Now I am on the case as a professional, a journalist who rebels against almost everything I see, hear, and read about love in the popular media. Every story insults my experience of love. Every story offers a ridiculous scenario that results in half-baked romance and scorched lives. There's the tragic version: Love, Obstacle, Separation, Loss (Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Erich Segal's Love Story). And there's the fairy-tale version: Love, Obstacle, Triumph, Happily Ever After (Cinderella, My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The obstacles—class, clan, race, work, conflicting dreams—provide the dramatic tension.
In America we live in a culture that glorifies passionate, romantic love. Our friends are in love, dreaming or daydreaming of it, waiting and dating to fall into it. Women and men begin new lives in love. Romantic love is our inspiration, our motivation—our reason to be. Romance is a cultural obsession, an imperial ideal. We believe that love can be found, here and now and forever, in an instant, across a crowded room—or tomorrow, just around the corner.
It can—but rarely. In reality, romance is more fleeting and more dangerous than we are told, more complicated than we could have imagined, more elusive than we've been led to believe. Love is a promise made every day only to be broken tomorrow.
As the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson wrote in We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, "The fact that we say 'romance' when we mean 'love' shows us that underneath our language there is a psychological muddle. We are confusing two great psychological systems within us, and this has a devastating effect on our lives and our relationships."
In a documentary I'm researching and developing for television, I want to distinguish love from romance, to explore the ideal of true love, or real love, as Johnson describes it. Talking to Johnson, I told him that it seems to me that love, not romance, is the love we seek, the love we need, the love that enriches life and has the potential to make us happy. "That's the story I want to tell," I said—a different story of love—and show its appeal to our deeper desires and nature.
"Good luck!" Johnson said. "In this society, nobody wants to hear about it. Even if it is the truth."
He may be right. Even our language undermines that story. We use words like settle and settle down when we marry or accept a more stable relationship. We "compromise" for a mate who is flesh and blood if not quite the prince we imagined. Johnson calls the love he's talking about oatmeal love. Isn't there a tastier image? The very vocabulary advertises that the champagne of true love is flat.
Next: Does romance really last?