The Romantic Relationship: the Most You Can Hope for; the Best You Can Give

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Ah, the romantic relationship. You know the drill: undying love; promises to love each other and stay faithful to each other forever and ever; the quickly growing insecurities that your lover will find someone else more appealing and you’ll be left heart-broken and alone…or with a baby to raise all by yourself and/or a pile of debt; the frantic emotional and legal chains put on one another until one or both run away screaming. Yep, that’s it.

Like most people, I love the idea of falling head over heels in love and having that feeling returned, forever. Of holding onto that new relationship energy for the rest of my life and never changing it or losing it. I admit, I’m a hopeless romantic. Or maybe I’m just more of a hopeful romantic these days. I’ve finally put a guideline on what I think makes a romantic relationship work, really work.

And it’s not promises of undying love.

I once thought that romantic relationships were good if they led to marriage, especially a long-term marriage, but I ended up partnered with a guy who spent our entire relationship wanting me to be something I could never be, no matter how hard I tried.

I thought, with another man, that wanting to be with me whenever possible was a sign of a good romantic relationship, but he ended up on the other coast, pining for me, wanting to be with me and not able to. It was lovely when we were together, but every other moment, it was unfulfilling and it was his choice, however difficult, to be unfulfilled.

I was sure, before I met another man, that a good romantic relationship was one where the guy was always honest with me, but his honesty was without compassion and his “policy of truth” was his excuse to criticize my clothes, my weight, my hair, my art, my decorating sense, my choices. While I could appreciate “truth,” I found that I almost never felt good about myself in his presence, and ended the relationship, much to his rather critical response.

I thought, too, that a good romantic relationship was one that was filled with romantic whisperings–I still like that very much,thank you–and promises of undying love. Unfortunately, too many other women were hearing the same romantic whisperings and promises of undying love and it burst my sweet little bubble. I don’t necessarily have to be the one woman in a guy’s world, but for me to stay blissful about the guy, I need to feel that I am. Shining the harsh light of “truth” in a relationship can kill it but not quite as fast as a boatload of deception.

So at this point in my life, looking back through both my rosy goggles and my magnifying glass, I’ve figured out the one thing–perhaps the only thing–I can use as a basis for what’s a good romantic relationship. Realistically, can any of us really make promises to the future based on what we know right now? We change, the other person changes, circumstances change, people need lobotomies–it’s all so fluid. We don’t know what we ourselves will want in a year, let alone what someone else will want, so how can we swear we’ll still love someone in 50 years? Or that we’ll stay faithful or that we’ll never fall out of love with them or that we’ll always want the same things that we do at this moment?

The bottom line is that we can’t. If things are perfect with another human being at this moment in time and we both want it to stay that way, then we are certainly blessed if we both change together and still like each other during and after those changes. We do not stay the same, so neither can any relationship.

Hopeless? No.

While I cannot in good conscience promise to love someone again “forever and ever,” there is something far more realistic that I can promise: to treat someone well. I can promise that I will always do my best to treat the men I love well.

I suppose that has to be defined also, because one person’s idea of being treated well is not the same as another’s, so the promise goes to intent: I can’t always help the way I feel or the circumstances I’m in, but I do have some control over my actions and how I mean them.

I have known some people who beat the living hell out of each other in the bedroom because that’s their personal kink, but they consider it treating each other well because they give each other what each wants. The how-to of their “well” is not mine to say–or yours.

I’ve known others who seem to treat each other well (by most people’s standards) but it’s only a public image laced with private sting. When I was 21 and working as a temp at a local medical center, I worked with a very sweet woman in her late 50’s whose husband would surprise her occasionally with a dozen red roses. She would then sob for the rest of the day. Being the young hopeless romantic, I couldn’t understand why she’d be upset when he was obviously so good to her. Then a co-worker explained that the woman’s unloving husband sent her roses every time he’d been with another woman–a private slap at her that made him look generous and loving to all her co-workers. He didn’t treat her well, and they both knew it, and what looked like “well” to me wasn’t mine to say, or anyone else’s.

Treating each other well in a romantic relationship isn’t even a matter of doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you. It’s doing unto them as they’d like you to do to them.

Back to those roses… I never cared for dozens of cut roses. I always preferred the rose bush. Or, even better, simple wild flowers. I remember a story of my elderly grandfather courting a widow with a little basket of flowers he’d picked–and her ridiculing him for not bringing her store-bought roses. She didn’t consider that as treating her well because she had a different standard. Me? All I could think of when I heard the story was…”Bitch!”

In more than one romantic relationship, I’ve encountered men who really wanted me to humiliate them and take their money because that’s what they wanted in a woman. The kind of treatment they longed for. I couldn’t do it.  Nor could I physically castrate the Army boy who begged me to before he deployed, not because he was trying to get out of his duty but because he so secretly and shamefully wanted to be forever marked as the property of a woman, me in particular.  I’m tolerant and even quite encouraging of people who are “different,” but I do have my limits.  I liked these men enough to treat them well, and my definition of well stopped somewhere short of being a shrew or an expert in torture and mutilation. I couldn’t promise that I’d ever mistreat them or ever want to (though I’m more inclined now to want to than then!), but I did bother to find out what treating them well entailed before I came to that conclusion.

So that’s my promise to those I love, whether it’s a romantic relationship or a deep friendship. I can’t promise that I’ll always feel the same way–though I may certainly hope to–but I can promise to treat you well if I hope to have any kind of relationship at all. If we can treat each other well, everything else will take care of itself.