Bringing Romantic Love Out of the Stone Age

Contrary to the so-called wisdom of the ages, romantic love is not about sacrifice.

True love and sacrifice are utter opposites. While occasional, short-term compromises are necessary in all forms of human relationship, a romantic partner never asks you to sacrifice yourself for him; he never wants you to do something that is a violation of your very self. He would rather let you go altogether than see you take an important step—such as having children, or giving up your ambition—just for him (or her).

Never confuse love with sacrifice. If you do, you will be subjected to the same disillusionment and despair that has plagued most marriages and other love relationships throughout all of human history.

Today’s high divorce rate is merely the climax of the vicious and false view that love is sacrifice.

It need not be this way. David Seabury, a clinical psychologist writing in the 1930s, eloquently illustrated this timeless point. ‘Never marry because someone loves you,’ writes Seabury. ‘It is not an adequate reason, and sometimes a bad one. If he is possessive and jealous, he doesn’t love you. He only wants you. He needs to own you to inflate his ego. Having you as a slave gives him power. If you satisfy his greed, you’ll regret it all your days. Possessiveness and jealousy are signs of predatory animality, hangovers from the cave.’

All too often individuals mistakenly label such ‘greed’ and possessiveness as selfishness. Precisely the opposite is true.

Individuals with self-respect and self-esteem do not want to possess you. They want to share the experience of life with you, side by side, as psychological and intellectual companions. Your lover will lose respect for you if he sees you can be owned like a dog or a cat or an object.

Seabury continues: ‘Marry only when the other person seems lovely to you. Marry when you love, not when you would sacrifice for him, or wish to possess him. When those twin evils, self-denial and possessiveness, enter a human relation, hell comes with them, and love flies out of the door. If you married on the basis of self-sacrifice, you would consistently pick out the poorest character on earth to wed, for that would be the greatest denial. The laws of love are, in fact, one of the proofs of the idiocy of self-denial as a way of life. To relegate your intuitive and primary desires to the background makes marriage into prostitution. To let anything but the reality and integrity of your love lead you into marriage is sheer crime.

‘Never step into wedlock to please another person. You defile love if you do, and if your marriage doesn’t then end in divorce, it should. The true, deep drive of the mate impulse will rise someday, somewhere, to make a compromised relationship into an agony. Never let the fate of anyone else stand in the way of love, or you will come secretly to hate and destroy the person for whom you sacrificed your chance for romantic happiness. Let anyone, be it father or mother, son or daughter, and—yes—husband or wife, share with you the consequences of the coming of love into your life. Go with your love and to your love. But don’t go halfheartedly, waiting until you or life are ready. Just don’t start anything if you can’t see it through.’

None of this is to imply that love is only based on feeling. Remember: Just don’t start  anything if you can’t see it through. Romantic love, while selfish, is also an all-or-nothing proposition. Those who ignore this fact (as most have) do so at their own peril. One must understand and think carefully about the reasons for loving an individual, in the realm of romantic love more than anywhere else. All too often, poets and philosophers have relied on platitudes about sacrifice and selflessness—so-called ‘virtues’—as an excuse for not thinking carefully about why one wants to enter a particular romantic relationship.

‘Love knows no reason,’ the poets and philosophers have wailed for centuries. Love had better know reason, if it is to survive and flourish. In its perfect form, romantic love is the fusion of unyielding reason and unbridled passion.

Again, I quote David Seabury: ‘There is one basic rule in love: ‘Be yourself, always.’ Start by being so, it’s your only protection. Do nothing to win a man or woman that is contrary to yourself, for you’ll only win trouble if you do. She, or he, who doesn’t like you as you really are, will come to hate you secretly when the facts are discovered.

‘Never become an appendage to a marriage partner. Keep your native hungers, your intellectual values. Never let a man put you in the home and keep you there, or a woman tie you to the home as one chains Fido to his kennel. You belong to life first, to your partner only insofar as he or she doesn’t try to possess you.

‘Most important of all, never marry a person who can’t remain a sweetheart, and with whom you wouldn’t want to be, even if you didn’t have the protection of marriage. There is always the danger that a man will become a husband at the expense of being a man. If he loses identity in this relationship, he will in the end lose the relation. If he becomes submerged in quasi-companionship, acting the dutiful slave because a woman dumps her problems on him, and society shoves him into the hopeless position of the burden-bearer, he’ll end by being an unwanted echo.’ (I would only add that in today’s world, where both men and women vigorously pursue careers, this risk is shared equally.)

To a very great extent, the future of the human race depends upon the ability of  individuals to form satisfying, happy and long-term romantic relationships. There can be no ‘family values’ without solid, authentic love relationships to nurture them. Do not be fooled into thinking that a return to the ‘good old days’ will solve our problems. It is true that there appear to be more unstable relationships today than ever before. But this simply means that in the past individuals kept their miserable feelings to themselves and sacrificed even more than they do today.

The only solution starts with your own, individual life. Abandon the view that sacrifice is the root of all good. Sacrifice and selflessnes, especially in romantic relationships, is in fact the root of all that is miserable in the lives of so many.

[David Seabury citations are from The Art of Selfishness, Pocket Books, c. 1937, 1964].


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