Driving Me Crazy
The thrill of unfulfilled love.
Posted Oct 01, 2020
"Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell." —Edna St Vincent Millay
"Maria Elena used to say that only unfulfilled love can be romantic." —Juan Antonio
Many romantic relationships are incomplete in the sense of being unsettled and therefore not entirely fulfilled. Take, for example, the instance of two partners who cannot be together as often as they would like because they live in different countries, are married to other people, are having an online affair, or are in the courtship period where sexual encounters have not yet taken place. These unsettled relationships involve extremely intense passion. We are usually excited by anything that is incomplete, unusual, unfinished, unfulfilled, unsettled, unexplained, or uncertain. Why is the passion in these relationships is so strong? Is there such a thing as exciting calmness?
Unfulfilled (incomplete) romantic experiences
"A man is incomplete until he is married. After that, he is finished." —Zsa Zsa Gabor
An incomplete romantic experience is a kind of unfinished business; it is an experience in which love is present, but not entirely fulfilled. In incomplete romantic experiences, love has been partially attained, and there is yearning for its completion. The absent part is like a hole in the lover’s heart that can be neither filled nor ignored; hence, the strong feeling of frustration.
Betsy Prioleau (2003. 14) argues: "Love goes brackish in still waters. It needs to be stirred up with obstruction and difficulty and spiked with surprise." Accordingly, "What's granted is not wanted." Ambiguous states have this kind of incomplete nature and hence have a certain lure. Likewise, in characterizing the perfect seducer, Robert Greene (2001) indicates elements that maintain the incomplete nature of the romantic interaction. These include increasing ambiguity, sending mixed signals, mastering the art of insinuation, confusing desire and reality, mixing pleasure and pain, stirring desire and confusion, toning down the sexual element without getting rid of it outright, refusing to conform to any standard, being able to delay satisfaction, and not offering total satisfaction.
I now briefly consider several types of incomplete, romantic relationships: courting and flirting, extramarital affairs, online relationships, and courtly love.
Courtship and flirting: The period of courtship clearly comes under the category of unfinished business, since we yearn for a future situation in which we might take our relationship to the next level. A related type of incomplete romantic relationships involves close romantic ties, but no sexual intercourse. Among other things, the intensity of the romantic relationship is due to its unfulfilled nature—to the implicit desire to include something extra (and more fulfilling) in the relationship.
Flirting encompasses seemingly contradictory aspects, which cannot be fully fulfilled: honesty together with an element of innocence, as well as a mild level of deception (expressed in flattery); caring for others—by listening to and showing interest in them—while not taking them too seriously; being confident and feeling good about yourself while not attaching too much importance to yourself; intelligence flavored by emotional tone. Flirting is conducted within a tacit borderline; it is a kind of game, or rather a dance, in which participants move closer to the borderline—and sometimes even step across it—and then move back to a comfortable distance from it. All these indicate the incomplete, yet enjoyable nature of flirting.
Extramarital affairs: Extramarital affairs usually have the nature of unfinished business, as they are not complete and comprehensive the way normal primary relationships tend to be. In such affairs, lovers may feel significant satisfaction but they still desire more profound fulfillment of their yearning. Numerous stories deal with romantic relationships that are not complete, and therefore maintain a high level of intensity for a long time. In the play, Same Time, Next Year, a man and a woman, who are married to others, meet by chance at a romantic inn and spend the night together. They then meet on the same weekend each year and stay in the same room. The tagline of the play is: "They couldn't have celebrated happier anniversaries if they were married to each other."
Online relationships: Online relationships are also not entirely fulfilled. As one woman describes her online affair: “Everything with him was great. Passion was at an unbelievable peak, but it wasn’t enough to sustain me. I needed more, I needed a real flesh and blood person who wasn’t 800 miles away.” Another woman describes her online love as “a love that at the moment cannot be allowed to live and breathe as it rightfully deserves.” As one woman engaged in an online affair writes: “We want to meet each other SO BADLY, we NEED to be in each other’s arms, we NEED to look into each other’s eyes, and we NEED that first kiss!!” (Ben-Ze’ev, 2004).
Courtly love: The unfulfilled nature of many intense romantic relationships is evident in courtly love, espoused by the 12th-century troubadours. The troubadours talked about “a new kind of tender, extramarital flirtation which (ideally) was unconsummated sexually and which, therefore, made the chaste lovers more noble and virtuous.” (Clanton, 1984, 15). Thus, the two non-sexual lovers were supposed to sleep naked beside each other for the whole night without engaging in any sexual activity. This was supposed to test whether their love was strong enough to sustain the introduction of this new element into their relationship. Courtly love was perpetually unsatisfied, but nevertheless more intense.
“I discovered the wonder of love (new, brand new) with the discovery of a wonderful peacefulness that is flowering in me. All is quiet, calm, without stress and the upheaval of fear.” —Yehuda Ben-Ze’ev
“True love is not a strong, fiery, impetuous passion. It is, on the contrary, an element calm and deep. It looks beyond mere externals and is attracted by qualities alone. It is wise and discriminating, and its devotion is real and abiding.” —Ellen G. White
Although romantic intensity is typically generated by unfulfilled, unsettling, and novel experiences, romantic profundity requires time, stability, and trust. Unfulfilled, unstable, experiences increase romantic intensity but are of lesser value in enduring profound relationships, the basis of which is a calm, yet dynamic excitement.
Friedrich Kambartel (1989/2017) suggests that calmness concerns not striving to control things that are beyond our control, such as, first, inalterable conditions of our life; second, other people; and third, ourselves. Hence, we are relieved of the endless, futile strain of trying to control the things that are beyond our control. Calmness involves a trust that the course of events beyond our control does not affect the meaning of our life.
In everyday terms, calmness refers to an absence of agitation or excitement. When we say that the weather is calm, we mean that we don’t anticipate storms, high winds, or rough waves anytime soon. Yet, while calmness is free of negative elements, such as tension, agitation, or distress, it can be full of positive excitement. As Julia Roberts said, “The kind of energy I attract is very calm.” While calmness implies an absence of violent or confrontational activity, it does not imply an absence of profound, positive activities that enhance flourishing. Interestingly, precisely because profound calmness is linked to internal strength, it can be perceived, in certain circumstances, as a sort of internal weapon (think of Oscar Wilde’s comment “Nothing is so aggravating as calmness”) (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
Romantic calmness refers to profound trust and satisfaction due to the activities and time shared as a couple. The excitement in this relationship is due to ongoing dynamic development, in bringing out the best in each other where each of them feels they get closer to one’s ideal self. Such dynamic, calm excitement is crucial for enduring intense and profound romantic relationships. Is it possible? Certainly.
This post is based on my recent book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2004). Love online. Cambridge University Press.
Clanton, G. (1984). Social forces and the changing family. In L. A. Kirkendall & A. E. Gravatt (eds.), Marriage and the family in the year 2020. Prometheus Books, 13-46.
Greene, R. (2001). The art of seduction. Penguin.
Kambartel, F. (1989/2017). On calmness: Dealing rationality with what is beyond our control. In A. Krebs & A. Ben-Ze’ev (eds.), Philosophy of emotions, Vol. II. Routledge, 51-57.
Prioleau, B. (2003). Seductress. Viking.