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. It’s exactly the same in our relationships.

Judith Simmer-Brown
13 June 2017
man and woman dancing
Illustration by Hana Jang.

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.

With separation the fantasy of the lover can be kept alive. The reality of the person cannot threaten the fantasy.

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.

Romantic love glorifies 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.

So, what choice do we have? We realize how unhappy romantic love is, but what else is there? All of us have experienced the way the bubble pops in romantic relationships, and the ensuing disappointment and disillusionment. We say we have fallen out of love. We begin to feel the pointlessness of the fantasy and we see the lover as a stranger or even an enemy. We feel so lonely and hurt.

But disappointment is simply the flip side of romantic love. In both cases we are so totally wrapped up with our own fantasy that we never really see the other person. We don’t see the person we’re in love with; we don’t see the person we’re breaking up with. Both situations are impersonal. Marge Piercy describes it this way in her poem, “Simple-song”:

When we are going toward someone we say

you are just like me

your thoughts are my brothers

word matches word

how easy to be together.

When we are leaving someone we say

how strange you are

we cannot communicate

we can never agree

how hard, hard and weary to be together.

We are not different or alike

but each strange in his leather body

sealed in skin and reaching out clumsy hands

and loving is an act

that cannot outlive

the open hand

the open eye

the door in the chest standing open.

Disappointment is the more fruitful side of the coin because it occurs when our ambition and fantasy about the relationship become bankrupt. Disappointment could be the beginning of a true relationship. There is a kind of loss of innocence in disappointment, which can lead to the appreciation of the lover for who he is—beyond fantasy.

Staying with disappointment requires a certain amount of bravery, for we find ourselves alone. Often it has been our fear of loneliness that caused us to so earnestly seek out a relationship; we need someone, anyone, to make us feel secure, solid, alive. And here we are again, alone and desolate.

Because this is such a familiar feeling, we begin to see that no one can take away our fear of loneliness. Our aloneness will always come up; even the best relationships end, through death or change. When we treasure our aloneness, it becomes so refreshing. When we feel it and acknowledge it as the basis of all our relationships, there is tremendous freedom. Of course, this guarantees nothing about the relationship itself.

When aloneness and disappointment dawn for us, the relationship might have the space to begin. There is tremendous groundlessness, for we really don’t know where the relationship is going. There may be good times, there may be bad times. What happens, though, is that we begin to have a relationship with a person. We can begin to see the lover as someone separate from us, and we feel aloneness in relationship. Previously, the romance filled up the space in our lives and kept us company. We felt full because our fantasy filled in all our needs, or so we imagined.

But when we begin to really have a relationship with someone, there are gaps, there are needs not met. This is the ground for the relationship. When there is that quality of separateness and sanity, a very magical chemistry can emerge between people. It is unpredictable and unknown, and it does not follow the mythic guidelines for romantic love.

When we begin to see the other person, there is a new opportunity for romance in a sane sense. The lover’s very otherness can attract us. It is fascinating what makes my husband furious, what makes him laugh. He really likes to garden, he really hates to shop. Continual fascination can bloom, because the other person is beyond your boundaries of expectation and conceptualization. That fascination can include moments of depression, discouragement, and resignation. In also includes moment of humor, delight, and wonder. But all of it is tangible, and vivid. Even while we are intoxicated with the continual emergence of the other person, we are haunted and enveloped by our own aloneness.

And, perhaps surprisingly, there is an opportunity for boundless passion when you are not trying to fit someone into a role. This can be happy passion, because it is not trying to manipulate the lover into filling one’s needs; it is passion that can include sexuality without fear of intimacy. It is also the vertigo of high-altitude passion, because one’s own aloneness remains and the situation is so inescapable.

When you look at relationship beyond disappointment, you can begin to relate to the vivid phenomenal world. Your mate can become a symbol or representative of the entire cosmos. When he or she says “no” and is furious with you, you are actually getting a message from your world. When strain or difficulty occurs, it is very tangible and must be worked with. Everything that takes place in your relationship can become a message from the world at large.

When we let go of our manipulation, relationships are fundamentally groundless. We have no control over them.

It seems so much safer to stay romantically involved. But if we do, we will never get outside our own minds. We’ll always be wrapped up in our conceptualization of romantic love. Disappointment is a loss of innocence. And that loss can actually wake us up, if we are willing to stick with the situation. There is a choicelessness that grows when you can appreciate the other person for who they are and give up trying to make them fit the image of your fantasy.

When we let go of our manipulation, relationships are fundamentally groundless. We have no control over them. In a healthy relationship, you try to support the goodness and the dignity in the other person. You don’t allow them to cover up the situation again and again; you give up your feeling of betrayal if they do the same with you. You are willing to be a gentle reminder of the way things are, and allow them to be one too. But there are no assurances about your respective roles.

Should we cut romantic love out of our lives? Of course not. We are in our culture, and we have our neuroses to work with. The intelligent way of working with romantic love is to experience it fully, beginning with the romantic passion, and then experience the disappointment and go on from there. We should understand fully what we are doing, being aware of our tendencies toward delusion when we are “in love.”

There is tremendous energy in our passion. Romantic love is the beginning of understanding the nature of relationship. With it we develop the courage to jump in, and once we are in the ocean, we learn to swim. Without romantic love, we might never have jumped in.

Judith Simmer-Brown

Judith Simmer-Brown is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University and a senior Buddhist teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition.