Ask anyone to name the world's greatest love
stories and what you'll hear is a chronicle of unmitigated misery, of failed
relationships, of death, of separation.
people rarely focus on the tragic aspects of the stories. They only look at the love, the
hopeless, glorious, impassioned love that is at the heart of the tale. They conveniently
forget the endings.
Take "Romeo and Juliet." Their relationship is
electrifying. But it doesn't last more than a few days and then they're dead.
Or "Somewhere in Time," that multi-hankie romance
with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve. Their relationship was a little longer than Romeo
and Juliet's, but does it do them any good? Hardly. They wind up stranded in different
And how about "Cyrano de Bergerac"? Its filled
with some of the century's great love poetry, but in the end, that poetry makes Roxanne
fall in love with the other guy.
So that's it? Those are the ideas we aspire to, the stuff we
just can't get enough of? Are we masochists?
Maybe we're fools. Or maybe its just that everyday happiness
- some would call it bliss - is neither newsworthy nor flashy enough to be fodder for
novels or movies.
"We think that's love we're watching, but its
not," says Joe Kort, a Michigan psychotherapist who hosts weekend-long relationship
sessions for both single and married people.
"It's romantic love, which is something totally
different. It's not real."
But it is, he admits, incredibly appealing. Almost
That word - addictive - may be exactly the right word to
describe the effect of romantic love, Kort says. The emotional high it gives us is caused
by something called phenylethylamine - PEA, for short.
"It's like a drug," says Kort. "People who
are unhappy no longer feel that way. Or people who are depressed. That's why we love it.
And that's why we don't want to let it go."
Novelty induces the body to create PEA, says Kort. And at
best, a real-life love can only be very novel for six to 18 months. After that, we've got
to learn to appreciate the maturing of a relationship.
If it's a PEA rush we're after, we have few options.
We can have flirtations or affairs. Or we can bring on a
burst of PEA by reading one of those larger-than-life love stories or watching one in a
movie. The latter is a far safer course of action.
Of course, there's a downside to all of this.
By having a steady diet of romantic love, we start to think
of it as a normal state of affairs. Unless we have the outsized, chest-pounding love of a
Romeo and Juliet, we think we must be doing something wrong., Our expectations are out of
Every so often, we'll watch real relationships. Think of
"On Golden Pond" or VT's "Mad About You."
But we're suckers for seduction and grand passions. We love
to watch our sitcom stars flirt. But when these characters finally hook up, more often
than not, we lose interest.
Professional matchmaker Robert Davis thinks its not so much
that we really adore those grand love stories. Rather, it's that we're thankful that all
the bad stuff is not happening to us.
"It's like people who look at the talk shows,"
says Davis, who charges $10,000 a pop for his services and has found matches for everyone
from Fortune 500 CEOs to a noted romance novelist.
"They see some of the miscreants they have on Springer
or Sally Jessy Raphael or Jenny Jones and they think, "I'm the mental-health poster
person compared to them."
But there is something much more majestic, much more
idealistic about the love between, say, Abelard and Heloise - who were separated by an
unbending church in the 12th century - than there is in scruffy hooker sisters battling
over a pimp on Jerry Springer's show.
The difference, of course, is fantasy. The best playwrights
have known that for centuries. Hollywood has built a far-reaching economic empire on it.
If Romeo and Juliet had lived, you can bet that their ardor
would have cooled. Romeo would have started spending too much time with his pals and not
enough on the balcony. Juliet's pushy mother would have started nagging for her to have a
Who wants to watch that? You can be sure Shakespeare would
never have written that tale.
He understood that we can live our own lives anything. Books
and plays and movies and television may all have the power to educate.
But most of all, we want them to transport us; to somewhere
else, into other lives and yes, even into impossible loves.