#15 Why romantic love is never as nice as it should be

Has romantic love supplanted religion in our culture? A Jungian insight into why romantic love makes us miserable, and how to fix that.

“We live on the flat, on the level, and yet - and so - we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracting force, dragged towards some foreign railway line. Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.” - Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

I have a confession to make. I’m not great at love. Or, at least, I haven’t been.

For a long time I tried really hard to do better: I read books on the complexities of romantic love, I bought courses on how to make relationships last, followed all the right Instagram accounts, understood my attachment style (the worst kind), looked into alternatives to the staple monogamous arrangement (not for me), figured out my love languages (physical touch, gifts, quality time), worked on my trauma, worked on my ass, and drunkenly blamed Hollywood and Instagram and Cosmopolitan for perpetuating ridiculous ideals that no one can live up to.

And while some of these paid off, I still felt like I was slapping children’s band-aids on a deep, open wound. Something about our current version of romantic love felt off - like no matter how good you got at the game, you could never really win it. Why is it that this particular type of attachment can make us soar so high, but also fall so low? Could it be that a deeper, more mysterious psychological mechanism was at play, without our knowledge?

How it all started

“What is love?
Oh baby, don't hurt me,
Don't hurt me
No more.”
- Nestor Alexander Haddaway, What is love

We may be fooled to think love and romantic love are one and the same. However, it’s important to realise that romantic love is actually “a complex of attitudes about love - involuntary feelings, ideals and reactions” (Robert A. Johnson). It’s a very specific psychological phenomenon that we all share and celeberate, particularly in the West.

Interestingly, if we zoom out a bit on our collective history, we find that romantic love is a fairly new thing - it only started nine centuries ago. Sure, people still fell in love before the twelfth century, but they didn’t give it much thought as things like famine or war tended to feel more pressing, and marriage was a functional arrangement where the newly weds didn’t often have a say.

However, in the Middle Ages, a new form of love was born. A number of reforms in the Church that encouraged people to seek their own spiritual connection to God, plus the emerging Cult of the Virgin began to elevate women to an object of adoration, devotion and service (don’t worry, the patriarchy didn’t let it go on for too long). Thus, courtly love was born.

“The knight sees a fair lady and is overwhelmed by her beauty and goodness; he worships her ever after as the embodiment of his inner ideal, his inner vision of the eternal feminine. Though filled with a holy passion for her, he never touches her, but he goes through great adventures and does mighty deeds to honour her, to live up to the sense of nobility that she inspired in him. For him she is not a woman; she is Blanchefleur, Iseult the Fair, Psyche, Beatrice, and Juliet - the archetypal feminine in her divine essence.” - Robert A. Johnson, We

This cultural phenomenon introduced a completely new view of love and relationships. Courtly love was a spiritual connection between a man and a woman, “designed to lift them above the level of physical grossness, to cultivate refined feeling and spirituality” (Robert A. Johnson). The knight and the lady involved in such a relationship would never have sex with each other, or even attempt to build a life together. Their love was purely spiritual, and it would manifest in the form of poetry, fiction or incredible acts of courage in the name of their desire.

Now, the knights of the Middle Ages were wise enough to keep their romantic interests and longterm commitments separate. However, with time, and with the expansion of reading and literature from the aristocracy to lay people and women, stories of courtly love spread. This fictional, fantastical type of love became the norm, and people began to start seeking the same intensity from their marriages too.

And so, without realising, we’ve combined two powerful human drives: human love and courtly love. And while one is the essence of lasting human relationships based on devotion, loyalty and things like putting your needs second every once in a while, the other is more mysterious. And until we understand it, and learn how to separate the two, we’re bound to continue to soar and crash.

The psychology of romantic love

“Romantic love is the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy.” - Robert A. Johnson, We

You’d think that nine centuries of heartbreak, crimes of passion and general unhappiness would’ve been enough to prove that courtly love should return to where it started - the world of fiction. Unfortunately, as Robert A. Johnson highlights in his book, courtly love is still very much around today. It’s there when you open Netflix, when you scroll through Instagram, or when you chase yet another tortured intellectual type with impeccable taste in music and great hair, knowing damn well that a stable partnership requires a bit more than having a good soundtrack for crying.

The problem is that being in love pushes our buttons in ways human love can’t. Suddenly, we’re incredibly drawn to someone and we have no idea why. We declare that we’ve found “the one”, that they “complete” us, or that they’re our “better half”. And we mean it - their mere existence makes us feel completed, as if a missing part has been returned to us. Life finally makes sense.

But how can a person - who can exit our lives as swiftly as they appeared in our Tinder feed - suddenly give our life purpose just by breathing close to us? Doesn’t it sound a tad… religious?

Let’s hear it from Jung

“All those who dug deep enough into the background of consciousness reached, in one form or another, something irrational which they usually designated with the name of ‘God’” - Marie-Louise von Franz, Dreams

Here’s when things get interesting. Carl Jung was a firm believer in the fact that all humans have a religious function. This isn’t about following a God outside of ourselves, the way religion wants us to do. It’s an inner, psychological fact - it’s the instinct humans have always had to reach for something beyond themselves, to find meaning in our own existence, independent of any creed or dogma.

