Since earliest history, culture, like a good parent, has provided clear rules for what it means to be a woman or to be a man and how each sex should relate to the other. The rules have been different at different times and in different places. But they have always been there—assumed, treated as divine truth. If we learned our expected gender roles, we could be confident that someone else was learning his or her complementary set. And if we adhered to culture’s codes about what it means to be friends, to date, or to marry we could rightly expect at least adequately satisfying partnership.
And today the rules are changing. This doesn’t mean that culture has ceased giving us messages, nor that men and women are suddenly the same, far from it. But the changes we see are more foundational than we may assume. They are not just about new rules. They are about a loss of once-and-for-all guideposts altogether. In a new way love lies in our very mortal hands.
For example, ask fifty people today whether they feel we will ever again have gender roles in the sense we have had in the past—that is, whether we will simply replace our old set of gender roles with a new, though now more enlightened set—and most, after reflecting, will respond “no.” We aren’t just replacing old roles with new ones, however liberated. Or if that is what we do, we will fail at what is being asked of us.
These and related changes are of immense significance. Never before in the human story have we been without clearly defined gender dictates or rules of relationship.
What will be the fate of love? Transcending gender roles and love’s old rules is about much more than just the removal of shackles that have limited our freedom. Love’s rules have served us powerfully—by making life’s immense uncertainties more manageable. Clear behavioral codes have let us come together like two precut pieces of a puzzle. And polarized gender imagery—white knight and fair maiden, Scarlet and Ret, Romeo and Juliet—has provided much of the magnetism and glue of love.
But however useful traditional roles and rules for love have been, today, both identity and love ask more. Increasingly it is no longer enough to meet as two halves of a predefined puzzle. We may continue to try. But most often when we do, our efforts in the end bring frustration more than fulfillment. Our times are requiring, and making possible, a new, more “whole person” sort of love.
These changes increase what is possible, but they don’t necessarily make life easier. For example, they contribute greatly to the present instability of the family—a most appropriate concern. And love in this more mature—more whole—sense is much more demanding. Coming together as precut parts of a puzzle has let us engage intimacy’s profound vulnerabilities with only the most beginning understanding of ourselves or the person we might love. More mature love requires much greater knowledge of both self and other. And it will require the ability to move among an ever more overwhelming multiplicity of options.
Our times require us, both personally and culturally, to bring a major new kind of responsibility, and a fundamentally new level of awareness, to this most intimate question of human truth. We are just beginning to understand this new chapter in the story of love. Appropriately it humbles us. But few people would deny this chapter’s rightness and importance. When we catch a glimpse of what it offers, it becomes increasingly impossible to go back.