Enlightenment and Romanticism – The Myth About Romantic Love

On the topic of romantic love, the Dalai Lama has the following to say: “I think that, leaving aside how the endless pursuit of romantic love may affect our deeper spiritual growth, even from a perspective of conventional way of life, the idealization of this romantic love can be seen as an extreme. Unlike those relationships based on caring and genuine affection, this is another matter. It cannot be seen as a positive thing. It’s something that is based on fantasy, unattainable, and therefore may be a source of frustration“.

The idea of romantic love has been packaged and sold very effectively by films, novels, precious diamond manufacturers as well as the real estate, hotels and tourism industry (selling fantasy or imaginative images of couples walking hand-in-hand along a golden beach with the sun setting in the background!). This has resulted in a multiple-billion dollar industry with the lonely hearts showering their money, time and emotional well-being on chasing “a fictitious tale.”

The book goes on to ask “What is it that makes romance so appealing?” In looking at this question, one finds that Eros – romantic, passionate love – the ultimate ecstasy, is a potent cocktail of cultural, biological, and psychological ingredients. The idea of romantic love has flourished over the past two hundred years under the influence of Romanticism, a movement which has done much to shape our perception of the world. Romanticism grew up as a rejection of the previous Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on human reason. The new movement exalted intuition, emotion, feeling and passion… It tended toward the world of imagination of fantasy, the search of a world that is not – an idealized past or utopian future.

The Dalai Lama goes on to say “It seems clear that as a source of happiness, romance leaves a lot to be desired”. And perhaps the Dalai Lama was not far off the mark in rejecting the notion of romance as a basis for a relationship and in describing romance as merely “a fantasy… unattainable” – something not worthy of our efforts. On closer examination, perhaps he was objectively describing the nature of romance rather than providing a negative value judgement… The dictionary, which contains well over a dozen definitions of “romance” or “romantic”, is liberally peppered with phrases such as “a fictitious tale”, “an exaggeration”, “a falsehood”, “fanciful or imaginative” and so on. The ancient concept of Eros, with the underlying sense of of becoming one, of fusion with another, has taken on a new meaning. Romance has acquired an artificial quality, with flavors of fraudulence and deception, the quality that led Oscar Wilde to bleakly observe, “When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, and one always ends up deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

Closeness and intimacy are an important component of human happiness. There’s no doubt of this. But if one is looking for lasting satisfaction in a relationship, the foundation of that relationship must be solid. It is for this reason that the Dalai Lama encourages us to examine the underlying basis of a relationship, should we find ourselves in a relationship that is going sour.

The Dalai Lama’s approach to building a strong relationship is on the qualities of affection, compassion, and mutual respect as human beings. On the topic of marriage, he goes on to say… “I think many problems occur simply because of insufficient time to know each other. I think that if one is seeking to build a truly satisfying relationship, the best way of bringing this about is to get to know the deeper nature of the person and relate to her or him on that level, instead of merely on the basis of superficial characteristics. And in this type of relationship there is role for genuine compassion”

He defines compassion as “a state of mind that is non-violent, non-harming, and non-aggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards the other“.

On the topic of “family values” the book ‘Flow’ has this to say: The current “disintegration” of the family is the result of the slow disappearance of external reasons for staying married. The increase in the marital separations is probably more affected by changes in the labor market that have increased women’s employment opportunities, and by the diffusion of labor-saving home appliances, than it is by a lessening of love or moral fiber.

There have been endless discussion about whether humans are naturally polygamous or monogamous. The issue we have to confront as individuals is not whether humans are “naturally” monogamous or not, but whether we want to be monogamous or not. And in answering that question, we need to weigh all the consequences of our volitional actions and choices. It is customary to think of marriage as the end of freedom, and some refer to their spouses as “old ball-and-chain”. The notion of family life typically implies constraints, responsibilities that interfere with one’s goals and freedom of actions. While this is true, especially when the marriage is of convenience, what we tend to forget is that these rules and obligations are no different, in principle, than those rules that constrain our behavior in other honest activities of life – be it in academics, earning a livelihood or in games.

Cicero once wrote that to be completely free one must become a slave to a set of laws. In other words, accepting limitations is liberating. For example, by making up one’s mind to invest emotional energy, exclusively in a monogamous marriage, regardless of any problems, obstacles, or more attractive options that may come along later, one is freed of the constant pressure of trying to maximize emotional returns. Having made the commitment that an old-fashioned marriage demands, and having made it willingly instead of being compelled by tradition, a person no longer needs to worry whether he or she has made the right choice, or whether the grass might be greener somewhere else. As a result a great deal of energy gets freed up for living, instead of being spent on wondering how to live.

(with book excerpts from “The Art of Happiness” by HH The Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler and “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).