From the book of life
Chapter 3: relationships: Romanticism
It’s an odd feature of love that some of our most romantic moments include these scenarios:
– being with a lover who lives a whole continent away from us and can never move to be closer.
– an infatuation with a lover who is married to someone else and has no will to leave them.
– a romance with someone dying of a disease that will kill them within a matter of months.
– a crush on someone at the library – who we never talk to yet think of obsessively (even when it turns out they have a partner).
– the last days of a holiday romance before we have to take a gruelling 12 hour flight back home.
What unites all these situations is an external obstacle to love which, paradoxically, serves to make our desire more intense. We might suppose that our love would be strong in spite of the challenges – but the situation is weirder than this: our love is strong precisely because a proper relationship is not possible in the real world, because love is fated to be in some way unrequited or incomplete.
People stuck in these unrequited situations may garner a lot of sympathy and seem like the natural friends of true love. But they tend to be no such things. They are timid visitors to the land of love, who have carefully chosen situations which will prevent them from ever taking up more permanent residence. They are self-saboteurs, who would rather be in control of a sad situation than half out of control of a happy one. They have carefully made sure that there is no chance to disappoint or be disappointed.
It is the external obstacle that gives them the security to surrender themselves totally to feelings that they would keep well at bay if – miraculously – the obstacle were to be removed. To feel a lot for someone who is available is an emotionally highly flammable requirement. The possibilities for getting hurt are enormous. We might learn to trust a lover over years, and then promptly find that they had decided to leave us, or died in the night. We couldn’t survive; our defences mask too gelatinous an interior. We would have given them the keys to our self-confidence and direction – and would struggle (after so long) to know how to carry on.
Not all of us have the psychological histories that make us robust enough to dare enter situations where mutual trust is a risk we can endure day-to-day. We may have been too badly let down as children (perhaps a parent left us or humiliated us), and are at some level therefore profoundly determined never again to surrender in the true sense to another person (we may of course be married and yet still feeling this way – if we’ve taken care to marry a non-responsive, distracted partner). We don’t put it that way to ourselves of course. We are most likely not even aware of the pattern we’re involved in; we just feel very in love with someone who happens to reside far away and report that the person who has an apartment round the corner is truly very boring and not that sexy. It sounds – for a time, before you can see the pattern – quite plausible.
The true challenge of relationships is not to fall in love with someone who may never want to see us again: it is to accept the far more interesting, and truly heroic challenge, of falling in love with someone who isn’t dying, stationed in the Arctic or married to someone else – and would have no objection to seeing us all the time. Impossible situations feel so romantic not because we have found a soulmate, but because the absence of risk has loosened our hearts. We should – with time – learn to dare to turn our amorous attentions to that deeply dangerous threatening character: the person we know, who likes us a lot and who is available all the time. That would be truly romantic.