Bad romance: we know it will end badly but it does not stop us
You’ve met a kind, loving person but you don’t want them, you want the broody narcissist: why?
Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious with his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in 1978. Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights in which Catherine has a complex relationship with dark Heathcliffe. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
It is because of Heathcliff that we are like this,” Susan says and takes another sip from the salt-rimmed glass. “It was irresponsible of them to teach us Wuthering Heights in our formative years.”
It is summer, and Susan and I are in this Mexican restaurant housed within a pile of pastel shipping containers in London. We have undone the good of coming to a cheap place by lashing into the margaritas. We are both, at that moment, single in our mid-30 and we sort of don’t care.
We have known each other for a long time and long shared a belief in the tragedy of true romance. We both swooned over the really truly tragic stuff in our convent school English class.
Heathcliff was dark and swarthy and could disappear on you at any minute. Where did he even come from? They found him on the side of the road, the divil, with no explanation for himself. Heathcliff went mad with love for Catherine, lashing his head against a tree trunk, eternally tortured by her ghost. We hated the wishy washy drippy Edgar, who was actually living with Catherine on a daily basis.
Heathcliff, like Gatsby, was a romantic hero full of mystery and disappearance and grand gestures. And truly romantic love, the really good stuff, was dramatic and impossible.
But now, we needed a breather from romance as we’d known it, the drama, the crying, Googling the symptoms of his possible personality disorders in the middle of the night. Love, we had begun to realise, should probably not resemble the anxiety you experience when you’re woken at 3am by an unexplained noise downstairs.
We are considering other ways to live a life. We order another round.
Bring me a higher love
“I point to where the pain is, the ache
where the blockage is. Here.
The doctor shakes his head at me. Yes
He says, I have that, we all have.”
Here, Ken Smith
The idea of love as pain has existed for a long time; we describe ourselves as lovelorn, lovesick. In The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz looks at the idea of lovesickness as a “longing for an intense closeness, we are like infants craving our mother’s embrace”. Something we are most vulnerable to when we are feeling lost and lonely.
Grosz recalls something the poet Wendy Cope said to him about love, “That infatuation is the exciting bit at the beginning; real love is the boring bit that comes later.” Comedian Dylan Moran describes the early phase of love as almost violent, “Wanting to rip out their spine and move in.”
We do what we can to stay in this charged dramatic phase and fend off reality because that requires a certain acceptance of life as often lonely and often banal. And it is that fear of loneliness that can keep people trapped in the “heartsick feelings” of a hopeless situation.
Grosz recalls a patient of his, Helen, who had a nine-year affair with a married man. Her friends told her he would never leave his wife, but they were wrong. He did. For another woman entirely.
But Helen was thrilled. She considered this proof that her friends were wrong and she believed he would ultimately come back to her. When he asked her why none of his bad behaviour would change her feelings she said, “Isn’t that what true love is all about?”.
Eventually, Helen came to realise her focus on him and his behaviour kept her stuck in the one place, while the lives of everyone around her moved on.
I was 22 and living in Australia, and seeing an older man who was fantastically disinterested for days on end, then full of grand romantic gesturing for short periods: holidays, hotels, dinners, before again becoming a bit useless for normal human endeavours like texting and planning.
It was infuriating. I was obsessed. I paced the house. I couldn’t read, or think thoughts that didn’t somehow wind their way back to him. I would hear nothing from him for days but I was so determined to have a fierce romance that I was going to paste one over whatever this thing actually was.
My friend’s mother came to stay with us for a fortnight, a straight-talking Derry woman, horrified at our crisp- and wine-based diet.
Early one morning, after a restless homesick night, I sat in the kitchen with her as she filled the fridge with fruit and vegetables, and explained to her the plight of this complicated love.
“Give me your phone this minute,” she said. She’d give it back to me when she thought he’d suffered enough. “It’s the only way to deal with men of that sort.” And then, “It’s never these fellas that you end up with in the end.
“The ones you go headlong after, like an eejit. It’s always the ones who come up to you quietly and tap you on the shoulder.”
Simone de Beauvoir called love “a brush with the sublime” in that we must accept that, like an earthquake, it is caused by a force beyond our power to grasp or conquer.
Those most drawn to a bad romance are those who have abandoned the idea of love as potentially controllable.
Instead it must unfold like a risky heroic adventure, all oasis and desert: slightly impossible, slightly devastating.
And the oxygen of such a relationship is this: the belief that you are almost at the good part. The happiness exists only in memory or in anticipation. The good times are coming, be they ever so far away.
Hit me baby one more time
Great love suffers the same reputation as great art. People tend to believe that it requires a certain torment.
These lovelorn throes are a wonder in art and poetry and literature, but a terror in your own kitchen on a Monday morning.
In her book, No More Silly Love Songs: A Realist’s Guide to Romance, psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose looks at some possible reasons why we would choose an unhappy love.
There is Schopenhauer’s slightly outdated theory of the Will of the Species: that the ultimate aim of all love affairs is to bring about the next generation of the human race, so while you might choose someone who brings you nothing but grief, you will offset each others imperfections and improve the species. How noble!
And then there is Freud and his theory that we are compelled to repeat old familiar patterns from our lives, seeking to play out the dynamics of old relationships, parental or otherwise. This satisfies us on an unconscious level.
We may unconsciously revel in self-pity, we may enjoy playing a blameless victim. Or else we may be trying the same pattern again hoping that this time we will figure out a more pleasing outcome. Like trying to get to the next level of a video game.
Madame Bovary, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Anna Karenina, Buffy and Angel – most of the world’s most famous romances end badly. Perhaps they wouldn’t be famous if they all just ended up palling around Aldi together. But who are our real life role models for tumultuous romance?
Dylan and Caitlin Thomas’ stormy marriage teemed with alcohol and infidelity, and made for good poetry and love letters, but their relationship was once described by Caitlin as “raw red bleeding meat”.
Later, when Taylor wondered aloud if she and Burton might marry, he said, “If we don’t kill each other first,” to which she responded, “But what a way to go darling, what a way to go.”
The documentary Amy shows that Amy Winehouse’s romance with Blake Fielder-Civil was the beginning of the end for her.
She believed him her soulmate. She took the drugs that he took to feel what he felt, she wanted to go down into the well with him. According to her father, “It was a stormy relationship from the start. Amy, who never did anything by halves, was now fully obsessed with him.”
Bobby and Whitney, Sid and Nancy, Plath and Hughes, Bacon and Dyer – those couples we all know and talk about and may have been part of: couples who dragged each other over hot coals.
Variations on love
John Steinbeck explains the different types of love to his son Thom in his 1958 letter:
“There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing, which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you a strength and courage and goodness and wisdom that you didn’t know you had.”
So what decides the type of love that a person might seek?
Dublin psychotherapist Mary Keating believes the relationships that we have in our life are often based on a blueprint that was created in our childhood.
“Primarily, a lot of what we learn about our attachments is in our first attachment which is usually the mum. And then the father, and then joyously our siblings and the realisation you’ve got to share. That tends to be a good place to start.”
The desire for someone who is not truly available may be down to “that fascination to some extent with a parent who wasn’t always there, and you want to have that”.
Alongside that, there’s the desire for something just out of our grasp. “We always have this thing about wanting something that we can’t have, that has to be that bit further away from us. It’s what keeps us going as human beings otherwise we wouldn’t get up in the morning.”
Keating talks about Eros and Thanathos, our creative life-producing drive for survival, versus the drive towards self-destruction and death.
There can be a “drive towards annihilation – a drive to throw ourselves on the rocks of this ‘massively absorbing of every bit of you’ relationship. When you’re sitting in a car outside someone’s apartment who hasn’t spoken to you for 10 days, wondering where are they and why can’t they be there.” That’s the result of “this little self destruct button that someone finds and pushes – the narcissists are very good at doing that”.
In Keating’s experience, many “bad romances” are down to one of the partners being a narcissist.
Narcissists “are still stuck at that, ‘I am the only one and all I want is the adoration of this Other’, usually the mother, and everything has to be about them. They will be fascinating, they will be very adorable, because that’s what gets mum but they actually won’t have much development, and they won’t be able to share or understand or give back.
“But they’ll be attractive to the next person and the next person. He’s soaking in your adoration and then later on you go. ‘Well, hang on, you said you’d ring me and you never did’, or ‘Why didn’t you come for dinner?’ or anything critical and immediately the narcissist starts pulling back.”
So why would you stay? “It’s that struggle inside. Addiction would be a prime example of the death drive. And there are relationships that are addictive and we just know when we’re doing it, that this is the worst thing that I could ever do.”
Keating believes we have to come to recognise that most unromantic of things, that love is conditional.
“I still hear people say, ‘But I love him unconditionally’, and I’m afraid my response to that would be, ‘Bigger eejit you’.”
She recalls a client who had a painful split with his ex. He said “I’m very sad and we both know it was for the right reasons, but at least now I know I am good in relationships and I look forward to the next one.”
He understands what’s good for him. It is about thinking about what we need rather than saying “I’ll do anything for you. I’ll be somebody else if it makes you love me.
“The biggest problem with love is that if you don’t have it, in that sense, a romantic love, you think you’re a failure. And we use it far too much as a measurement for ourselves.”
Let it go
“Okay, we didn’t work, and all
memories to tell you the truth aren’t good
But sometimes there were good times
Love was good. I loved your crooked sleep
Beside me and never dreamed afraid
There should be stars for great wars
One Last Poem for Richard
I came home from Australia alone and heartbroken. So many of us are still bound up in the Aristophanes fantasy, that we were once a two-headed globular creatures cruelly split in two by Zeus and now condemned to roam the earth, searching for our other half.
What if Mister Slightly-Useless had been mine? There had been some nice times too, after all. My mother sat me down and tried to batter the romance out of me with a bit of realism. “There is no ‘One’,” she said. “If you go to Australia, you meet someone, if you stay here, you meet someone, if you sit in a field in Cavan for a year, you meet someone.”
I once quoted Alain de Botton on Twitter and a friend texted me to say, “Friends don’t let friends quote Alain de Botton.” But here we are. In Essays in Love, he says, “We invent a destiny to spare ourselves the anxiety that would arise from acknowledging that the little sense there is in our lives is merely created by ourselves. [We] confuse a destiny to love with a destiny to love a given person.”
Bad Romance Playlist
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye – Soft Cell
Last Time I Saw Richard – Joni Mitchell
Love the Way You Lie – Rihanna
I Hate You So Much Right Now – Kelis
You Oughta Know – Alanis Morrissette
Rolling in the Deep – Adele
Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word – Elton John
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover – Paul Simon
Heart Shaped Box – Nirvana
Back to Black – Amy Winehouse