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MINDFUL LIVING: RELATIONSHIPS

Romantic Vision vs. Everyday Disappointment

In meditation we cut through our fantasies and relate with life as it really is. Then something magical can happen. JUDITH SIMMER-BROWN says it’s exactly the same in our relationships.


Bitter, bitter my distress must be,

And never, never must my heart give up

Its great and overwhelming grief for her,

Nor I be granted e'en a passing hope

Of joy however sweet, however good.

Great joy could acts of prowess bring to me.

I'll do none; all I know to want is SHE.

—Peire de Rogiers

Romantic love, no matter how delicious, is the primary symptom of cultural malaise, the central neurosis of Western civilization.

By romantic love I mean that which focuses upon the loved one as an object of passion, devotion, and fixation. The loved one becomes the answer to all of life's problems, the source of all our happiness, and potentially, the source of all of our woes. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we can see that romantic love is deeply unhappy love, addicted to misery and suffering, cloaked in fantasy and separation.

Romantic love has become a kind of religion in Western culture. In his landmark book, Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont traced the development of romantic love in the courtly tradition of the Middle Ages, describing it as a Christian heresy. He described how Christian nobles transferred their devotion from the unattainable god to the unattainable lover, imbuing her with ideal traits beyond any mortal woman. He argued that such a view of romantic love survives today; even now, one of the most pervasive and unacknowledged forms of theism is our romantic life. We have made the lover into a god, and we are in love with love rather than with the lover. The lover is cast in a specific role in order for him or her to remain a god.

What are the qualities of romantic relationships? First of all, romantic love thrives on separation. The unattainable love is the most attractive one—someone who is married to someone else, living in a distant city, or in a nexus of the forbidden. The girl or boy next door is not a good candidate for romantic fantasy, and neither is one’s spouse. Separation makes the heart grow fonder and more passionate, because with separation the fantasy of the lover can be kept alive. The reality of the person cannot threaten the fantasy. For this reason, many newlyweds become quickly disillusioned over the mundane realities of married life. The courtship was so exciting, but marriage is too real, too ordinary.

Because romance thrives on separation, it is sexy but never sexually fulfilled. If one were truly satiated sexually, then the romance would be threatened. Often, the lover chooses the mystical option of desire, giving up the living, breathing sexual partner for the fantasy of the unattainable lover. Illicit love affairs are hot, but are rarely resolved in marriage.

Secondly, romantic love is frightfully impersonal. We are looking for our "type"—an intellectual, a jock, an ethereal blonde. Our typing can become very subtle, including our lover's taste in clothes or way of walking. But we are in love with a fantasy; the person of the lover is absent. It actually helps not to have the person around too much, because they might destroy the fantasy. We have a terror that love may become too real.

Making the lover into a god, we foster a sense of poverty in ourselves. This is a lack of completion, which manifests as insatiable desire. We feel inadequate and helpless without a lover. When we have made the lover into a god, we can never join our lover. We are stuck in a situation of desperate longing, of neediness and insecurity. This is why de Rougemont called romantic love a Christian heresy; passion means suffering, and we have misplaced our devotion onto a fantasy, which has trapped us forever in unhappiness.

There is a death wish at the heart of romantic love. In classical myths and literature, one possesses the lover completely only in death—and we see this played out in newspaper accounts of domestic disputes daily. The desire for union with the lover is desire for oblivion, and anything more pedestrian interferes with the fantasy.

This is the most difficult trait to acknowledge: romantic love glorifies unhappiness. The pain of romantic passion is something we find delicious. This is clear in our entertainments—films, novels, television, ballet, opera, and plays. We entertain ourselves with the scrumptious pain of a romantic story, and that pain makes us feel so alive, so real, and so convinced of the meaningfulness of romantic love.

When we examine this carefully, we sense the unhealthiness of a cult, which glorifies unhappiness. The Shambhala tradition speaks of setting-sun vision, which elevates the most degraded aspects of human nature and which glorifies death. Setting-sun vision fixates on misery and ignores human dignity; it feeds on tragedy and snubs ordinary heart. The Shambhala tradition points out that the setting-sun approach is an unnecessary and inappropriate focus for human life. It undercuts our basic intelligence and wholesomeness and deprives us of living our lives fully. Romantic love is the epitome of setting-sun vision in our culture.


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