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Why are we so desperate to find meaning in ourselves through our partner?

You complete me

Have you ever felt that somewhere out there was that special someone, that one, unique, individual who could make sense of your life?
  Gillian Bridge is a language, behaviour and resilience specialist, therapist, writer and a very serious person. She is obsessed with Shakespeare, and above all, addicted to the delights of the charity shop.

"Controlling, validating Romantic Love is not really a gender matter"

Gillian Bridge


Why are we so desperate to find meaning in ourselves through our partner?

It’s a fitting question for February, month of love and of St Valentine. But who exactly was St Valentine? And that’s a fitting question too, because no one seems quite sure of his actual identity (though he goes back at least to Roman times), or even of his connection with the condition we have learned to call Romantic Love. A condition that probably was created for less than purely romantic reasons sometime in the Middle Ages. A condition we have yet to recover from.

Have you ever felt that somewhere out there was that special someone, that one, unique, individual who could make sense of your life, who could make you feel whole, who was your ‘soulmate’, your ‘dream’ other?

If so you’ve got the condition. However, you’re not alone, but nor are you entirely rational (dare I say sane?) either, because when I talk of this ‘condition’ I’m not referring to the simple biological imperative to find a mate and helpmeet for the wholly natural process of perpetuating our species. I’m instead indicating the kind of overwhelming emptiness that some people feel when they’re having to face life alone, without ‘it’ in their lives. It’s an emptiness that is more than just physical loneliness, feeling much more like annihilation – a form of psychic and emotional nothingness. A spiritual insanity.

In my book, The Significance Delusion, I explain why, though you may not be rational if you’re suffering from this condition, neither are you ‘at fault’, as you are actually in the grip of a particularly virulent form of mass delusional state which started life two and a half million years ago, when something in our brains first mutated leading to humankind’s insistent and persistent need to find meaning and purpose in life.

I not only explain the scientific background to this desire for meaning and purpose, which I call Significance, but also explore how and why some people, more than others, are driven to find it in one, all important, relationship – usually (though not exclusively) with a romantic partner of the opposite sex.

And I feature a relationship, sadly still only too typical, especially in my experience within our problematic prison population, in which a particular woman not only has to have boyfriends in order to feel validated at all, but has to have one who totally validates her own negative self-image.

Rosa is an underachieving middle aged woman who is still so desperate to matter, to count for something – even though deep down she feels she doesn’t – that she finds the caveman attentions of her latest boyfriend (who actually asks her father’s permission to go out with her and tells her she looks a bit rough in the mornings) totally delightful and refreshing. Never having had any cultural expectation that she could or should evaluate herself as an independent entity, someone who could be of significance as a separate, functional, human being, she can only rate herself according to her (self-perceived) ability to influence the person with the influence. In doing that she is only doing what history has taught women to do for a long time.

And for that, I partly blame what we fondly call ‘romantic fiction’. In fact I partly blame some of the most influential and revered ‘romantic fiction’ ever written – works such as Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and The Mill on the Floss. As I write, “….theirs is not so much the story of passionate love for a romantic hero, as the story of gaining a sense of significance for themselves by dint of gaining mastery over the hearts of the men who otherwise controlled the authors’ lives (in their cases, usually fathers and brothers, not lovers) thereby ultimately gaining control over their own historically circumscribed lives.”

And women are still more at risk than men of becoming love’s ‘victims’, partly because – despite huge advances in expectations and working practices – they are still overall less likely to get their sense of significance from work, especially those women with little formal education who end up either workless or in low grade work. They are also still more in thrall to the need to be valued for their looks than men are (though things are on the change here, and boys are now becoming much more vulnerable to a sense of inadequacy in this respect, too), and they can easily feel devalued if there is no clear concrete evidence, i.e. a visible partner, that someone ‘fancies’ them.

And if male writers in the past did assume higher status and write about compliant and ‘perfect’ women (Dickens), or their own obsessive sexuality (Richardson or Hardy) in relationship focussed novels, their relationship with Love still doesn’t read any more comfortably or healthily than their female counterparts’ did. Plus, as recent surveys have found, men can be victims of controlling and coercive physical and emotional behaviour in relationships, too, but historically have been shamed out of acknowledging it by perceptions of how masculinity should be.

Controlling, validating Romantic Love is not, it seems, really a gender matter – it’s a matter matter.

In the final analysis, how much do we matter to others?

As adults, we seek to prove that we matter to the degree we were taught, when children, to think we should matter, by looking to find our own sense of our relative worth or worthlessness mirrored in the eyes of the ‘oh so necessary’ Significant Other. The person that Romance, society and simple biological need says is essential to prove that we qualify as a fully paid up member of the human species.

Perhaps it really is fitting that we don’t know much about St Valentine, nor about his own relationship with romantic love. Romantic love, like St Valentine, is a mysterious stranger conjured out of the mists of our own imaginings, always beckoning, never quite there, always shimmering, never quite clear. A phantasm, a fantasy.

More real, more concrete, more truly loving, would be a St Valentine’s gesture that reached out and touched another human being in a way that said they really mattered. A good deed done, a difference made.

- Gillian Bridge


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