Perhaps one of the corniest romcoms in all of history is the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping. A soon-to-be spinster played by Sandra Bullock is stuck between the reality of being a single, lonely, cat lady and her fantasy of one day hocking up the courage to ask out her crush whom she sees on a daily basis. If only she could marry him and have her perfect honeymoon in Florence and stop living this sad and lonely excuse for a life! Long story short (*spoiler alert*, not that it’s worth seeing the film anyway) she ends up falling in love with his brother and goes on her dream honeymoon with him to Florence…and everything was perfect and ideal after that now that she found “the one” who makes her life complete. But seriously?
Let’s get real. How many marriages end up like these idealistic romcoms? Sure these glittery plots are glamorous-they rarely include anything beyond the ubiquitous “honeymoon phase.” Those of us who have ever had a serious romantic relationship know that expecting that phase to last a lifetime is a far cry from the actual drama, disappointments, and frustrations that are a natural part of human relationships. If that’s the case, then why do so many people construct their lives around the utopian fantasy that there is someone out there who will “complete” them, offering them total satisfaction, to the point of never wanting for anything or anyone again?
In my previous article in this series, The Uselessness of Friends, I pointed out the utilitarian attitude that our culture teaches us to apply to our relationships. “I love you because you are useful to me…” meaning “you fill my loneliness, spending time with you is pleasurable, your presence is convenient.” But is this really the summit of human love? Corny 90s romcoms (and plenty of films, TV shows, and books to this day) may have it so. But does this type of love fully satisfy the intensity of our desire as human beings?
Love has become less about engaging our intelligence, and is more about jumping off the cliff of reason into the raging sea of instinct and hormones.When “real love” is reduced to a deluge of subjective emotions and sentimentality, we never really ask who the other is and what I’m looking for in them on an objective level. The surge of one’s heart rate, the butterflies in one’s stomach, the arousal of the libido, are merely partial apprehensions of the true personhood of the beloved. Who are you? What is the purpose of your existence? These questions transcend one’s drive to “grab at” the other. The more he gazes into the eyes of his beloved in pursuit of an answer to these questions, he will begin to realize that she exists for a purpose that’s much grander than his childish fantasies of her “completing his life.”
Julian Carron writes in his new book Disarming Beauty that this confusion about the purpose of our relationships “leads people to found their whole relationship on a deception–the conviction that ‘you’ can make me happy. In this way, their mutual relationship is transformed into a refuge, yet quite useless for solving the affective problem. And when the deception is eventually discovered, disappointment is inevitable because the other has not come up to expectation.”
I often joke with my students to let me know when they meet a girl who satisfies every single need and desire of theirs to the point that they never thirst for more ever again. Clearly, neither they, nor their parents or any other adult they know, has found this type of person. Those who stick around in relationships long enough will discover their beloved’s knack for being imperfect-between her annoying idiosyncrasies, physical imperfections, and personality flaws. The girl you once thought was “the one” turns out to have a wretched snoring problem, has a nasty tendency of blowing up your phone when you don’t feed her enough affection, and, after she gets comfortable, decides to “let loose” and gain a couple extra pounds, destroying your dream of dating a girl with a Venus-type figure. At some point, we are bound to run up against the disproportion between the expectations of the human heart and the tragic limitations that constitute our humanity.
This unrealistic expectation that the beloved satisfy my desire for happiness is born of a tragic “miscalculation.” We often underestimate the intensity the heart’s longing for happiness and overestimate our limited ability as human beings to devise a “solution” to it. If it is truly the case that our desire is infinite-that it seeks an object that will never cease to be fulfilling-then no human being, not ourselves nor any other person we meet, could fully satisfy that longing. The heart desires perfect Truth, perfect Beauty. Our limitations as human beings make it impossible for us to produce an answer that will bring the heart’s restlessness to complete repose.
Why, then, do so many people look to romance as the “solution” to their desire for happiness? Needless to say, very few people believe it’s worth taking the intensity of their desire seriously, and, convinced that they will never discover the source of total and complete happiness, settle for something that satisfies temporarily. But the ideal of settling for a comfortable, bourgeois lifestyle consisting of a “happily married” middle class life with a economically prudent amount of children is clearly not getting the job done. A recent article in The Atlantic monthly by Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel indicates that most people nowadays are no longer willing to settle for this “comfortable” ideal. More and more “happily married” people cheat on their spouses not because they don’t get along well with their spouse or because they have a ravenous sexual appetite, but because they see their adulterous pursuits as a means to transcendence and to discovering a mysterious and greater happiness that they perceive to be veiled by the conventions of society.
Secluded from the responsibilities of everyday life, the parallel universe of the affair is often idealized, infused with the promise of transcendence…[I]t is experienced as limitless precisely because it is contained within the limits of its clandestine structure. …Forbidden-love stories are utopian by nature, especially in contrast with the mundane constraints of marriage and family. A prime characteristic of this liminal universe—and the key to its irresistible power—is that it is unattainable. Affairs are by definition precarious, elusive, and ambiguous. The indeterminacy, the uncertainty, the not knowing when we’ll see each other again—feelings we would never tolerate in our primary relationship—become kindling for anticipation in a hidden romance. Because we cannot have our lover, we keep wanting. It is this just-out-of-reach quality that lends affairs their erotic mystique and keeps the flame of desire burning.
When two lovers limit to their gaze solely to the beloved’s eyes, they are bound to be dissatisfied. This is what CS Lewis describes as an expression of an immature “need-based love”, which has yet to flower into the fully matured and flourishing flower of charity (in Greek, agape), the purest love of all. Charity seeks to give rather than to take, to look out “toward the horizon” of each other’s ultimate destiny. Charity does not eliminate the emotions that come along with the lesser need-based loves like romance (eros) and friendship (philia), rather, it integrates them into the pursuit of God, the ultimate Truth, who stands at the end of the horizon.
Echoing the image used by Lewis, Carron proposes that true love involves the two lovers walking with each other toward “the ambit of a greater Love” that transcends both of their limitations. In this way, married love looks more like mutual service and the willingness sacrifice for the other…it is willing to embrace the fact that the beloved-with all of her imperfections and flaws-is indeed not enough to complete me. She is my companion on my journey toward God, the Infinite Mystery itself, who is my ultimate source of happiness. The answer to my heart’s desire is not you, but rather is revealed through you. The lover, then, does not “cling onto” the beloved as if she possesses the key to his happiness, but looks to her as a sign of the greater reality for which he thirsts. This “detached” gaze toward the beloved allows her the freedom to be who she is, an imperfect human being who is bound to disappoint, but whose gifts and virtues point to her Origin and ultimate Destination. This vision of love, which is the foundation of the Christian understanding of marriage, propels the lovers to look beyond how the beloved is useful, and to begin to ask how they can support each other (that is, to be willing to serve, offer, and sacrifice for the other) in their pursuit of that greater Love which looms on the horizon.