When I was very young, I had the same dreams and expectations that many girls of my 1950s generation in my social class had: that I would start dating in high school, go to college and eventually meet “the love of my life,” fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have what I always thought of as romantic love in my life, and what TV and the movies promised me was out there for everyone.
By the time I was in my thirties, after my only experiences with love and romance being the unrequited kind (with a couple of serious rejections thrown in to boot), I won’t say I’d given up, but I had few expectations. And then I did meet someone. Whom I thought was perfect and who seemed to love me — romantic love! And we got married, and had a child, and two and a half years later the marriage ended.
What I thought was love and romance was an illusion that became impossible to sustain. The hardest part was that it was both and neither of our faults. If only life were like fairy tales.
My Lifelong Search for Romantic Love
Does romantic love really exist? What does that mean, exactly?
To me, romantic love has meant mutual physical attraction and passion combined with the emotional desire to spend time with the other person. Of course, this had to go along with intellectual compatibility and mutual interests: I’m a talker, and I couldn’t see myself with someone with whom I couldn’t have great conversations.
I now realize my idea of love has, throughout my life, had a huge part to do with sex and physical attraction. I could have great conversations with a lot of people, after all. But I understand now that the notion of sex and attraction determining love is a dominant message — pretty much the only message — we ever get about where love begins, what it’s based on, and what keeps it going. And having been fat all my life, I never saw myself as physically attractive, which was why I was so sure no one had ever fallen in love with me.
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While I was always acutely aware of people’s bodies, I mostly fell in love with their minds. Once I fell in love with someone’s mind, his or her body became more and more attractive to me.
When I fell in love, I wanted to be with that person as much as possible, and I wanted that special intimacy that I believed existed only between lovers. More even than sex, I desperately wanted the intimacy I believed came with being someone’s “one and only.”
Over the years, I found sex from time to time, though rarely passion. I often found friendship, even close friendships; friends I loved and with whom I shared great intimacy. But not that imagined “special intimacy,” and, of course, no sex.
I never seemed to be able to put it all together into that elusive “romantic love.”
Then, unexpectedly, it seemed as though I had finally found “it,” the whole package: romantic love! I was thirty-four years old, never expected to get married or have a child, and found myself eventually doing both. I committed myself to it wholeheartedly, only to discover that “it” was an illusion I’d built on the assumptions and expectations planted in me long ago, before I was even conscious that those assumptions existed.
So, does romantic love really exist? It hasn’t for me, and that is true for far more people than a society which keeps desperately trying to promote mom-and-dad families as the true-and-only-nirvana will ever admit. For all the solid couples I know who have been together for decades — and I know several who have amazing relationships — I know many more who haven’t lasted, who are on their second (or third) round, or who may still be together but any love, let alone romance, left the room long ago. People stay together for a lot of reasons besides love; we’ve all seen that.
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The more important question is, how it is possible to get through life and be happy without ever finding that one special “love of your life”? Is “romantic love” the most necessary kind of love we all have to have in our lives, knowing that need and want are not necessary the same things?
I doubt anyone will be surprised if I say there is no simple answer to that question, except for the fact that for many of us, it hasn’t always been a choice. It’s just the way things are, and the choice that we have is what we’re going to do with that reality.
I’m not going to say, “Well, grin and bear it.” Because sometimes it really sucks. And even though I’m extremely conscious that there are far worse problems in the world than whether or not someone loves me the way I always dreamed about, I don’t want to belittle the struggle, the loneliness, and sometimes the bitterness and grief we go through when things don’t turn out the way we expected and wanted.
Love Beyond Romantic Love
On the other hand, love is not only this unique, mystical experience we’ve anointed as “romantic love.”
I am fortunate to have a lot of love in my life, fortunate to recognize it, and to be able to return it; yet none of it is “romantic.” I’ve been quite fine without that for a long time. The older I’ve become, the more I’ve settled into really loving my solitude. I find myself content with the way things are. That doesn’t mean I’m a recluse — as a graduate student I stay very busy, have family and friends to stay in touch with out of town, and plenty of other things to keep me busy.
The reality is that there is potential for rich, fulfilling, loving relationships in so many places. The challenge is that we sometimes have to be proactive in finding them, or nurturing them, or letting them in. That’s easier for some of us than others, but it’s worth the effort.
As humans, we never age out of the desire for physical closeness and intimacy, including sex; we are, after all, social animals. Those of us who don’t have those things, however, can still recognize that the experiences we have and make can be equally intense, if different.
I won’t belabor the obvious about how we can make sexual self-love romantic. But far more than that, love is a quintessentially abstract concept, which leaves our experiences of it open to levels of creativity and spirituality well beyond what we may ever have imagined. We not only have to look for it, but we have to be willing to accept it when it presents itself to us in ways that are unexpected, new, and possibly unfamiliar. Isn’t that also, in the end, the very essence of radical self-love?
Here are four things I’ve learned about love through living without its romantic incarnation.
1. It’s okay to grieve what you feel you may have missed out on or lost. Acknowledgment of our own and others’ pain is important. It’s not okay, however, to build your life story around loss, anger, resentment, and bitterness. All love withers in that environment.
2. Some clichés are based in truth and this is one of them: love is an abstract concept that becomes concrete only when we create it. We don’t need a lover or a life partner to do that.
3. Love comes in all shapes and forms and is all around us, sometimes in unexpected places and coming from unexpected sources. Radical self-love means being open to opportunities and recognizing that the old cliché about “the more love you send out, the more you get back” is truer today than ever. People are lonely in our modern world, which means we need each other more than ever, especially in this anxiety-producing political climate.
4. Make the most of the relationships you have and don’t underestimate them. Nurture them. Reach out to the people you love, to old friends, to acquaintances.
Remember to love yourself. Whatever your experiences with romantic love have been, they have nothing to do with your intrinsic self-worth, your value as a person, your ability to care for others, or the ability of others to love and care for you. It’s time you believe that.
[Headline image: Photo of an older person with light skin and silvery-purplish hair clutching a ceramic vase of long-stemmed red roses in front of their body with both hands. They are wearing a black and white patterned dress and pink pearls knotted chicly around their neck. They have a serious, ponderous expression on their face. Behind them appears to be a closed door. Source: Pexels]
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