Great romance is a retroactive designation

Ever notice that? On occasion into your social sphere will appear one of those couples. A couple that just seems to fit together and be perfectly attuned to each other. With whom you can tell that, when they look at each other, everyone else in the room vanishes. Epic lovers, perfect partners in crime.

Reactions to and comments about them range from, “Wow” to “I wish…” to “They totally got it right”. And, occasionally, let’s be honest, “God, I hate them…” But do people ever think “That’s great romance” while looking at the couple? Typically great romance doesn’t appear until “til death do us part” has kicked in, be it one’s great-grandparents or stars from the golden age of Hollywood. Or, even more likely, from old books, so they were never even real life, foible-prone individuals.

So what gives? Is qualifying for great romance like qualifying for sainthood? Do you have to pass some tests (set down by people who, most likely, are hardly qualified to judge those particular qualifications) or catalyze something miraculous?

It makes great romance rather intimidating if you ask me. Being real people is hard enough without trying to do and live up to all the things that we need to be and do and feel to qualify us (maybe) for the designation of Partner in a Great Romance. (Don’t get me started on how people’s expectations of relationships have ballooned over time.)

Great romance is also fairly frustrating sometimes. On occasion, new and incendiary romance will just appear and light you up like fireworks. But not often. And more particularly, not on most of the occasions you’d really like it to do so. The whole idea of “it’ll happen when you’re ready for it”, or “you’ll find the right partner once you’re okay with not having a partner at all”, while true enough, is just cruel some days.

As painful and crazy-making as long-distance relationships can be (and have been), they actually make romance in general easier. Even small gestures are amplified and elevated in meaning and effect. Your partner picking up your favourite takeout after a crappy day is sweet. Your invisible partner mailing you a selection of treats local to where he/she lives because he/she thought you might like to try them is very sweet and can make your whole week. “I love you” is never more soul-quenching (and soul corroding…) than when whispered over the phone at 3am from a distance of thousands of miles.

Interestingly, and I’ve mentioned this before, distance between partners warps perceptions. Because they are not possible, mundane domestic activities are elevated to a level of sacredness. What would you give to be able to cook dinner and do the dishes afterward together. And yet, it is doing just such things over and over, night after night, that beats great romance into a coma.

Or so it would seem.

I think one’s definition of great romance changes over time and through life. Married women with kids joke about the erotic value of a spouse emptying the dishwasher without being asked, but it’s only partly in jest. When you’re tired, the kids are sick, and you just worked a full day and now have to cook dinner, clean up, and put the kids to bed, and start laundry, acts that make your real life easier are often rather more meaningful and romantic than a vase of flowers the dog might knock over.

Of course, all this pondering comes down to me thinking the last while that some romance — great or small — would be nice. People in general are pattern-driven, but when patterns get driven too deeply into life they become ruts. By definition, romance takes place outside those patterns. (But, I wonder, does great romance, by definition, not require its own set of life-long patterns?)

Not coincidentally, the jones for the new and incendiary is there, too. Hardly surprising, really. Autumn is winding down. Maybe part of the desire stems from my life at present, but part is hard-wired. We seek mates in the fall. Keep warm in the winter and all that. Hibernate with someone cute. I’d love to see online dating site stats between September and November. I’d be willing to bet there’s a usage bump.

Really, though, even if you find someone new in the fall to snuggle up to for the winter, new and incendiary is not great romance. Certainly, it can feel like it when you’re in the throes of it, but hell, who in a new relationship bears any resemblance to their usual self? As I mentioned, though, patterns — great romance included — take time. And sometimes you get your definitions mixed up.

Because what qualifies as great romance in other lives isn’t applicable to you (or me). Just like other folks have their own dishwashers full of dishes and “Reader, I married him”, every partnership, every romance, has its own rhythms and symbols and gestures, and it is these that form patterns over time. But if you spend too much time looking out at others’ patterns, it can become increasingly easy to be unable to recognize and appreciate your own.

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