Obstacles are exciting
How do most romantic couples find and show love and affection, as portrayed in film, television programs, literature (romance novels in particular) and music?
Most find love by overcoming what seem to be insurmountable obstacles—he’s rich and she’s poor, or the reverse; or he’s black and she’s white, or the reverse; one of them is already married to someone else; one of them is deeply wounded by a previous relationship (abandonment or betrayal) and unable or unwilling to engage again; and so on.
Romantic films, television programs and literature generally end in one of three ways: tragic, comic or bittersweet. In tragedies, one or both of the lovers die; in comedies, the lovers ride or drive into the sunset together; bittersweet narratives are mélanges of tragedy and comedy—more subtly nuanced—and usually leave audiences with more questions than answers. Think European art-house films.
Traditional tragedies and comedies imply that the passion is eternal, that the couples, or at least their ideal, will last forever. In comedies (happy endings) the credits roll before the romance can grow stale; in tragedies, the relationship is decimated by a death or two so that the ideal of eternal passion can endure.
Romantic American films usually subtly censor the mundane parts of lovers’ lives, such as taking out the trash (except to sneak a cigarette or donut), washing dishes, putting on their socks or conducting most quotidian activities. When we see lovers together, they’re usually overcoming internal and external obstacles to their being together and then rejoicing with seemingly unbounded passion.
Sex, love and Western culture
Is it possible that as a culture, we conflate sex and love? We subconsciously assume, when we watch a couple make love at the end of a comedy or the beginning of a tragedy, that they’ll be together forever. However, there’s no Pretty Woman II, nor is there Titanic: The Sequel or Thelma and Louise Ride Again.
The brave knights of feudal lore engendered an ideal of courtly love for the wives of the lords they protected. This courtly love was never consummated; it remained an ideal, and never became sexual, because of the knightly code of honour. The knights worshipped the fair ladies as symbols of beauty, a type of courtly love that actually condemned passion.
But as we already know, rules were made to be broken. Take the Garden of Eden as a parallel: the one thing that God specifically tells Adam and Eve not to do, they’re tricked into doing. Could it be that taboos and prohibitions actually cause objects to be desired?
Denis de Rougemont notes that we can clearly trace the theme of adultery as passion in popular literature. If you think about all the films and television programs you’ve ever seen, can you name five passionate love affairs between carefree happily married couples? (I mean happily married to each other.) How about two? We desire whatever is illicit. If someone says, “Don’t do X,” it may immediately make X titillating, enticing.
Is it possible that when given the opportunity to have a peaceful, calm and harmonious relationship, some people subconsciously create obstructions that prohibit or hinder themselves from being united with their beloved? Have you ever had a friend who yearned to get married and, soon after doing so, immersed himself or herself so deeply in work that the marriage became dysfunctional?
Are there links between passion, suffering and drama? If Capulet had condoned or actually desired Juliet’s marriage to Romeo, what would the young lovers’ story have been? Would they have lived happily ever after? Interestingly, de Rougemont claims that “What they [lovers] need is not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence.”
Why does absence make the heart grow fonder?
Why do long-distance relationships seem more passionate than conventional marriages?
Is it possible that our culture mistakes lust for love? (It would help explain why 40 percent of marriages end in divorce.)
Is it possible that we lust after things only because religion has made sex dirty, evil, shameful, illegal and even sometimes punishable by death?
Modern lovers often delude themselves into believing that the ultimate meaning of life can be found in another human being, the “missing part” of themselves.
Robert A. Johnson writes, “Romantic love is the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture, it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy.”
Both marriage and divorce are billion-dollar industries. So is the film industry. So is the music industry. So is the romance novel industry. All of them rely on the myth of romantic love, the archetypal Western romance, to earn countless dollars. Modern lovers often delude themselves into believing that the ultimate meaning of life can be found in another human being, the “missing part” of themselves.
Try this narrative on for size: many people in Western civilization think that they’re inherently unwhole; through popular culture, we come to believe that the missing part of us is “out there” somewhere, in the form of a soulmate; once we locate our soulmate, we’ll be whole.
Any obstacle such as physical distance or the threat of discovery by a jealous husband, wife or fiancé—or asteroids or ships going down or World War III or bank robberies or car chases or terrible diseases or fires or floods—only redoubles our impassioned quest and makes us feel truly alive! “You complete me,” says Tom Cruise to Renée Zellweger in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire as he struggles to start his new career and she helps him overcome obstacle after obstacle.
Are we so enveloped by the myth of romantic love that we can’t understand that there are other types of love that may be more conducive to marriage than the love we assume correlates with sexual passion?
Do we mistake passion or intense recreational sex for love, when the relationship between passion and love could be more complex or even non-existent?
When we watch pornography do we think, “Oh, that’s so sweet! They really love each other!”?
