From a survey of popular novels and media, it would be reasonable to conclude romantic love is an ultimate goal of life. Man meets woman, man and woman defeat obstacles—misunderstanding or illness, perhaps forced separation—to recognize their love. They swoon. Exquisite desire transcends everyday humdrum, making them feel realer than real. Murmured exchanges of love’s liturgy—'You are so beautiful,’ ‘I’ve never felt like this before,’ ‘I can’t live without you’—confirm their experience of The Grand Romance.
Romantic love saturates the stories we watch, read and ponder. Denis De Rougemont, in his compelling Love in the Western World, says, “love and death, a fatal love—in these phrases is summed up, if not the whole of poetry, at least whatever is popular, whatever is universally moving in European literature.” In The Allegory of Love, C. S. Lewis similarly observes that romantic love has “left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life, untouched.”
Why? And, aside from its ubiquity, what is it about the presentation of romantic love in modern storytelling that makes me queasy?
Both De Rougemont and Lewis helped me articulate answers. To the first question, De Rougemont points back to that ineffable ability of romantic love to transcend us beyond the everyday. In his words:
“…the prospect of a passionate experience has come to seem the promise that we are about to live more fully and more intensely. We look upon passion as a transfiguring force, something beyond delight and pain, an ardent beatitude.”
For a society whose belief is increasingly leached of anything immaterial or numinous, such a promise is alluring. And recalling the mystical, bordering on divinized, language of so many romantic stories—'you are a goddess,' 'you make me whole,'—it's easy to see the truth in De Rougemont's claim. Even those moderns who would shun the classic romantic narrative as aspirational still tend to view romance as a feeling-mediated means of self-fulfilment. Mary Harrington, in Feminism Against Progress, for example, highlights our modern "Big Romance focus on maximal emotional intensity" via the "ethereal…transports of passion." Romantic love has become a quest for transcendence.
But in making romance a goal for our own experience, we immediately devalue our lover—certainly a cause for queasiness. Initially, caught up in feelings of love, we might, like storybook heroes, do anything for our beloved. But when the luminescence of limerence fades, if it’s transcendence we insist we must keep, our focus is revealed to be not on our beloved, but on ourselves and on the feelings they give (or don’t give) us. We are in love with love, says De Rougemont, or more precisely with passion. To reignite passion's flame, lovers need “not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence,”belying an ability to fully love them at all.
So, some of us flit from person to person, seeking ever-diminishing ‘highs’ of ardour. Marriage is not the best metric for romantic entanglement these days, but it is a metric, and it’s telling that the average age of first marriage has been steadily increasing across the West in recent decades. Combined with higher numbers of romantic relationships prior to marriage, we are, overall, having more romantic relationships in a lifetime. "Desire travels swiftly and anywhere," says De Rougemont, in searching for "the ideal of [our] dreams." When we don’t feel sufficiently ‘in love,’ we’re tempted to bail. But no human can consistently induce the “limitless aspiration” we often demand from our romances. The "standards set by Big Romance," says Harrington, "are now impossible to meet." We trample past and over others on our personal quests for transcendence, leaving exes in our wake.
Others ‘settle down,’ marry or otherwise commit, resigned to the fading of their personal passion but voraciously consume fiction—the play space for our ideals—in which ever more contrived obstacles keep lovers apart such that passion is kept aflame. Fictional lovers don’t see the other’s letter or message, something goes wrong (car crash, abduction by aliens, perhaps a sister running off with Wickham), and they remain absent from each other.
Even if there's no external obstruction, the lovers themselves will construct one. In what he considers the archetype of Western romance, Tristan and Iseult, De Rougemont observes that when there were no circumstantial barriers to keep the lovers apart, Tristan himself placed a sword between them—a symbol of division. It seems far fetched until you recognize the pattern in modern media. Many are the stories where a character has oh such strong romantic feelings for so and so. From Gilmore Girls to the The X-Files (I'm showing my era, but you'll undoubtedly find the same trope in your own era) characters circle each other in a courtship dance, come close to being together—whether that means sex, marriage or otherwise committed—then doubts clamp down a barrier between them; a 'hesitance' trope. They don't feel the same at the same time, their mutual feelings of love slipping past the other like ships in the night. ‘I love you;’ ‘I’m just not sure;’ ‘It doesn’t feel right;’ 'can this really work?' and consummation, or at least long-term togetherness, is avoided.
Obstructions go on and on—will they, won't they—the lovers always on the brink of fulfilment, so the drug of romantic love is maintained on drip-feed into both the lovers and voyeuristic viewer or reader. As a young woman, I wondered at this pattern of approach and retreat. It felt like I was being manipulated. According to De Rougemont, I was. The literary device of obstruction to perpetuate naturally transient passion had been revealed.
Stories are not just entertainment. What we focus on shapes our desires and ideals—as Paul when writing Philippians 4:8 well knew—and when we look up from the book or screen, our real-life relationships often just don't measure up.
