Romantic love is not for cowards. There are few things as dangerous as allowing someone to become so vitally important that life without them is unimaginable. You are rarely as vulnerable as when you allow one person to simultaneously become the object of your deepest emotional yearnings and your most delirious erotic longings. Add to that the desperate wish that he or she admire your strengths and accept your weaknesses. To depend on such a person is to embark on one of life's most risky adventures.
And the danger is not just imagined; it's real. Your lover could die, stop loving you, or, in numerous ways betray you. The intimate secrets and shameful insecurities with which you entrusted your partner could, in the middle of an emotional firefight, become weaponized and used against you.
Couples have ways of attenuating the terrifying risks of romance. One of the most ingenious is the unconscious creation of boredom. Partners imagine one another to be dull, predictable, and thereby safe. They co-conspire to hobble their destabilizing excitement with the delusional certainty of routine.
Sometimes, to hold onto both a sense of security and the thrill of adventure, excitement is projected onto someone outside the relationship. Whether a fantasy or an actual affair, being stirred by a stranger feels less risky. It seems like there is far less on the line, and one gets to return to the safety of the reliably dull partner at home.
Psychologists call this splitting. It's a defense mechanism we resort to when we have two or more seemingly incompatible feelings toward the same person, such as love and hate, or romantic idealization and animal lust. The infamous Madonna/Whore complex is probably the most familiar example of the latter. The fear is that one feeling will destroy the other. Or, we may worry that bringing these incendiary emotions together will somehow put us or our loved ones in danger. Sometimes we direct one of these feelings towards a third person, as if it could remain there for safekeeping.
As the late psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell pointed out in his lucid writings on romance, there is a serious problem with this strategy of preserving relationship safety and adventure by splitting them apart. It doesn't work. Our partner can often turn out to be more complicated, unpredictable, erotically surprising, and changeable than we had ever imagined. And often, he or she will reject the role of the dull, safe spouse that we've assigned to him or her -- sometimes rejecting us in the process.
In the case of an affair, both our primary relationship and the short-lived fling can feel empty -- one is devoid of desire, and the other emotionally arid. In this situation, both relationships are likely to blow apart, leaving everyone devastated. So, the very perils we sought to avoid with this splitting -- abandonment, loneliness, humiliation, and loss -- are those we end up bringing about. Sadly, it is not until this point that many couples end up in my office.
The only alternative to this tragic scenario is to come to terms with the dangers and uncertainties that accompany enduring and erotically charged romantic love -- to summon the bravery needed to remain thrilled by someone to whom we are so deeply attached, and upon whom we are so frighteningly dependent. To make a commitment in the face of the very real insecurity that comes with letting another person matter this much, we must accept that love's risks cannot be disentangled from its rewards.
Stephen J. Ducat, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who works with individual adults and couples in the San Francisco Bay Area.