Domesticity and the Hard Work of Love

Poor domesticity. Its reputation seems doomed to veer madly between dewy idealization and sophisticated disdain. It's an odd fate for such a -- well, ordinary -- arrangement.

You'd think that by now we'd have figured something out. But eons of coupling haven't guaranteed us domestic bliss or anything remotely like it, as the naysayers observe so very clearly. Yet despite the widespread fallout from failed relationships, most people find that replacing deep attachments with romantic flings is an idea that works better in theory than in practice. Most of us keep trying to connect and stay connected.

It seems it's our own desires that are hard to work out. To some extent we all crave freedom, from sexual freedom to the "You're not the boss of me" ability to do whatever we want with our Saturdays, without observation or comment. And yet we also yearn for security, understanding, support and affection, for the comfort of shared memories and familiar routines. Domesticity can get the blame for our compromises.

First, we fear the intimacy that we crave: domestic battles provide a convenient way out of suffocating closeness. The late psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell also noted that we can exaggerate connection to obscure difference. He pointed out how the cry of the divorcing spouse -- "You're not the person I thought I knew!" -- reveals the wishful myth behind the familiarity that can pervade domestic life. He argued that we find it hard to bear the ineluctable separateness of a person with whom we have chosen to spend our life. It makes us too vulnerable. We've come to hope that this person will love us even through the days when we can't possibly love ourselves, when we're not fit for human consumption. Mitchell held that we embrace the illusion of knowing our partner inside and out to avoid the fear that accompanies such deep need for someone who, in profound ways, remains separate and ultimately enigmatic.

Domesticity, in its more dubious guises, provides an excellent vehicle for such denial. It's easy, in domestic arrangements, to substitute a string of shoulds and should-nots for an acknowledgement of each partner's wishes and needs. For many of us, it's harder to say, "I rely on you for this" than to insist, "This is what any decent person in your position would do."

Domestic life involves a long and not particularly sexy set of tasks. Calling when you're late, washing the dishes, doing the laundry, paying the bills -- all of these can become onerous duties. (The fact that they're virtually all part of single life as well slips right out of the picture. It's different doing things on your own schedule.)

And yet it is possible, and not that uncommon, for couples to negotiate these tasks against a backdrop of love and concern, not obligation. A balance of justice is central to any living relationship. Every couple works this balance out on its own; it's not something that any outsider can know, any system of communication can guarantee or any neat, 50-50 division of labor can accomplish.

Both consciously and unconsciously, couples come to know and appreciate each partner's limits and vulnerabilities, as well as their capacities. When things are going well, each person recognizes areas where the other won't be able to contribute as much or will need extra support, and each in turn experiences the other's care in areas where they themselves feel weak. The couple develops its own balance between giving and taking, separateness and being together, intimacy and privacy. The partners develop a shared sense of what's okay, what's up for discussion and what's out of bounds.

Through time and change, couples naturally struggle to maintain this balance. Often they stumble, and sometimes they fall. Rediscovering equilibrium when it's lost or threatened constitutes the "work" of staying together.

"Working at love" is an admittedly unappealing idea. Yet love can die of neglect, or of a too-easy familiarity that takes its gifts for granted. We all know that love often means bearing with a partner's impossible moods and annoying habits. We extend ourselves to meet them, and we're grateful that our partner does the same for us. We genuinely care when our partner has had a hard day, when they're sensitive about something, when they're exhausted, or frightened, or angry, or disappointed.

Then comes the point where stretching becomes straining, where generosity turns alternately brittle and simpering, and resentment begins to smolder behind the simplest acts of kindness and understanding. Working at love changes its emphasis and becomes a fight for ourselves. I know that when I begin to feel like a hausfrau or a martyr, I'd better switch gears. I'm sure my partner has similar inner alarms. Better even a stupid fight than bending to the point of caricature.

But what about sex? Here, domesticity has a particularly bad reputation for transforming passion into routine. Stephen Mitchell argues that sex becomes a prime casualty when we hide a relationship's risk and mystery under a veil of familiarity. Another analyst, Michael Bader, believes that deeper experience of our partner's vulnerabilities increases our sense of risk in abandoning ourselves to them as completely or in allowing ourselves to use them as freely.

Kathryn Harrison, in a 2000 Harper's article, makes an even more profound argument. Committed relationships, she claims, are not about romance -- they're about "death and . . . its partner, existential aloneness." Enduring relationships, for Harrison, flourish from precisely the grounds that we fear: the acknowledgement that we will always be two, not one. We will not stay eternally young and seductive; we cannot reinvent ourselves endlessly. In the shared knowledge of our fundamental separateness and inevitable mortality, in the certainty of transience and loss, love puts down its roots.

Somewhere in that knowledge, some couples find it possible to refuel passion, again and again. And to be loved passionately by someone who has seen you at your worst -- seen you angry, ill, whiny, vain, sobbing, stubborn, frightened, overwrought, cold, greedy, demanding, and on and on and on -- definitely feels like love. And, yes, it's worth working for.

Vivian Dent is a psychologist with a practice in San Francisco and Berkeley. She has written for the New York Times Book Review and other publications.


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