Why You Need To Stop Looking For Love

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
The first time I really questioned the concept of romance was when I was working in domestic homicide (when someone murders their partner or ex). We live in a country where two women a week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner. That fatal form of violence is often the endpoint to an extended period of controlling behaviour. It might seem like a leap from romance to death but they’re not as disconnected as you may think.
Last year, I worked alongside criminologists and homicide victims’ families to introduce the UK’s first media guidelines on fatal domestic abuse. The UK press has a grim history of romanticising domestic homicide; headlines regularly frame murderous men as 'devoted husbands' and refer to sadistic killings as 'crimes of passion' by 'jilted lovers'. Undertones of romance are deeply woven into the way we talk about the most unloving act of all: ending someone’s life. 
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'Romance' is deemed so unquestionably desirable that we will use it to justify the most unimaginably cruel behaviour.

Where is the logic in loving someone so much that you have to kill them?
This narrative doesn’t originate with journalists. It’s so deeply rooted within our societal understanding of 'love' that we don’t think to challenge it. As it stands, 'romance' is deemed so unquestionably desirable that we will use it to justify the most unimaginably cruel behaviour.
Domestic homicide is the top of the ladder of controlling, possessive behaviour. We apply the lens of romance to domestic homicide because we've already used it to justify all the everyday behaviours that lead up to it: obsession, possessiveness, jealousy, control, lack of boundaries and a disregard for consent. 
Professionals have identified that it’s not the most physically violent men who murder their spouses, it’s the most controlling. Identifying these behaviours as fundamentally unloving is our first step to acknowledging their harmfulness. So how can we reframe our poisonous understanding of romance to keep us all safer? And maybe even teach ourselves how to truly love? 
The philosopher Alain de Botton says that love stories are hugely responsible for destroying our chances of having happy love lives. More insidiously, romantic myths can skew our perception of harmful behaviours. We become intoxicated by glamorised fairy tales. We’re too busy swooning over Ryan Gosling to realise his character in The Notebook is effectively blackmailing a woman and not respecting her right to say no, to the extent of lying down in a road and telling her he’s going to let himself be killed if she doesn’t go on a date with him. That’s ridiculous. 
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But because masculine narratives of pursuit are marketed to men as heroic and ultimately successful, we end up with people who display similar behaviours in real life, like Bristol Piano Man. He refused to accept that his girlfriend had broken up with him and sat in a park in Bristol, playing the piano in an attempt to persuade her back into a relationship. This could be understood as a form of emotional blackmail.
Roxane Gay has already ripped into Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey for the way they romanticise a man’s complete lack of respect for a woman’s autonomy. Both are hugely popular stories riddled with boundary violations, possessive behaviours and the erosion of autonomy. 
In her essay "The Trouble With Prince Charming Or He Who Trespassed Against Us", Gay identifies the isolation of Anastasia in Fifty Shades as controlling: "That’s a common tactic of abusers – isolating their victims, but we’re supposed to think the way Christian isolates Ana in luxury is romantic. A prison is still a prison when the sheets are 1200 thread count." 

We're too busy swooning over Ryan Gosling to realise his character in The Notebook is effectively blackmailing a woman and not respecting her right to say no.

Christian is so insecure that he needs to possess Ana as though she were an object, and that possession is framed as evidence of Ana’s desirability. It cuts to the heart of historically romantic – and very heteronormative – narratives of masculine passion inspired by a captivating femininity. Her desirability drives him to extremes.
Gay frames these narratives as fairy tales, the definition of which being "the princess finds her prince, but there’s generally a price to pay. A compromise of some kind is required for happily ever after." The price to pay, it seems, is the woman’s sense of self. But it’s not just heteronormative dynamics which valorise a loss of self; any couple can fall prey to it. The lesbian phenomenon of the "urge to merge" or "U-Hauling" has been well documented.
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Is romantic love just an attempt to destroy the autonomy of the loved one, and maybe even ourselves in the process?
Psychologically, that’s exactly what’s going on. But it might not be conscious at all. Trainee clinical psychologist Sanah Ahsan, who is currently studying for a PhD at Salomons Institute for Applied Psychology, explains why some people are drawn to romance:
"From a psychoanalytic point of view, we’re all to some extent avoiding the inevitable realities of isolation and also death. What romantic love does is offer the illusion of merging with another person. It offers a guise of comfort that we’ll never be alone, or a relief from the reality that we are. In romantic love, we can lose ourselves in another."
There’s a word for this loss of self in devotion: cathexis. It’s the exact word that sets apart romantic love and 'true' love. It’s a central part of bell hooks’ All About Love; essential reading for anyone who wants a healthy relationship. 
According to Ahsan, cathexis means "attaching to an object, in a dependent way. It feeds a narrative of possession and ownership. There isn’t an understanding of separateness or allowing two individuals to exist separately and grow." 

