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America The Passionless?

I appreciate Christina Nehring's made-to-inflame argument that feminism killed passion and that the real problem with American marriage is a hyperpragmatic, hypercautious inclination to settle. I don't buy it for a minute, but I think it's an extremely clever way to sell books to a bunch of aging free-love Baby Boomers and stressed-out Gen Xers now deep in the throes of parenting and wondering if maybe life wouldn't have been ever-so-much-more fulfilling if only they had indeed run off with that lip-smackingly-delicious bass player they met during their post-college hostel-hopping across Malaysia. 

I'm not doubting that there exists a small subset of men and women whose problem in life is that they approached marriage with expectations too low, too safety-minded, and too pedestrian. And as soon as I befriend some of these people or, if we must get all clinical, am presented with some compelling research on how this group is negatively impacting our society, I'll be happy to take Nehring more seriously. But most of the research, the divorce rates, and certainly my experience with women in particular, suggest that most people suffer from the opposite problem: They go through life craving the rush of romance, the giddiness, the drama, the can't-eat-think-or-sleep-because-you're-so-in-loveness of it all. Any experience less soul-shattering is a sell-out, baby. Love isn't love, we are conditioned to believe, unless it makes your stomach hurt and your nose bleed. This all sounds irresistibly intense for those who grew up reading too many romance novels of whatever century. But talk about a recipe for raising fucked-up women. 

If drama and insecurity are what blows Nehring's gown around, I suspect she would be charmed by the anguish suffered by my girlfriend who used to endure sleepless nights because her then-lover's still-in-the-picture baby mama would periodically call or show up at his (or even my friend's) house to shriek at her like a deranged escapee from The Jerry Springer Show. Another girlfriend, bored with her excruciatingly upper-middle class existence, devoted herself wholly to down-and-out bad boys, the more abusive and closer to a jail term the better. Another was engaged in a long-running affair with an NFL quarterback (married with his own kids, of course)--a relationship that led to multiple abortions and oceans of tears. Still another could only get excited about other people's boyfriends-or husbands. At one point she hooked up with a single colleague at work so they could engage in a partner-swapping game with a young married couple. The results were pretty much what you'd expect. But, oh, the sex was hot. 

Ross Douthat, in a shrewd analysis of Nehring's and Sandra Tsing Loh's laments of passionless marriage, suggests it's a matter of class. The meritocratic elite are too busy getting into Harvard and then ruling the world to take many risks in their personal lives. The vast majority of the country, meanwhile, barrels through life marrying and splitting and cheating and questing, questing, questing for that soul mate who completes them, who makes them whole, who will make angels sing and bells ring the minute their eyes lock. 

Ross cheekly suggests that, faced with this divide, perhaps everyone could benefit from a little interclass breeding. If Tsing Loh and friends are so starved for passion, they should consider slumming--seeing how the lower 98% loves. In turn, many of the hot-blooded folks a few rungs down the socioeconomic ladder could benefit from a little more stability in their lives. More sex and more porcini risotto for everyone!

To be sure there would be some culture shock and adjustment pains involved in any such arrangements. But, however difficult the process, it has to be a healthier alternative than preaching to today's women that what they really need to do is adopt a crazier, more self-destructive vision of love.

 --Michelle Cottle