Despite the fleeting ecstasy that we feel when we’re supposedly in the throes of passion, we spend much time feeling a deep sense of loneliness, alienation and frustration over our inability to make genuinely loving and committed attachments. Usually we blame other people for failing or being incompetent in some way. But maybe we subconsciously create problems in or sabotage or implode our relationships.
It rarely occurs to us that we need to change our own unconscious attitudes—the expectations and demands we impose on relationships and other people. Maybe 40 percent of marriages in America end in divorce because we conflate lust and love, and when the lust wanes, people assume that the love must be gone too?
Very few long-lasting, committed, functional, relatively peaceful monogamous relationships are perpetually passionate—yet what we learned about relationships from the stories we read as adolescents and young adults would lead us to believe that without passion, there’s no intimacy. The reason passion doesn’t last is because, when we subconsciously objectify our lovers as the missing parts of us and they eventually sneeze or burp, we subconsciously realize that they’re their own entities and, hence, can’t be the missing parts of us.
“When a man’s projections on a woman unexpectedly evaporate, he will announce that he is ‘disenchanted’ with her; he is disappointed that she is a human being rather than the embodiment of his fantasy,” writes Robert Johnson.
Look at the most popular romantic films, books and songs of the last hundred years, and you’ll find that most are about lovers overcoming obstacles to being in a passionate relationship. But could the polar opposite actually be more accurate—that overcoming obstacles foments that desire and appreciation? If two people were absolutely ideal as partners, but had no worries, would they find the other person less attractive?
“There’s just no chemistry” or “I’m just not attracted to her” is what we hear after a friend describes someone as the perfect partner, but then discovers there are no obstacles.
Deconstructing “normal” sexuality
So what are people really trying to express through all this sexuality? Is it love? A desire to be loved? Is it power? Lust? Possession? Frustration? Hate? Revenge? Or is it mere distraction? Or all of the above?
Obviously, it’s not possible for an entire civilization to be so misguided as to be driven by lust, power, money, possession and war, but how is what we consider to be “normal” working out for us? What is “healthy” sexuality when people are consciously trying to avoid producing a child? What are people trying to express when they want to have recreational sex with someone else?
Consider this anonymous quote: “If sex were so satisfying … you would only have to do it once.”
In his book Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy, David Schnarch posits that sexual intercourse in America has become akin to mutual masturbation, that the way we approach recreational sex is too goal-oriented, too focused on orgasm; for some couples, then, intercourse has become more like a business transaction than a mindful, loving, connective, passionate, intimate experience. In a lecture I attended, Esther Perel opined that passionate, intimate sex and marriage may unwittingly be mutually exclusive, because, “How can you desire what you already have?”
I categorize sex as either procreational, in which the goal is to produce a baby, or non-procreational or recreational, in which producing a baby is intentionally avoided (controlled). What, then, is the purpose of sex and the infinite space it occupies in our collective unconscious and individual consciousnesses when people aren’t making babies? And what is this elusive thing called “passion” that we yearn for?
If aliens typed “sex” into Google, I think they’d be bemused by the sexual activities our species engages in when we’re not procreating.
If aliens travelled here from another galaxy to observe us and wanted to know how human beings procreate, they’d have no problem finding out. There’s nothing more natural than making a baby. However, if aliens typed “sex” into Google, I think they’d be bemused by the sexual activities our species engages in when we’re not procreating.
The first question they might pose is: “Recreational sex seems to have become very athletic. Do some people consider it a form of calisthenics, a.k.a. sexercise?” Then, I believe, they’d find the employment of masturbation as a sleep aid, a meditation, a warm-up act or a “release” from the daily stresses, disappointments and traumas of highly competitive capitalism to be somewhat bizarre, imprudent and alarming. Lastly, I believe they’d ask, “Is there a concrete relationship between sex, intimacy and love? And what are the ideal circumstances and conditions that create lasting passionate love or loving compassionate passion?”
Our minds project our own bodily pleasures onto our partners’ bodies, and this is completely misguided. Just because you or I enjoy having our necks kissed in a certain way or our arms stroked in a certain manner doesn’t mean that anyone else does.
Any assumptions regarding what pleases or displeases the bodies of other human beings are fallacious. The only way to bridge this chasm is through authentic communications and loving, compassionate explorations. Also, we must recognize that our bodies and what pleases them will change over time, and that the same will happen to our partners’ bodies and what pleases them. This could be called personal “sexual evolution,” and it’s a good thing, since we preternaturally crave novelty.
As a species, we get bored rather easily—usually after eight years, the average lifespan of marriages that end in divorce. The activities we once considered illicit will become more and more titillating over time (mostly owing to the fact that we considered them verboten), and we may eventually become drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Please forgive the mixed metaphor, but once we partake of the forbidden fruit, we’ll most likely become addicted or repulsed or both. This is how the mind functions.