When people get caught up in a fight over ideas, they often begin to lose sight of what those ideas actually mean. Through the sexual revolution, and the ensuing conservative backlash, the whole issue at the core of the matter seems to have been pushed out of sight.
We have liberal thinkers who see conservative ideas about love and romance as constricting and stuck-up rules, and respond with resistance against any rule. And we have conservatives who see the liberal ideas as threatening their ability to live according to their principles, and respond with the application of more and more specific guidelines designed to prevent their followers from even considering liberal ideas.
I believe the petty battle can be narrowed down to a misunderstanding of romance. Conservatives and liberals alike use the word to describe the happy, sappy experiences of a couple in love doing things that only a couple does. And while this is a valid definition of the word in our current culture, the reason it’s a valid definition, the original concept of romance, is what we’ve lost.
Simply put, romance is a quality of mystery and excitement that is removed from everyday life. When you try to be romantic, you are trying to be what you normally are not. And if you make a habit of something that started out romantic, it becomes a part of everyday life and is no longer romantic. I think this principle applies to the “couple in love” definition of romance, regardless of how thin and almost meaningless that definition has become.
The problem with the conservative approach is that it says romance should only be experienced within certain rigid boundaries, because in those boundaries it is normal and expected. But if you confine it that way, you lose the mystery, the excitement, and most of all the separation from everyday life. When you expect something, it doesn’t surprise you. Entering into marriage with the expectation of blissful romance—because you remained a virgin and didn’t hug girls so you still have a complete perfect heart to share—will result in disappointment. Romance is not something you expect, it is something that goes beyond expectations.
The liberal approach, saying that you can and should experience romance whenever and wherever you like, has a similar problem with making romance into an everyday thing. Instead of confining it with boundaries, the rules are abolished and romance loses its otherness, like your secret swimming hole becoming public and overrun by screaming toddlers.
Humans are big fans of organizing, labeling, simplifying, and stereotyping. We find ourselves in a romantic situation, and start plotting how to recreate it for next time. But next time it isn’t nearly as special, because it was planned and therefore part of everyday life.
I do this all the time. I try to hang onto scents that trigger nostalgia, until the connection is so expected that it no longer feels special. I try to set up an event to be exactly like the last one that went so well, and end up disappointed because it doesn’t feel quite the same.
Obviously it doesn’t feel the same because that original feeling was due to romance…a mysterious and exciting departure from what was expected.
This is why people “fall out of love”. Often they still love each other, but they don’t get that special feeling of exciting mystery. They’ve lost romance. What used to be quixotic has become quotidian.
Then the conservatives say it’s because you had romantic encounters before marriage and you’re comparing, or because you have some sin you need to deal with. They say the romance will magically come back if you follow strict gender roles, or if you pray hard enough, or if you read their favorite guru’s book on how to understand the brain of the opposite gender.
Then the liberals say that maybe you just aren’t right for each other, and you should pursue romance where it feels right. They say if you get rid of those pesky boundaries, you’ll find romance again. And you might, for a little while, but the cycle continues and you start to wonder if romance is actually real, or if you’re chasing ephemeral wisps of happiness.
Romance is real, and it’s not found solely in butterfly feelings, prolonged eye contact, sharing chocolate, or French kissing. Romance is when you find yourself driving an empty road in the mountains at midnight, with a full moon overhead, singing your favorite songs with a friend. Or when you find a new book that captures your imagination in a way nothing else has. Or when you go on a picnic in the woods and end up feeding a friendly squirrel. Or when a party comes together in an unexpected way and you become so immersed in it that you forget “how it was last year” and instead create a new experience.
It’s the rare things, the unrepeatable things, that romance is made of. If you feel like you’ve lost romance, perhaps you’ve forgotten what it means, and perhaps you’ve been looking for it in all the wrong places.