Romance and its discontents

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - February 16, 2021 - 12:00am

We are, by-and-large, a nation of romantics. The easiest way for a story to grab the attention of many Filipinos is for it to contain affairs of the heart. We are a people infatuated by love and all it contains. And when we see the same privileging of love amplified in the stories of our friends, the narratives we consume from the media and the expectations built into society… it is only to be expected for the idea of love to have such power. And, as with all things that we allow to have power over us, love must be treated with both an abundance of caution and timely education.

My daughter Emma declared the other day that when she gets older she will fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. This is most likely a product of all the romantic, princess tales she has consumed in the five years of her life. I told her that she does not need to fall romantically in love with a man (or woman), nor get married, to live happily ever after.

I realized then that there is little in the way of formal guidance for those who may be encountering love for the first time. We teach about religion in schools but not about relationships. There is, to a large degree, a hesitance to speak frankly with the young about romantic relationships, with many adults not wishing to be the first to broach the topic to those they consider to be too young or too “pure.”

But in my experience, knowledge is not something that corrupts – it’s power that does so, and the void of ignorance is one of the easiest ways to hand over power to another. If the adults in their lives do not attempt to guide the young into the realm of romance and relationships, they will take their guidance from sources that do not have their best interests at heart.

I’m not saying that we should police the content young people peruse. It is not the obligation of every form of expression to be educational, nor even unobjectionable. But more importance should be given to making sure that young people are given the proper foundation for engaging with these various depictions of love, and that the right persons to give them this foundation are those that care for them and know them as individuals, not as consumers.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if I say that I write all this with Valentine’s Day in mind. So let me practice what I preach, and try to impart some advice to help buttress your defenses against the barrage of Valentine’s advertisements and social media posts.

(1) You are complete in and of yourself.

As a human being, you will always need the help of others to make your way through the world, but your lack of a romantic partner has no bearing on your worth. This doesn’t make it wrong to want a relationship – it just makes it wrong to feel like you are any sort of failure if you don’t have one. (No matter what relatives may imply at reunions.)

As a human being, you are inherently worthy of love, whether or not someone is in love with you.

(2) Love is action. Words don’t mean a thing. It is what one does that matters.

In many romance stories, the climax occurs when the couple finally professes their love for one another. But in the real world, it is much easier to say “I love you” than to perform loving actions. Loving actions are those which place the needs and desires of your partner at the same level as your own (at least), even when that takes effort.

This isn’t an either-or scenario. Speaking is an action, so for someone who is not used to expressing their emotions to make the effort to say “I love you” because they know it means the world to you: that is a loving action. On the other hand, someone who undermines your self-esteem in front of others, or flies into a jealous rage when you spend time with anyone but them, or who unjustifiably refuses to support your lawful goals… that person most probably is not acting out of love – whatever the words that come out of their mouth.

(3) Controlling actions are not romantic actions.

A loving action also has to be separated from one that is aimed at controlling another person. One of the most common sins of romantic narratives is the normalization of jealousy and possessiveness as a sign of love. Girls are often conditioned into this by society – idealizing a male partner that is over-protective, smothering, one who wants her all to himself. A partner that loves you is one that trusts you, and that will not ask you to jeopardize your other friendships or family bonds in order to help them with their own insecurities. When your partner limits what you are allowed to wear or whom you are allowed to speak to, you must ask yourself if these actions are signs of a controlling or abusive relationship.

(4) Love does not remove accountability.

Love is often portrayed as a kind of madness, something that takes you over and compels you to do things that you otherwise would not do. But it’s important to recognize that whatever the strength of the feelings of those involved, we are never without a choice when it comes to our actions. We must never believe that because we love someone, we do not have the freedom to say “No” to anything they request or demand. Neither should a partner escape accountability for their actions – invading our privacy, or refusing to take no for an answer – simply because they “love us too much.”

(5) Relationships need boundaries.

Part of maintaining that accountability is making clear in advance – to both yourself and your partner – what you will and will not stand for. Make it clear which lines should not be crossed if they value your relationship. Love can be a wonderful thing. But many of society’s notions of love are harmful to our happiness, our mental health and sometimes even our safety.

Love should be a wonderful thing. So never settle for less than you deserve.

And you deserve to be happy.

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