Our idealization of romance extends beyond relationships to our lovers themselves. The common modern concept of The One elevates a human to an ideal. Lines like: 'I can't live without you;' 'I didn't love them like I love you' betray such idealization. No one person can carry the weight of your reason for being. Elevated to a divine pedestal, they are bound to fall. And as for the 'them,' how long do you road-test these previous people before you conclude they don't give you the 'right' feelings? Wives might wish their husbands more like Rochester or Mr. Thornton, handsome and atremble with passion yet honourable in restraint. But this is to forget that our picture of these men is authorially selected to show them at their most romantically intense and, moreover, of only one brief stage of their lives. Away from the pages that bring them to life, both must belch and grump over to-do lists between angsting over their love. Post marriage, quotidian drudgery would abound as in our real lives, but stories often don't prepare us for this reality. In Harrington's words, despite "boundless narratives about finding The One," there is little focus on "what life looks like once you've found them."
Husbands, wives, and lovers are, and must be, people, not, as De Rougemont warns, half divine romantic ideals. Our idealization of romance breeds an inability to commit, whether in word, deed or spirit, to our real relationships and real lovers, with all their misshapen, non-transcendent bodies in front of us.
“Eros,” says De Rougemont, needs to be “rescued by Agape.”
Agape asserts someone else is as important as you and puts emphasis on embodied action rather than just feelings. "Mere feeling," instructs Lewis, is not enough. You also need "humility, charity" and to do "the works of Eros when Eros is not present."
But romantic love recoils from restraining duty. With other types of love—Charity or Friendship, for example—we expect to not always be led by desire: that my friend needs me trumps my desire to stay at home and rest after a long day. But we often balk at such lack of desire in romantic relationships. If a husband or wife sometimes finds their spouse annoying or unattractive, we are quick to judge this relationship as substandard; it does not fit the Grand Romance narrative. But, if that husband or wife also faithfully cares for and supports that spouse, then they are still acting in love. To accept such daily acts of love as important as feelings of love or some ideal of passionate experience is to wean ourselves off an obsession with romantic feelings as the prime measure of the success or ‘rightness’ of a romantic relationship; to see, in Harrington's words, romance as not just a means of individual fulfilment but as "a foundation and starting point for growth within interdependent" relationship. De Rougemont calls on us to refuse "on oath 'to cultivate' the illusions of passion, to render them a secret worship, or to expect from them any mysterious intensification of life."
Agape also prevents “a passion calling itself ‘irresistible’" being used as an “alibi for the discharge of responsibility.” Self-obsessed hesitance and ideas of The One are one way to shirk commitment and responsibility. Also, when a hero or heroine leaves their fiancée, spouse or partner for someone else they feel more strongly ‘drawn to’ or perceive as their soulmate, this special-pleading is in action. They were ‘just being true to their feelings,’ it ‘was meant to be,’ we are told. In Lewis' words in The Four Loves, "The implication is that a great Eros extenuates—almost sanctions—almost sanctifies—any actions it leads to." Agape, unlike Eros, is for all and brings, as De Rougemont writes, our neighbor into view, rather than selfishly being fixated on a or The One. This is why Jane Eyre, despite being a typical marriage novel in many respects, will be allowed to stay in my canon. When Jane declares, “I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane,” she knows her current feelings, passionate as they may be, cannot trump the moderating forces of reason and what is right. Passion may feel a “splendid experience more magnificent than morality,” but none of us get to be the moral exception. Agape brings the ideal to earth, where our fleshly bodies are held like, Lewis quips, "captive balloons.”
Embodiment (or the lack of it) gets to the crux of both De Rougemont and Harrington’s explanation for invasion of the Western psyche by romance. De Rougemont (like others) traces our obsession with romance back to 11th century France. Specifically, he links the enforced spread of Christianity into pagan communities at this time with the observed rise of the poetry of courtly love, arguing this poetry became a means to subsume now heretical Gnostic beliefs about the “evil” body that needed to be transcended; beliefs that could no longer “be avowed in the light of day.” Over time, this poetry became unmoored from its original heresy, and became a “myth” melding with mystical language. But its psychological “branding” remained, disconnected from its original heresy-disguising purpose.
De Rougemont’s critics retort that his line of causation is weakly supported, but his argument for the mutual influence of two co-existing “movements” (the Cathar pagans and poetical troubadours) is solid. And the uncanny mediaeval mirror De Rougemont holds up to modern romantic tropes cannot be ignored. Nor his argument for the importance of literature in shaping desire, an argument that has been further developed since. Like René Girard after him, De Rougemont points to the importance of story and cancerous imitation or mimesis in shaping our desires. We want what others want. It is often, De Rougemont says, that existing “linguistic conventions” shape “the latent feelings most apt to be expressed this way” than the other way around, and this, he contends, was the case for the propagation of the “myth” of romantic passion down through the ages. For De Rougemont, story is indeed not just entertainment.