What romantic love does is offer the illusion of merging with another person. It offers a guise of comfort that we'll never be alone, or a relief from the reality that we are. In romantic love, we can lose ourselves in another.

Sanah Ahsan, TRAINEE CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST
The process of attaching to, and investing emotions in, a person is known as 'cathecting'. It’s the foundation of an unhealthy dependency. When we confuse cathecting with loving, we fall into trouble. 
In The Road Less Travelled, American psychologist M. Scott Peck explains that "with cathexis there is always the risk of loss or rejection". As any of us who has experienced attraction and attachment to someone who doesn’t feel the same way about us, that can become incredibly painful. 
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In her studies of fatal domestic abuse, criminologist Jane Monckton-Smith identifies how someone’s need for love (or more accurately cathexis) to be returned can lead to problems in a relationship: "It is perhaps the perceptions of whether love is in fact reciprocated or not which may cause many of the alleged problems."
Monckton-Smith describes how the destructive nature of this romantic (or cathecting) attachment has become normalised: "Jealousy is popularly spoken of as a natural output of romantic love, and given that it is largely associated with negative behaviours like revenge or anger, violence could easily be seen as a natural bedfellow and inevitable where there are threats to the relationship." 
This is where the slippery slope to justifying unloving behaviours through the frame of 'love' begins. With jealousy misconstrued as an indicator of love, we run the risk of ascribing loving meaning to acts of violence, resulting in some of us staying in relationships which harm us. It makes perfect sense, then, that the strongest risk factor for domestic homicide is separation. Most women murdered by male partners are killed within three to six months of the relationship ending. 
The drive behind unloving, possessive behaviours is deep-rooted. And like most things, it’s rooted in our childhood wounds. Ahsan explains the link between romanticism and dependency in adult relationships:
"What the myth of romanticism does is offer a comforting blanket that someone else can heal our childhood wounds for us. It offers the illusion that the love of another will heal us into a happy ever after. Rather than understanding that we need to put the work in to heal our own wounds, it positions a partner with a weight that’s impossible to reach in reality. And it feeds dependency." Dependency, in its very essence, is the opposite of taking responsibility for yourself.
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So what we commonly identify as 'love' is in fact dependency. M. Scott Peck writes: "Dependency may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But in actuality it is not love…it seeks to receive rather than to give. It nourishes infantilism rather than growth. It works to trap and constrict rather than to liberate."

Dependency may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But it is not love…it seeks to receive rather than to give. It nourishes infantilism rather than growth. It works to trap and constrict rather than to liberate.

M. Scott Peck
In short, romantic 'love' is just a glossy sheen over dependency and cathexis: two fundamentally unloving practices which are rooted in possession and selfishness. Dependency and cathexis are also incredibly painful and difficult to extricate yourself from. Romantic 'love' does not serve self-love, or the love of another. Romantic 'love' is an illusory shortcut that makes the road to loving ourselves and each other much, much longer. 
But it’s so tempting. In her book Desire/Love, Lauren Berlant identifies the magnetic escapism of romance: "Glued together, gazing only into each other’s eyes, the lovers lose touch with the rest of life." 
None of this is to say that all scenarios involving passionate, romantic love will end in physical or even fatal abuse. However, we need to be mindful that behaviours we have long considered 'desirable' in a partner might not always be what’s best for us. How do we guard against the alluring sinkhole of romantic 'love'?
Romantic love is unbounded by its very nature. Boundaries in relationships are the line where you end and your partner begins. Boundaries help us find a balance between loving ourselves and loving someone else. They enable us to exist as two separate individuals who stand alongside each other, rather than fall into each other. Boundaries are the building blocks of a stable, loving relationship.
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Photographed by Eylul Aslan
If the goal is to escape yourself through someone else, boundaries will only ever be seen as an obstacle to a rather selfish want: to make someone else lose their own sense of self in service of your desire not to care for yourself and meet your own needs.
M. Scott Peck offers a definition of how 'true' lovers interact: "The genuine lover always perceives the beloved as someone who has a totally separate identity. Moreover, the genuine lover always respects and even encourages this separateness and the unique individuality of the beloved." It appears the difference between cathexis and true love is simply making a conscious choice, put into practice through establishing boundaries. 
In The Art of Loving, German psychologist Erich Fromm states: "For love to have a future, couples need to be able to move from falling in love to standing in love." This transition requires a shift towards a way of relating to someone in a way that respects their independence and freedom rather than seeks to remove it. But that probably wouldn’t be as film-worthy or exciting as the all-consuming Hollywood and Bollywood fairy tales of dramatic escapism that we’re used to.
If we want to love truly, safely and sustainably, it’s up to us to cultivate the skills to feel whole in ourselves. To choose to love ourselves as a necessary foundation before choosing to love another. It’s the opposite of what we’re taught, and very far from what we absorb through love stories and romantic films, which are fundamentally unloving narratives. But we have so much to gain from unlearning them.
In more ways than one, learning to love well might just save your life.

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