Do our societies idealize romantic love at the expense of other forms of love?
Responding to a prompt offered up in a workshop I’m participating in (The Dharma of Relationships, Paramis in Action), as is my nature, this question has flipped on the switch of a huge spotlight to explore what lies behind the myths we live by, most particularly “romantic love.”
My first, on-the-surface response, is that yes, they (societies) do. Then I think I would have to narrow it down to which societies do because I’m unsure whether the Leavers, as Daniel Quinn called those who live(d) in harmony with the “wild world,” do or did. It’s definitely a myth that has morphed with the separation of man from living in harmony with nature, living in that deep respect for the interconnectedness of all that exists from the tiniest cosmic particle to the humpback whale.
I view this question to be asked in a very active tense as if it is a conscious objective of “societies,” which I don’t believe it is. Has it in fact been a conscious idealization by “societies,” or, instead, has it been a very unconscious metamorphosis that began with religion, with a “God” “out there,” and that “God giving its only son to man” so that mankind can go to that better heavenly place after death, again separate from “heaven on earth.” It began with power and greed usurping the individual’s path, most particularly through dogmatic religions, I feel, wherein grasping greed has slimed its way into all aspects of one’s life with the proposed end result being that an individual’s goal is to obtain more — more wealth, more possessions, more status, more love (as if love is an object to obtain/attain).
For some reason, I reject that societies, in the active tense, idealize romantic love. Instead, as with all the delusions humankind has wrapped itself in, from the first agreements we unconsciously make with our parents from birth, with the communities we’re raised in, we unconsciously create myths and adopt these beliefs, as part of the circle of Dependent Origination. And we suffer because of it, just as we suffer from all of our clinging and grasping, whether it be dogma, possessions, love, or life itself.
Many societies did, and some still do, have arranged marriages. Romantic love did not enter into the world of accepted myths, according to Joseph Campbell, until it began to appear in stories like Iseult and Tristan. Dennis Patrick Slattery says, “Myths are living symbols. They serve each of us individually and collectively as guides to aid us in harmonizing our interior world with the surrounding landscape we inhabit. They serve us on a personal level as ordering and organizing principles whose aim is to offer our lives a sense of coherence, not perfection. Joseph Campbell believes that myths reveal the movement of psyche, indeed ‘of the whole nature of man and his destiny.'” So romantic love is a myth that has evolved but I don’t believe it is or was actively idealizing love; just laying on another veil of delusion, unconsciously shoring up delusions without serving a higher self.
Unless we were raised in a Buddhist environment, I think adopting and creating myths we live by is something we do individually from our point of separation from our mother’s body and with the induction of agreements we received from our parents and from our communities. Again, I don’t believe society itself has done anything consciously. I don’t even think that the individuals who continue to grasp for power do it consciously. It’s an individual human dilemma encapsulated in Dependent Origination, through which the Buddha’s teachings shine a light on the path out of the mythical dream. It might have begun with the instinct of all living things on this earth to continue, to procreate, allowing the loins of humankind to lead the way in that deception in order to continue. Or it might have started when mankind separated from living in a harmonic oneness with nature, moving into me/it, mine/its, mine/yours, which process, of course, always left a burning yearning in the heart that something was missing.
Some species mate for life, some don’t. In order to continue the human race, until the last century, the human myth was that marriage of a man and a woman is the only permitted form of marriage (and some are attempting to continue that myth). But marriage is an institution that came out of survival, and now, in our day and age, we do not need to marry, nor remain in partnership to survive — physically — nor should we continue to procreate as, clearly, 8 billion people is straining the threads that bind us together.
But clearly, we need love to survive, as Harry Harlow proved with his wire-monkey experiments in the ’50s, as social scientists repeatedly affirm when trying to heal the injured people rising up through our societies around the world where parents — unconscious and injured themselves and in their quest for more possessions or just more basics for survival — can’t find, don’t make, or lose the time to love their children, their fellow humans, themselves.
Because of the cause-and-effect path of my life, I’ve never quite lived within the bounds of what society projects on the cinder-block walls it’s built to surround and separate itself. Yes, I’ve stuck my toe into romantic love several times throughout my life. It always burned me. Or maybe I didn’t follow the rules or know how to do it. But whether it was my path, whether it was the deep burns suffered, or whether I instinctively knew that romantic love was not to be idealized, I’ve chosen to explore the myths I’ve lived by. Saying society actively did something feels like it once again removes the individual from seeking the truths behind the myths we live by.
Since I’ve found the Buddhist path, I’ve peered behind the veils slip down. I’ve discovered a deeper loving kindness to be the fertile ground that sustains all and from which all springs. Loving kindness is an ever-present moment. Romantic love is an ever-changing delusion, and at least for me, at 73, a distant past.