Sadly, the essence—and ecstasy—of romantic love is ephemeral. Here’s why.
Once a relationship, however sweet, tender, and loving, has become domesticated, it can no longer be romantic. Not, at least, as that term is generally understood. For the crucial things that make romance romantic—though they definitely include feelings of amorousness and affection—also contain elements that over time are destined to wane.
Not that familiarity must breed contempt. But it certainly doesn’t help to sustain the miraculous psychological—and chemical—high of romance. When the so-intimate romantic phase of a relationship leads into the more enduring stage of commitment (as in “till death do us part”), its shining, sparkling, almost hypnotic, features inevitably dim. For by themselves loving acts of caring simply can’t compare to the more rarefied, idealized, and deeply inspired feelings so entwined with romantic love.
So just what is it about Romance that makes it so wondrous yet, over time, so impossible to preserve?
Any answers here must focus on the fundamental mystique, or mystery, of romantic love: its exotic elements of the unknown, as well as its freshness and newness—all of which constitute its essential core. It should be added, however, that given the fact that each of the two lovers is still in the act of “discovering” the other, there’s something curiously limited or two-dimensional about it. And in fact once the so-beguiling partner comes into sharper focus—emerges, that is, as their fuller three-dimensional self, with all its not-so-endearing quirks, limitations, and weaknesses—their original innocence and charmsignificantly lessens.
Feelings of enthusiasm—or better, excitement—are also fundamental to the ecstatic experience of romantic love. But here, too, it’s mostly the novelty that makes this “captivation” exciting, an exhilaration that’s not only intense but also remarkably seductive. The luring biochemical (or norepinephrine/dopamine) rush supplied by romance (i.e., to anyone so luckily “afflicted”) has a lot to do with the thrill of pursuing what’s not yet fully recognized, the immense promise of (or appetite for) something still in the process of being realized. Unfortunately, once something is realized—has, in a sense, become “a sure thing”—its dreamy, dazzling aspects begin to dull.
Which is to say, as has already been suggested, that there’s something sadly transient about romantic love. And that’s why it’s typically not seen as lasting very long. In fact, such love is sometimes viewed as a mere dalliance, or love affair (e.g., consider the “summer romance”). Still, as a qualification, it should be noted that romantic love can last almost indefinitely if it isn’t—or can’t be—brought to fruition. This is the case when insurmountable obstacles prevent the two lovers from ever finally “crystallizing” their relationship.
Moreover (and just as commonly), there are cases in which the object of one’s adoration is unavailable, or simply doesn’t return one’s ardor. In these circumstances, such a one-way romance isn’t really subject to the at least partial disenchantment that over time is virtually guaranteed after a relationship has reached its (mutual) commitment stage. I’ve written two pieces (see here and here) on the curious phenomenon of unrequited love, and the consummate irony of such non-reciprocated affection should be obvious. For here all the “romance” exists as idealized fantasy. Any attachment to the beloved is purely fictional, and so it’s never exposed to the cold winds of reality.
But in a relationship that has been “realized,” romance is fated to grow into something far less electrifying. And though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s unquestionably less mysterious and blissful. It’s also less special, a term that’s frequently employed to describe romantic love. For with such love there’s something almost preternatural about the extraordinary flow of adoring sentiment that radiates between the two lovers.
And this is why counselors often advise couples to reawaken old passions by methodically restoring their relationship to it pristine “special” status. Such attempts at what I’d call “courtship revival” might take the form of surprising one’s partner with a gratuitous, but highly gratifying, gift; or freely lavishing compliments on them; or engaging in new, adventurous, or even heart-in-your-mouth activities (river rafting, anyone?)—all in the effort to recapture the warm glow they’d so joyfully experienced when their relationship was new.
Consider this witty quote from Oscar Wilde: “The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” Such a cautionary remark suggests that assuredness in a relationship actually serves to kill off its more coveted aspects. So once lovers tie the knot—perhaps prompted to do so by the mutually shared illusion that they can thereby immortalize their romance—the doubt, ambiguity, and unpredictability that ignited their romance in the first place is largely extinguished.
There’s also something necessarily remote about romance. To thrive it must remain distinct from what’s familiar—from the various normalcies of everyday life. It needs to remain removed from anything that’s expected or routine. For when something is repeated often enough, it begins to lose its luster. To stay special, it somehow must remain immune to the ordinary. And unless both members of a couple are extraordinarily spontaneous and creative, that can be a prohibitively tall order.
So, in short, the ultimate threat to romance is, well, reality. Not that romance doesn’t have its own (idyllic) reality. But if it’s to retain its “specialness,” it must remain forever detached from the familiar, the conventional and customary. In time, however—and, alas, everythingexists in time—even the special must relinquish something of its exceptionality.
Say, for no particular occasion you present your partner with a fresh bouquet of fragrant, wondrously multi-colored roses—which may be terribly romantic—that is, the first time around. But the second time it will be less so, and the third hardly at all. Doubtless, surprising your partner in a large variety of ways can help to revivify certain feeling of romance. But surprises, too, in time become less surprising, more predictable and anticipated . . . and so decreasingly romantic.
So, is there some final message in all I’ve described? Of course, this is all subject to interpretation—and speculation. But still, as awesome, as amazing, as romance can feel, it’s undeniably ephemeral. So it makes good sense to value romance, but not to get too attached to it either. And yes, there are ways to make a long-term committed relationship more romantic. And a great many writers have sought to clarify how this can be done (just look the subject up on the Web!).
But given the nature of human nature, I’d contend that, overall, it’s vastly more important to apply yourself diligently to expanding the daily amount of truly loving behaviors in your relationship than merely to focus on bringing home more dozens of roses, or regularly introducing something novel (or “naughty”) into the bedroom.
In the end what makes for a great relationship are the everyday acts of caring, kindness, and compassion that each committed partner offers the other. And whether you see this as an altered form of romance, or something other than romance, it yet deserves to be cherished as the invaluable treasure it is.
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[Leon F. Sletzer]