“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be happy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.” (Woody Allen, Love and Death)
The above quote by one of Hollywood’s most revered, neurotically ambivalent thespians exemplifies the importance that love has in our lives and the power that the circular logic of ambivalence wields in our relationships. While the terms differ in definition and use, both describe a style of relationship attachment. Hopeless romantic is a popular expression used in mainstream culture and ambivalent attachment is a diagnostic term used in Western therapeutic circles.
I’m not ashamed to say I’ve got my own issues with relationship ambivalence. From my own hopelessly sentimental, blind-eye refusals to give up on love to my unconscious strategies designed to resist love, I’ve searched for the middle ground between hopeless romanticism and ambivalent attachment. So I’ve taken notice over the years of how many of our movies focus on our “come here, go away” relationship struggles. In fact, A Place In The Sun showed us The Way We Were so that When Harry Met Sally a Whole Wide World opened up to Jerry McGuire who finally proved that Something’s Gotta Give convincing us that Never Again would we let an Officer And a Gentleman drive us Out of Africa only to fill us with regret Before Sunset. Before you fear you’ve suffered some kind of stroke, let me assure you – that was just a small sampling of the many movies featuring ambivalent leading women and men.
More broadly defined, hopeless romantics are idealists about love. They are our poets and storytellers, connoisseurs of love, artists who flirt with imagination, suspending the disbelief of even the most seasoned doubters who may even be able to self-righteously boast a diagnosed attachment disorder. Whichever category you fit into, at some point we’ve all probably recognized ourselves in movie characters. Because my passion for using movies as a medium of self-inquiry makes cinema look like a sport, my avocation has shown me how ambivalence and hopeless romanticism are really just different sides of the same wisdom coin. Movies demystify, lend language and even normalize the ageless and fundamentally human struggles of life and love so many of us suffer silently. More importantly, our movies, our stories illustrate the double bind that we as humans, looking for love face in these times. If we feel ambivalent about our attachments, we’re seen as suspicious and paranoid. If we believe in love and live romantically, we’re sentimental and lack boundaries.
But while this blog’s title might sound like a spoiler alert on a bias for romance and hope, it’s actually a new perspective on these extremes we resort to in relationships. Instead of an either/or relationship with romanticism or ambivalence, I suggest we get romantic about our ambivalence and more ambivalent about our romance.
So let’s look at what disturbs us so much about hopeless romantics. They believe even when all proverbial hope is lost. Proverbs are someone’s shared wisdom that’s been personally earned through suffering or some kind of transformative experience. Whether the proverb offers hope or not, if we can’t personally relate to the wisdom it conveys but adopt it in practice, the proverb runs the risk of being cliché and translates as disingenuous. Many of us lacking such transformative experiences or belief and/or support in those we have had, substitute our own experience with those of the proverbs. Proverbs become so because they speak to realities that become universal truths. Or is it the other way around? Consider for a moment that sometimes the very appeal of proverbs is to create reality for you. Consider that having been born into a reality constructed of proverbs, we begin editing out our own impending reality full of frightening unknowns for the safety of wisdom.
Enter ambivalence with or without the parental attachment wound or diagnosis, each life encounter is now devoid of your own unique personal experience of it. Adopting only proverbial experiences as our own, we become ambivalent in our attachment to our own. The only certainty this kind of life offers is that everything is ok and right or good or bad because someone or something says it is. The only thoughts and questions provoked when we live solely by rules and platitudes are ones that may not be personally relevant to us. We become as disconnected as the rules and proverbs we use to fit into society. This loss of connection and ambivalence to the same is reflected in our emotionally conflicted expressions and our relationship to relationship.
And then a hopeless romantic comes along and inspires us to believe. We see a movie that moves us deeply. We read a book that compels us to hope. We proudly recount stories of creative, romantic, even noble gestures of love that inspired and fulfilled us. When our high dreams of love do manifest they prove each risk we take toward opening to another can be its own reward. Yes, we also suffer. But if we pay closer attention to the stories that so compel us, we would also see that suffering in no way diminishes the experience of joy. Rather, it is our ability to believe in, tolerate and honor the suffering as being just as necessary to the experience of love as the loving itself that deepens our ability to experience all of life – it’s beauty and brutality.
So, we might at least begin to re-examine our society’s relationship to love when anyone or anything that awakens our most secret dreams is derided as hopelessly romantic. In following only others’ ideas about how and who we should be, we shut down all hope, inspired thought and the potential of experiencing relationship with ourselves. We grow ambivalent to the people we love and most tragically to ourselves. We cynically turn away from authentic expressions of love and instead turn desperately toward altered states, dramas and the false promises of acceptance and security in culturally sanctioned, addictive lifestyles. Rather than sleepwalking through someone else’s idea of our lives, we can be more curious about our questions and doubts and most especially we can begin questioning (read be more ambivalent) some of our long-standing certainties.
One such certainty that organizes most of our cultural norms is the scientific perspective. No romance here or so we might think! Science has shown that love’s imperative is biological and evolutionary, a result of hormones and chemical reactions for the purpose of procreation and biological evolution. But relying solely on this explanation is reductive, overly pragmatic and inevitably boring as love and biology both share a mysterious source. While the biology behind our relationships makes it possible for attachment to occur, the potential for romantic, even platonic love is not a given. But to view love as only a social construct of our human evolution reduces it yet again to sociological science. So, it would seem something larger is at work when the sciences consummate and produce something as powerful as chemistry and as unscientific as love! Not to mention this doesn’t even begin to consider Nature’s bio-evolutionary agenda behind gays and lesbians. That’s a whole other blog post.
We now know, that neither biology nor love is sustainable without the other and both are a function of the phenomena as well as being the phenomena itself. Well, I’m just saying it doesn’t get much more romantic than that! So, the hopeless romantic is in dream and deed offering us a view of relationship and love that by its very nature and nurture allows our hope to endure and with a lot of practice, the most ambivalent among us to attach.
First published on Dr. Rios-Rivera’s blog, MYTHoughts, on January 9, 2013.