That’s Men: Does it exist or is ‘true’ love a big fat lie?
Are you in love with the most wonderful creature on earth? Do you pine when she is absent? Do you text 100 times a day just to connect with her wonderfulness?
If so, you had better not read The Wonderbox by cultural historian Roman Krznaric or if you do, you had better stay away from the chapter on love because it will burst your bubble and leave you feeling quite bleak.
For Krznaric describes romantic love as “one of our most destructive cultural inheritances” and he makes a good case for his viewpoint. The Wonderbox applies ideas and customs of the past to enduring phenomena such as love, family and work.
He informs us that romantic love was invented sometime towards the end of the first millennium in Persia. The concept infiltrated the West through the Crusades, through the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus in Spain, through the troubadours of Provence and through the influence of translations such as Sir Richard Burton’s then scandalous Arabian Nights.
The trouble with romantic love, he asserts, is that it tries to do too much and can only fail in the end. The Greek philosophers recognised many different kinds of love including erotic love, friendship, companionship and so on. But in their view, people experienced different kinds of love in different relationships – they didn’t necessarily expect to get erotic love and friendship from the same person.
Today, as we live in the shadow of romantic love, one frail human being is expected to fill all of these roles and others besides.
Is it any wonder that the result so often is disappointment? And is it any wonder that so many romances end in divorce after the blindness of infatuation wears off and the conflicts begin?
The concept of romantic love was originally confined to upper class circles, but the spread of literacy and the popularity of novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice helped spread the romantic ideal through the population in general. Suddenly people had a whole different view of what marriage should mean.
All this was egged on by commerce. The South African diamond company De Beers created the custom of buying diamonds to show your love for another with its “A diamond is forever” campaign, perhaps the most successful marketing campaign in history. Also fuelling the romantic illusion are movies, TV dramas and books which depict sex as a perfect act which people in love are able to perform with a rare combination of grace, jealousy and passion impossible to find in two normal human beings.
One of the sadder consequences of seeing the other partner as a sort of one-
stop shop where all our needs can be met is that when people fall in love they often drop their friends. They no longer have to go to three or four other people for friendship because they are getting it all from the one person. If the relationship ends, the newly single person can then feel quite isolated while sheepishly trying to pick up the threads of friendship again.
Similarly, the person who is slow about marrying or entering into a long-term relationship may find themselves high and dry when all their friends vanish into romantic love.
The concept of romantic love raises expectations that are almost impossible to meet. Where can we find this extraordinary person who is able to give us everything? Where is the partner, to quote Woody Allen in Husbands and Wives, “interested in golf, inorganic chemistry, outdoor sex and the music of Bach?” The answer, writes Krznaric, “is that they can usually only be found in our imaginations or on the cinema screen,where we are fed a reassuring diet of intoxicating romances with happy endings”.
If you are in love you will be moved by none of this. If you are a bit of a curmudgeon like me, you will find it very agreeable and you will find The Wonderbox a good read with lots of food for thought.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.