Oscar Wilde once said, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” This remark reminds me of the two most common questions I hear from gay men. The first is ‘How can I find a lover?’ The second, once they find one, is all-too-often “What did I ever see in this guy?’ Nothing, it seems, begins more with excitement and hope more often than romance, or ends more consistently in disappointment and bitterness.
I believe that the dominant religion in America is not Christianity, but romantic love. Many who doubt that perfect happiness is to be found in Divine love demonstrate little skepticism when it comes to the belief that sexual love is the one true path to total fulfillment. Popular music sings about romance and Hollywood movies celebrate it with a fervor and in a language once reserved for religious devotion. (You’re my all and everything, our love is perfect and eternal, etc.) Mr. Right is my soul mate – the one human being on the planet who was specially created to meet all my needs. He’ll be perfect in bed, of course, but he’ll also understand me completely, love me unconditionally, forgive all my shortcomings and always know exactly what I feel and want without my ever having to tell him.
This religion seems to be especially popular with women and gay men. I sometimes think that gay people develop a particularly intense form of it in response to the isolation and loneliness we so often endure as adolescents. In my own case, I know that I survived my own closeted and frightened teenage years by nourishing the hope that I would one day meet my savior, the one man in the world who could rescue me from a cold and hateful world.
Since this is the month of Valentine’s Day – the High Holy Day of the romantic faith – it might be timely to point out some of the shortcomings of this religion. The core problem is that when we expect our relationships to conform to impossible standards, disappointment is inevitable. In the love affairs of most devotees of this religion there is an inevitable crisis, in which one or both parties “fall out” of love because they can no longer ignore the mounting evidence that the partner isn’t “Mr. Right” after all, but a mere mortal. The crisis offers the opportunity to learn to “stand in love” – to let go of the fantasy elements of the relationship and to practice being in partnership with a real human being. But the longing for perfect, “unconditional” love is powerful, and a difficult dream to relinquish. When our lovers disappoint us, we can move toward acceptance, forgiveness, and wisdom; but all-too-often we move instead toward bitterness and victomhood. Rather than question our own ideas about love, many of us would rather blame our lovers for not living up to them. When we do that, we essentially condemn ourselves to a succession of brief loves which end the moment reality rears its ugly head. The sad result is that some of the most passionate devotees of Love are also the most embittered, angry, and cynical about their lovers.
Another destructive element of romanticism is that true believers in this religion tend to neglect all other aspects of their lives in the pursuit of this one pleasure. It’s as if no other satisfaction in life – friendship, career, travel, service, learning, play, sports, political or community involvement, spirituality – is of any value if the lover is absent. A chief tenet of this religion is that our lives don’t really begin until we’re awakened by the transforming power of love. When people seriously believe this they tend to neglect and devalue all other parts of their lives, becoming in the process impoverished, one-dimensional – and ironically, — less and less attractive to potential partners. A steady diet of romantic fundamentalism can lead to isolation and emotional malnutrition.
It isn’t necessary to give up on love to avoid the bad effects of the religion of romance. No one is going to do that anyway, because romantic love is one of the great delights of life. But if we avoid the mistake of making this experience the one value in life we’re less likely to have wildly unrealistic expectations of what it can provide. We’re less likely to imagine, for instance, that it can eliminate the occasional loneliness that is part of being human, or that it alone is the key to self esteem or a sense of meaning. We can begin to value our time alone as an important oportunity to get to know ourselves. We can approach prospective partners open-eyed, without idealizing them, and without rushing things. We can come to understand that it’s possible to have rich and satisfying lives both when we’re partnered and when we’re single. Next time: What is Mature Love?