Too many people seek lasting happiness and fulfillment in romantic love, where it is not to be found.
What romantic love offers is agitation, desire, a fevered preoccupation with the object of love, the blithe contemplation of an other. There is beauty and there is truth to be found in romantic love, but no lasting happiness or fulfillment. That “happily ever after” is to be found in romantic love is the first of its delusions.
Yet there is something undeniably beautiful about two souls waltzing in a private heaven, loving and being loved. But one falls when one waltzes in heaven. Romance either lands on the earth of daily life or it combusts in tragedy. By the “earth of daily life” I mean mainly marriage or the modern forms of pseudo-marriage. The only realistic alternative to these is some form of tragedy–breaking up or dying or in some other way being separated. These melancholy obstacles to consummation are the only way to prevent romance from descending into the soil. And that is why romantic novels and movies inevitably end shortly after consummation (traditionally, marriage). The last scene may be the wedding; or the story may play out just long enough to witness the tragic pre- or post-consummation death of one or both lovers (as, e.g., Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet).
There may be some brief allusion to children or growing old together. But (and this is my point) the “happily ever after” of children and old age cannot be drawn out at any length or else the story would cease to be a romantic one. The beauty of a mature marriage is something settled and calm and drawn chiefly from faithfulness and friendship rather than romance. It belongs to a higher genre, and lacks the agitation and suspense that drives romantic plots, both real-life and fictional, towards consummation or tragedy, which are the natural and inevitable ending points of a romantic story. Michael Novak makes a very similar point here. He points out that after consummation, the relationship requires
dealing with clothing in disarray, a mess to clean up, bad breath, and hair all disheveled. Then there would be a meal to fix, and—bump!—romance has fallen back to the lumpen earth. . . . For with consummation, illusion is shattered. Flesh meets flesh. The reality of the human condition sets in. As a result, the most satisfactory ending for the tale of romantic love is not , as one would think, physical consummation or even “growing old together.” It is, actually, death, while longing still pierces the heart.
Consider a Romeo and Juliet whose love was not so very star-crossed. Say they loved each other with a passion similarly headlong, immature, and irresistible. But no Mercutio is killed, no warring families force them to be married secretly, and no well-meaning friar furnishes the fateful potion. Instead, they exchange their sonnets by moonlight and are married in the broad daylight like a respectable couple. Perhaps Juliet still wishes their wedding night prolonged–but not because Romeo is banished. She wishes the wedding night prolonged because she knows, at some level, that the humdrum bustle of the morning will bring the beginning of the end of the romantic dream. As dawn goes down to day and nothing gold can stay, even so they will rise up to begin married life. And within a few weeks the extremely young couple’s immaturity and willfulness will bring them to cross-purposes. After that, they will be on each other’s nerves half the time until they adjust to married life, and their romantic passion, even if it does survive the transition, will necessarily take a back seat to the practicalities of living.
But in the throes of romantic passion, one is so caught up in the moment that one believes the passion could never end. One feels that one knows the beloved completely–sees into her very soul, and loves her absolutely. One swears one has already reached the apex of love, and that the apex is stable–that the love is eternal. Goethe’s Faust puts the feeling beautifully when he speaks to the woman he loves about giving oneself up–falling–in love:
To yield one wholly, and to feel a rapture
In yielding, that must be eternal!
Eternal!—for the end would be despair.
No, no,—no ending! no ending!
Yet almost every one of these beliefs is delusional. The passion could end and, without faithfulness to carry the couple through the times of passion-drought, certainly will do so, and probably sooner than later. One does not wholly know the beloved–often one hardly knows him at all; one has only caught certain glimpses of something beautiful, good, mysterious, or delightful. These are glimpses of things that may or may not actually be there; but even if they are not mere illusions and infatuation–even if they are sacred glimpses of the hidden diamonds of another soul–they are not the whole picture. And one has certainly not reached the apex of love.
