M. Scott Peck: The Myth of Romantic Love

The following excerpt is from M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Travelled.

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The Myth of Romantic Love

To serve as effectively as it does to trap us into marriage, the experience of falling in love probably must have as one of its characteristics the illusion that the experience will last forever.  This illusion is fostered in our culture by the commonly held myth of romantic love, which has its origins in our favorite childhood fairy tales, wherein the prince and princess, once united, live happily forever after.

The myth of romantic love tells us, in effect, that for every young man in the world there is a young woman who was “meant for him,” and vice versa. Moreover, the myth implies that there is only one man meant for a woman and only one woman for a man and this has been predetermined “in the stars.” When we meet the person for whom we are intended, recognition comes through the fact that we fall in love. We have met the person for whom all the heavens intended us, and since the match is perfect, we will then be able to satisfy all of each other’s needs forever and ever, and therefore live happily forever after in perfect union and harmony.

Should it come to pass, however, that we do not satisfy or meet all of each other’s needs and friction arises and we fall out of love, then it is clear that a dreadful mistake was made, we misread the stars, we did not hook up with our one and only perfect match, what we thought was love was not real or “true” love, and nothing can be done about the situation except to live unhappily ever after or get divorced.

While I generally find that great myths are great precisely because they represent and embody great universal truths (and will explore several such myths later in this book), the myth of romantic love is a dreadful lie. Perhaps it is a necessary lie in that it ensures the survival of the species by its encouragement and seeming validation of the falling-in-love experience that traps us into marriage. But as a psychiatrist I weep in my heart almost daily for the ghastly confusion and suffering that this myth fosters.

Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth. Mrs. A. subjugates herself absurdly to her husband out of a feeling of guilt. “I didn’t really love my husband when we married,” she says. “I pretended I did. I guess I tricked him into it, ‘so I have no right to complain about him, and I owe it to him to do whatever he wants.”

Mr. B. laments: “I regret I didn’t marry Miss C. I think we could have had a good marriage. But I didn’t feel head over heels in love with her, so I assumed she couldn’t be the right person for me.”

Mrs. D., married for two years, becomes severely depressed without apparent cause, and enters therapy stating: “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve got everything I need, including a perfect marriage.” Only months later can she accept the fact that she has fallen out of love with her husband but that this does not mean that she made a horrible mistake.

Mr. E., also married two years, begins to suffer intense headaches in the evenings and can’t believe they are psychosomatic. “My home life is fine. I love my wife as much as the day I married her. She’s everything I ever wanted,” he says. But his headaches don’t leave him until a year later, when he is able to admit, “She bugs the hell out of me the way she is always wanting, wanting, wanting things without regard to my salary,” and then is able to confront her with her extravagance.

Mr. and Mrs. F. acknowledge to each other that they have fallen out of love and then proceed to make each other miserable by mutual rampant infidelity as they each search for the one “true love,” not realizing that their very acknowledgment could mark the beginning of the work of their marriage in-stead of its end.

Even when couples have acknowledged that the honeymoon is over, that they are no longer romantically in love with each other and are able still to be committed to their relationship, they still cling to the myth and attempt to conform their lives to it. “Even though we have fallen out of love, if we act by sheer will power as if we still were in love, then maybe romantic love will return to our lives,” their thinking goes.

These couples prize togetherness. When they enter couples group therapy (which is the setting in which my wife and I and our close colleagues conduct most serious marriage counseling), they sit together, speak for each other, defend each other’s faults and seek to present to the rest of the group a united front, believing this unity to be a sign of the relative health of their marriage and a prerequisite for its improvement. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, we must tell most couples that they are too much married, too closely coupled, and that they need to establish some psychological distance from each other before they can even begin to work constructively on their problems.

Sometimes it is actually necessary to physically separate them, directing them to sit apart from each other in the group circle. It is always necessary to ask them to refrain from speaking for each other or defending each other against the group. Over and over again we must say, “Let Mary speak for herself, John,” and “John can defend himself, Mary, he’s strong enough.” Ultimately, if they stay in therapy, all couples learn that a true acceptance of their own and each other’s individuality and separateness is the only foundation upon which a mature marriage can be based and real love can grow.

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