“In this world there are only two tragedies; one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.” This line from Oscar Wilde reminds me of the two most common questions I hear from gay men. The first is ‘How can I find a boyfriend?’ The second, once he shows up, is all-too-often “How do I get rid of this guy?” Nothing begins more frequently with excitement and hope than romantic love, or ends more consistently in disappointment and bitterness.
Psychology, on the whole, is fairly skeptical of romantic love. The consensus seems to be that it’s mostly based on a combination of lust and projection. We create, out of our wounds and unmet needs, an idealized picture of the partner who has the power to soothe, transform, and heal us, and then project this image onto some unsuspecting soul who happens to look the part. In other words, “falling in love” involves not knowing each other. Love, literally, is blind.
But when the experience is mutual, nothing is more intoxicating. Walt Whitman sings the praises of this drunkenness: “To drive free! To love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!/ To court destruction with taunts, with invitations!/ To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!/ To rise thither with my inebriate soul!/ To be lost if it must be so!/ To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fullness and freedom!/ With one brief hour of madness and joy.”
There’s no denying that romantic love is one of life’s great adventures, but Whitman’s lines also point to its limitations. It’s typically a roller coaster ride of emotions that swing from ecstasy to agony and back again – hardly the road to inner peace and balance. And it has a dark side. “Love” can be as selfish as hell – demanding, suspicious, petty and jealous. It’s volatile and unpredictable; and, as Whitman acknowledges, generally short-lived (“one brief hour”). Scientific studies consistently arrive at the melancholy finding that romantic intensity tends to fizzle out within about four years at the outside, which makes it a notoriously shaky foundation for long-term relationships.
Inevitably, in most romantic relationships, the projections begin to fade because the partners can’t forever ignore the mounting evidence that their Soul Mates are, at the end of the day, mere mortals. Inevitably, the dreamer awakens from the dream, and a crisis typically ensues. The partners “fall out of love”. Disillusionment is common at this stage, even a sense of betrayal All-too-frequently, this is where the relationship ends.
Successful relationships seem to be those in which both partners at this point make the decision to “stand in love” – to stay together and find their way to a love that is more realistic and grounded. If romantic intensity is an initial phase of love; real depth of connection comes to those willing to work at knowing each other after the projections fade. Partners who commit to stand together at this point begin to embody Scott Peck’s definition of love. He calls it “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” As one of my friends puts it, “It’s not all sex and puppies,”
It’s a spiritual truism that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but fear, and that overcoming the fear that keeps us separate is one of our most basic tasks. All schools of personal development confront the strange paradox that, on the one hand, our true nature is love, but that we’re all more or less out of touch with our depths because of various hindrances – usually involving fear-based perceptions of threats to the ego. The task is to remain vigilant toward all the inner and outer forces that cause us to close the heart, and to work continually to stay open.
I wonder how much better off we’d be if, instead of asking “How can I find a partner?” we devoted the same passion to asking “How can I open my heart ever wider?” Maybe the idea that people could be persuaded to think in that way is just a utopian dream on my part. On the other hand, I have noticed that those who grapple seriously with that question do seem more often to be the ones who find what measure of Utopia is to be found in this life.