Romance has come to infuse our culture and is often considered to be a, or even the, major existential goal of our lives, providing us both our sense of worth and way of being in the world. American poet Maya Angelou put it seductively when describing it as: “First best is falling in love. Second best is being in love. Least best is falling out of love. But any of it is better than never having been in love”
“Kiss me, so long but as a kiss may last!”, said Percy Bysshe Shelley in his Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc. in 1921. Regarded by some as among the finest lyric poets in the English language, and one of the most influential, Shelley was one of the major figures in the literary movement known as ‘romanticism’. What Shelley’s pithy proclamation captures is something distinctive about what many of us today, especially in the throes of love, deem romance to represent: an inveterate pledge to dote on and share in the highs and lows of those whom we love.
Given that the pairing of love and choice have the earmarks of any real consummated romance, many are understandably apt to take offence when it is suggested that the way they perceive and manage themselves in relationships are significantly influenced by historical and cultural movements. History tells us, however, that there have been significant shifts in the way that love is conceived and pursued, especially how feelings are interpreted and how sex is both practised and valorised. Moreover, many of the reasons for people’s romantic failings is by cause of such historical and cultural movements.
Swiss-born author, Alain de Bottom, known for his many musings on the development and vicissitudes of romance, identifies four focal points of romanticism with respect to love in his stirring feature ‘How Romanticism Ruined Love’
- Romanticism is deeply hopeful about marriage.
- Along the way, Romanticism united love and sex.
- Romanticism proposed that true love must mean an end to all loneliness.
- Romanticism believed that choosing a partner should be about letting oneself be guided by feelings, rather than practical considerations.
Revering the emotions as central to any authentic, loving relationship (guided by the heart), it was deemed profoundly distasteful to have banded reason with the emotions during the period of romanticism – let alone for emotions to be under the auspices of reason, which was central to many of the ancient Greek philosophies.
The cold, calculable and humdrum footing afforded to reason meant that modernity had no room for the judicious. The ardent, impulsive and concupiscent semblance of the “instincts” took marriage from a contractual entity to one that was overly venturesome (“they got married after only a few months of meeting, and now she has a baby on the way”).
Even today, romantic choices are largely understood as made strictly in accordance with what our hearts dictate, freed from external constraints imposed by societal structures. Lovers are expected to be completely infatuated with their partners, in every aspect. Those more frustrating aspects of partners are adored as quirks, meaning that partners are seldom encouraged to be better people. Indeed, if a partner is expected to change, it would be an ill omen that the relationship is ebbing.
Recognising just how important it has become, Philosopher David West rightly notes that modernity has elevated romantic relationships as principal amongst the kinds of things to which we aspire: “The significance previously accorded to values like happiness and goodness has largely been captured by what almost amounts to a romantic religion of love”
It can be stated at this point what romanticism is for relationships: an unhinged disaster. It has the devastating effects of making relationships impudent in every which way. Moreover, the extirpation and lambasting of reason as a central canon in relationship dispensation has only emboldened emotions that are uninformative and stubborn.
Revolutionising our relationships
On approaching a relationship today, romanticism has had the ill effect of making most of us expect an array of things either unattainable or unendurable. They include:
- Meeting someone with all-encompassing beauty and immediately finding ourselves enthralled, and they to us.
- Never finding ourselves attracted to anyone else bar our partners.
- Having an intuitive know-all connection with our partners.
However, although venerated to a gilt-edge standard, relationships are not as lasting nor as loving as romanticism promised. Indeed, all too many are disenchanted with marriage and increasingly disillusioned with their relationships. In fact, 42% of marriages in the UK and 41% in the US end in divorce, and more of us are living alone. The controversial hacking of the Ashley Madison dating website showed that over 30 million people, largely secretively, took recourse in the website with the aim of fulfilling their sexual and emotional deficiencies in their marriages. Why then do we persist with an ideal of romantic love when its promises are so difficult to realise?
The Romantic script is both normative and at points delusional, and studying it is useful in that it can free of us of unnecessary guilt, especially when our supposed failings have far more to do with the failings of the relationship ideals we’ve been taught to adopt rather than it being something radically erring about us as people.
While some have taken recourse in unorthodox relationship styles, like polyamory, for those inclined to have monogamy there’s still hope. The colour wheel theory of love, created by psychologist John Alan Lee, offers recourse, a style of love that seeks and calculates compatibility and strives for cooperation in love.
This more mature understanding of love, what he coins ‘pragma’ love, can be chiefly understood as:
- Prioritising personal qualities and compatibility and shared goals over sexual attraction.
- Being certain of preferable “types”.
- Expecting reciprocation of feelings.
- Beginning a relationship with an already familiar person.
- Valuing cooperation/symbiosis when problems in relationships arise.
While this conception of love may be considered a little humdrum on initial inspection, pragma love is the true commitment that comes from understanding, compromise and tolerance.
It is about making a relationship work over time and being realistic about what to expect from a partner. It involves being supportive of differing needs and maintaining domestic stability. In this sense it is understandable why it is referred to as “standing in love” as opposed to “falling in love”, given that it flourishes over time and necessitates a profound understanding between lovers who have been together for many years.
A mature, post-romantic conception of love is committed, above all, to the other person and making efforts in the relationship on their behalf, transforming love into one of mutual reciprocity. With half of US and British marriages today ending in divorce, this post-romantic conception of love is one we urgently must adopt if we are to salvage our view of relationships as life-long, riveting and mutually transformative.