The Ages And Stages Of Love

ALICE STEINBACH

February 13, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

No matter what you may have heard about the demise of romantic love in this post-feminist age -- an age in which men and women suffer not so much from the pangs of love as they do from maladies with names like the Peter Pan Syndrome or the Cinderella Complex -- there is one bit of good news:

Valentine's Day is just around the corner. And, for 24 hours at least, romantic love will be sweeping the country.

Of course, some think that romance is dead. Take, for example, this conversation I had recently with a male friend who was complaining about the lack of romance in his life:

"Do you remember the conversation in "Annie Hall" when Diane Keaton said, 'A relationship is like a shark; it either moves forward or it dies?' And how Woody Allen replied, 'What we've got on our hands here is a dead shark.' " My friend paused. "Well, that's what romance is today: a dead shark."

When I gently pointed out to him that if romance were truly dead, there would be no reason for the continued existence of garter belts, my friend accused me of being a "hopeless romantic."

Question: Is there such a thing as a "hopeful romantic"? I mean, is there anyone who has experienced the thrill of romantic love -- that heady mix of wild infatuation and reckless immediacy -- who doesn't know that such a combination is almost guaranteed to self-destruct?

Growing up I learned this bit of truth, and almost everything else I knew about romance, in the same way most of us did -- from the movies.

In fact, so convinced was I that the silver-screen version of romance was the real thing, that I actually envisioned the day when I would have the chance to say to someone -- and I hoped it would be Corky Fox at the ninth-grade sock hop -- something like: "Oh, Corky, we have the sun and the moon; don't let's ask for the stars."

I saw many movies during those preteen and teen years and learned something, romantically speaking, from each one. From "Gone with the Wind," for instance, I learned that not only is love blind, sometimes it's stupid, too. Otherwise why didn't Scarlett see that Ashley -- the man she thought was Mr. Right -- was really Mr. Wrong, a wimp disguised as a Southern gentleman. And that Rhett -- whom she thought for the entire movie was Mr. Wrong -- was Mr. Right?

And from "The Bride of Frankenstein," I learned the cheering news that, yes, there truly is a mate for everyone on this Earth. Somewhere.

Romance, of course, hits its high mark in adolescence. Adolescent romance, it seems fair to say, is a time of near-hysterical lunacy and risk. But the memory of what such feelings are like never leaves you. In fact, it is often the foundation on which we construct our model of what love is; what it should feel like if it's real love.

Which, of course, leads to nothing but trouble when you get married.

Romance, as a rule, does not thrive in the married state. For one thing, kids and mortgage payments can mitigate against romance. And so can constant closeness. One seriously doubts that even Romeo and Juliet could have survived, romantically speaking, the rigors of dirty socks and threadbare, terry cloth bathrobes.

Indeed, romance is a lot like a heavily made-up woman: It is much more attractive from a distance than close up.

Which has led, as we all know, to a cottage industry in books with titles like: "How to Keep the Romance in Your Marriage Until You Both Drop Dead From Old Age."

Suffice it to say such books should be eschewed as they are based on the false premise that "hard work" will keep the romance in a marriage. A word to the wise: If it's "hard work," it's probably not romance.

Of course, there is one school of thought that denies the existence of romance beyond adolescence. That "mature" people move beyond romance into something called "mature" love.

Which brings up this question: Can you have love without romance? I mean, I know you can have romance without love but can you have love without romance?

And how will we know it's love if we don't experience "romantic" feelings? And why do we need love, anyway?

As to how we recognize love, well, novelist Walker Percy once compared it to a first visit to the ocean: "Even though you've never seen the ocean before, you recognize it, the sense of an opening up ahead . . . something new in the air, the dirt getting sandier, even the shacks and weeds looking different."

Why do we need love? Well, as Margaret Mead observed, it's a very important human need to have someone wonder where you are when you don't come home at night.

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