I think there are two kinds of romantic love. (I’m not talking about love in general, love for country, love for a child. Romantic love specifically.) One kind is for writing about. The other kind is the one you actually want.
The kind for writing about is the Tristan and Isolde love. It’s immediate, passionate, intense. It breaks you apart and remakes you, so that you’re a different person, no longer the person you were. It demands everything from you: your time, sometimes your life. It’s the best thing you could ever possibly experience, until it’s the worst thing you could ever possibly experience and you want to die.
That kind of love makes for fabulous stories. You can write all the intense and passionate parts, and then you can write all the painful parts. You can torture your characters all you want.
The other kind of love does not make for interesting stories. You probably have an idea of what I’m going to describe, but that idea is wrong. I don’t mean the sort of domestic love that endures for years. I don’t mean that at all, and I don’t think that’s romantic love but something else. The Tristan and Isolde love does not fade into domestic love. If it does, it wasn’t the Tristan and Isolde love, which either endures or destroys itself. It can turn into hatred more easily than it can become domesticated, settle down into an ordinary life.
No, the other kind of love I’m talking about is described by Viktor Frankl, who writes,
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
I suppose what I’m really describing are three types of love: romantic love (passionate, intense), domestic love (comfortable, a safe haven in a stormy world – Tristan and Isolde were never safe havens for each other), and this other thing for which I have no name.
Romantic love makes you feel bound to the other person. Domestic love makes you feel safe with the other person. This third thing makes you feel free and not at all safe, because it means that you are seen, truly seen, by another person. Seen not just as who you are, but as who you could be. And so this love says to you, become who you could be – I will help you, I will be there for you as you do that, but I will demand that of you, that you become the self you were meant to be.
But it also leaves you perfectly free. It’s not a love that says, love me back. It’s not a love that says, do your duty. It’s not a love that restrains you in any way, except by asking you to become yourself.
And it’s a love that sees you, not as a reflection of the one who sees, but as who you actually are.
It’s a light in the darkness, by which you are seen and enabled to see.
I think I’ll call it perfect love, and it’s what I think we are all striving for. Romantic love feels wonderful, until it doesn’t. And domestic love makes us contented, until we realized one day that we want more, that we are not being our fullest, truest selves. That we were not meant to be contented, but to be discontented, to be forever searching and striving for more. That the search and the striving make us most human. What we want is the love that calls us on through the darkness. That offers a partnership deeper and stronger than either of the others. (If Tristan and Isolde had lived, would they have found it? Would he have helped her become a poet, would she have sent him on his quests with her blessing and a kiss?)
But that sort of love doesn’t make for very good stories, does it? (Although it might, just might, make for good art.)