Happy Valentine’s Day
February 14, 2018
why is romanticism so heavily revered as the pinnacle of human existence to the point that we feel we cannot satisfy ourselves through friendships and emotional experiences”
A tweet from non-verified Twitter user @jyoungwhite, whom I do not follow and don’t know personally.
I thank the algorithm gods that one of my friends “liked” this tweet and it happened into my feed, sandwiched between yet another hot take on whether Democrats or Republicans won the battle of the memos and the latest medal count from PyeongChang.
This statement-question is our driving dilemma. It is our dilemma as a generation; as a country; as a weird, little, bald species with an oversized brain and doubly oversized ego. Our addiction to romance, and especially the Western, publicly monogamous variety, has driven our society insane. Yet we continue to revere it as our only savior.
In its modern iteration, romance exists at the intersection of our insecurity and our arrogance. That is what makes it so thrilling and so dangerous. Everyone fears that they are in some way repulsive, unattractive, unlovable and craves reassurance that they are, in fact, worthy of affection. Even the most independent and confident people want this validation, if only because having someone else to remind them of their value means they no longer have to devote as much of their mental energy to self-assurance. These emotional cravings drive us to pursue romance, and create the varying degrees of emotional suffering—from boredom to listlessness to full-on depression—that we feel in its absence.
The animating irony of romance, then, is that while our insecurities drive us toward it only our arrogance can help us achieve it. Every step of a romantic interaction, no matter how brief, is terrifying. Asking someone out, leaning in for a kiss, showing another person your naked body (or your naked emotions) are all incredibly nerve-wracking experiences, and we need to entertain a certain level of cockiness to even consider taking on these challenges. The thrill of consensual romantic interactions arrives when we go out on our most flimsy and arrogant limb and, instead of feeling the limb snap and send us plummeting back to insecurity, we are caught by someone else’s reassurance and validation.
This is not a bad thing. The semi-feigned self-confidence that helps us achieve romantic success also sustains us through life’s myriad challenges and disappointments. However, it also opens the door to violence and abuse. Many people take the arrogance side of romance too far, and this leads to sexual violence in many forms, from Harvey Weinstein’s rapes to Aziz Ansari’s alleged inability or unwillingness to acknowledge his partner’s discomfort. This is a tragedy, and any sexual violence is harmful, wrong, and evil no matter what.
However, even when an interaction is completely healthy and consensual, romance’s inherent reliance on the tension between our insecurity and our arrogance means the emotions and the passions that we whirl into the romantic cocktail are essential ingredients in everything that makes our society miserable. From the relatively banal feelings of loneliness and disconnect that have been on the rise for generations to the oppressive weight of harassment and assault, romance is in the air whenever someone cries.
Yet to save ourselves from the horrors of romance, we often delve not into friendships or life passions, but into yet more romantic fantasy. Sitcoms, rom-coms, and dramas for when we want to feel mature, pile on top of magazine articles about how to stop self-sabotaging and settle down with a passable partner, joke-y online quizzes that will tell you your future soulmate’s zodiac sign, and technologically-enhanced speed dating that most often happens on the toilet or in line at the grocery store. None of this is inherently bad, but there is something self-defeating in the way we turn to simplified, game-ified romance as a distraction from and cure for the ills that accompany romantic interactions.
This faith that romance will save us from romance parallels Silicon Valley’s feverish belief that we can invent our way out of any problem, even those we create for ourselves. Most people do not mind pressing buttons, but now we have Alexa, Siri, and a host of other digital assistants to save us from even that mundanely erotic task. If voice commands do not work well enough, the solution is not to regress to something analog, but to improve the artificial intelligence, speed up the processor, and add more languages to our digital lady’s encyclopedic brain. As we invent solutions, we invent problems, and then we invent fixes for our invented errors.
We do the same thing with romance. Falling in love, falling out of love, and all the stages in between make us feel euphoric, miserable, dejected, nervous, excited, relieved, thrilled, scared, nauseous, and so much more. These are all powerful, important, and meaningful emotions. We benefit from all of them, even the difficult ones. Even so, sometimes we need a break. Too often, though, our break from romance is just romance from a different angle; a lighter, fluffier version of the same thing that has caused our pain, our joy, or our exhaustion in the first place. That may distract us for a little while, but it doesn’t help us over the long term.
Mutually reciprocated deep caring, backed up by physical intimacy, is beautiful, fun, enlightening, and an important avenue for personal and emotional growth. But so is friendship. So is exercise. So is reading, or painting, or fixing cars, or building computers, or playing video games. So is nearly everything.
Why don’t we admit that?
Jake McNichol works as a political consultant in New Jersey and is a contributor for Arbitror.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo by Tyler Burrus for Flickr with a CC BY 2.0 license.