Viewpoint: Down with romantic love
- 13 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
Our idealised notion of romantic love is actually the biggest enemy of long-lasting relationships, says Mark Vernon.
Romantic love is widely celebrated as the pinnacle of love. It is marketed as the peak experience without which you cannot say you have lived. The signs of its allure are everywhere, not just on Valentine's Day.
Take the cost of the average wedding. It has rocketed in recent years, now easily topping £20,000 in the UK. It is as if couples make a direct link between romantic value and cash value.
Or think of the cinema, where romantic comedies are big box office. If you get the formula right, of lovers finally falling into each others' arms, you net hundreds of millions of dollars. Or again, there are the dating websites that are recession proof - 60% growth in spending last year, according to reports.
Love is blind, the proverb goes, though it might be more accurate to say we are being blinded by a hyper version of romantic love, and are losing out on life as a result. To cut to the chase, I think that the romantic myth is one of the most pernicious of our times.
The myth is that there is someone out there with whom your life will be complete, and conversely, without whom your life would be a half-life. A major task of modern life is, therefore, to find this person and, falling in love, to cease to be two and become one.
It is hard to prove, though I wonder whether such a view of romance has become so monstrous in the pressure it puts on couples to find fulfilment in each other, that it actually undermines more relationships than supports them.
It is socially corrosive because it idealises love, rather than understanding that love is made not found. Love is made in the gritty ups and downs of being with someone who is as flawed as you.
The power of the myth is demonstrated in the fact that most people would say that they don't believe it.
They would protest that such a story shapes the plots of romantic novels and movies, and the advertising blurb of online dating sites, but is not real life.
And yet, is it not precisely this dream that drives so many to glossy magazines, to cinemas and online? It is telling that the top question asked of Google last year was: What is love? Malign myths are at their most powerful when we presume we are not in their grip.
Might such romance be, in part, a driver of divorce figures.
It is striking that remarriages appear to work best when they have outgrown hyper-romance. A recent review study listed three top success factors - couple consensus, social support and financial stability.
These couples, perhaps having learnt the hard way, are now able to talk rationally about their difficulties, rely on the love of family and friends as well as of their partner, and feel materially grounded, not rushed off their feet. If romance first draws the eye, relationships have a chance to thrive when it does not seal the deal.
More darkly, have you ever wondered why romance is so closely associated with death?
Think of Romeo and Juliet. It appears to teach that it is better to marry in haste, without thought, because that is what it means to be star-crossed, to be passionate, to be authentic.
Although note that when Shakespeare told the story he called it a tragedy. He saw a deeper truth in what happened, namely that a tragedy arises when the pernicious action of romance seizes young lovers' hearts.
There are signs that individuals are rejecting the romantic myth. The number of people living on their own has risen by 50% since the mid-1990s. Many report that singleness means they enjoy more freedom and have time for other relationships, like friendship.
It is as if these individuals are bearing witness to the tyranny of the exclusive twosome that meets freedom and friendship with powerful feelings of jealousy and suspicion.
So why has romance become so distorting?
I suspect that the desire for a peak experience of love has eclipsed the fact that love is primarily about others. The romantic myth would have us fall in love with love, paradoxically not with another. This twisted love whispers that it does not much matter who you fall for, only that you fall in love.
There is a spiritual dimension to this romantic addiction too. The philosopher Simon May has proposed that while many have given up on God in the West, we still long for the unconditional love that God used to offer.
But godless, we seek instead unconditional love from our fellow humans. We make them gods, and of course they fail us. And then love turns to hate. It's a desire that, because of the excess, destroys love. People kill the thing they love, lamented an observant Oscar Wilde.
The true art of loving is to navigate the shift from falling in love to standing in love, to borrow the psychologist Erich Fromm's phrases.
Falling in love, the stuff of romance, is the intoxicating sense of possessing someone and/or being possessed. And it just can't last, because possessiveness crushes liveliness.
The risk is that you then feel that love has died because, following the romantic myth, you measure love by its felt intensity.
Standing in love, though, is the capacity to be with someone and be free with someone. It too feels good, though for different reasons. It can allow more subtle qualities to come to the fore, such as commitment and generosity, honesty and openness. It welcomes life.
Standing in love is, perhaps, a healing notion as we face the romantic onslaught of another Valentine's Day.