Is Romantic Love Ever Worth the Risk of Heartache?: A Psychological Perspective

Amazingly, I’ve been blessed with the combination of idealism and pessimism. At one end, I fantasize about what the world, and my life, could and should be; and, at the other, I know I’m always going to be deeply disappointed in the end. Although, I’m more of a realist in terms of my thinking these days, the fluctuation between those extremes is my natural state, one which I fall back into every once in a while. And, all it takes is for me to come across someone I was in love with on a dating app or read an article on evolutionary psychology, both of which occurred recently.

Most of the time, I know that we’re just people, trying our best while still hurting others because of our own psychologies (our needs, desires, and negative feelings); but, this past week, I fell back into idealistic thinking while reading an article on the mate-switching hypothesis, which I’ll post a link to at the bottom of this one. According to psychologist David Buss, the hypothesis posits that women have affairs in order to further the process of trading up to a better partner (I’m sure this isn’t the case all of the time). Moreover, even when they’re really happy in a marriage or relationship, they’re constantly monitoring a mate’s value and “scanning” for potential replacements, even though it’s at a “low level.”

So, of course, my naturally idealistic and cynical mind went haywire, thinking about how hopeless it all seemed, how no matter how hard I tried, I’d never “really” be in love: idealism clashing with pessimism. In essence, evolutionary psychology teaches us that, on average, love fades relatively quickly after its initial spark (the drop-off occurring gradually for men and abruptly for women) and that we can be in love with multiple people at the same time. All of this flies in the face of conventional, romantic ideals where, after an exhaustive and exhausting quest, one finds their true love, the one individual they’re destined to be with, who will see and love them as they are. Reality, then, becomes a bitter pill.

Thus, two ideas come to mind: the notions of expectations and self-compassion. With respect to expectations, it’s safe to say that we’ve been fed the belief that being in love means staying in love, and that staying in love proves that one was actually in love, an example of black and white thinking. I often get asked, “Was it real?” after a breakup. The person asking is convinced that their love was somehow a mirage because it ceased to exist. The idealist in me values their conception of love and their determination to resist my attempts to butcher it with reason (I’m now love’s executioner; thanks, Irv); and, the pessimist deeply feels the disappointment and sadness that stem from accepting that their love wasn’t exactly what they believed it to have been.

The second concept, self-compassion, is significant here because we search for it through another’s eyes. In love, we’re looking to feel good about ourselves; fundamentally, to feel special. In it, we forget about our mortality, our failures, and our flaws. We grant the ones whom we love the power to control our self-conceptions. In the majesty and awe of love, we come to accept ourselves wholly, an ecstasy that can only end in a debilitating crash, leaving the abandoned wondering if it any of it was ever real, feeling as though it was all a dream from which they’ve woken.

When self-esteem is solely linked to romantic love, the relationship becomes a roller-coaster, as the infatuation stage eventually wanes and both partners find themselves sexually attracted to other people, while at the same time, heartbroken to discover the others’ lust for someone else. All of this sounds depressing, but it doesn’t have to be; it can simply be another letdown, which is common for us as we mature. (Kind of like accepting that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.) The key here is developing self-compassion; thus, no longer needing romantic love to bolster your self-esteem. Paradoxically, the more you feel good about yourself and the less you need validation, the more intense your partner’s attraction is to you. Being human is seriously amazing…

Adjusting our expectations to fit reality becomes easier when we acknowledge the fact that another’s love can’t provide us with concrete self-acceptance, because they’re human. Infatuation is built on a lie, and eventually, your humanity will leak through the cracks, causing a halt to idealization. (While in love, we don’t fully accept another’s flaws; we simply overlook them.) But, if you have a strong sense, and acceptance, of who you are, the good and bad, you’ll perceive your past love much more holistically. Evolutionary psychology, simultaneously, kills our dreams and frees us from the shackles of our expectations. For, no one and everyone can be in love. As your partner finds herself sexually attracted to someone else, so will you. As her infatuation for you fades, your lust for her will, too. But, the one constant, protecting you from the tempestuous sea of love, is the way you feel about yourself.

What true self-esteem looks like has been covered in past blog posts, so I won’t go into depth about it here. But, if you were to ask me if love is worth it, I would say, yes, even in the wreckage. The heartache, as challenging and painful as it is, is symbolic of a missing love, not from another, but from yourself. The infatuation isn’t real, but neither is the resultant devaluation. What is is the missing hole where self-compassion ought to be. If you want to know who you are, ask your parents, ask your friends, remind yourself of the compliments and affection you’ve received, but don’t hinge your self-esteem solely on the perception of a madman, for love itself is a form of madness. But, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Does The Mate-Switching Hypothesis Explain Female Infidelity? – David Buss

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