Romanticism and Love
I'm nearing my 30s, a little bit closer to it every day, I see people getting married, having kids and taking time to go on vacations outside of work to bond better, but I barely see people question why they do what they do. Why’s that? This made me go on a journey of questioning social structures, philosophy and love.
Our brains can’t effectively comprehend time scales in the cosmic scale. When it’s anything over a thousand years, we just assume it’s a really long time ago. But, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re still very new forms of beings on this planet. We’ve been in existence for roughly 200,000 years. To put that into perspective, the dinosaurs lived on earth for 165,000,000 years (that’s 165 million).
For having been such new inhabitants on the planet, we sure do seem very confident about the idea of how we should live our lives, how we should love and how we need to stay married, don’t we? We currently live in a world of romanticism and are all hopelessly romantic. And I’d like to talk about why that’s not as cute as it sounds.
The Pre-Romantic Period
Long before romanticism, during the times of Plato - there was a kind of union or love where people involved derived happiness through wisdom, logic, and reason. The modern definition of Platonic Love, while it has some elements of the original, has thinned down to denote an affectionate relationship without the sexual element in it.
Later came the idea of Arranged Marriages, which followed the idea of dynastic marriages — marriages that are made by someone else apart from the couple involved. Historically, this process was motivated by trade or expanding regions within a dynasty by a union. This idea has been on a decline since Romanticism put forth an idea of marrying by chance.
The Era of Romanticism
Simply put, Romanticism is an artistic and intellectual movement that emerged partly as a response to the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Its philosophy emphasised emotion as an authentic source of experience and had a great impact on a variety of different things like — music, literature, visual arts, etc. For example, things like the emphasis of the feeling of awe in response to the grandeur of nature, taking walks in solitude, these things emphasise the feelings of an individual. Individualism is glorified in romanticism.
While it had an incredible impact on different fields, we need to acknowledge the kind of impact it’s had on human relationships, especially modern relationships and love.
Ideas Romanticism Proposed to Love
Romanticism proposed a template for human relationships after the era of arranged marriages, a set of alternative ideas —
The idea that for all of us, there’s a soulmate in the world. That once you find them they’ll complement you 100% in every way and you’ll have no issues spending the rest of your life with them. Now, how do we find them? Instinct. It’s got to be instinctive, maybe at the coffee shop, or the corner of a street. Love at first sight maybe? The outcome: People try very hard to feel that “spark”. Or fake it.
Happily Ever After
Once you find that connection that makes the two of you click — you’ll derive incredible happiness in each other’s company and remain satisfied for the rest of your lives — “Until death do us part” Interestingly enough, a lot of romantics in the beginning of romanticism died quite young.
Romantics in the 1800s had a lot of time. Like a lot. They didn’t have jobs. They were artists and thinkers. This put an emphasis on individualistic emotions like long walks in the nature, walking by the waterfall, really romantic moments to enforce love. This enforced the idea that the longer time you spend with your partner the more love you have for them.
The idea that once you find your soulmate you would spend the rest of your life happily with this person in a closed arrangement which you put yourself in by telling the government and the people that matter to you.
The idea that sex is an authentic and sincere expression of your feelings for the other person. There isn’t a problem with this except for how disastrous it’s turned out to be. The romanticism of sex has turned adultery into a tragedy although sex is a physical activity and human bodies can derive pleasure outside of the romantic construct. This idea influenced a lot of literature in the early 19th century that plenty of novels and books written around then were on Adultery. Modern romantic relationships puts a lot of weight on adultery because it violates the fundamental idea of sex being the ultimate expression of love and that anything outside of it is betrayal.
These ideas are all beautiful in their own ways, we live through them every day and it would be naïve to dismiss them as irrelevant, but we do have to objectively look at how they’ve been for our society and when we look at these values for how they’ve been — the story is different, they’ve been a disaster to put it mildly.
The Belief System in Modern Relationships
Let’s take a look at the fundamental ideas romanticism has induced into our lives. In modern relationships it has imparted a set of solid beliefs.
Children are always good
There’s a lot of emphasis on children, and how they’re the purest and most sincere form of beings until society has an impact on them. Jean Jacque Rousseau, a prominent philosopher in the late 1700s believed that “A child is the purest expression of humankind. The only thing that makes them bad is society.”
All of us very good and angelic by nature
Romanticism emphasises that all of us are good and angelic, and do not subscribe to the idea of sin. Something to remark is the contrasting religious idea of St.Augustine, who believed that the original sin of Adam was passed through generations through sex and everyone bears it. Romanticism’s idea of everyone being good sets up a troubling basis for relationships.
If we think we’re perfect in a relationship with another person who’s also perfect, but over time you start noticing imperfections with the other person, you start automatically feeling perplexed and are unsure of why what’s happening is happening.
