Is Love Meant to Make Us Happy?
Yes, there are benefits to love's setbacks and stormier moments.
Posted April 22, 2011
This is a question I address at length in my two books on romance: THE CASE FOR FALLING IN LOVE and THE SUMMONS OF LOVE. My short answer is "no" (or at least, "not necessarily"). Although we are culturally programmed to view romantic love as the answer to life's difficulties, I think that happiness is rarely love's main goal. This is not to say that love can't make us happy. Obviously, it can bring us the kind of bliss that few other things in life can. It can make us feel fully alive, tingling with hope, vitality, and the general luster of life. But if happiness is how we characterize love's overall mission, we overlook the importance of its sadder frequencies; we fail to see that the setbacks and disappointments of love are often a legitimate part of its unfolding rather than its abject antithesis.
If we expect love to make us happy, we automatically interpret its setbacks and disappointments as a sign of failure. But what if happiness is merely one aspect of love's multifaceted mission? What if love is more interested in our growth than our happiness? From this perspective, romantic setbacks and disappointments might actually be more effective in accomplishing love's aim than its more triumphant moments. By this I don't mean to valorize suffering. I'm not saying that we should purposely court setbacks and disappointments, or that we should be pleased when these are what our romantic lives deliver. I'm not in the business of glorifying pain. But there is something to be said for understanding that love may be trying to teach us lessons that have nothing to do with happiness - at least not in any immediate sense.
Many of us are able to look back at love's setbacks and disappointments with a degree of appreciation precisely because we understand, in retrospect, that they forced us to grow, often turning us into more interesting and multidimensional individuals. And we may also recognize that our past heartbreaks make us better lovers in the present, in part because we have more awareness about love's complexity, and in part because heartbreak tends to heighten our sensitivity to the misery of others so that we are more likely to treat our partner with gentleness and care. But all of this can be difficult to appreciate in the midst of love's stormier moments. When our partner abandons us, or when love comes to a sudden end without any explanation whatsoever, it's difficult to see how we might eventually benefit; it's hard to see that failure might be love's roundabout means of attaining its goal.
Many of us believe that when love fails, it's because we did something wrong. We didn't play "the game" correctly. Or we committed some cardinal error that made our romance topple. But my sense is that when love fails, it's not always because of some misstep of ours. Rather, it's because it's in the basic nature of love to be fickle and capricious. Many of our relationships are not meant to have a happy ending. They are a training ground for deeper and more insightful lives. They are a wellspring of wisdom that we can carry to other aspects of our lives well after our relationship has ended. And they are a way for us to refine our characters so that we become better at the art of living, including the art of loving and relating. The failures of love, in short, are only failures if we define love's mission in a very narrow way. As soon as we expand our definition, what may at first glance seem like a failure may in fact become a gift of unfathomable proportions.