The other day at work, my colleague and I were caught up in a discussion on love and relationships. While our conversation touched on everything from modern dating to the rising rates of divorce, she left me with a thought that latched to my mind and took the rest of the week to finally pry off. Just before grabbing her purse to leave she casually said; “I think love is just an illusion.”
This took me completely off guard. Love? An Illusion?! I found the concept simultaneously depressing and intriguing. It sort of reminded me of that crumbling disappointment I felt when I was young kid and learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real. Even though the very idea of Santa seemed unlikely, I didn’t want to believe otherwise. Santa was a symbol of childhood innocence, and stubbornly believing he was real was like clinging to a buoy in an ocean of adulthood and maturity. Discovering he was fictional felt like popping the buoy I used to stay afloat, forcing me to face the tragic, turbulent world of adulthood.
Similarly, believing in a magical, mountain-moving romantic love was a nice daydream to allow my mind to cuddle up in, even if it seemed too simplistic and far-fetched to be true. Yet after this conversation I couldn’t help but question my own idea of love. Is this feeling of what we know as “love” just a hypnotic spell played by our primitive brain to get us to procreate? Is it just an intensely powerful chemical reaction that brings humans together and we just happen to label that as love?
I began reading articles by philosophers and I came across one by Alain de Botton. He’d written a piece for the New York Times cheerfully titled, “Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person.” In it he discusses how “romanticism” is to blame for so many failed marriages. Mostly because we’ve been led to believe that that unmistakably blissful romantic state will and can last forever. We’ve failed to realize that we are all uniquely “mad” and enter married life assuming everything will be as effortless as the romantic love stage. Yet when this euphoric stage inevitably dwindles, we run into therapy or call for a divorce. We forget that real love requires a tremendous amount of work, patience and compromise. He goes on to explain that we need to spend time examining precisely how we are crazy and then ask our new lover how exactly they are crazy too. That way we reveal the underbelly or dark side of our character to our new partner right away, rather than years down the track when our lives are too entangled to part.
The more I read, the more I realized that my own idea of love has been incredibly artificial. Disney and Hollywood contributed to the ‘Twinkie’ version of love; full of processed sugar and almost guaranteed to cause diabetes. Never did these fairy tales and dramatic love stories tell us that life is ultimately up to us and no one can save us from ourselves. Life is hard and difficult and complex and other people will only be able to act as umbrellas to the inevitable torrential downpours that will life will deliver us. Initially though, it appears as though our new lover has the power to negotiate with nature, making it seem as if it’ll be smooth sailing from now on.
Then I came across this quote that popped the figurative buoy I used to stay afloat, “In some respects (but certainly not in all) the act of falling in love is an act of regression. The experience of merging with the loved one has in it echoes from the time when we were merged with our mothers in infancy. All things seem possible! United with our beloved we feel we can conquer all obstacles, all problems will be overcome. Yet just as the baby realizes that he or she is an individual, the lover returns to his or her self. At this point the work of real love begins.”
The work of “real love” begins. What an interested concept, one that is rarely ever spoken of. Romantic love has been advertised in the same way as pharmaceutical drug commercials; when an attractive couple runs in slow motion down a sun-setting beach and a male commentator with a smooth voice starts proclaiming all the ways this ‘drug’ will improve your life. Then at the very end of the commercial in a very quiet, rushed whisper he admits the side-effects may include heart failure and imminent death. But we were too distracted by this image of perfection to allow the words “heart failure and imminent death” to resonate.
Perhaps then, the real illusion is that we expect love to be as effortless and natural as that initial feeling of falling. Yet once those dizzying romantic neurochemicals have subsided, we are baffled to find an individual in front of us who is equally as flawed, complex and frustrating as ourselves.
I don’t believe that love in and of itself is an illusion. I believe the illusion is taking something real and warping it into a highly processed, refined product filled with harmful preservatives. One that is then packaged and marketed to us, fooling us into believing that there is one ‘soul mate’ out there who is capable of completing us and saving us from life’s inevitable setbacks. But this sort of thinking negates us from the personal responsibility of being the best version of ourselves we can be. It directs us to someone else to drape ourselves over and use as a crutch, rather than learning to exercise our muscles so we are strong enough to stand on our own. It leaves us in an eternal hamster wheel, searching and searching, getting nowhere.
I suppose then the real love story is the one we have with ourselves, for it is us we spend the most time with. Others come and go, marriage cannot seal our fates; whether it’s falling out of love or death, all we get is a temporary companion in the turbulent climate of life.
While this may sound depressing, I find it oddly satisfying. The kind of love I hope for is a companion that will share the umbrella with me when I’m getting soaked, or as perfectly put,
“I do not need someone to complete me,
but if you wanted to,
we could walk next to each other
into whatever is coming next.”