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Talking about grown-up love online

by Alex in |

love key on computer keyboard

One of the great miracles of my life is the affection between our two kids. As an only child myself, I always feared the prospective challenge of playing referee among multiple offspring. From what I could see of multi-child families, parenting siblings looked not unlike the job of heading a large M&A practice, or brokering a Middle East Peace accord. Growing up without siblings of my own, I felt utterly unprepared for the job of inter-sibling arbitration.

In this instance, however, destiny intervened. Our two kids quarrel no more than 2% of their time together, and by sibling standards, it’s pretty gentle quarrelling. I have a great many theories about what has contributed to this happy situation, which I keep vowing to blog. Mostly I think it’s luck: younger siblings seem inclined to adore their older brothers or sisters, but in our household, our 7-year-old daughter has doted on her now 4-year-old brother since the day he was born.

I was reminded of our good luck again last night, when I had the two kids penned in a grocery cart while I did a quick bit of shopping. As we cruised through the store, a number of people remarked on how sweet they were together, and in one case, a woman put her hand over her heart to indicate how touched she was by the sight of their love.

And what in life is more powerful or affecting than the sight of genuine, open, undisguised love? Online, we lap it up on sites that offer the same satisfactions as the interaction our two kids in a grocery store. We linger over snuggling kittens, or kissing toddlers, or best of all, the interspecies bedmates. And of course, we blog about our kids, showcasing the affection between parents and kids in a way that is mostly inspiring and intermittently tedious.

Love between adults, though….that’s a different story. There’s no shortage of sex, of dating, of breakups. But actually revelling in the joys of romantic love, marriage or deep, intimate friendship…not so much.

Why do we shy away from exposing real love online? I know that I’m inhibited by a mix of superstition, self-consciousness and simple empathy.

The superstition lies in the fear that talking about love will make it evaporate; that simply talking about a happy marriage will incur the vengeful wrath of gods I don’t actually believe in. That same inhibition has applied to talking about the kids, too — if this is the first I’ve written about how much our two kids love each other, it’s because I’m afraid of “jinxing” our good luck and waking up to find myself in the middle of World War III, Junior Edition.

But there’s a healthy dose of self-consciousness, too. I loathe anything heart-warming (Good Will Hunting; The Secret Life of Bees) and can think of nothing worse than writing something similarly loathsome. Writing about love and happiness feels saccharine, trite, or simply unseemly.

It’s not all neurosis. There’s an empathetic dimension to the instinct to hold back: a desire to avoid inflicting pain on people who might not be as fortunate. For the same reason I hate professionally self-congratulatory tweets, I’m leery of writing anything that smacks of “look at me! I’m so happy!”

And yet much of my own happiness stems from others’ willingness to brave the aesthetically treacherous waters of the heart-warming. In my early twenties, I realized that one of the chief obstacles to my romantic happiness was that on a very deep level, I didn’t really believe that men were capable of love…and so any man who I did perceive as loving was de facto emasculated in my eyes.

Therapy was part of the solution, but what really helped was a conscious media consumption campaign. I made a point of watching lots of romantic movies, reading lots of romantic novels, listening to lots of love songs. More importantly, I made a point of really soaking them in: focusing in on the loving gaze, the kind words, the chemistry of connection. I soaked myself in fictional love until I began to believe in the real thing.

What will happen to our hearts and minds, I wonder, if they’re steeped in media that relegate adult love to the sidelines? As social media, gaming and other digital experiences occupy a larger and larger share of our media consumption, we open ourselves to the perspective of our friends, peers or those who wouldn’t fit within the bounds of established cultural expression. The stories we hear from this expanded creative class may offer an immediacy and authenticity we don’t get from reading Great Books, watching Great Movies or attending Great Theater.

But they can easily miss out on what Great Art does offer: a willingness to push beyond superstition, self-consciousness and simple empathy, a willingness to expose real human emotion in all its beauty and intensity. All of us who want to join this world of creatives — to be part of the great resurgence in grassroots self-expression that social media has enabled — need to challenge ourselves to share the beauty as well as the pain of human relationships.

Critique, heartache, grief: these all have important places in online (and offline) expression. What’s worrying is an emergent online pattern in which our painful thoughts and feelings are leavened only by ducklings and babies. But love isn’t limited to pre-adolescent or animal form, and there’s nothing shameful or cruel about illuminating the loving connections among adults. Grown-up love may not make the pages of Cute Overload, but creating an online world in which adult love lives only in the shadows is no way to create an offline world in which love shines bright.

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First posted on October 21,2010

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