What’s your idea of romance? If you live in the West, you probably think of romance as a feeling of being “in love.” You think of red roses adorning white tablecloths, fine wine in crystal glasses, long evenings of staring into each other’s eyes by candlelight, endless nights where the fire burns so hot that you have no choice but to roll under the covers until dawn. You might also think about Valentine’s Day and carry a secret hope – expectation? – that your sweetheart will make you swoon with his romantic actions. But mostly you think of that special feeling that fills you up and makes you feel uplifted and whole.
And if marriage is on the table, you think of romantic proposals where you’re swept off your feet and feel as if the earth stood still. You imagine that once he pops the question and you say yes, you’ll be swirling in a sea of bliss as you joyously plan your wedding. Although you’ve never thought of yourself as someone who falls prey to the Disney fantasy of “happily ever after” and you didn’t know that you were unconsciously dreaming of your Prince or Princess Charming, you’ve certainly believed that once your beloved proposed you would feel happy and certain as you skipped down your golden road. And why would you think otherwise? Every image of weddings and brides you’ve seen since the time you were a young child expresses one phrase: perfect bliss.
And yet… just hours after the proposal you find yourself in a panic. And yet… the days of romantic bliss have long since worn off now that you’re a year or two or ten into your relationship. And yet… does all of this mean that you shouldn’t be getting married? That you’re with the wrong partner? Doesn’t true love mean that your stomach does flip-flops when your partner walks in the door?
There’s nothing like the hot-button days of Valentine’s Day and proposals to simmer the myth of romantic love that permeates Western culture to the surface. It’s during these times that our expectations – both conscious and unconscious – of love are exposed, and in the aftermath of unmet expectations (He didn’t bring me flowers; I thought I would feel ecstatic but I’m instead I’m in a panic) we’re left wondering, “Is something wrong? This isn’t how I thought I was supposed to feel.”
My work is about exploding the myth of romantic love that permeates our culture – from Valentine’s Day to proposals, engagements, weddings, and marriage. It’s about bringing this statement in Robert Johnson’s brilliant book, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, to mainstream awareness so that we can start to shift the dysfunctional messages that lead so many people astray in the world of partnership:
“For romantic love doesn’t just mean loving someone; it means being “in love.” This is a psychological phenomenon that is very specific. When we are “in love” we believe we have found the ultimate meaning of life, revealed in another human being. We feel we are finally completed, that we have found the missing parts of ourselves. Life suddenly seems to have a wholeness, a superhuman intensity that lifts us high above the ordinary plain of existence. For us, these are the sure signs of “true love.” The psychological package includes an unconscious demand that our lover or spouse always provide us with this feeling of ecstasy and intensity.
“With typical Western self-righteousness we assume that our notion of “love”, romantic love, must be the best. We assume that any other kind of love between couples would be cold and insignificant by comparison. But if we Westerners are honest with ourselves, we have to admits that our approach to romantic love is not working well.” (p. xii)
Quite often we hear that a relationship ended because one partner “fell out of love.” This can only mean that they fell out of romantic love and didn’t understand that now is the time for a true understanding of love to begin. It’s the lucky ones who fall out of love during their engagement because they’re offered an opportunity to learn about real love without the pressure of a marriage already underfoot. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from someone on my Conscious Weddings message board when she said, “I had to fall out of love so I could learn about what real love is all about.”
When we’re under the massive cultural illusion of romantic love, Valentine’s Day is a set-up just as being engaged is a set-up. But when you start to free yourself from the tyranny of false romance, you can approach these days from a position of grounded reality that says: Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to give and receive love; it’s not a test of how much someone loves me. A proposal, while initially exciting, for many people triggers fear, grief, and uncertainty. Not only is this normal and it’s also an opportunity for growth.
I must admit: there are times when I miss those early days of courtship with my husband. His romance factor was off the charts and it was magical to come home from work to find him sitting on my deck surrounded by dozens and dozens of flowers, reading Rumi by candlelight. But those moment of nostalgia are fleeting and pale in comparison to the true romance that defines our life together in the ways that he shows up through loving action every single day. True romance is clearing the snow and ice off the car when it’s 10 degrees outside and warming it up so that my sons and I can get into a toasty car. True romance is waking up eight times a night to walk our son to sleep back when he was a newborn. True romance is seeing the look on my face that says, “I can’t fight our 3 year old into the bath tonight,” and taking over the parenting duties with his creative stories and silly antics. True romance is being willing to sit down with me at ten o’clock at night after the kids are finally asleep so that we can talk about how we can be better parents. True romance is the thousands of ways that he shows up to forge a shared life, fully present, deeply willing, unwavering in his commitment to me and our family. This is what brings tears of gratitude to my eyes. This is the true definition of romance, one that I’m lucky enough to behold and one that I’m passionate about helping others embrace so that they don’t make the mistake of walking away from a great man because he didn’t bring her flowers on Valentine’s Day.