The Will to Love: A Postscript to a Discussion of Divorce

HAVING examined with eager interest the Atlantic’s exhibit of thoughtful opinions on the subjects of marriage and divorce, I find myself wondering why no one of the contributors to this vitally important discussion has asked seriously whether love between a man and a woman can or cannot be induced. This to me is the heart of the whole problem. On its answer hangs, as I shall hope to show, the answer to the divorce question.

It is customary to begin any discussion of marriage and divorce by assuming the desirability of uninterrupted family life, other things being equal. Even the present rising generation hesitates to contradict when one says that a man and wife should keep together if possible. The world sees that a nation of stable homes is a stable nation, and that children of such homes grow up into stalwart generations of men. The new President of Radcliffe College, Ada Louise Comstock, in her inaugural address declared that a large proportion of the dullards she had encountered in her years as an educator came from homes wherein divorce was either actual or imminent.

What the modern mind mainly questions is whether a child is not better off in a home frankly broken than in one that is full of cracks merely puttied over to give the appearance of wholeness. If any home could be doomed to remain forever in such a parlous condition, few of us, I think, would choose to be one of its inmates, and only the most rigid disciplinarian would consign a child to such an atmosphere. The question which I raise is, need ever so cracked a domestic structure remain in that condition? In other words, has man or has he not the will to love?

Writing on the subject of divorce in a recent Atlantic, Mrs. Gerould calls it a cynical point of view which holds that ‘almost any two people who have once chosen to come together will be as happy in that as in any other combination.’ To my mind this is the only point of view which is not cynical, for it is the only one that takes it for granted that man has dominion over his own thinking and feeling. With it, to my mind, stands or falls the whole question of the rightness of divorce.

If it were wholly impossible for two persons to control their feeling for each other, marriages would rarely remain happy for longer than five or six years at best, and we might well form our laws to render divorce as easy as marriage.

That it is not impossible to foster love for one’s wife or husband is being proved every day by thousands of thoughtful men and women, who, though more or less disillusioned as to the angelic nature of their partners in marriage, or at least as to the Heavenmade fitness of the match, have turned their attention to whatsoever things are lovely in each other, with the result that a new understanding and respect and even tenderness have grown up between them.

It may be claimed that only certain types of minds can perform such feats as this; that the highly organized, temperamental, passionate, or emotional man or woman is helpless before spontaneous feeling.

Who has not seen such miracles brought to pass, however, in the case of husbands and wives so temperamentally different that they seemed to speak in different tongues? By patient, kindly observance of each other’s discernible lovely traits, and faith in the loveliness that lurks undiscovered in all created beings, these believers in themselves have finally built up a comradeship fit for the foundation of the best possible home.

That one or both of these persons might not have experienced more rapturous moments of happiness with more like-minded mates, I am not interested to dispute; but is it at all sure that, year in and year out, through periods of the children’s teething, or the bank account’s running low, or missing trains, there would have been, even in the case of the most Heaven-made mates, a tale of uninterrupted joy?

In ancient India there was no choosing of mates, and yet, such was the sense of the duty of loving taught at the mother’s knee, — not only of the duty, but of the beauty of loving,— that the young husband and wife usually managed to make a very good piece of work of idealizing each other, so that mutual respect and tenderness formed the atmosphere of home-life in early unconquered India.

In our own day, we have William James showing the possibility of the will to believe, which is an essential and sure step to the will to love; and we have Dr. Richard Cabot, in his chapter on Marriage in What Men Live By, setting the true standard for good sportsmanship in marriage relations. A good sport, he shows, will take pride in succeeding in any adventure, and marriage is only one of life’s adventures.

But how about the passionate element in love between the sexes, someone may ask. Can a man or woman be happy without it, and can children be richly endowed where it is lacking at their conception? Although I have seen homes that were happy without the presence of this element, I know that there are many writers on the subject, including the Swedish individualist, Ellen Key, who are unwilling to concede the possible perfectness of a home or joyousness of its children if passion enters not at all into the relation of the husband and wife.

To these I can say that I believe even this commonly considered involuntary feeling can grow out of the increased understanding, hence tenderness and attachment, that two intelligent, sympathetic persons can build up for each other on a basis of faith in God and in man.

Please note that I speak of the attachment that two persons can build up, as I doubt if a really close and tender comradeship can be established unless both of those concerned see the goal and are willing to try for it.

This does not mean that one would like to see society go back to the customs of early India and arrange marriages with no regard to mutual attraction; but it does mean that, the step to marriage once taken, one would like to see in the parties to it more of the attitude of the good sport, who never gives up until he has not only tried all the ordinary human methods, but also has set a higher standard of methods for saving the day. In the case of marriage, it would mean saving the day for homes of beautiful living and reliable loving.

That there should be some provision for failure in such an adventure, there seems to be no doubt, though I should like to see the granting of divorce based on the condition that neither party to it has another specific mate in mind. That a man or woman can make a thoroughly sincere try at learning to love the established partner, while having the attention diverted by a counter-attraction, is too much to expect. It simply cannot be done, unless the attracting outsider is definitely and irrevocably dismissed from the mind as a possible mate.

If story and scenario writers could be induced to cease a while in their glorification of the thrill of love at first sight, and be brought to show instead the glory of love attained through good sportsmanship, might not the number of divorces, with their trail of heartaches, miserable faith-robbed children, and weak men and women, be considerably lessened? Much more effective than such a reform, however, would be an enlightened revival of the Indian mother’s custom of teaching her children the power of the spirit and the glory of man’s dominion over his inner kingdom.

This is surprisingly easy, even with very little children. The Indian mother drew on the rich storehouse of the Ramayana for models of loyalty and strength; but if the modern Occidental mother knows some of the best fairy tales, or the legends of the Round Table, she can fortify the young hearts of her children with many an indelible picture of faith triumphant over all evil suggestions.

When all men come to be so fortunate as to learn thus at a mother’s knee something of the science of living and the art of loving, we shall have gone far toward eradicating the tendency to divorce, because we shall have struck at its root, materialistic selfishness, and shall have planted in its place the will to love.