Opinion: Our Unfortunate Love Affair With Romanticism’s Non-existent Romantics

By William

My eight-year marriage failed last year. It was really a process of falling apart over the last four years. My life fell apart in the face of extreme trauma from one of these new “mental health facilities” that are popping up, and unhealth in several relationships and areas of my life, including an impossible work situation. All on top of my ongoing battle with bipolar depression. When this all happened, I was soon confronted with the truth that love is not what I thought it was. Up to this point, I had believed the eighteenth and nineteenth Romantic notion of love. This notion frames love as an “intuition” that leads you to your “soul mate”or so the eighteenth century Romantics sold it. I am now instead learning the love that the Greeks knew: “a learning experience of how to get along with people around one.”

The Romantics gave us all these other ideas of the poetic, gushy, “love” which they created and wrote books about. But love doesn’t really exist as they framed it, and never did. The Romantics sold us on their books that said we would just know our soulmate without any effort, just by intuition. These non-existent partners would be like angels fallen from the sky. And then we would live with them forever in bliss. This notion has persisted up to today to a greater or lesser extent. Doesn’t it seem like the notion we were sold when we were younger, and still, to this day? The contemporary Philosopher, Allain de Botton, points out thatto their creditthe Romantics sometimes did have something like this experience of love, but in most cases, they only lived a few months or years with their “soulmate.” They usually did not live long enough to really know them. Soon enough, according to de Botton, after selling their widely distributed books, they died of tuberculosis or “old age” or suicide somewhere around 30 or 40, maybe 50 (if they were lucky). I, like so many of us in Western society, blindly bought their cheap notions at a young age. As a younger man, I swallowed it whole without question. I married that girl my intuition told me was my forever bliss in the form of a young woman who I had known from my youth. I threw to the wind all her faults, thinking I would somehow learn to live with them. Our long courtship had that magic of a fairytale. But that magic did not last the years of wear that relationships suffer if they last. But what I was attracted to was more a feeling of familiarity. And according to de Botton and others, this familiarity is the comfort we feel from the good and the bad we experienced with our parents and other significant others in our young lives.

I wish I would have understood the Greek model and that the current model we are living in in the Post(really?)-Romanticism period is not what love had been for most of human history. In most of human history, our parentswho really knew us and our family histories matched us. Often they were matches of wisdom. Because, when one gets to know him or herself, one finds oneself is pretty hard to know on one’s own. As our doula once wisely said of infants, “babies is crazy.” And I know now that “husbands is crazy” too. And “wives is crazy” as well. In fact, “people is crazy,” not to put too fine a point on it. And I think that every time I (or anyone) gets so close to the closest person I (or they) can get to, that closest person will also at times be the most intolerable person one knows. And I think this is true because we are humans. Some of us have official diagnoses, but I don’t think we should give everyone else a pass. Life, for me, is about learning who I really am. And it is about persisting through the worst of times, repeatedly, with the illness that I inherited at birth. I can tell you that it often takes a superhuman effort to make it through the worst of times. But I can tell you, I intimately know my lows, the warning signs of my highs, and I also intimately know just what kind of strength runs in my blood. It is the strength in the Japanese saying a friend of mine told me, “knocked down seven, get up eight.” Very often this strength, in itself, is not nearly enough unless I lean on others. And life, for me, is a process of learning what things I am oblivious to in myself. It is about learning my limits too. And this knowledge, for me, is a very slow unfolding that takes years of growth. Sometimes I forget it as soon as I learn it. Often I have to keep being reminded of wisdom I thought I had down-pat. The unfolding process of self-understanding seems to me to be true of others I know as well. The people I meet around me are in all different places in this walk. And this self-learning happens best for me in the context of roughly a quarter of my time with others, and three quarters of my time with myselfto either work, or rest (and read or write) and process what I see around me. And I believe it’s just part of the human condition to be blind to most of our own faults, for our own protection, until we can deal with them. The Romantics were just selling cheap books at the time. I think it’s true that at least when we are young, so many of us in the Western world still believe in all that Romanticism, to a greater or lesser extent. I think it is still sold to us in every form imaginable up to this very day, even including screens on gas pumps. I feel at times there is no escape from the din.

Allain de Botton, though not religious himself, points out that the eighteenth and nineteenth century Romantics very purposefully ignored a central tenet of almost all religions. Religion in Europe was starting to go out of fashion at the time. This central belief (that I think most religions teach in some variation, more or less) is that we humans are just screwed up by nature. And in these systems of belief, usually a God or gods or a spiritual guide help to redeem us from our selfish, self-unknowing state in a long process that lasts our whole lives. Butvery importantlyespecially in the religions I am familiar with, during life, we never get any better than simply being human. We will always have flaws. And I think it’s best for our own health if we accept that. As hard as it is, I think it benefits me to try to keep the fact that I am not perfect, and that I am not expected to be, in the forefront of my awareness. If one gets deep enough into the religions I have adopted as part of my belief system, they do seem to agree that we cannot be perfect and we were never intended to be so. But, in these religions, if we have a loving family, or a loving God, and some real friends, we are accepted as we are, flaws and all. And in being accepted, we are then free to grow. Though we are not always aware of it, we are so loved with all we bring to the tableall the good and all the bad. In my belief system, despite my many flaws, I am still loveable and have many good qualities among the bad ones. And I believe I am supposed to try to give it my best shot to aim for behaviors and a life that are a little better than what I do and have now. The Abrahamic religions (with which I am best acquainted) say, in one way or another, that our job as humans is to learn our strengths and weaknesses while relying on God, and learn over time to get along with others, despite our flaws, and others’. Because webeing humanare bound to fail, and often. In fact, over and over. In this process we begin to grow and shed our self-condemnation, accept our strengths and weaknesses, and while we are working on it, get out there and try to do something of value for others. And I don’t think that this is proselytizing. I strongly believe that beating others over the head with scripture is a dead end, for us and them. I’ve seen it time and time again. Instead, I believe that helping others is how we grow to be closer and closer to the best of ourselves. And we get to see some love (maybe love we didn’t know we had) fall upon the hurt and wounded souls of the people we interact with. I think one of the most rewarding things in life is when I see a weight lifted from someone else’s shoulders because of something I said or did, perhaps not even intentionally. And in these religions that I follow: it’s all done with God’s help. ‘Cause, I can tell you from experience, over and over, we are gonna need it. Humans are a funny species. It’s far beyond me to pin any single person down. We are just complex little animals. And I think the most important prayer is dead simple: “Lord, help me.”

