At 42, Stewart finds himself single again. “I’ve fallen in love almost once every year since I was twelve,” he tells me, “and by now I’ve had at least twenty ‘soul mates.’ But I’ve never had a relationship last longer than six months. It always starts out so great, but in every relationship I’m the one who ends it.” At this point he’s almost given up hope that he’ll ever find the husband he’d always believed he would one day find. He still continues to fall head over heels in love – but increasingly with guys who are completely unattainable – straight men at work, actors, a famous country-western singer, men who are already in committed relationships, and so on.
In the Enneagram, a popular psychological system which describes nine basic personality types, Stewart is a ‘Four’, or a Tragic Romantic. Why tragic? Because, as his experience shows, the habit of idealizing romantic love can actually work against having real relationships. Tragic romantics focus on what isn’t here, on the future, on the ideal; the present is just a period of waiting for the grandness to come. Typically, Fours live in a state of sad longing for a passionate connection with the beloved-to-come. They await a kind of magical transformation, an experience of connection that will heal their sense of incompleteness, their loneliness, their self-loathing and despair.
Helen Palmer, who wrote the classic text on the Enneagram types, believes that most Fours suffer from an intense sense of deprivation and loss due to abandonment in childhood, and that they compensate by living in the fantasy of the Great Love that will heal these early wounds. My work with gay men who are tragic romantics suggests to me that some degree of internalized homophobia is also often involved, especially when the fantasy lovers are straight men. Gay boys who grew up in shame and isolation, and who were taunted for being different, often retreat into fantasies of the ideal lover who will one day rescue them from their intolerable separation.
But when Fours do manage to get into relationships, they tend to sabotage them. The image of the glorious future that was supposed to follow the happy ending collides with the reality of having to deal with his messiness, his relatives, and his annoying habits. When intimacy means waking up on a rainy Tuesday morning with a partner who is cranky and needs a shower, Fours can feel bitterly disappointed, and actually start to drive the partner away in order to protect their unrealistic standards. Soon they’re focusing on a new love with a sweet longing that doesn’t have to run up against the inevitable ordinariness of daily life.
But the Lover who has the power to heal our deepest wounds will have to be a very extraordinary person – not full of shame and fear and doubt as the Four often experiences himself – but a man who never fears or doubts; a man who will love me perfectly and unconditionally no matter what. He’ll be my ‘soul mate’ – the one man who was specially created to meet all my needs. Most mere mortals aren’t really up to the task. Fours are tragic because their love is fundamentally narcissistic. They tend to think of love in terms of being loved rather than loving. Love is the alchemy which they believe will erase their wretched past and completely transform their inner lives. But they suffer from the paradox inherent in all narcissistic defenses: they find no lover worthy enough to rescue them from their own unworthiness.
One of the psychological tasks for most Fours is to complete the mourning process for the pain and loneliness they suffered when young. Their task, as spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield puts it, is “to give up all hope of ever having a better past.” While few therapists talk about this, there are some early wounds and deficits from which we never ‘recover.’ Fours move on with their lives, not when they ‘heal,’ not when they’re ‘transformed’ through the magic of romantic love, but when they form a deliberate intention to accept themselves as they are, including their wounds and their sorrows, and to love others as they are, in all their imperfection.
Spiritually, what this means is transferring their loyalty from the imagined future to the lived present. It also involves learning to focus as much on giving love as on receiving it. I sometimes suggest to romantics who lament the lack of love in their lives that they exercise this capacity by doing something like volunteering at a homeless shelter or mentoring a young person. This isn’t always a welcome suggestion, but when followed it often unexpectedly confirms the basic faith of the Tragic Romantic that “Love is the answer.” The reason it can do that is that nothing heals a damaged self-esteem more effectively than the discovery that the traumas of the past have not destroyed our capacity to care for others, independently of what they can or can’t do for us.