The truth is, all of us are a little bit crazy and romanticism doesn’t account for this craziness because it seems to think every one is good and there’s someone for everyone.
Perception of self
Why can’t we perceive that we’re flawed or crazy? Because we don’t know ourselves. Nobody tells us what they think of us. Because they don’t have a reason to.
Your friends believe you’re the kindest, nicest person out there because they enjoy your company, they wouldn’t mind putting up with some imperfections it doesn’t bother them a lot, they don’t live with you or anything all the time.
Your coworkers have no reason to tell you how you’re flawed. As long as you’re at working capacity and are nice to them, you’re perfect in their eyes.
Your exes can’t be bothered anymore. They’ve already left so someone else can deal with these problems.
Now there’s no real way to know what we’re like, is there? How many of us go on a self-introspecting trip every so often? I thought so.
In a scenario where no one’s bothered to point out how we’re flawed, how exactly do we know what we’re like? We don’t. We just let ourselves be the way we are, get confused and frustrated when we start seeing problems in a relationship because the other person notices these things. Because they spend a lot of time with you.
Romanticism has set us up with the ideas of marriage, love, and lust in a framework we try to effectively co-exist with the person you love. But it doesn’t tell you anything about how to deal with problems that come out of this setup.
Co-existence is hard. Not impossible, but hard.
We’re not easy to live with, we need to be ready to discuss more about how insane we are if we’re to exist with one another in a relationship and learn to always have a handle on these insanities.
Psychotherapy says that the way we love is deeply connected to the way we learned to love as children. We try to find our partners very similar to how we’ve learned to find love as children. As children, our love was towards ice-cream, toys, anything exciting and attractive. I believe we apply a very similar set of ideas while finding our partners to spend the rest of our lives with.
It’s not hard to think to see why this may set us up for failure.
I wonder how the romantics back in the day dealt with household chores. No one’s had that thought because Romanticism sets up an expectation that smart and intelligent people don’t have to worry about petty problems like that. It’s true that romanticism doesn’t have to do with tinier details like that, but operating within that framework in a relationship - we still do see it’s impact on stuff like laundry, dishes, who picks up the kid. Sure, you have an effective way figured out to deal with chores and manage to be happy, but that doesn’t mean everyone deals with it the same way, maybe they never have questioned how it causes a problem in the relationship. Maybe it’s a matter of time.
There are some very obvious principles of romanticism that we can see today.
True Love needs no words
This is a classic situation where romanticism sets up expectations where you “understand each other without words”. For sure it’s quite exciting during the honeymoon phase where you seem to complement your partner perfectly, but this expectation sets up a relationship for trouble in the long run.
You destroy emotions and feelings by thinking too much.
No, you destroy your ability to work through a problem without thinking about it. Relationships need work and effort, thinking about a problem objectively helps identify what issues need addressing, which enables you to solve the problem. The logic of destroy emotions and feelings by thinking too much only enables you to ignore a problem and feeds into bigger ones.
Your soulmate is perfect and you should accept them for what they are.
Romanticism does not allow the fact that mutual education in relationships is a healthy factor that can be induced because you’re already accepting the person for what they are as a whole and you would simply have to live with them for the rest of your life no matter how much something about them bothers you — now I'm not saying this is the case in every relationship out there, some relationships take a more rational stance on the matter but it’s just a solution for a tiny part of the problem - I simply want to acknowledge Romanticism’s role in putting us in this spot in the first place.
The Ancient Greek and Love
Ancient greek’s idea of love had a way to impart rational thinking so the parties involved would benefit off of the relationship and they’d grow in it without having superficial rules to cage yourself in a relationship (like marriage). Plato’s idea of a relationship was non-romantic. Rising through levels of closeness to wisdom and true beauty from carnal attraction to each other, and this is enabled by encouraging criticism within a relationship.
But, the modern-day interpretation of the idea has evolved so much so that in today’s world we refer to non-sexual relationships to being platonic. Some of the ideas are still present like the bond that brings out the best in two people, but it has lost its essence to a point where we simply have either Platonic or Romantic relationships in our society today.
We’re most vulnerable in a state of lust. And we’re known to yearn for two kinds of things when we’re the most vulnerable
Everyone wants these two when it comes to sex. But within the bounds of traditional romantic relationships, it’s hard to have both. Excitement comes from new things, new people, new experiences. Safety comes from the fact that you’re around people you trust. Now, I don’t fully believe that excitement and safety is a sustainable strategy in a monogamous romantic relationship. Maybe it works for you, maybe you’re happily married for 30+ years, but you’re in the minority. Most people choose divorce. The numbers are on the rise for a few decades now. In the 60s, the solution to this problem was Free Love. Open Relationships. In modern times, the idea of polyamory is what we’ve conceived to address this.
