Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The flaws of romantic love

I'm over at Segullah again today, talking about the kind of powerful sisterly love that can exist between good friends. The post originally started out as a critique of romantic love--can you tell I'm just a little sour by Valentine's Day?--but it shifted to a more positive direction.

But I still have some thoughts on romantic love that I wanted to get out there before I lose them. And I don't need to be as articulate here as I do on Segullah (not nearly as many readers; although I daresay those readers are just as discerning!).

I spent most of high school and college hating Valentine's Day--it seemed like just one more day when I was reminded of my romantic inadequacies. I don't think I had a boyfriend for Valentine's day until the month before Dan and I got engaged. When we were dating, of course, Valentine's suddenly seemed like a fun idea--an excuse to get out and do something special for one another. It didn't hurt that I suddenly had a passport to inclusion in the romantic ideal.

I should note before I get much farther that my issue isn't with romance itself--after all, I enjoyed being courted, and I still enjoy a good chick flick or romantic novel. My problem is with our tendency in society to glamorize romance as an end in and of itself. To do so, I think, overlooks the fact that true love between couples entails much more than romance. C. S. Lewis talks somewhere (I tried and failed to find the quote) about how romantic love is a powerful emotion, but it's impossible to sustain--and those who enter marriage believing that this romantic high characterizes real love are bound to disappointment. Slowly, something deeper and more enduring replaces those initial exalted feelings. And honestly? I'm glad they do. When I look back on the year and a half that my husband and I were dating, most of what I remember are the discomforts of the drama, the uncertainty (and of course, uncertainty is a key part of the romantic tension that draws us to the romantic story), and the roller coaster highs and lows. To be honest, I'm often surprised that Dan still wanted to marry me when I remember the emotional basketcase that I was for much of our courtship.

Romance overlooks the idea that love is work. In the article by Patricia Holland that I quote in the Segullah post, she quotes author Eric Fromm: “Because one does not see that love is an activity, a power of the soul, one believes that all that is necessary to find is the right object—and that everything goes by itself afterward. This attitude can be compared to that of a man who wants to paint but who, instead of learning the art, claims that he has just to wait for the right object, and that he will paint beautifully when he finds it.” This, I think is one of the dangers inherent in romantic love--first, the idea that you only have to find the right object (I'm not a believer in soul mates--although obviously I think some people are more compatible than others); second, the idea that real love shouldn't entail work. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

One of the most eloquent passages I know on the idea of deep, committed marital love comes in George Eliot's Middlemarch (which in many ways reads like a primer on marital love, showing the spectrum from relationships founded on the illusion of romantic love, to the more enduring relationships between flawed human beings). Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters finds himself socially disgraced when some misdeed in his past comes to light. His wife, according to the social dictates of the time, has to share in his disgrace. But movingly, when she finds out, she comes home and, rather than reproaching her husband, she goes quietly upstairs and removes the frivolous bonnet she'd been wearing out visiting, and replaces it with a quieter, simpler one, symbolic of her acceptance of the situation. She'd married her husband in prosperity, but she'd married the man and not the position, and when he lost his position, she was still willing to stand by him. That, I've always thought, is what real love should look like.

The final issue I have with romantic love is that it sets most of us up for disappointment, somehow conveying the idea that if your relationship doesn't look like this, then there must be something wrong. But truth be told, neither Dan nor I are much for romantic gestures; I'd rather he didn't spend the money on the flowers (I don't mind them other times of the year, but I'd rather save the $30 at V-day); and I can't imagine Dan reciting a poem to me to save his life (well, maybe to save his life). Instead, our "romantic" gestures are much more mundane and domestic: he gets up with the kids in the morning to buy me an extra forty minutes of sleep; I try to keep things somewhat organized around the house so that our domestic routines are smoother. Not the stuff that romantic songs are made of, but they do make our lives richer.

Now, I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from celebrating Valentine's Day (if they so choose--our few experiences with over-priced meals on the day itself have kind of turned us off it), only saying that there's more to life than romantic love. And more to love (I suppose I should have clarified in the beginning that I mean eros when I talk of love--not philia, storge or even agape--none of these have quite the same issues of commercial distortion) than just romance.

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