“So you want to be in love like the movies
They're just saying their lines, in the movies they make it look so perfect…
And in the ending there's always a resolution
But real life is more than just two hours long.”
—The Avett Brothers
“Walt Disney ruined romantic love for us all, creating expectations of happiness and wealth following a kiss from the prince on a white horse.” —Julia
Romantic Ideology idealizes love, its influence rampant in popular culture. In songs and movies, one is overrun with phrases that echo the sentiments, “You are everything to me,” "you're the nearest thing to heaven," "to live without your love is impossible," and "love can do no evil,” or other unimaginatively similar promises. Reality is indeed different, which can result in Romantic Ideology becoming immoral and risky.
We all know something about love. We all yearn to feel love, and most of us have experienced this profound emotion. Nevertheless, for the majority of people, love remains a mystery and they feel that they have not experienced it in the way it is described in Hollywood movies, books, and popular songs. These cultural references express what can be termed “Romantic Ideology.”
Is There Such a Thing As Immoral Love?
“Men who murder their wives are like parasites; their world is void, lacking their own meaningful life. They are not in the same league as their wives. It is not love. It is control—just as rape is not sex, but rather control and violence.” —Lili Ben-Ami
“Let’s say I committed this crime, even if I did, it would have to have been because I loved her very much, right?” —O.J. Simpson
Although love is regarded as moral and altruistic, it can lead to morally murky consequences. In our book, In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims, Ruhama Goussinsky and I argue that this ideology implies extreme behavior: After all, if we believe “all is fair in love and war,” “love will always prevail,” and “love can do no evil,” everything done “in the name of love” can be justified. Indeed, people have committed the most horrific crimes in the name of the altruistic ideals of religion and love.
About 40 percent of all female murder victims (and just 6 percent of male murder victims) die at the hands of a former or present spouse or lover. The home becomes a dangerous place for women (as well as for children). Whereas almost all cases of homicides committed by males against their female partners occur after the female partner has announced her intention to end the relationship, most of the very few homicides committed by females against their male partners are reactions to severe male domestic violence.
In almost every case, these murderers perversely claimed that this horrific act was the result of “loving too much.” Of course, killing the one you love is not an example of "loving too much," but rather of how love can go wrong when totalitarianism and extremism replace compromise and accommodation as guiding principles. The murderous dictator who proclaims that he “loves his people too much” fits neatly into this category. As Lili Ben-Ami rightly says, “the man who murders his wife is like a parasite. He needs her presence all the time in order to live. It is an addiction to controlling his partner. Accordingly, leaving this parasite is the riskiest and deadliest moment for his wife.”
The murderers’ pathological behavior can in fact be developed and consistent with Romantic Ideology. If his lover “is everything to him,” and indeed, “to live without her love is impossible,” then his wife, the only person capable of providing a meaningful existence, becomes hostage to the man. Ironically, Romantic Ideology can ruin the flourishing of love and generate the pathological behavior of those murderers.
Can Romantic Ideology and Illusions Be Good for Love?
“With you eternally mine, in love there is no measure of time.” —Barbra Streisand
Most of us have been victims of Romantic Ideology. While popular media and Hollywood movies keep reminding us that love is the only thing we need, there are those who are unhappy in love. Moreover, statistics concerning depression and suicide because of a broken heart, remind us of what happens when “everything we need” is taken from us.
Still, there are risks that occur in disregarding the reality common in Romantic Ideology as well as advantages of looking at reality through rose-tinted spectacles. Indeed, positive illusions (which make us perceive our beloved more positively than the beloved is in reality) tend to maintain and enhance our love. Sometimes there is an advantage in ignoring the unpleasant aspects of reality, as it helps us sustain a positive attitude. Similarly, there is value in promising eternal love, for it encourages us to make more of an effort in our relationships, therefore making the fulfillment of this promise more feasible.
Romantic Ideology and indulging in positive illusions increase motivation to go in a romantically normative direction, and eventually increase the chances of romantic success. Optimism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nevertheless, the unrealistic nature of Romantic Ideology and positive illusions may harm our ability to cope with genuine problems in intimate relationships.
The magic of Romantic Ideology has in no way disappeared today; though it holds an attraction and allure for most people, their ideas of actually attaining it have decreased. The result is a gap between what we desire from love and actually receive from it, generating increasing dissatisfaction in romantic relationships.
How Romantic Behavior Is Changing
“You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart.” —Carole King
Romantic Ideology assumes the eternal and exclusive nature of love and consequently creates major difficulties for many. Over time, the realization of eternal and exclusive love has dwindled due to two significant factors: the barriers preventing divorces have been eliminated and there is a new presence of many attractive romantic alternatives. These developments have increased the diversity and flexibility of romantic relationships. Nevertheless, the Eight Match survey of American singles indicates that 69 percent of today’s singles are looking for a serious relationship, while also wanting to experience different types of casual sexual experiences.
Alongside greater romantic diversity and flexibility, there has been another, somewhat surprising development in romantic relationships: the increasing presence of romantic profundity (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019). No doubt, tempestuous romantic experiences are valuable. However, our high-paced society floods us with superficial excitement. Slow, profound, or older people often fall victim to this rapid pace; fast and superficial people have the edge. Social networks make connections between people faster and less profound, decreasing romantic profundity and increasing loneliness, which stems not from a lack of social connections, but from a lack of meaningful, profound interaction.
As we live longer and our society offers ever more superficial experiences, romantic profundity has taken on even greater value. These days, it is not more brief, exciting experiences that we need to become happier, but rather the ability to establish and enhance enduring robust romantic relationships.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Ben-Ze'ev, A., & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love. Oxford University Press.