This is our tendency towards completeness or, as Jung called it, wholeness. It’s a concept similar to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which represented the process of human growth as a move towards self-actualisation and transcendence. This processes doesn’t stop when you become the best person you can be - the path to wholeness inevitably takes you through the deeper layers of life with questions like what is the deal with existence, what is your purpose on this strange planet, and do we really need two double patties in the Big Mac?

Sadly, our call to wholeness remains largely unheard in today’s world. A religious system that’s mostly built on dogma, and a society where principles of materialism and rationality have left us without much of an outlet for our religious instinct. In the absence of a connection to the spiritual, the unconscious, we’ve found gods in the material world around us. We idolise and worship artists and influencers, football teams, our pets, a type of food, creepy men in underwear - but, most commonly, we look for God in our romantic partners.

This, according to Jung, is our greatest psychic wound (perhaps an echo of the ancient warning of the ten commandments against idolatry), but it’s also our salvation - not just from the suffering of projection, but maybe from the pain of terrible romcoms too.

The anima and animus

“When a human being becomes the object of this adoration, when the beloved has the power to ‘give light to our lives’ or extinguish that light, then we have adopted the beloved as the image and symbol of God.” - Robert A. Johnson, We

This projection of our instinct for wholeness onto our romantic partners can be best explained by the concepts of anima and animus. Along with the repressed elements of the shadow, our unconscious also contains a constellation of traits representative of our opposite sex. For men, this is anima, and for women, it’s animus.

The anima or animus represent the “soul” of a person. Their function is to help us relate, and to expand our consciousness by integrating more of who we are. They are meant to be lived as inner realities, but, lacking this awareness, we often project them in the outer world: we see them in others, and we think that that’s where they belong. And because the animus and anima are the representation of the opposing traits in us, the best way to get to know it them is to look at who you fall in love with.

According to Jung, falling in love is a mutual animus and anima projection. Instead of loving the man or woman in front of us, we instead project our inner ideal onto them. And for a while it works great. For a while we fulfil their projections, and they ours - we’re two magnificent gods soaring through the heavens. But if only we could see that the traits we think we see in them that make us soar are, in fact, ours!

Because, inevitably, when our projections will finally concede to the reality of who we really are, disappointment, frustration, and heartbreak will follow.

“In modern Westerners we see a host of complications that issue forth from this invasion of soul into the outer world, into our human relationships. A man actually begins to demand of his wife or girlfriend that she be the goddess, that she be his soul and bring him a constant, ecstatic sense of perfection. Rather than look within himself, where anima natively dwells, he demands his soul of his external environment; he demands it of woman. He is usually so busy projecting his inner ideal out onto her that he rarely sees the value and the beauty of the woman who is actually there. And if his projection suddenly evaporates and he is no longer ‘in love’ in the romantic sense, then he finds himself in a terrible conflict. He wants to follow his projection as it flies off and alight on another woman, like a butterfly that moves from flower to flower. […] Thus it is with romantic love: Patriarchal Western man has lost his soul, and his soul calls him forcibly, pulling him out his known world and into a realm where all seems upside down.” - Robert A. Johnson, We

But the end of projection is also the beginning of hope. Instead of feeling disillusioned by the loss of “in love”-ness and attempting to find the next person to project our soul onto, we can be wiser. We can establish an authentic relationship with the human in front of us, one that’s based on the sturdy values of human love. We can see them for who they are, in all their imperfection, and love them in that quiet, I’ll make you your favourite dish when you’re sick and tuck you in kind of way.

And if we’re lucky we begin to understand that the only reason we projected our ideals of anima or animus on them is that those beautiful and attractive thing are actually parts of us that want to come out. And that, my friends, is the beginning of growth.

There’s hope: romantic love as a path to wholeness

“This is one valid way of looking at romantic love as a psychological force: It is the vehicle in which something is returned to us that was cast out of our culture and out of our loves long ago. Human nature is resourceful; we find a way, even unconsciously, to hang onto what we need.” - Robert A. Johnson, We

Since romantic love doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson suggests that, instead of running away from it, we consciously embrace it as a powerful tool for growth. So how can we make peace with our need for worship, and the need for intimacy, sex, marriage, doing the dishes and raising children?

Firstly, in order to have better relationships, we need to heal the split in our psyche. We need to become aware of the opposing forces manifesting in our relationships: one the one hand, we want a stable relationship with a human who can share chores and pat us on the back when we’re sad, but we unconsciously also demand this person to be the incarnation of the divine and fill our lives with ecstasy. By separating what’s true from fantasy, we can begin to experience each reality where it belongs: the beauty of human love in our outer world, and the majesty of our souls in our inner lives.

This, of course, requires that we develop our inner worlds. In observing what triggers or attracts us in others we become aware of our projections - and we stand a chance at seeing people for who they are. Instead of following projections and following passion for its own sake with little care for the people we hurt on the way, we can actually become better partners and more mature people.

