'The conference was good, but I didn't meet my future husband there.'
She was intelligent, professional, dedicated, a career woman in the public services, and she had bought into the Great Romantic Myth. When I told her something of the difficulties in the relationship I was in, she said, 'When are you going to finish it?' I asked her why on earth I should, and she said, 'But it isn't going anywhere.' Well maybe it wasn't, but he and I were enjoying the ride.
Why do otherwise sane and emotionally mature women - and it tends to be women1 - assume that somewhere out there is 'the One'?
'Once upon a time there was a girl and a boy... and they all lived happily ever after.' It is the Beautiful Lie2 and it is told to children in fairytales and lapped up by women reading everything from Mills and Boon to Charlotte Brontë.
The Great Divide
It affects men in a different way. While some men do believe in the One, particularly during the heady, emotional, mind-reading days of being in love, more of them believe that they should be the Provider - despite 15 years of New Manhood. The arguments of nature and nurture go round in spirals, and at the moment it is impossible to tell by how much personality is down to biology (which determines sex) and how much is a social construct (which defines gender).
Wherever it comes from, the pressure on men to be the Breadwinner, the Mighty Hunter, the Provider, will continue to drive some men to suicide when things like redundancy strike. It is a dilemma: New Manhood emasculates, but the Myth can kill.
What Harm Does It Do?
The Great Romantic Myth sets expectations too high, for a start. Every relationship ends. It may end after 70 years ('and never a quarrel in all that time') when one of them dies, or it may end after seven seconds with a slap on the face, but the one thing you can be sure of is that it will end. The only questions are how good it was while it lasted, and how much pain will you feel when it happens. The only relationships that don't end like that are car crashes and suicide pacts, the refuge of the young and foolish who do not realise that broken hearts don't kill you.
She judged every young man against an internal measure of her future ideal husband, and if they didn't stack up they never got past first base. Poor sods. All they wanted was a grope, and someone to take to the movies. And in the meantime, she wrapped herself in her standards like a chastity belt.
When she (if she) eventually found someone, then he would be expected to be Not Like the Others. But very few men are Not Like the Others, so their marriage, (she would marry him, of course), would be full of the normal daily tensions experienced by two people rubbing along together, and she would feel betrayed. The One would never complain that she was cleaning while he wanted to watch TV because, of course, the One would understand her completely. He would certainly never call her an obsessive-compulsive bitch who lacked a sense of proportion, or ask her whether she was pre-menstrual in order to score a cheap debating point. And because she felt betrayed, she wouldn't ask herself what was bugging him and realise that his boss had wound him up like a clockwork toy. She'd take it as a Betrayal, and be Wounded to the Quick.
It takes a sense of space to back off from an argument, to look at the dynamics between and around you both, and realise that he is not actually irritated with you, you just happen to be there when he's irritated. And the Great Romantic Myth tends to leave no room for that space.
People are people, they are not heroic archetypes. No one should be expected to be Prince Charming, Romeo, Rochester, Rhett Butler, Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves all rolled into one.
Where Does It Come From?
Well, from fairy stories and romantic novels, as we have seen. But it is the narrative outpouring of the Great Evolutionary Con.
When we fall in love, our guard goes down and so do our ego boundaries. We become less whole than we were; we become half of a pair. We become intensely attuned to the other person's feelings, and we relax as they become hyper-sensitive to ours. We know what they think and feel. They finish our sentences for us. Oh, and we f**k like rabbits.
This tends to last for two or three years. Just long enough, these days, to plan a Big White Wedding. Lucky us. Just long enough, in the Stone Age, to have a child, and raise it past the babe-in-arms stage to the relative independence of toddlerhood. And guess what? The toddlers which survived, the toddlers we are all descended from, were the ones whose parents functioned as a loving unit - but the children of lovers are orphans, and the best environment for a family is not one where the parents only have eyes for each other, and nobody has time to mind the babby.
What's wrong with being in love?
Nothing. Nothing at all. It's wonderful. It's lovely. You get lots of sex and lots of endorphins and he is Not Like the Others; it's spring, the birdies sing, you go for walks on the beach, and all is right with the world.
If you are in love, then enjoy it. Savour every moment. It's a rare state, and valuable.
The trick is to manage the transition, and there are two places the transition can lead you.
Happy, and Ever After
Some people manage to deepen and extend their love beyond the two-halves-of-a-single-whole stage, and truly do manage to be lifelong lovers. Such partnerships are valuable and rare, and give working examples of conflict resolution, respect and choice. Such couples are rare. Awe-inspiring, but rare.
The Ken and Barbie Dreamhouse
The problem is when people hit that transition while still clinging firmly to the Barbie Dreamhouse - where Ken was the only possible man for Barbie, and they had found each other, were happily married, in fulfilling careers, in a great house, with the same goals in life, and all by the age of 25. The idea of finding the One is really only one part of The Great Romantic Myth. The other parts have to do with what happens after you find the One:
- When I find 'the One', everything will suddenly be different - all of the problems I've had in past relationships will disappear, because now I'm with 'the One'.
- When I find 'the One', I won't need to work at a relationship, and there won't be any arguments; after all, those are both signs that this isn't really 'the One'.
- When I find 'the One', all the other pieces of our lives will magically fall into place - like our careers and our finances. Or, alternatively, we'll discover that those don't really matter to us any more because we have each other.
- When I find 'the One', the relationship is locked in place. If, down the road, the relationship heads in a different direction, it's proof that he was never really 'the One' to begin with, and didn't love me after all.
It all comes down to two basic concepts:
- Somewhere, out there, is 'the One' for me.
- When I meet 'the One', everything will fall into place without effort, just because he is 'the One'.
And this leads us out of the relationship and into the lands beyond. This is where the Great Romantic Myth does its greatest damage.
When Ken no longer loves Barbie, or Barbie no longer loves Ken, the troubles really start. Instead of realising that you have now reverted to being one of the six billion other people on the planet that your partner does not want to share their life with, you see it as a personal betrayal and rejection of the deepest sort.
When we were children, we learned that most of the time when adults hurt us it was in order to punish us, and we carry that on into our relationships. We fail to realise that although there is hurt, there may not in fact be deliberate cruelty. We ask, 'Why are they punishing me?', and burn with the injustice of it all. We lash out, and really do seek to punish in return. Worst of all, we betray or deny the love that we shared in the first place, cutting our partner out of photographs, seeking punative divorce settlements, and talking through lawyers if we talk at all.
Beyond the Myth
Not only does the Great Romantic Myth trash relationships that fail, it also prevents us from having good relationships at the time. Either, like the woman who went to the conference, we do not have relationships at all (and practice does make perfect - how successful can she be in whatever relationship she finally settles on?) or it puts too much pressure on the relationships we do have.
What is wrong with a willing suspension of disbelief? Of knowing that you are going to a movie, and will come out at the end having eaten popcorn and enjoyed the film? Of loving your lover, respecting what you shared, being grateful for the gift of the relationship and what you have learned, and moving - kindly and gently - on?