The Rise and Fall of Romantic Love
Romantic love is the form of love championed in Western society and is the preoccupation of books, films, plays, songs, poetry and advertising industry.
Although the stories of romance rarely include talking about how their upbringing will influence their future, it is likely that both partners have unresolved ‘wounds’ that they hope the other person will help them to heal.
These wounds are be caused by choices that they have, or have not made, in their early life about the kind of person they are. People make these choices as a result of what has gained them attention in the past. For example in the course of realising that they are meant to be’quiet’ around here in order to fit in, they deny the ‘loud’ person inside them who is ‘screaming to get out’. In the process of making those choices, they would have excluded all the other infinite possibilities of the person they could have become. By joining with another person they subconsciously or sometimes consciously chose someone who will enable them to complete themselves by ‘filling in the gaps’ in their own personality.
Romantic love is characterised by one person seeking and finding their ‘other half’ in order to feel complete. Achieving this creates a feeling of euphoria and a sense of ‘you and me’ against the world. The union feels magical as if we are under a spell.
The trouble with this picture is that few of the stories tell you what happens when the book is closed, the film is over or the song is finished.
One author who has tried to document what happens next is Robert Johnson in ‘We – Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love’ who says
‘This is why romance is often a meaningless cycle: We fall in love, we set up our ideal of projection and in time we are bitterly disappointed. We suffer. We follow our projections about, always searching for the one who will match the impossible ideal and will magically give us transformation. And when we don’t find the divine world where we search – in a human being – we suffer, we fall into despair.’
Alain de Botton is more specific about the life cycle of a relationship in his beautiful book ‘Love Essays’, in which he documents his experience of meeting, falling in love with and falling out of love with his girlfriend Chloe.
Many of the stages of romantic love he highlights, will be familiar to you if you have ever experienced the emotional drama of romantic love. I have paraphrased some of these stages below and used quotations from his book to reflect the nature of each stage.
‘We fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as ideal as we are corrupt.’
‘I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.’ (Referring to the famous Groucho Marx quote)
‘We found agreement on so many different issues, we hated and loved so many of the same things, that after only a short time it seemed churlish to deny that despite an absence of clear separation marks, we must once have been two parts of the same body.’
I love de Botton’s story of his girlfriend buying new shoes, which he hates.
‘It was perhaps a pedantic matter over which to come to such a decision but shoes are supreme symbols of aesthetic, and hence extreme psychological, compatibility.
He then notices that his newsagent wears horrible grey socks and brown leather sandals and asks himself why he can tolerate awful footwear on his newsagent but not on his lover.
This shows that the attempt at fusion characterised by the ‘False Notes’ will be short lived and will lead onto the next stage which is Love or Liberation.
Love or Liberalism
‘Chloe and I would never have been as brutal to friends as we were to one another but we equated intimacy with a form of ownership and licence. We may have been kind, yet we were no longer polite.’
What do you see in her
‘Is it really her I love, I thought to myself as I looked again at Chloe reading on the sofa across the room, or simply an idea that collect itself around her mouth her eyes her face?’
‘We came close to concluding (though coyness prevented us from quite admitting this openly) that everyone else we’d ever come across was deeply flawed–and that we were in truth the only decent humans left on the planet. Love nourished itself through perpetual criticism of outsiders. The finest proof of our loyalty towards one another was a monstrous disloyalty is towards everyone else.
’I’- Confirmation –
‘Without love, we lose the ability to possess a proper identity, within love, there is a constant confirmation of ourselves.’
‘It was a long time before I was in any position to help Chloe to feel understood. Only slowly did I begin to unearth, from among the millions of words she spoke and actions she performed, the great themes of her life.’
Intermittences of the Heart
‘I was not only imaginatively unfaithful I was also often bored. As inhabitants of luxury hotels and palaces attest one can get used to anything. For periods, I entirely cease to notice the miracle that was Chloe’s love for me. She became a normal and hence invisible feature of my life.’
The fear of happiness
‘The anxiety of loving Chloe was in part the anxiety of being in a position where the cause of my happiness might so easily vanish, where she might suddenly lose interest, die or marry another….Lovers may kill their own love story because they are unable to tolerate the uncertainty, the sheer risk, that the experiment in happiness has delivered’.
‘Sensing Chloe drawing away, I attempted to pull her back through blind repetition of the elements that had in the past cemented us.’
‘Once a partner has begun to lose interest, there is apparently little the other can do to arrest the process.’
‘I will force you to love me by sulking or making you feel jealous’
Beyond Good And Evil
‘The arrogance of wanting to be loved had emerged only now it is not reciprocated – I was left alone with my desire, defenceless, beyond the law, shockingly crude in my demands: Love me! And for what reason? I had only the usual paltry insufficient excuse. Because I love you….’
He then goes into a down ward spiral that he names as ‘Psycho- Fatalism’.
This is followed by Suicide, Jesus Complex, Ellipsis and finally he draws ‘Love Lessons’ from his experience.
I believe that this life cycle of falling in love and falling out of it will feel familiar to most of us. In his reactions you see how his own insecurities heighten his positive feelings and deepen his negative feelings. He finishes the book by talking about ‘Love Lessons’ and concludes that although romantic love is painful, full of jealousy, masochism and obsession that it is preferable to the painless, pleasant, peaceful and reciprocated feelings of mature love.
It is interesting that Love Essays was first published over 23 years ago. In his most recent book ‘The Course of Love’, de Botton documents the life of a deliberately ordinary couple Rabih and Kirsten in which he describes the minutiae and sometimes boredom of married life. He comments that the characters would have gone through many cycles of love essays to get to this point and adds that:
‘This will be the real love story’
In writing this book de Botton is one of the few writers and artists to venture into the world of what happens after the excitement and passion of the courtship has ended. I will come back to his ideas when I talk about what I call ‘team-work’ love, but for the moment I just want to reaffirm the point that whoever you are, whoever you are with romantic love will not last. This is an important point because if you think romantic love will last and it has ended in your current relationship you will blame yourself or more likely blame your partner.
It is generally agreed that romantic love lasts for about 18 months to 3 years but this time may shorten depending on how many ‘love cycles’ the person has been through. If the partners are able to learn from the experience and accept the part they have played in the failure of the relationships it is likely that they can develop themselves to be capable of real love. This is significant since one of de Botton’s main conclusions in ‘The Course in Love’ is that
“love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm.”
So for the person who falls out of romantic love, the ways forward are to:
- Stay in the relationship, which may deteriorate into an impoverished love
- Stay in the relationship and learn the skills of love and teamwork
- Go back into the dating game to find a new partner
- Avoid relationships altogether and to pursue ‘fun’.
Now I may have shattered some of your illusions about romantic love let me continue………..
In my next blog, I am going to talk about what Michael Foley in his book ‘The Age of Absurdity’, calls the ‘Absurdity of Love’.
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