But it’s not just about the projections we cast. Robert A. Johnson advises us to become aware of the projections we welcome from our partners, some of which can be incredibly flattering. Feeling like a goddess can sure be nice, but it’s a tough image to maintain, and it can trap us in spending enormous amounts of energy on masking who we are in order to maintain the projection. Similarly, men can become trapped by always being the strong one, not showing feelings and being problem-solvers.

What do we do now?

“The inner act required of a Western man (or woman) is to affirm his own religious nature. It means to affirm seriously that the images and feelings that flow out of him in dream, fantasy, and imagination are the stuff of the divine realm, a separate order of reality distinct from his physical and personal life but equally real and equally important.” - Robert A. Johnson, We

We seem to be at a crossroads. Now that we’ve understood our deepest wound, do we continue to stick cute little band-aids on it and carry on as before, or do we ask for help and heal?

The answer seems obvious. We have to - for our sake and of those we enter into relationship - give our religious function the outlet it deserves. If we want to quit projecting God on every pretty face that comes along, we better go find it within ourselves. To be complete, we have no choice but to reconnect with the sacred that’s in us.

This isn’t about going to church or joining a creed - in fact, spirituality is nothing more than a search for personal meaning and purpose. It’s an inner journey of reconnecting with ourselves, our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and peeling layer after layer of the social conditioning that has brought us so much suffering and confusion. It’s private and personal, and it can happen in a church (if that’s your thing) as much as it can in therapy, meditation, journalling, yoga, dream work or active imagination.

Support this newsletter on Patreon

How to have better romantic relationships

“Love is not just a passion spark between two people; there is infinite difference between falling in love and standing in love. Rather, love is a way of being, a ‘giving to,’ not a 'falling for’; a mode of relating at large, not an act limited to a single person.” - Irvin Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

Once we begin to develop a deeper relationship with ourselves, romantic love seems to become less of a problem. Instead of searching for the fantasy of courtly love, we can aim for what Alain de Botton calls romantic realism - an approach that may make other recovering romantics like me squirm, but ultimately might save us a lot of heartbreak. And this starts by accepting a few simple truths:

  • we are imperfect,

  • we can never truly know another person,

  • what makes a partner appealing to us is based a lot on unhealed stuff from our past that repeats in order to be healed,

  • life is full of practical, domestic chores, and

  • no matter how hard we try, we remain alone in life.

While it may sound a bit doom and gloom, this approach isn’t meant to put us off love. In fact, it may open up the grand possibility of happy, lasting partnerships, where each person is responsible for their own wellbeing and chooses to contribute to the happiness of the other.

This sort of philosophy can be found in the concept of conscious relationship, which is based on a deep commitment to ourselves before anyone else. This path recognises romantic love as the powerful tool for transformation that it is, and uses it to form a solid partnership that helps both individuals heal. With the support of the other, the container of the relationship becomes the pot where our wounds can come to the surface and alchemise into strengths and beauty:

“A co-committed relationship may look like magic, but it really is composed of tiny moments of choice. Choosing to tell the truth. Noticing that you are projecting, and finding the courage to take responsibility. Choosing to feel rather than go numb. Choosing to communicate about a broken agreement. Choosing to support your partner as he or she goes through deep feeling. Ultimately, once these skills are practiced and internalised, the relationship flows effortlessly. Once your nervous system learns to stay at a high level of aliveness and does not need to numb itself by lying, breaking agreements, and hiding feelings, the creativity starts to flow.” – Gay & Katie Hendricks

And if you think it sounds like a lot of work, well, it kind of is. Freeing ourselves from the conditioning that doesn’t serve us takes conscious effort - but it’s the best thing that can happen to us. With practice, we might find that our romantic partnerships don’t make us soar and crash like they once did, but keep us grounded into a different kind of love. We might, if we’re lucky, come closer to the kind of love the Buddha talked about: one built on the values of lovingkindness, compassion, joy and non-separation.

A love that dissolves the boundaries between ourselves and our beloved, making our joys and sorrows shared. A love that thrives on each other’s happiness and wellbeing, and ultimately opens our heart to love everything and everyone around us.

What an idea.

“So much of our lives is spent in a longing and a search - for what, we do not know. So many of our ostensible ‘goals’, so many of the things we think we want, turn out to be the masks behind which our real desires hide; they are symbols for the actual values and qualities for which we hunger. They are not reducible to physical or material things, not even to a physical person; they are psychological qualities: love, truth, honesty, loyalty, purpose - something we can feel is noble, precious, and worthy of our devotion. We try to reduce all this to something physical - a house, a car, a better job, or a human being - but it doesn’t work. Without realising, we are searching for the sacred. And the sacred is not reducible to anything else.”
- Robert A. Johnson, We

Leave a comment

Dept. of further investigation

Thank you for reading, and for being patient with me while I wrote this newsletter. I hope you got as much value from it as I did - and if you wanna talk about it, please feel free to connect by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
As always, you can always support this newsletter by liking the posts, sharing them with your friends, becoming a Patron or with a one-off donation via PayPal.