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How Romanticism Ruined Romance

There's no such thing as soul mates.

09/08/2016 6:19 AM AEST | Updated August 9, 2016 06:20
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Love is patient, love is kind.

Our current ideas of long-term love fail to acknowledge the human condition, a condition that is fundamentally broken. The popular philosopher Alain de Botton was recently in Australia and challenged the survival of long lasting relationships in a world of broken humans and a culture that holds dear unrealistic notions of romantic love.

The Romantics believed that men and women ought to be guided by emotions rather than the cold abstract rules established by bourgeois society. They were the late 18th century poets who believed in the notion of a soul mate, that romantic love was a birthright and that all shall be delivered a partner with whom we will live happily ever after.

The old Disney Princesses also have a lot to answer for. According to de Botton, love is the search for a feeling, an instinct that tells us this person is "the one". He argues that when we've found this illusive feeling we continue on to make one of life's most important decisions: marriage. The Romantics' notions were far from rational; they were based on ideals and finding perfection in another human being. But we are not living in the 18th Century, so why do we continue to foster these romantic notions?

De Botton points out that Romanticism ignores that fact that we are all broken, we are all children searching to be loved the way our parents loved us. He says: "All of us are crazy, none of us have emerged from the gauntlet of our upbringing without heavy amounts of distortion and rejection and biases that will make us tricky to be around."

He goes onto say: "Being fully yourself is a treat you should spare pretty much anyone that you care about... As an ideology, Romanticism is a catastrophe for long-term relationships. We need to be disloyal to these romantic notions."

Does that mean we are all doomed to fail in long-term relationships? The short answer is yes, unless we get a healthy dose of pragmatism and empathy and turn off the mindless episodes of 'The Bachelor'.

Centuries later, we are all searching for this thing called "love" to alleviate us from the anxiety of the time. We don't have to cast the net too far to label that anxiety; ASIO has Australia on a terrorism level that is "high" with a threat level as "probable"; we live in the most expensive country in the world, kids are chasing Pokémon around parks at night and meth usage has tripled in the past five years. Oh, and Trump.

Surely "true love's kiss" is the antidote to the woes of the day? When we do find true love, that person will complete us, be someone we can share all our secrets with and have consistently earth-shattering sex that will last ad infinitum. We can fulfil our potential and become whole, if only we have the right person standing by our side.

The reality is much closer to the Ancient Greek ideals. The Greeks, according to de Botton, believed that love was a situation of teacher and student; that love is about learning to be compatible over time, helping the other human grow and develop. Love, he argues, is a game of patience, where you must look to your partner and ask: "What are the underlying issues of the day that are making this person feel and behave the way they do?"

Surely that sounds like hard work. We live in a world of instant gratification, one where we are 'always on'. Technology will ensure things only work to serve our exponential impatience. The nagging troubles of a long-term partner seem simply too laborious and complex against the simplicity of Apps that can deliver most anything to us on demand.

Is there any hope for long-term, lasting love in this culture of introspection? The culture of the selfie, Instagram and Facebook, where 'brand me' is shouted out across the media? Opera Winfrey, the Queen of Introspection, along with countless self-help books, taught us to look inside ourselves, to love ourselves before we can love others. This, coupled with our obsession with romantic ideals, has created chaos in what de Botton calls "love's demented classroom". The only hope for long-lasting relationships is to flip this internal muttering to an external empathy for others, particularly the one you love.

De Botton argues we are all crazy and broken; that is the human condition. I would argue that the culture we live in is also in need of major repair as it is riddled with anxiety. No wonder the promise of escape via the wings of love is appealing. A strong dose of reality is needed to ensure the long-lasting survival of love. De Botton argues it is a skill to be learnt over time. I am no expert on love, but that is just the point. No one is.

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