The indefinability of short-term romance

Tune into Spotify these days and you would be forgiven for thinking that love has an inbuilt expiry date. The shortest relationships are being celebrated as having incredible depth and meaning, despite, or perhaps because of, their brevity. In Home for the Summer, Sara Kays’ 2020 hit about two college students visiting their hometown for summer break, the pair commit to seeing each other, despite knowing it will end in the fall. In Let’s Fall in Love for the Night, Finneas O’Connell’s 2019 hit, the lover is asked to ‘fall in love for the night and forget in the morning.’ The conclusion is similar, ‘you won’t stay with me I know / but you can have your way with me till you go.’

Pop songs are establishing a new genre of short term fling that does not fit neatly into the categories of hook-up or relationship, being too intense for the former and too short for the latter. Instead, they are short-term romances.

Kays sings of how ‘one day we’ll be gone from each other / we’ll have lives in two different suburbs / we’ll have families with different lovers.’ Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this inevitability, the love is deemed worth pursuing. In Crying Over You, HONNE and BEKA sing of struggling to commit, and yet when the relationship ends, they are crying over each other. It appears that, despite the best of intentions, short-term relationships have unexpectedly long-term hangovers. Sometimes we only discover the meaning of a relationship when it ends, and sometimes the meaning was there the whole time without us seeing it.

Can a short-term relationship be meaningful though? Traditionalists say no. Some conservatives view all casual relationships as meaningless, a waste of time and an interference with the main purpose of love: the pursuit of marriage and children. ‘Sexual activity was supposed to be confined to committed relationships, particularly marriage. Not everyone lived up to that, but a huge number of people did,’ says Ben Shapiro, wistfully, in a speech to the Young America’s Foundation. To Shapiro, committed relationships are viewed as the penultimate goal, with marriage as the gold standard and love being the bridge toward a couple’s central purpose: bearing children.

Charles Cooper, the lawyer who argued in favour of California’s ban on same-sex marriage, endorsed this perspective. ‘The concern is that redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes,’ he said. This argument is presented as if humans have the same core purpose as other animals -reproduction- despite our relatively unique traits of pleasurable sex, creativity, imagination, art, and complex rational thought.

Other groups argue, in a kind of moral panic, that the invention of the pill and other contraceptives in the 1970s fundamentally restructured human relationships. Short-term relationships were not as common before the pill, and the invention ruined traditional commitment. Jordan Peterson talks of a ‘post birth-control confusion,’ where the pill created ‘a new female born, because there’s never been a female in the history of life who had voluntary control over her reproductive capability.’ This argument, which at times extends to sex toys as another ‘modern’ invention, is ahistorical. Contraceptives date back to the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Amazonians, among other cultures. The Egyptians used crocodile dung and honey, while the Greco-Romans resorted ‘frequently’ to abortion, according to the historian Ciro Comparetto. Although, of course, the pill did have a revolutionary effect of significantly higher efficacy, it is untrue to suggest that females have never had any prior control over reproduction.

The progressive view, deriving from second wave feminist theory and sexual liberation, is that casual sex is a matter of consent and one off, or multiple, pleasures. This view runs into ironically, the same problems as the conservative view. It presents humans as subject to urges, without giving any meaning, emotion, or depth to those urges. ‘What I want is outrageous: all the possible pleasures of freedom,’ Kate Millett wrote in Flying, her landmark, feminist, 1974 semi-autobiographical novel.

Sex is simply described as a fun activity and an exercise of human freedom. ‘The only perfect love to be found on earth is not sexual love, which is riddled with hostility and insecurity, but the wordless commitment of families,’ says Germaine Greer, dismissing the value of romance, in an ironic nod to conservative family values. There is no inherent meaning in sexual love or connection between partners from these perspectives. Men in particular, are replaceable. They can be used for sex, and later valued for family, if things get that far.

The link between hook-up culture and sexual emancipation lies here, in this core idea of replaceability. Perhaps the ultimate testament to this view was Beyoncé’s 2006 hit, Irreplaceable. In the chorus she sings, defiantly, ‘I could have another you in a minute… so don’t you ever for a second get to thinking / you’re irreplaceable.’ But if we are all so easily replaceable, then what value are the relationships we enter into? In hindsight, the song’s declaration of independence mirrors the modern loneliness of online dating life. Tinder and other dating apps make the exact same pitch. We are all infinitely replaceable. Keep swiping.

Far from granting us freedom, however, emotional detachment and replaceability have left many of us feeling objectified. In a survey of young adults, aged between 18 to 24, SurveyMonkey found that 75% used Tinder, while at the same time, 56% found dating apps ‘either somewhat or very negative.’ The freedoms we have won to quickly choose and replace partners are hardly making us happy in the way that we were promised.

So where does that leave us? If pop songs are anything to go by it seems that we are turning our back on the superficial view of relationships and instead, clinging onto any vestige of connection and emotional attachment we can find. If we only find it in a short-term romance, then so be it, the songs suggest.

In Reckless Lover, Handsome Ghost’s 2017 song about clinging onto a relationship that is already over, this form of longing is evident. ‘The night’s not over / come on, tell me its not,’ is followed by the desperate chorus, ‘I couldn’t let it go,’ repeated again and again and again. Why can’t we let these experiences go? Why can’t we move on from a relationship that is meant to be superficial or a one-off event? ‘My thought was that in order to fully close the book on something you have to first analyze every sentence, every beginning and ending,’ writes songwriter, Timothy Noyes.

There is an implicit question here, about whether we should value a relationship based on its longevity or based on the connection we have with the person in the moment, however long that moment lasts.

This can be constructed as a thought experiment. If we imagine our entire life as a graph of meaningful experiences, self-defined, then should we value the days or weeks of peak experiences, or the everyday experiences? It seems more human to value the peaks. The moments where we experienced the ultimate form of certain emotions, or the best moments of our lives, no matter how brief these moments would be. This view is compelling, because it would take into account bad marriages, which have longevity but very little connection, and summer romances, which have a strong connection but very little longevity.

Some of the most defining movies for the Gen X and millennial generation’s view of love, were Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before series, beginning with Before Sunrise. In the first film, a French woman and an American man meet on a train and agree to spend one day together in Vienna. They part ways at the end of the day, having had the most beautiful romantic experience of their young lives. The American writes a book about the woman, hoping to meet her again one day, despite their brief connection.

What few people know is that the story reflects the real-life story of Linklater himself. In 1989, the director met a woman and had a similar experience of spending one night with her, talking about all parts of their lives. They parted ways without a way to stay in contact. He wrote Before Sunrise in order to meet her again, only to find out that, shortly before it came out, she died in a car accident.

There is something tragic here about the way art reflects real life, and how our longing for connection, for that one moment with that one person, can continue for years, haunting us in our dreams. Such a connection is hardly emblematic of something superficial, or ‘casual’ or meaningless. The truth is that a connection between two people is always meaningful, no matter what other people may say.

Perhaps this is all it comes down to, a form of subjective benefit people gain from relationships. There is a mark that is left when we meet people in life, the things we learn from them, and the things we learn about ourselves through them. To pretend this is not true is to artificially separate ourselves from reality, and to make our reality a lot colder than it necessarily ought to be.

Author details

Joshua Krook is a writer and law academic. He typically writes about technology, the future of work, and philosophy for his personal blog New Intrigue, and serves as Law Editor for the Oxford Political Review.


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