“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” -Mae West.
The immediate question arising from Mae West’s comment is what choices should we make in order to live romantically "right". No doubt, many roads lead to Rome and many more to love. Should we prefer one over another? I will examine here such roads through the true stories of Ariel, Veronica, Pamela and Sheryl, four married women who took different roads to be with the one they love. All of them believe now that they took the right road.
“I divorced the father of my six children”: The story of Veronica
Veronica, an attractive and wise married woman with six children, divorced her well-established husband and married her lover, who himself was married with four children when they met. Neither of them had considered divorcing their spouses till they met each other. Their former relationships were fine, but there was no real passion in them. Now, ten years after the divorce, Veronica is very happy with her choice and says that she cannot imagine a better romantic relationship than the one she has now. Her current husband feels the same. Her ex-husband remarried as well and she sees her children quite often. She is immensely happy and is fulfilling the romantic dream of her life. Veronica belongs to the group of romantic people who cannot be in a loving relationship that lacks intense passion. For these people, a lack of passion is a lack of love.
“I am with both my husband and my lover”: The story of Pamela
Pamela is a conservative, married woman with three children. Throughout her 23 years of marriage, she never had an affair and never actually thought about having one until she met Saul at her work place. Saul, a charming married man with two children, had quite a few affairs before meeting Pamela. There was an immediate click between them and they fell intensely in love. After a while they considered divorcing their spouses, but Pamela told Saul that she loved him too much to separate him from his wife and children; they decided to continue their loving relationship while remaining married to their spouses. It is now 12 years since they met, and they continue to enjoy the most profound loving relationship of their lives. The relationship is confined to their secret world—they never go out together and cannot be with each other as much as they would like. This is a constant source of yearning for them.
“I have stayed with my husband despite my affairs”: The story of Sheryl
Sheryl is an attractive and an extremely talented woman in her late forties. She is married to a handsome, intelligent man in his early sixties. They both love and respect each other, though their mutual passion has never been very high. She had a few extramarital affairs; her husband had not. When he became aware of her affairs, he considered divorce and finally decided against it and began having affairs of his own. In addition to their mutual togetherness, each of them has a separate little world of their own. Some aspects of this world are sexual and others are emotional. They seem to derive more satisfaction from their marriage now than they did before.
“I chose an older and less passionate man”: The story of Ariel
Ariel, a married woman in her fifties, was faced at the age of 27 with a decision that demanded a romantic compromise: Whether to marry a young man who she loved passionately or to marry a divorced 50 year old who she respected and loved, but not passionately. She chose the older person as she thought that he would be better able to bring out the best in her and help her to realize her potential. When she looks back on her life, she has no regrets—time has only deepened her love for her husband. Ariel says that she has never believed in Romantic Ideology, as she has never liked illusions or fantasies. She places particular importance on her personal space and freedom. In all the places they have lived, she has had a separate bedroom and an office of her own. They have mostly lived apart, but they speak on the phone several times a day and when they meet on weekends, they take great pleasure in their time together. Despite Ariel’s enjoyment of her private space, she never uses it for sexual affairs; she explains this by saying, “I am too puritan.” Moreover Ariel cares for her husband deeply and feels very committed to him. Ariel, like other more rational people, believes that love is so much more than intense passion, which often lessens in intensity as time goes by; for such people, love is something more profound that should last for a long time.
Comparing the different roads
The above four roads express possible options you have if you want to be with the one you love, despite the lack of passion in some area of your life. There is of course also the chance, which is not discussed here, of finding great profound love and passion right from start and maintaining it throughout the relationship.
The complex experience of profound romantic love involves two basic evaluative patterns referring to (a) attractiveness—that is, an attraction to external appearance, and (b) praiseworthiness—that is, positive appraisal of personal characteristics. Companionate love involves characteristics such as caring, respect, reciprocity, and admiration. Romantic love involves companionate love as well as the passionate aspect that relates mainly to sexual desire.
The ideal romantic love is one that is profound and involves a high degree of both praiseworthiness and attractiveness—both deep friendship and intense passion. In this ideal love, passionate desire is part and parcel of the profound attitude of romantic love. Let us arrange the stories of the four women in light of the road they took with regard to the passionate aspect of their love-life.
(a) Achieving the passionate aspect by replacing an unstimulating spouse with a passionate one (Veronica);
(b) Achieving the passionate aspect by adding a relationship with a passionate lover to the one with an unstimulating spouse (Pamela);
(c) Giving up the passionate aspect only within marriage, but achieving it occasionally outside marriage (Sheryl);
(d) Giving up the passionate aspect all together (Ariel).
Veronica and Pamela are in the best situation concerning the fulfillment of their passion, which is integrated into their romantic love. The difference between them is in their ability to fully implement this profound love. Veronica can do so and this brings her great happiness. Pamela cannot do so as she is married to another person. The secret nature of her relationship with her lover makes it impossible for them to pursue activities together in public, so their togetherness is limited both in time and in the mutual experiences that are open to them. Veronica took the greater risk and made the bigger sacrifice by refusing any type of romantic compromise; accordingly, she broke up her marriage. She gave up everything, but got everything—she is living with the passionate love of her life.