I have heard that when the majority of the West stopped looking to religion, we seem to have started expecting each other to be angels, without any flaws. The term “angel” even worked its way into our relationships with our “soulmate.” As a culture, I agree that we seem to have forgotten we are all, at the same time, hopelessly flawed, and conversely, infinitely valuable. Just because we exist. And I think that forgetting this paradigm is a huge problem in our Western, still-Romantic society. I think I agree with Alain de Botton and that we are stuck in a culture that never totally moved on from the Romantic period. And it is no wonder to me that so many of our marriages fail. 

In a sad way, I think that oftentimes it is a good thing that some marriages fail, given the way I myself first approached my mate. Of course it isn’t optimal. Optimally, we would be able to work it out. But I can tell you that in my case, at some point, I had to learn that I had blindly bought into a romanticized vision of my destined “soul mate,” and after giving love my absolute best shot for as long as I could, I found that our relationship did not have the stuff of a successful long-term intimate relationship. I unfairly came to this young woman with impossible expectations. I purposefully ignored all of her faults, thinking we could just work it all out. It was my own fault: I unfairly gave her angelic status. So, for me, after eight years, I had to stop beating my head against the wall, accept that I had held her to an impossible standard, and move on. Our problems at that point were just too many and too deep. And they had compounded over the years. Though the roots were there even before we started out. Sometimes things don’t work out. I made a promise to try to see it through, but, if both people (and kids, if there are any) are so much more unhealthy in the standard “two point five kids, a house, a dog, a cat, and a white picket fence” living situation, I think sometimes it may be better for everyone to go through the horrendous pain of ripping two souls back apart and teasing out what should be kept and what to let go. It is not a cheap fix by any means. Separating from my wife and my previous life has cost me far more than getting married ever did. But I think, in the long term, it is much better for my daughter to have two much healthier separated parents than what we had previously given her. And both of us very much agree that we both want the best for our daughter.

Often this painful breaking apart can spawn a re-negotiation of roles which, in the end, helps everyone in the family grow back to health. I am going through this process and so is my wife. I have found that there is a huge learning curve as I learn to focus on myself and work on myself and “my side of the street” in our relationship in hopes that I can provide a better me to my wife and daughter. It’s messy and it’s painful. It sometimes hurts me (and her) that my wife can no longer know all that is going on with me. But in reality, she is human, and therefore never really truly did. In the long run, I think it will be much better for all three of us. The Romantics’ version of love, I am now quite sure, is fool’s gold. Real love, I think, is more akin to the Greek ideal of love: learning how to get along with others, whether they are family or friends or partners, or people one meets. And one cannot love everyone. I’ll say it again. We have to give ourselves a break on this: we are just human. I think we have to be kind enough to ourselves to give ourselves some latitude. We will fail. Over and over. And, for me, trying these ideas out imbues some self-knowledge about who I can love and who I can’t at this current point in my life. And, in the religions I have fallen into, one can give that all to God and he’ll stick the ones I can’t do myself in his pocket, for safekeeping, until I am ready for them. As I said before, the simplest prayer is the best: “Lord help me.” I whisper this prayer in the shade of the trees at lunch break in the afternoon, sitting beneath them watching a storm pass by, or in the cool during sunset. (Sorry, it’s a little Romantic of me.) Sometimes I do this even after I have markedly failed during the dayand boy-o, do I screw it up at times. But I think my loving Creator has got the greater course of my life in His hands. So even in the darkest of times, and especially during those many times I fail miserably, my hope is that I am generally on a long journey to becoming better than I was in the past. Even in the face of what I worry sometimes is a bipolar condition that is worsening over the course of my life. Maybe, just maybe, with the help I can get from around me, I can make it through the dark times that come and go. Maybe, every once in a while, I can shine some light in such a dark world. And perhaps my own growth will help my wife and daughter to get through it all too. One of my favorite songs by Anna Nalick goes, “how soon you forget, you are like stars. They only show up when it’s dark, ’cause they don’t know their worth. …We’re all waiting on your supernova, ’cause that’s just who you are.” Sometimes I think that maybe her words could be true of me, and I think they are true of others I know as well. And that inspires me. It inspires in me some sense of the goodness deep in myself, and despite all the evidence I often see, that this could be true of others too. I think we are all capable of blooming from time to time, in spite of the odds stacked against us as flawed, capable of just about anything, humans.

William lives in mid-Michigan. He is married and has a four-year-old daughter. He has written poetry for 28 years, wrote for a spiritual blog for five years, and writes for various blogs and newsletters.

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