What’s Your Deal, Romeo?

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It hardly bears saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Indeed, anyone who’s ever taken a vacation without their significant other knows that the amount of longing experienced while apart is often disproportionate to the amount of satisfaction experienced while together. Ditto the level of love felt for someone who has just dumped you versus someone you’re having takeout with while watching Friends reruns.

Don’t think I’m jaded. I am, in fact, quite happily married to a man I’ve been with for almost a decade now, and likely have no greater or lesser degree of attachment to him than any other satisfied wife. But long experience has taught me that even so simple a thing as watching him leave for work in the morning is enough to up the amount of affection I’m feeling at any given moment.

The question is … why?

Reay Tannahill, in her inestimable 1980 book Sex in History, posits that retaining passion in a relationship almost always requires an element of danger or threat. Think of the great couples in Western tradition: Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet … these are hardly happy love stories. Whether its politics, loyalty to a king, or blood feuds, there is some reason the two cannot settle down happily and simply live. Notably, the love between these couples burns some of the brightest in history.

Other examples come to mind as well. We all know that couple that have been together the longest, despite their tendency to rage at each other and throw plates at the wall on random Tuesday nights. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were a notoriously stormy couple, yet together off and on for the entirety of their lives. Long distance relationships often survive all odds for years, simply to crumble when the parties are reunited. And despite the dire consequences, people routinely cheat with siblings and best friends.

Again … why? Why is it that romance flies in the face of danger again and again, seemingly spurred on by the threat itself?

Perhaps it has to do with the difference between passionate and companionate love, distinctions pioneered by University of Hawai’i Professor Elaine Hatfield. The first type of love is marked by sexual tension, intense elation, naked desire … all that jazz. The second is more likely to be experienced between older couples whose flame has dwindled but who remain very much attached; it is also the type of love generally experienced between family members and strong platonic friendships.

Our society has become fairly comfortable with the idea that eventually the “honeymoon period” of a relationship will end, leaving the couple less gaga but more stable. This can also be characterized by a gradual slide from passionate into companionate love. Once there, couples tend to remain or split up, but are unlikely to burst back into passion unless some event introduces an element of threat.

“Threat,” interestingly, doesn’t have to mean an asteroid strike or a vengeful monarch. It can be as simple as saying goodbye for a few days, or even for nine hours. Sometimes that’s all it takes to ramp our level of love from “It’s your turn to take the garbage out” to “OMG I would do anything for you.” Biologically speaking, this makes sense: if your lover is in any way endangered, it behooves the relationship for you to feel very, very strongly about it.

Amusingly, our primitive brains often can’t tell the difference. “Leaving on a jet plane” often becomes as vomit-inducing as “saber-toothed tiger right behind you.” Leaving for work in the morning might not be a mob of angry Montagues, but sometimes it’s enough.

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