Pamela's circumstances are the most complex. She felt unable to take the full step she would have liked to take—to live with her lover—and decided to compromise by remaining in her marriage. She is ready to compromise on the nature of the marital framework she is in, but cannot compromise on not being with the love of her life. Pamela’s risk and sacrifice are less than those of Veronica but she also gets less. Like Veronica, the love of her life includes passion as well, but unlike Veronica she does not live with the man with whom she is so much in love.
Sheryl did not want to give up anything—neither her marriage and nor her passionate sexual desire. However, unlike Veronica and Pamela she could not integrate this passion into a profound romantic love, and so her passion is directed at different men: she loves (in a companionate manner) her husband and satisfies her passionate sexual desire with other people. Though she has become accommodated to her situation, she still yearns to be with a person she loves and desires.
Ariel’s road is the simplest: At the beginning of her relationship she gave up passionate love and has learned to love her husband in a companionate manner; at this stage of her life she feels satisfied with her marriage and life. At first she was uncomfortable about compromising on the passionate aspect in her relationship, but then accommodated herself to it and does not feel its absence in her everyday life.
Which road is the best? Most people would probably choose Veronica's way, because in the end it results in a more satisfactory relationship. However this road involves greater risks and more harmful consequences for other people, especially if the second marriage does not work out (the failure rate of second marriages is estimated to be 10% higher than that of first marriages). Moreover, this road is not suitable for everyone. Thus, it might be the case that Pamela would suffer greatly and feel guilty if she divorced her husband. Sheryl's situation requires less significant decisions but it does not completely fulfill her, as she lacks the chance to be profoundly in love. Ariel’s road is the simplest, but it involves great sacrifice, too great for most people. Generally speaking it seems that Veronica’s and Pamela’s choices are more human and convey more optimism about our ability not to make profound romantic compromises. The choices of Sheryl and Ariel may seem more pessimistic and sad: they give up the hope of profound passionate love too soon.
How can we live romantically "right"?
In the wonderful movie, Something’s Gotta Give, Harry (Jack Nicholson), who has a reputation for dating girls a third of his age, falls in love with Erica (Diane Keaton), the mother of his current young girlfriend. When they both confess that their affair has turned their life upside down, Harry tells Erica, ‘Then let’s just each get our bearings’, to which Erica replies: ‘I don’t want my bearings. I’ve had my bearings my whole goddamn life. I feel something with you I never really knew existed. Do you know what that’s like, after a 20-year marriage, to feel something for another person that is so… right?’ Erica tells her daughter that she knew how to handle the life she had before, but now ‘I’m in love. Ain’t it great? Seems like I gotta learn how to... that love-them-and-leave-them stuff, you know?’ She concludes: ‘You can’t hide from love for the rest of your life because maybe it won’t work out... maybe you’ll become unglued. It’s just not a way to live’. Despite his many affairs, Harry declares: ‘I’m 63 years old... and I’m in love for the first time in my life’, while Erica notes: ‘I let someone in, and I had the time of my life’. Her daughter, however, confesses: ‘I’ve never had the time of my life’.
Love itself is a virtue and if it does not conflict with other values or limitations, it is so precious. The question of right and wrong emerges when love encounters such a conflict. Human love is a “bounded love”; it is love that acknowledges some dependency upon external circumstances. Love can determine people’s actions up to a point, and it can ignore external circumstances up to a point. Similarly, love can be blind up to a point but in most cases it cannot completely ignore reality. Love can see reality in brighter colors but typically cannot completely change the way we see reality.
The familiar experience of trying in vain to love the “right” person indicates the importance of attraction in love. The familiar experience of being attracted to a handsome person, up until the moment he opens his mouth, indicates the importance of praiseworthiness in love.
Love is essentially bounded by aspects related to the environment in which we live, such as moral norms, scarcity of resources, and the amount of effort involved; and to our own psychological structure, such as the partiality of emotions, the role of change in emotions, the search for happiness, the fear of loss, and the comfort of convenience. But love has its own vitality, enabling it to be flexible in coping with such aspects. In this sense, love is bounded and flexible—conditional and unconditional. It fluctuates within a bounded framework. Bounded love is contrary to both the unconditional nature of love promoted by Romantic Ideology, and to the notion of totally fluid love, both of which overlook (from different perspectives) the crucial role of our limitations in love. Without doubt, we need love, but love is not all we need. We have other needs and value as well.
To sum up, it is hard to determine the right way to love. The personalities, circumstances and the depth of love are different in every case. We all want to have the very best: loving passionately and living with the love of our life. Some people succeed in achieving this, using in a variety of ways. Others are less fortunate and must make romantic compromises. The type of compromise to make and the limits of our bounded love should be determined by each person according to each one’s needs, love, and circumstances. Alas, there is no formula for love.