Now, that doesn’t mean everything is great on the other side. Polyamory or sustaining an open relationship takes effort, dealing with chaos.
This presents a choice between boredom and chaos.
In a traditional romantic relationship, the honeymoon phase is the most exciting phase, which lasts anywhere from a few months to the first few years, this is also known as New Relationship Energy (NRE). Beyond this, there’s a risk of loss of excitement in one another.
Romanticism insists that people stay with each other despite this because they’re your soulmate and you would have to like everything about them for the rest of your life. If that’s not true - then they’re not your soulmate and you have to leave them to find someone else, initiating the same cycle again. This leads to what is known as Serial Monogamy. This is addressing the symptom and not the disease.
Sustenance in Relationships
That said it’s not true that everyone’s worth sticking to no matter what, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between relationships that are worth sticking to and the ones that aren’t.
If you truly believe that the reason that you’re unhappy is because of your partner — then it’s wise to leave. If the reason(s) that you’re unhappy is because of the way you are, but in the company of your partner — then think twice about your actions. It’s very easy to confuse both of these.
To borrow Alain de Botton’s example —
The UK has done exactly this, pinpointing all of it’s unhappiness to the EU and getting rid of it. Now, it learns painful lessons much like people in relationships have discovered time and again.
The Problem with Marriage
There’s a huge rise in divorce numbers in the past few decades, why won’t we take a minute to acknowledge what’s going on? Sure, it works for hundreds of people in this world, that doesn’t mean everyone in the world has to do the same thing irrespective of if it works or not. We’ve got to be asking questions without mindlessly following what everyone else does.
We make sure the restaurant we go to for dinner is really good by asking people about it, reading reviews, and what not — why do we not think about the style of life that would work for us and just choose to think it’s romanticism or nothing? Could it be that we’re conditioned to do things a certain way? Go figure.
“Marriage is a nasty thing to do to somebody you love.”
Come to think of it, why do we do it? Why do we have such grand gatherings and affinity towards public betrothal?
We truly believe that we can make better versions of ourselves in the company of a partner in a closed environment where both parties involved cannot leave as they please. Public betrothal makes sure of that fact because you’ve just taken someone as your husband/wife in front of everyone that matters to you.
Marriage was meant to be a practical arrangement in the days of the kings. Love in marriage happened by chance. It’s evolved within the same framework today. Why do we feel so compelled to tell the government and the rest of the world about who we choose to spend our lives with? The answer is 50% taxes and 50% conditioning of the romantic idea of weddings. Marriage simply works today because it’s the most economically feasible solution to loneliness and add a bit of romanticism into the mix - it’s what we have in the world today.
We get into this kind of an arrangement and then begin to try to understand how it all works. Nobody tells us how to do it, we all just try to see how it goes. In a world that does everything by reason, logic and method - when it comes to love, and romance we leave it to feelings and choice, I think it’s because of how ingrained the idea of romanticism has been since the late 18th century, but what do I know.
We try to address problems with ourselves, allow ourselves to mature in an environment where you expect it to happen mutually but with a closed romantic framework which proposes a closed set of values:
- Love and Sex being inclusive
- End of loneliness
- Lack of Practicalities
- Acceptance of a person as a whole
Naturally this doesn’t go as well as everyone expects to. It’s probably too naïve to blame it all on these factors and pretend that you don’t work like that, but is it too naïve to question the fundamentals of how we choose to live out our lives?
After having looked at why Romanticism may not be a perfect solution after all, it’s only natural to wonder what a post-romantic relationship might look like. It could look rather healthy with people being happier when they start questioning the fundamental issues in today’s relationships and start addressing the roots of the problems instead of superficially trying to deal with it — with divorce, arguments, or in some cases, domestic violence.
The Classical framework encourages effective attitude and is based on a few factors such as
- Love and Sex not being exclusive
- Talking about finances upfront
- Talking about flaws in one another and being in control of them
- Over communicating when necessary
- Trying to question if fundamental social frameworks are still valid today
Curiosity always is key when it comes to life. Questioning things takes you a long way.
This article is not meant to diss the idea of romantic relationships, marriage, and love. It’s meant to make people question ideologies without blindly following them.
Having said that, it’s important to acknowledge that we all live in a world of romanticism currently, we were born in the romantic era and it’s only natural for us to gravitate to that idea.
There’s no doubt that you should simply do what makes you happy, people are what make people matter after all and if that’s within the romantic framework - then there’s no need to look for alternatives. If the romantic idea of love works for you, then by all means don’t look for an alternative - embrace it.
Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken for you, but always question if it is.