Lonely Ladies and Distracted Dudes: Thoughts on Romantic (and Sexual) Illusion

There’s a line toward the beginning of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona (above – 2:15 mark) where the […]

David Zahl / 11.20.14

There’s a line toward the beginning of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona (above – 2:15 mark) where the protagonist, Ted Boynton, admits to having “a real romantic illusion problem”. He is frustrated that he seems to fall for women based almost exclusively on physical appearance, when what he really wants is “to see the real person, maybe even look into her eyes and see her soul.” He says these words with a completely straight face, and his cousin Fred responds incredulously. It’s a funny interchange, not the least because Ted sounds convinced that this phenomenon, of sexual attraction overwhelming better judgment, is peculiar to him and not something that afflicts the majority of the human race.

The scene kept coming back to me this past week as I read a pair of articles deconstructing the romantic illusions at the heart of modern relationships. Heather Havrilesky’s came first, under the unlikely auspices of the “Ask Polly” column she does for NY Magazine. A young woman wrote in to confess an ongoing fixation on a man who treats her terribly, but to whom she returns, again and again, thinking each time will be different. She signs the letter “Can’t Let Go”. Heather really goes for it in her response. Fair warning, it gets a little “advicey” (which makes sense, since it’s an advice column):

I get so many letters like yours, and some days it just feels like I can’t do anything to stem the tide of women who’ll sell everything up the river for half-interested, half-absent bobblehead men. I guess I’m trying to shake you out of it because even though I think you’re stubbornly self-destructive, I still remember, vividly, the sensation of imbuing unworthy men with magic. For years, I turned distracted dudes into demigods using only the powers of my own imagination. I was a creative person, that’s all, one who wanted more magic in her life. So I created magic out of thin air.

dollThis is the important part, so listen to me: These acts of imaginative escapism were my way of coping with depression and anxiety and a lack of interest in the traditional rewards of a life well-lived. I could imagine that being loved and adored by one man would feel soothing and I could finally stop working so hard to escape my loneliness. But nothing else held much appeal. I wasn’t all that ambitious; succeeding at some arbitrary job seemed more like failing to me. I didn’t think socializing, even in the most fabulous circles, would ever feel satisfying. I was suspicious of wealth and status and its trappings. I read books and listened to music, but I couldn’t necessarily FEEL the weight of the words or the notes, because I was so protected and powered down, as a defense against loneliness and creeping, ever-present depression. Feelings had become the enemy…

That was my art, my practice: putting arbitrary guys on a pedestal and then painting a rich and elaborate backdrop behind them, and then praying to that vision day after day after day. It was my way of feeling less alone, less depressed. All feelings would heretofore be channeled through this mythical figure, selected mostly for his unattainability. As long as he wasn’t a real person, he’d never ruin my vivid creations.

Can’t Let Go, your path to letting go lies through a dark forest of feeling. You have to become vulnerable and open and appreciate this life in the absence of this man. That means you may have to acknowledge your own desperation and depression, which won’t be pleasant. But it’s here already, isn’t it? My guess is that it dominates your life in many ways, whether you want it to or not. You have to stop anesthetizing yourself with drugs and food and empty distractions, and you have to start living the life of someone who knows hope and magic outside of this one particular man… There are so many things to love in the world, so many reasons to feel passionately alive and awake, to let the sadness and the heartbreak and the small moments of tranquility wash over you.


When you feel your own feelings without escaping or distracting yourself constantly, the whole world is your forever lover, your Prince Charming, your Mommy, your hero, your best friend. Yes, the world has some dark moods, too. The world is sometimes ghastly, sometimes morbid and awful, sometimes melancholy, sometimes a little annoying, just as your ACTUAL HUMAN forever lover will sometimes be. The goal is to let the world in anyway, to tolerate its moods, to embrace it and rediscover, slowly, piece by piece, song by song, molecule by molecule, how much grace is encapsulated in a breath, in the shimmer of water in the glass, in the faint twinkling of a star outside your window at night.

I admire and appreciate what Heather writes here for several reasons:

1. She absolutely nails the tendency–by no means limited to females–to turn potential mates into saviors. I’m pretty sure this is what she means when she talks about giving the man “the magic”, or putting them on a pedestal (thought of as a conventionally male move). We make that person responsible for our emotional ‘salvation’, which is a burden no dude, bobblehead or not, can carry. It also places us squarely in Mark 7 territory, namely, the real problem with our dysfunctional relationships lies in our own hearts, and until that’s dealt with, or acknowledged/brought into the light–we’ll be stuck in a cycle of recidivism.

