Sunday, February 14, 2016

The deification of romance

Romantic love is one of the more powerful emotions humans can experience.  Your heart pounds, you feel weak, you feel butterflies in your stomach.  And those feelings can last your whole life long, if less dramatically as time goes on.  People have died for romantic love, and they've killed for it.  And, of course, it's where new people come from.

As a kid, I idolized the idea of romance.  In my imagination, my whole life was just waiting for this perfect man to appear and sweep me away.  He would love me for me, and he would love me more than anything else.  I would be the number one thing in his life.  I rarely imagined having kids, or if there were kids there was always a nanny around.  I didn't want to be bothered with other relationships -- the romantic one was the one that mattered.

There's a lot that goes into this primacy we give romance.  For one thing, the drive toward it is very powerful, a both emotional and sexual impulse that is extremely hard to repress, even if you want to.  For another, the kind of relationship it is fulfills a longing we have as humans -- the desire to be observed, understood, remembered.  The human condition is to be terribly lonely inside our own heads, knowing no one else will ever understand us fully.  Romantic love can be a remedy -- a single person is dedicated to understanding us, and we in turn understand them.  Finally, romantic love is the foundation for many of our other relationships -- it leads us to begin families and have children.  All of our familial relationships begin with romantic love experienced at some point by someone.

I still think romance is great.  I mean, about once a day I think, "Boy, am I glad I'm married."  It's nice to have someone around who loves me and whom I love.  And yet, I have started to feel that our society gives too much attention to romance and not enough to other kinds of love.  Movies and television almost have to have romance -- even action or science fiction shows have romance in them somewhere.  Most hit songs are love songs.  Novels usually include a romantic side plot.  Girls in particular are encouraged to think about love from a very early age -- the other day I noticed a three-year-old friend of ours making her action figures "fall in love."  And I keep hearing, over and over, the important advice to put your spouse ahead of your children, to make sure both your spouse and your kids know that your spouse is more important to you.  Why?

You see, there's a downside to overfocusing on romantic love.  First, it encourages us to devalue or ignore other kinds of love.  The love between a parent and a child, for instance, is an extremely powerful kind of love.  Friendship is another.  And both of these have something of what we look for in romance -- another person to go through life with, someone who values you for who you are, who seeks to understand you.  Parental love is usually one-way -- we all hopefully receive it from someone, and we can give it in turn to someone else without respecting a response -- but it isn't less essential or powerful.  When I was a child longing for a prince to come sweep me away, I was ignoring the fact that I already had people who loved me unconditionally, who wanted to understand me, who treasured my various good qualities and didn't let my faults drive them away -- my parents.  Of course, they were imperfect, unlike my imaginary prince.  But real love always is.

The second problem is that when you see romantic love as the only love that matters in life, the love that will make you whole, you seek it so ardently that you're tempted to compromise -- settling for a terrible relationship because then at least you're not alone.  You're less vulnerable to this danger when you have solid, supportive other relationships -- parents, grandparents, siblings, friends.  You don't need a partner, even if you want one, because you're not alone without one.  And when you have a partner who starts to treat you badly, you aren't afraid to end the relationship because you have relationships outside of that one to support you.  A person who devalues non-romantic love needs love too much to ever find the real thing.  At worst, their neediness drives potential lovers away.

What's the solution then?  I don't entirely know.  Romance is too powerful a drug to be unimportant to people.  Audiences want it in their movies and books.  Kids dream of it and teenagers can barely think of anything else.  It's always going to matter.  But I do think we could stand to tone it down a bit.

For instance, I don't put my husband before my kids.  I love my husband and my kids, in different ways, and they know it.  Both of those ways are important.  I also have been sheltering them, so far, from romance in the media they consume, just as I shelter them from violence.  I don't think they're ready for it, and I think this time, when they're young, is a good time to teach them the value of other things.  We're making a big deal out of Valentine's Day this year, because I've discovered that the kids and I share an enthusiasm for making a big fuss over every holiday ever.  They made cards for their loved ones (grandparents and friends) and we had heart-shaped cookies.  Tomorrow we're having a fancy-dress party with some friends.  (We also took some time to learn about what real hearts really look like and what they do, because Marko was curious.  Unschooling FTW.)  To us, it's a day of love, and love has no limits.  It's not for couples only, because everyone can love and deserves to be loved.

Happy Valentine's Day to everyone.  I seem to remember St. Valentine was a celibate bishop who wrote loving letters to his flock from prison.  Perhaps that's a good root to get back to, instead of making a giant sappy fuss over romantic relationships.  Today, appreciate all of your loved ones, and remember that you are loved whether or not you have a date today.

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