• Marisa Guerin

What's the Opposite of a Romantic?

Updated: Apr 11, 2018


Doodle from my college notebook

Marisa Guerin PhD - April 9, 2018

I used to be a romantic. Romanticism comes naturally to the young, I think. It is characterized by the dream that your heart's desire is possible: you just know that somewhere, sometime, the great love will appear. Or the ideal community. Or the inspiring leader. Or the brilliant career.


The romantic dream is always somewhere else -- the greener grass glimpsed from the ordinary field in which we find ourselves now. There is an innocence to such dreaming when it swells from the opening hearts of young persons who are just discovering the world and its potential. Of course they hope for wonders and gifts to come their way! Good for them. It's a natural part of one's early years. However, if the romantic bent continues well into maturity, we are going to be in some trouble, I think. The seductive search for the Right One takes one's gaze away from the (imperfect) gift right under our noses.


It was surely a stroke of luck that I found myself in a university class 'way back in the 1970's, reading and discussing "Love in the Western World" by Denis de Rougement. I haven't a clue today what kind of class it might have been...psychology? Or perhaps something to do with critical perspectives on society? It was the '70's, after all! I faintly suspect it could have been a Saturday seminar offered for free in the professor's backyard. In any case, the timing was excellent for me. Just when I was inclined towards seeking my own version of Lancelot and Camelot, I was given an intellectual jolt that reached right into my personal psyche and made a difference in my perspective for many years to follow.


I can't possibly reconstruct the details from this distance, but I can summarize the bright essence. What stayed with me is the insight that romanticism, the conception of love that emerged in medieval Western society, is more a love of LOVE than it is a love of SOMEONE. It is a love that requires frustration in order to stay alive.


The paradigmatic myth of Tristan and Isolde carries the elements of this tragic story. The forbidden, unattainable love - the lady beloved by her knight but betrothed to his lord - becomes the object of passion, gallantry, heroism and poetry. The telling moment in one version of the myth comes when the two lovers have finally escaped to the woods. In a circumstance when they could realistically have consummated their passion, instead they placed the sword on the ground between them, symbolizing and sustaining the boundary that fuels the fire of the romance.


For de Rougement, the opposite of such romanticism is FIDELITY. That is, a love that entails a faithful commitment to the true, the real, the imperfect, the mysterious of the actual person or community or society that one loves. The difference between the two conceptions of love is enormous. Tristan and Isolde, the romantics, can forever dream of the perfect lover who will totally complete him/her. The rose-tint dissolves fast if you imagine the lovers, married, negotiating whose turn it is to do the dishes or swallowing disappointment when her favorite vacation idea is his worst way to spend a day. And yet, the journey to fulfillment and happiness is precisely in the loving of the real, not the chasing of the fantasy.


(There is an excellent complementary stream of writing in Jungian-inspired literature on the function of anima and animus; for a look at romantic love, see "We" by R. Johnson.)


The dating game is romantic; marriage requires fidelity. The exploration of callings in life is romantic; the commitment to a vocation requires fidelity. The Odessey years in one's young adulthood are carried by romantic dreams and hopes; settling in to a work, a home, a family, neighborhood or community is the time for movement into the depth dimension of fidelity. I know that it's a sad truth that not every attempted life commitment works out; the ending can be truly, deeply painful. It scars the heart. But the wounded heart is nevertheless one that was touched, at least once, by love. The dark side of romantic yearning is that it can lead us to escape the disappointments of real loving by moving the object of love to another, and another -- a person or life situation that is not yet attained, an endless and ultimately sterile journey.


Life in community, life in family, life in marriage, life in collaboration with others -- this life depends on our willingness to embrace the actual, real persons in our lives and to hope they will embrace us the same way. At this deeper level, de Rougement suggested that what one deeply values and loves informs what one finds beautiful -- not the other way around. The life-etched face of one's faithful companion is beautiful; the well-tended simple garden is beautiful; the orderly table set for a shared meal is beautiful; the sight of young people speaking out for justice is beautiful.


Romance is lovely, yes, and a wonderful experience to have, but it isn't the fullness of what life has to offer. Daily fidelity to the people and duties of our own personal world, little by little, burnish the treasure hidden deep in the ordinary.

My brother Paul, fixing the door lock at our Tia Maria Luisa's convent home in Colombia


(Note to my blog followers who are religious, as I am: All of this romance talk translates readily into spiritual wisdom, but I have chosen to use the language of the secular culture in this post. Religious ideas such as Incarnation, Paschal mystery, servant leadership, community living, contemplative dialogue, the immanence of the transcendent Holy...all can be found through the doorway of fidelity to the humble real.)