One does, perhaps, for a golden hour, love one’s beloved “absolutely” in a certain shallow sense–that is, there may well be, for the moment, as powerful a love as one’s soul can sustain, tainted by no trace of what is not love. But the better measure of the depth of one’s love is not how grandiose is the flight of one’s rapture in those golden moments, but rather the degree to which one can be longsuffering and kind in the other moments. Any bloke with half an imagination can think up lovey-dovey things to do to fan the flames of romance–chocolate, poetry, adoring pet names, etc.; but it takes a deeper and lovinger soul to stick with one’s beloved when he gets Alzheimer’s and forgets who you are. It is more important to love’s long-term survival that it should live in forgiveness and patience than in adoration and bliss.
I said that almost every one of these beliefs is delusional–but not quite all. When one is in love one feels that one has reached the apex of love and that it is stable. One has not reached the apex–but the apex is stable. The faithful wife of the Alzheimer-stricken man is much closer to that unshakeable apex than she was on her honeymoon travels, when every day and every night brought new landscapes to view, and the uncharted future was full of unimagined and (for her) unimaginable possibilities of disenchantment, dreariness, and divorce.
And so, with all its delusions, romantic love redeems its falsehood somewhat with a profound truth. The ideal love is eternal and infinite, and romantic love reveals something of this ideal to us. In its momentary and blinding brightness it may reveal the hidden diamonds of the soul–and also the hidden treasure of the universe–the Love that moves the sun and the other stars, as Dante puts it.
Pre-marital love is akin to a seed that dreams it is already a flower–or an oak. There is delusion but also truth in the belief. For it is already its grown self in potentia. Marriage–or something like it–is the process by which it grows towards becoming what it thought it already was–what it saw in a blur as it fell from the sky to the soil.
It is one of our society’s great sins that it has fixated on the seedy dreams in preference to the unexciting reality of the dirty green growth. Let the seedy dream be beautiful; let the adults smile at the young people and even enter into their joy to the degree that it will admit third parties; but let them not envy them their delusion or suppose that they took a wrong turn because they themselves have moved onward and upward to the seedling stage. The very real evil of the romantic imagination is the danger that people will mistake the dream for a reality and uproot themselves from the soil of a perfectly perfectible marriage, moral code, or other real-life web of relations–to chase the airy dreams of unplanted seeds. Seeds can survive in the air for extended periods; seedlings can’t. This is a parable of adultery. Adultery leads to spiritual death–unless the seedling is promptly replanted.
Romantic novels and movies nurture the adulterous imagination perhaps as much as pornography. Both pull the imagination away from reality by preferring illusion to truth–the one through lust and the other through romance. It is not given us to enjoy the vision of romance perpetually, and if we attempt to do so we will shrivel in the sun.
Other cultures recognize the beauty of romantic love–but view it as a dangerous luxury that is perhaps more likely to bring curses than blessings. Other cultures–I’m thinking in particular of Chinese and Japanese cultures–tend to be very pragmatic about love and marriage. They encourage socially and economically beneficial marriages, teaching their children that spouses should expect each other to do their duty and play their socially-defined roles as well as they can–and that as much happiness and fulfillment as can be expected is likely to come if they do so. And they should not look for more joy than can be expected to come in this manner. They have significantly lower divorce rates than us, and the divorce rates seem to be rising in proportion as these cultures adopt Western romantic sensibilities. I won’t pronounce judgment on which culture’s romantic and marital views are superior–but I insist that whatever they have to learn from us, we have much to learn from them.
There is nothing especially noble about experiencing romantic love. At its best, though, the experience can be ennobling. It can point us towards faithfulness in marriage, which redeems, in the soily seedling toil, the promises that seeds cannot keep. And it can point us towards the stable apex of Love that we glimpsed initially–a love that we must, however, recognize is not yet properly our own.
Let us be faithful, then, and grow into the planting that we were meant to be–oaklike and flowerlike and manifold in graces. Let us love each other with daily forgiveness until the bliss of Love grows up in us and we reach the eternal dawn that we have dreamt.