For most of us, when we think of romantic love the last thing that would come to mind is that it is, well—a disease.
Yet, deep within in the midst of our euphoria, when we meet the “perfect” person, when everything aligns and there is chemistry, there is always a nagging feeling that something is off. It’s sickly sweet, ungraspable, and deep down, we know we can’t maintain it.
And how accurate is it really? What is it that we are seeing in that state of mind?
In her article, “Romantic Vision vs. Everyday Disappointment” Judith Simmer-Brown said that romantic love is the “central neurosis of Western civilization” because the loved one becomes the object of passion and fixation. Romantic love, because it is a fantasy unfulfilled, a continual disappointment, creates a pathology of misery and suffering. It is the seductive siren’s call.
We create an ideal lover, fall in love with our creation, and then become disappointed when the reality of who the lover is becomes apparent. We’re advised to write lists and make vision boards of the qualities we want in a potential mate, yet somehow those lists don’t ever add up. Once the relationship starts, it takes on a life of its own. In our culture, as Simmer-Brown notes, this romanticizing of a potential mate is encouraged.
We seem to forget that our culture feeds this implicit collective fantasy about ideal partners. To make things even more complicated, this collective fantasy changes over time. Because of globalization, mobile phones, capitalism, and our speediness, how we set those ideals shifts.
Now more than ever that image of the romanticized ideal partner can be promoted and projected continually on phones, TV screens, and ads everywhere. The reminder that perhaps we don’t measure up or something better is out there hovers over us subconsciously. The combination of speediness and romanticizing a mate leads to an endless roaming of what else we can find. And we are encouraged to revel in that adventure of romanticizing and projecting our fantasy onto the future.
That shared romanticized story of the perfect mate is also often voiced by a dominant and dominating majority. Women’s perspectives and those of the LGBTQ community for too long have not been interwoven into the cultural construction of the ideal romantic love story, and so we have failed to envision real love and equality.
Culturally, we are so unprepared for real relationships. Anthony Burgess once wrote in a New York Times article that “the difference between a prewar and postwar life was that, prewar, if one thing went wrong the day was ruined; postwar, if one thing went right, the day would be made.” He added that, “America is a prewar country, psychologically unprepared for one thing to go wrong…Hence the neurosis, despair, the Kafka feeling that the whole marvelous fabric of American life is coming apart at the seams.”
By that definition, in romantic love, we are very much a prewar country. If anything goes wrong, we cry and whine, fight, and become resentful. Or on the flip side, we deny everything, smile, and keep up pretenses. We don’t know what to do with problems and obstacles or the power we have to envision something healthier. In postwar countries, people have loved and lost, and they work with the tenderness of that loss as a quality intrinsic to real love. In our culture, we protect ourselves from having to lose anything or experience pain—and so we have so much fear.
Our concept of perfect, romantic love isn’t big enough to incorporate loss.
Real love takes time, effort, and intestinal fortitude. It takes being comfortable with disappointment and our humanness. We can’t just take the moonlit walks and magic of the relationship; we also have to take the toenail clippings and tantrums. It takes awareness of the stories we construct around the relationship. It seems that those stories about ourselves and our partners, whether we see through them or not, are important. What we create with our imagination rules us in some capacity, and excessive attachment to those stories can be lethal.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote in The Sanity That We Are Born With, that, in the Buddhist tradition, we not only look at these stories, but at the story-maker. He wrote, “We work on the projector rather than the projection. We turn inward, instead of trying to sort out the problem from the outside…And then, since there is other, there are possibilities that the other should be conquered, subjugated, or seduced.” This second part is where the problems begin.
As we project our stories and needs onto our mate, we try, even in subtle ways, to control, define, or prove that we are wanted. It really becomes about our needs, and the illusion is that if we have total control, we will have total happiness—yet it does not work out that way. The more control we have, the more the relationship dies.
So, how do we stay aware of our projections and work with them? Since our projections to some extent are tied to our needs and fears, perhaps it helps to stay aware of what we really need that we are instead filling with fantasy or demanding from our partners. It helps to acknowledge, as Simmer-Brown states, that there are gaps in any real relationship when our needs are not met. We can then learn how to fill those gaps ourselves.
Disillusionment and alienation are part of real relationships as much as the euphoria, devotion, and tenderness.
Western literature is grim on the topic of romantic love. Shakespeare deemed marriage and romantic love irreconcilable. There is a good reason Romeo and Juliet committed suicide. There is no fulfillment in such elaborate, lofty perfection. Their romance was perfect because they were young, because it was forbidden, and there was nothing human about it. There was no place for anything gritty, real, or ordinary like aging, pain, or conflict.
