The Reality of that “Great Romance”

§   My cynical nod to this Friday’s Valentine’s Day–better (and more realistically) known to so many of us as Singles Awareness Day!  §

A few years ago, I sat reading an adventure book by a prolific male author. I’d read a few of his works before—male romance novels, I call them, because, just as in the female version, the adventure teems with an unbearably attractive main character who spreads him or herself around like water in a six-buck carwash. Characters fall in and out of bed, somehow always escaping the perils of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy just as they escape the dangers of the adventure. Mind trash, I think of these books; escapism, and enjoyable if well-written, but hardly literature.

However, in this adventure (and, I need to point out, just as I have done previously with female romance/adventure novels), I reached the end of my tether. Because this novel was blatant in a scenario which, sadly, so many people cling to as reality.

In this case, the adventurer learned that he had grown children—twins, a son and daughter, by a woman who he believed had died. The presumably-dead woman was his “one true love”. Since she so conveniently kicked the bucket early on in the adventure series, Mr. Hero was able to spend years being faithful to her memory, meanwhile cavorting with every available nubile female. (“I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion…”). Finally, 20-odd years later, his true love having finally succumbed for real, he is sought out by his unknown children–her dying wish, of course.

She (noble and utterly self-sacrificing—isn’t that what all good women are?) never let him know that she had survived, pregnant but with injuries that rendered her paraplegic—shades of “An Affair to Remember”!!  Instead, while bearing and raising his children, she never burdened him with a need for child support or shared parenting time. He never had to change a diaper or soothe a scraped knee, attend a parent-teacher conference, or help with homework. He never stayed up, sweating bullets, waiting on an overdue teenager’s arrival home; never had to hold onto his temper as he listened to backtalk. He did not ante up college funds, or buy a car, or sit with a new driver, hanging onto the panic strap and stomping the “parent brake”. Our hero never, in fact, had to do any parenting at all.

Instead, he’s presented with two fully-grown, perfectly matured, well-educated and attractive offspring for whom he never had to take a lick of responsibility—and who do not, of course, bear him any resentment for his abandonment of their mother, since he was kept in ignorance of her continued existence the entire length of their lifetimes.

I put the book aside, shaking my head and feeling discouragement and dismay.

I’d had the same reaction to a popular romance novel (also written, I should point out, by a male) in the 1990s, one made into an equally-popular movie. In that fantasy scenario, a couple shares just a brief time of “perfect love”, which they remember and pine for ever after, all the while going on with their lives. No commitment is required of either of them beyond fond memories; neither of the characters ever has to deal with the onerous tasks of compromising or getting along, or raising children; of dealing with a drunken spouse or a financial crisis, or holding their tongues to prevent a quarrel. All they have to do is have one wild, mad fling, and then gallantly surrender that moment to move on with the commitments they’ve already made, all the while recalling their “true love” in daydreams for the rest of their lives.

And women—women, heaven help me, made this book and movie popular.

I will say it straightforwardly: These scenarios are not just nonsense; they are discouraging and repellant. Discouraging because these fantasies of love without responsibility or commitment are a travesty of the reality of love; repellant because genuine self-sacrifice does not comprise either releasing another individual of all their responsibilities, or covertly living out an inner fantasy involving another lover to which one’s current partner could never measure up.

Love is many different things to many different people, but the scenarios described in these and so many other novels and movies has nothing, nothing at all to do with the reality of love as it is lived out, plodding and ponderous, but genuine and reliable, by thousands of couples every day. Wallis Simpson, wife to the abdicated King Edward VIII, is said to have famously remarked, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.” It’s too bad that reality is so rarely incorporated into novels.

Assumptions Always Start With An Ass

More years ago than I care to remember, I was a young secretary working in an office directly outside the bank of elevators of our aging building. Sound from the foyer around the elevators seemed to funnel directly into our office; consequently, I was often privy to conversations that weren’t meant for my ears.

During the first weeks that I worked there, several of the conversations I overheard among the younger female staff centered around the behavior of another young woman in a nearby office. All of the comments were critical.  The remark I heard most often was, “She is so stuck up!”  Sometimes I heard elaborations on the theme, such as, “She never talks to anyone”, or, “She thinks she’s too good for us.”

After a few weeks, having gotten to know everyone involved, I ventured to speak up the next time these same old, tired comments were reiterated. “Actually, I don’t think she’s stuck up or a snob,” I remarked gently.  “I think she’s just really shy.”

The looks I received in return for this remark told me that, without doubt, my days as a welcome member of this group of women were distinctly numbered. Nevertheless, I pressed on; I’ve never been very bright about that whole “holding your tongue for social reasons” sort of thing.  Braving the laser-like eyes boring into me, I explained, “Well, you see, I’ve been shy for most of my life, and I think I see that in her.  She has trouble meeting your eye.  Her shoulders hunch up when you speak to her.  I don’t think means to come across as a snob.  I think she’s just really shy.”

I received a volley of protests from each woman present, pressing her point that the person I was defending was a snobbish prig rather than an introvert. I decided to back down; there was obviously nothing to be gained in continuing my unwelcome observations.  The group had made up its collective mind, and nothing I said was going to change that.

True to my supposition, though, I was also not often asked to lunch with that group again. My remarks had made them uncomfortable.  I hadn’t intended to be pointing the finger at them, but I’d nevertheless opened up a nasty can of worms in the possibility that they might be behaving in a judgmental manner – or, even worse, just plain wrong.  My viewpoint was distinctly unwelcome.

Those of us who have the bad taste to defend the underdog, or to profess a different belief than the commonly-held thought of the day, I’ve learned, tend to become persona non grata.

I’ve never forgotten that lesson, nor the others that I learned from that long ago incident, the first and most important being that our assumptions about a person—any person–do not constitute reality. I learned that we must be willing to relinquish those assumptions if we are going to truly come to know another person.  Most important of all, though, was that I came to realize that we all continually operate on the assumptions we’ve made about the people we’ve just met, or even those whom we’ve known for years.  We make snap judgments about behaviors and situations.  We categorize groups of individuals.  We make assumptions about our friends, family members, even our pets. Sometimes we call it instinct, such as when we decide, wisely, that there is something not quite right about that person who just approached us at the mall.  Most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are making an assumption; it is done without conscious thought or recognition.  Frequently our suppositions are right on target.  Often, though, they are built only out of our own experience; they have nothing to do with the reality of the person or situation with whom we are dealing.

I am ashamed to admit that I never really made the necessary effort to get to know my extremely shy coworker. Looking back at the situation through the lens of many years and acquired knowledge, though, I suspect that the very introverted woman may have suffered from disorder such as Asperger’s Syndrome.

But that, too, is just my assumption.