I met my now husband during the interval of a production of Romeo and Juliet. Just before the interval, Friar Laurence gave his shrewd warning to the star-crossed lovers: love moderately. In spite of my usual lack of enthusiasm for Will Shakespeare, I couldn’t help but look back on this timely piece of advice as an excellent start to my acquaintance and subsequent marriage to the now Mr Samera Hassan.
It is the absence of this message in today’s world which has perhaps spurred such a violent backlash against romantic love as described in Ziad El-Hady’s article. In it, he holds up a steely needle of realism to the heart-shaped helium balloon of romance. Romantic love, he argues, is little more than a beautiful lie pedalled out to the masses who need something transcendental to believe in. What we really feel when we stare into the eyes of our beloved is not the warm glow of a divinely inspired love, but rather a surge of hormones combined with the warm glow of satisfaction derived from ticking off all the boxes on our lists of ‘Criteria for a Suitable Spouse’.
Now I certainly don’t believe in ‘soul mates’ or ‘The One’, as understood to be that there is one, and only one, person out there in the world with whom you can connect and feel truly happy (polygamy, anyone?). I also despise the commercialisation of romantic love, particularly the manipulation of teenage girls who quite literally buy into the possibility of love from conveniently single boy band members via cringeworthy expressions of how beautiful you are, how unique you are, how special you are – only you and the other 10 million girls who also bought the single. But to reject all romantic love as a mere physical phenomenon with no origin in the Divine, due to its negative associations, is an inaccurate and untruthful response.
Romantic love cannot merely be the result of a fully ticked-off list of spousal criteria, or the cumulative effect of a number of psychological and environmental factors. Because we all know of men and women who go together on paper like Ben & Jerry but somehow don’t quite… ‘click’ when they meet. And conversely, there are many couples who are so opposite in character, lifestyles and interests that they should only exist in bad sitcoms, yet somehow they manage to create strong relationships and happy homes.
Therefore, I suggest a middle ground between throwing out that baby called Romance with the bath water of the ruthless romance industry, and vindicating those who sit in their high towers flicking through bridal catalogues waiting for their knight in shining armour to follow them on Twitter. I propose that romantic love exists. God has placed love between men and women, and this should be acknowledged and respected. And let’s not forget, it is this specific kind of love between a man and a woman that provides the foundation for all other loving relationships – love for children, for siblings, for family and for wider society.
So the question is: how do we distinguish so-called ‘real’ or ‘good’ love (marriage, kids, happiness) from ‘bad’ love (arguments, divorce, bunny boiling)? Perhaps we’ll never know. But I believe that this is the wrong question to ask. Anything that happens to you in life is good for you as long as it draws you nearer to God. If you are in love with Mr X or Miss Y and, as a result, you turn to God for guidance, then regardless of whether or not you end up walking down the proverbial aisle with your beloved, it is good for you. Alternatively if you find yourself lying, stealing and killing in order to win their heart (I’m not sure what line of business Mr X and Miss Y are in) then love has led you astray and that can only be bad. Either way, it is an individual’s response to the feeling that dictates whether that feeling harbours blessings or dangers.
Linked to this is the assertion that romantic love is a fallacy because it doesn’t last, as is demonstrated by staggering numbers of break-ups and divorces. Here, Ziad has struck upon a crucial truth – that the first instance of romantic love is not enough to sustain a relationship. A successful marriage relies on other qualities: friendship, patience, mercy, a willingness to share the duvet. That being said, I suspect that the happiest of marriages are those where both individuals make an effort to recreate and re-inspire those feelings that made them fall for each other in the first place. Such efforts enable a person to see their spouse in the best possible light, and to present themselves in the best possible way in return. It is in this way that love is active and can be nurtured, as opposed to a phenomenon that simply descends on an unwitting bystander.
It is easy for romantic love to be abused for the purposes of profiteering precisely because it is so wonderful. It can be utterly overwhelming and transformative. It can also creep up on a couple and grow almost unperceived, as I have heard arranged marriages described. Its power reflects the fact that it is a divine attribute of God as Al-Wadud, the Most Loving. It can lead to feats of immense bravery, patience and self-sacrifice. But as with anything good which makes us happy, it should always be enjoyed in the knowledge that the only absolute happiness resides with the Creator of all happiness. As Friar Laurence told me, it’s all about moderation.
Artwork by Rukia Begum
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