I can envision them years down the road, when Juliet has gained weight and Romeo is stuck in bed complaining because he broke his toe and hasn’t showered in three days. Not so romantic, no? For the sake of the illusion, it’s so much cleaner to kill them off than face the condition of being human. Yet, being human also means being fully loved and comforted and cared for, even with a broken toe or warts. That is something Romeo and Juliet could never experience as idealized figures.
But if romantic love is a death wish, real love is a life wish. Recently flipping pages through a magazine, the title in huge letters stood out, “No Ordinary Love.” It was posted over the image of two lovers laughing in bed together. No wonder the sultry, romantic, and sexy song by Sade of the same title was so immensely popular. Most of us don’t want ordinary love. Anything but that. We want to be impressed, enamored, healed, thrilled.
But it is in the ordinary moments that we truly experience what moves us.
There is a space where we don’t have a chance to romanticize what we witnessed yet, in that clear moment when we observe our beloved. Ironically, that lucid quality of being present with our beloved and watching our interactions unfold is what hooks us. That moment is spontaneous and unpredictable and often reveals so much about who we really are. The instant after, we want more of that, whatever that is. We take it and run with it, calling it pleasure and perfection. We forget that those moments often happen in such ordinary ways—while driving, in the midst of cleaning, or in ordinary conversation.
According to Pema Chödrön, this is what we work with: being hooked—loving an interaction and craving more or being angered and reacting. Real love requires accepting the difficult qualities and practicing patience for our partner and ourselves. This is the opportunity and the ground for learning. This is the good stuff, even the difficult moments—especially the difficult moments. So if it ends, the purpose was not in attaining it, but rather how it changed us. External validation of a successful relationship is hardly meaningful if that relationship is dysfunctional and prevents our development. Yet that is hardly the romantic view we grow up with.
Our culture does not prepare us with the skills to effectively work with this—to work with our own neuroses, the neuroses of our partner, the projections we unconsciously create, or the misunderstandings and confusion that this can cause. But this is a skill like any other that we can practice. Certainly, if we don’t practice, the lesson will repeat in the next relationship.
Perhaps a cultural shift in view is needed, as well. It would be helpful to cultivate the ability to value what is ordinary and recognize that perfection is death. The ideal is just another projection of the ego, so that it has something to fix. Imperfection is rich, stunning, complex. Indulging in fantasy, even the best one, can leave us feeling as if we have eaten a vat of cotton candy. It’s like hearing the same song on the radio over and over.
But real people can surprise us and make us stretch our parameters of where we might not go on our own. There is something refreshing about that. Even if we don’t realize it, that is what we seek in each new experience. We need to value the present over a conceptualized future, actual over the ideal. A shift has to happen where we lose the taste for the tragic and dramatic and develop a taste for simplicity. The paradox is that in simplicity, we can truly see complexity and not be confused by it. We shun the ordinary, but perhaps when we do, that is the beginning of the neurosis itself.
Yet, perhaps not everything about romantic love is entirely a delusion. Aspects of it can last at least a lifetime. Often those initial experiences with our beloved are entangled with how we define them after, and then the whole thing is labeled romantic love. But if we take it apart in minute stages, in those moments when we admire another human being free of attachment and imposing our needs on the experience, we see intelligence, often a mirroring. At that point, it’s not the label that is important, but the deeper recognition that comes from living the “real love” that we’ve been exploring.
It is not the high of romantic imagining, but rather the clarity and magic of the phenomenal world manifesting in human form for a moment. If we can leave that beauty alone and let it appear and re-appear without clinging, then we have made a choice not to step into romantic projection. In projection, we intensify and exaggerate that initial feeling to fill the holes left by loneliness, trauma, craving, and inadequacy. This is where the paths to either health or neurosis emerge—one is ordinary and open, the other embellished, contorted, and tortured into a particular shape.
Thich Nhât Hańh said, “Love is a living, breathing thing. There is no need to force it to grow in a particular direction.” A living, breathing relationship needs space. But this is not the space of emotional withdrawal, ignoring, or any kind of uncomfortable silence. It is a nourishing, trusting, safe space. It is a feeling of quiet, of home. This place is for vulnerability, mistakes, unpacking emotion, relaxation, playfulness, and allowing us to be fully ourselves. No relationship can be without it.
The best relationships are often only as good as the space they cultivate. Watch a couple in silence and you will see how they have created their relationship. Space allows us to have an independent voice and healthy boundaries. Respecting that space in ourselves and others is what allows us to thrive.
Real fulfillment is so simple, it’s easy to miss. It’s too ordinary. The paradox is we already have what we need to find real fulfillment in relationships if we don’t fill it with our projections. Our times of constant political Facebook posts, endless noise, and busyness make us forget the simplicity of real love.
Space and ordinariness can really nurture us if we have the courage to acknowledge how precious, how sacred it is.
Author: Annette Novak
Image: “Romeo & Juliet“
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell