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A Cure for Compulsive Coupling?

Stop looking to romance to give your life meaning

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

It has come to my attention that some people found my last column inordinately depressing. "You make it sound like there's no hope!" was a frequent response. One friend of mine even went so far as to say that if he thought the prospects for meaningful, non-destructive relationships were really as dismal as I made them out to be, he'd kill himself.

I found all of this rather baffling. First of all, I hadn't thought the column was all that depressing. I wasn't depressed when I wrote it -- just a bit baffled at the peculiar behaviour I was seeing in the ongoing three ring circus that constitutes the web of relationships among my circle of friends, and trying to make sense of it all somehow. I certainly wasn't out to take away anyone's will to live.

Secondly, I didn't say that reasonable relationships weren't possible, just that they didn't appear to be very common, and that society in many ways seemed to be actively working to undermine their possibility. That doesn't mean that individuals can't break out of the pattern and create genuinely healthy, non-neurotic relationships -- just that it isn't easy (personally, I have yet to manage it). Nor did I say that there were no good points to being in love -- just that I wasn't sure they were sufficient to offset the bad.

But the thing that confused me the most about the way people responded to that column was the persistent theme that in the absence of relationships -- or at least healthy ones -- there would be no point in living. In a sense, this gets to what may be the key to the whole web of problems surrounding the phenomenon of romantic love: the idea that our lives aren't complete without a partner.

In a way, that particular bit of cultural mythology says more about our attitude toward life than it does about our idea of love. Is ordinary life really so intolerable, so empty, that it can't be handled without a relationship to blunt the pain? Is there nothing else worth living for, nothing else of importance? Is life really so lacklustre that the possibility of romantic love really the only thing that makes it bearable?

I think not. Romantic love is only one kind of love, and love is only one part of life. I can think of dozens of things that I can do or experience on a daily basis that make life feel worthwhile, from the warmth of a purring cat to the reflection of the moonlight on snow, from a public consultation meeting on the fate of the Temagami wilderness to the new Ministry album, from the research I'm currently doing on declining amphibian populations to my six-year-old nephew's insistence that Coyote has been helping him with his homework.

Look at the way children approach life. They respond with rapt fascination to every new thing that catches their attention, whether it's a bumblebee inside a flower or a new video game or the concept of reincarnation. No one has taught them yet that life shouldn't be full of fun and challenge and wonder; they haven't learned to feel empty and incomplete. They still feel complete in themselves; they're still happy to experience life on its own terms, without feeling they need to find something or someone else out there somewhere to make it all worthwhile.

We aren't born feeling that life is a meaningless misery; discontentment is a learned skill. In part, it's conditioned by societal expectations, and in part, it's a response to society itself, the way it deadens creativity, suppresses adventure, denies magic and conspires to kill off our sense of wonder. And it's that society, not romantic love in itself, or even the importance we place on it, that is the real enemy.

Hierarchal power is maintained by encouraging people to feel powerless and unimportant, and social unrest is diffused by convincing people that the reason they're miserable isn't because society sucks, but because they're single. And so we end up looking to lovers to fill the void instilled in us by a vacuous culture, to restore the power and self-worth we lose by the compromises we have to make to survive, and to restore to us the sense of wonder and magic that, if we could only open our eyes, we could find all around us. That's a pretty heavy load to demand of another human being, and with expectations like that present but unspoken, it's no wonder so many relationships fail.

And there, perhaps, lies the secret to finding relationships that really work: we first have to find ways to make life worth living on its own. We need to rekindle our creativity, reclaim our power, and rediscover how to feel complete in ourselves. Then, maybe, when we're no longer expecting relationships to supply our lives with meaning, we'll be able to actually have meaningful relationships.

There. An upbeat thought. And almost in time for Valentine's Day. Now quit complaining.


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