2. She surfaces the tendency to worship, not the person per se, but how they make us feel, i.e. un-depressed (the most common euphemism for which is “alive”). Good or bad is almost irrelevant, what’s important is the magnitude of the emotion. It’s intoxicating, some might say addictive.

3. At the root of the diagnosis lies the intolerance of negative emotion–a prohibition, born of fear, against feeling sad or bad or mad (in Sesame Street vocab), which compounds rather than alleviates the feelings, thus driving compulsive and self-destructive behavior. (Sound familiar?) Which rings true to me.

4. She invokes, perhaps unwittingly, a death-resurrection paradigm. I love the baptismal imagery inherent in sadness and heartbreak washing over a person, and the life we often find waiting on the other side.

5. Havrilesky is essentially talking about is the over-romanticization of romance, and the destructiveness that invariably leads to. Call it the result of years of bad pop songs and worse rom-coms, or simply the default sway of a sinful/controlling/self-deceiving heart. Whatever the case, it’s not only a hell of a lot of weight to put on a relationship, it doesn’t leave much room for the other person themselves.

A related notion is the idea that there’s only “one person” out there for each of us. Which, even if its true (it’s not), puts huge amounts of pressure on any budding relationship, not to mention us ourselves. Much like telling a college graduate to “find their passion”, the fruit is paralysis and loneliness. At the risk of exaggeration then, it would seem that the over-romanticization of romance rules out love itself. It outlaws vulnerability, weakness, transgression, and all those other unsavory things which are part of knowing, and therefore loving, another flesh-and-blood human.

Cue Tim Kreider’s recent article for Men’s Journal, the provocatively titled (not by Tim!) “Is Monogamy Insane?” In it, he tackles the other side of the relational illusion equation, i.e. sex. If Havrilesky is dealing with the fallout of how we’ve venerated/idolized romance, Kreider deconstructs the idolization of Sex–its false promise and ever-present allure, its invincibility vis-a-vis reason. Again, not a strictly male phenomenon; as Ethan so articulately pointed out the other day, no one has done more to deflate the destructive fictions about sex perpetuated by our culture than Lena Dunham. (If Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic last week was any indication, Christians might actually be propping some of those illusions up). Kreider’s take may be a tad crass but that’s because it’s honest:

8455e7dd3bd90493f16e9f08fa869efcLike most men, I am tormented by the delusion (fostered by the radically compressed narratives of pornography) that for every attractive woman I see, there is some hypothetical sequence of events that will lead to my having sex with her. And I end up damning myself as a coward and a failure the 99.9999907 percent of the times that this fails to happen.

The promise of sex is mainly an illusion. In college, a physiology professor once invited us “to compare the amount of time we spend experiencing orgasm with the time we spend arranging it.” How many times have I ever gone to a party or a bar and ended up getting the phone number of/making out with/going home with someone I met there? In all honesty, very, very few. And of those few times, how many turned out to be actually fun? It’s mostly not the reality but the tantalizing possibility of sex – reinforced, like an addiction to nickel slots, by the rare, unpredictable payoffs – that gives life its luster.

I’m starting to think that what may be hardest to give up for the sake of monogamy isn’t the sex per se so much as a certain self-image that goes with it. I like thinking of myself as single – it means being available, up for anything, faintly dangerous. Undomesticated. Couples, by contrast, seem inert, done. There’s a chilling description in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King of young fathers who appear “essentially soft or softened in some way, desperate in a resigned way, their stride not quite a trudge, their eyes empty and overmild with the weary stoicism of young fathers.”

Ouch. That last part hurts, even if it sounds more like Wallace is describing the U-Curve of Happiness more than anything endemic to young fathers. But that’s beside the point. Ultimately, “awareness” or understanding doesn’t take us much further than advice. Illusions like these are remarkably powerful, sometimes even intractable. If there’s a takeaway here, it’s that relational illusion is equal opportunity, part and parcel of a (human) condition that confuses other people, and ourselves, with God, that seems almost hell-bent on investing good things (like, you know, coitus) with a divinity they cannot hold–or conversely, investing divine things with a humanity they will not bear (see Will’s ridiculously good article in the new issue of The Mockingbird, “My Relationship With God Is Better Than Ever”).

In other words, we depend on others to provide for us what we cannot provide ourselves: wholeness, or what we might call righteousness. In pursuit of freedom from the nagging suspicion that we’re not enough, we turn those around us into potential solutions to be leveraged rather than human beings to be loved. People let us down–romantically and sexually–because they cannot give us what we want, and much of our dissatisfaction stems from the fact that we continue to believe that they can and should. I can’t help but wonder–and pray for–what would it look like to believe that Someone already has.