married." After another sob and a gasp, she gets to the heart of the matter: "The truth is he didn't want to get married to me. He didn't love me."

Where does that leave the giddy feeling of falling in love? It may be wonderful and exhilarating but, as it is just a feeling, it can never last. Not only can't it last, who would really want it to? "Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years?" C.S. Lewis asked. "What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships?" Passion may be thrilling, but the idea of being in a constant state of emotional arousal is about as appealing as the prospect of one of those erections, warned about in the Viagra ads, that lasts more than four hours.

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This isn't to say for a second that love should be without passion, for that is the only emotion potent enough to set our shared lives in motion. It may be the quiet, steady sort of love on which "the engine of marriage is run," Lewis writes, but "being in love was the explosion that started it." Or we could use a space-age metaphor. You need a massive booster engine to launch a rocket into space, but once there, a satellite can swoosh around the Earth indefinitely, held in orbit by the planet's gravitational pull. In this analogy, passion provides the blast-off, and loyalty is the steady force that keeps us in one another's orbits.

The Passionists seem to think that a sprint is the only exhilarating race. But marathoners famously enjoy an endorphin surge that comes from steady, long-haul running. Is it possible that lasting love doesn't have to mean a dreary slog, but perhaps promises something like the runner's high—a sense of elation and well-being that kicks in when exhaustion seems imminent when one had almost been ready to quit? And indeed, neuroscientists at UC Santa Barbara have found that about a third of people who have been long-married, get a rush of pleasure out of seeing their spouses—the same boost of brain chemicals that researchers find in the newly infatuated. The sociologists of sex repeatedly find that boring old married couples have more fun in the sack than singles do.

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What a shame it would be if the dreamy acolytes of passion were to disdain loyalty, to dismiss it as a glum preservative of stale relationships. And so it's worth pointing out that loyalty in love has its poetic champions. There is American poet Richard Watson Gilder, who declaimed "Love is not a summer mood / Nor flying phantom of the brain," Keats wished to be, in his affections, like the bright North Star, steadfast and unchangeable. But the best case is made by Shakespeare, in his Sonnet 116: is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove;
O, no, it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom...

That's loyalty in love. Yes, it may be as rare in the wilds of our hearts as sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker. But there's no doubt its sexy stuff. And without it, after all, love is not love.

Eric Felten is the author of Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue. Felten also writes the "Postmodern Times" culture column for the Wall Street Journal.

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