For Harrington, Gnosticism is also a key to our modern obsession with Big Romance. Not going as far back as De Rougemont, Harrington traces our preoccupation with romance since the Industrial Revolution. At this time, Harrington argues, the shifting of work to outside the home into growing economic markets preferentially excluded women, more ‘hindered’ by their “asymmetrical reproductive” biology. Economic and social power thus shifted (even further) to men. In this situation, it was in a woman’s interest to be wedded to a man that she at least liked, and the novelistic depiction of “Big Romance” began in earnest.
But, understandably, not all women were content to be relegated further into the home and out of markets. A natural consequence of attempts to minimise their biological ‘hinderance’ to workplace participation, Harrington argues, was the pursuit of a “gender-neutral template” of humanness (humanness being in the mind) that was then exploited by market forces who wanted “interchangeable work units” to maximise profit. The 20th century introduction of the contraceptive pill and other technologies increasingly allowed us to pursue this idea of a self in the mind, not biologically confined, and is, as Harrington highlights, another type of Gnosticism. In this world, Harrington writes, the branding of Big Romance remains only as a means for self-fulfilment, rife for appropriation by a society already conditioned to be highly individualistic. To instate (or re-instate) romantic relationships as resilient units of society instead of just means of self-realisation requires re-embracing the natural limits of our bodies instead of always trying to transcend them.
Humble acceptance of limits does release us from ceaseless frenetic striving to overcome them, allowing us instead to focus on flourishing together within those limits. But the question that arises reading Harrington’s book is: what degree of re-embodiment is needed to counteract these alienating forces of “atomised” humans working and relating in increasingly disembodied and self-focused ways via technologically-assisted means and “Meat-Lego Gnosticism[’s]” related pursuit of genderless humans unfettered by biological limits?
Harrington argues against the contraceptive pill (and seemingly contraception in general) and I can’t agree. There are women (like myself) where another pregnancy would probably have been fatal. In such cases, the contraceptive pill can be seen as medicinal, in the same vein as assisted birth. We all draw our medical versus ‘playing God’ line somewhere. What Harrington does argue very well is that we should be conscious of where we are drawing the line and when it crosses into biological engineering. And what that line means for our relationships.
Limitations on women’s work-force participation due to the biological changes of pregnancy and subsequent child-care needs are, Harrington argues, natural and we should resist outsourcing them. More home-based work allows women to work and be stay-at-home mothers. Feminism Against Progress focuses on the appropriation of feminism by economic markets and criticises the common metric that values work within the economic market (as opposed to unpaid work) as more worthwhile. While I see that the market has indeed co-opted our sense of status and worth, women do not just crave more participation in work outside the home because they want to participate in the market. For many, a primary reason is a need to be intellectually active. Work outside the home has potential to be much more cerebral (if for no other reason than less disturbed) than work around the home, and cerebral is the way some of us are wired, the way we are embodied. As with any complex analysis of human behaviour, there are boundaries that need to be navigated and I found myself sometimes on the opposite side to Harrington.
Nevertheless, her drawing together of economic causes, bolstered by technological and individualistic causes, to explain the acceleration of the self-actualised mode modern romantic obsession has taken since the 19th century is convincing.
De Rougemont and Harrington ultimately root the cause of our obsession with romantic passion in a self-focused Gnosticism that wants to transcend our bodies and reach an ideal, an almost Edenic desire to be like God. Lewis, who initially “abandon[ed] the attempt to explain the new feeling” of romantic love arising in the 11th century, later, in The Four Loves, nailed a reason for the seductiveness of Gnostic Eros. Eros, Lewis says, is, of all the loves, the most similar to “Love Himself.” It “plant[s] the interests of another in the centre of our being,” however temporarily, and feels like “something outside us.” With Eros, our love feels most ‘god-like,’ most soaringly unconfined by the physical. But, Lewis warns, that just makes Eros more dangerous. Because we are not Love.
Both Lewis and De Rougemont rebuke our grasping of transcendence via romantic love; in De Rougemont’s words, our aspirational “soul’s flight out of the world” to our own Rapture in the sky. They remind us that God the transcendent came down; we don’t need to (and can’t) climb to Him. He came down, took on an imperfect body, and loved us in our own imperfect bodies, in our own imperfect lives, the antidote to Gnostic heresy. God knows our bodies (and our minds) are broken by sin, but He loves us anyway. As a model of human loving in action, this is a corrective to romantic passion’s disguised dualistic hatred of the flesh which is belied by its inability to last (in the form we covet it) once we spend extended time with our lover’s physical body. Or by that belief that a love without physical sex is somehow a higher form of love. Such love “even rejects and flees the temptation to obtain its fulfilment in the world, because its demand is to embrace no less than the All.” But however much we keep ourselves separate, from each other or our own embodied forms, we will not climb to the All.
 De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. Translated by Montgomery Belgion, Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 15.
 Lewis, C. S., The Allegory of Love. Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 5