First, a couple texts I wrote to a friend last night, motivated by recent events among my circle of friends in which certain people have behaved very badly:
I’m thinkin: Some people (name redacted, e.g.) go from one bad relationship to another because they’re in love with being in love. They’re taken with the image of themselves with wind in their hair being gazed at adoringly. Others cheat incessantly because they’re taken with the idea of an attraction so intense it defies convention and exempts them from the rules that ordinary mortal folk have to follow. I’m not sure where the rest of us stand.
The “swept off your feet” phenom exempts one from moral responsibility, right? When you’re in the grip of something so much bigger than yourself… So it seems that you and [mutual friend’s] ladyfriend have this in common. It just takes on a dif form. And it fits the description of a religious experience…in the grip of an epic force in which you are transformed from the ordinary. Ecstasy. The drug. The religious experience. The orgasm. Whatever.
So I've been thinking about this in more detail as it applies to a broader pattern of behavior and not just to certain people I know.
In the first instance we have the romantic-love-as-spectator-sport that's so prevalent in romantic comedies and reality shows and wedding culture. And this has the odd effect of making people bystanders in their own relationships in a way. Just like the cultural preferencing of the male gaze leaves women constantly examining themselves from a harsh patriarchal stance (always watching ourselves perform femininity), the fetishization of hetero relationships, and a particular type of hetero relationship, causes many people to value the existence of a romantic relationship itself over the quality of their actual experience in that relationship. Which is not as clear as it sounded in my head. I'll try again. I think in our culture we (especially women) are so in love with the idea of being in love (and all the accouterments of romantic love), and so committed to the idea that there is no fulfillment outside of a romantic relationship, that we're willing to endure all kinds of ridiculous indignities for relationships that are ultimately unfulfilling, while we miss out on relationships that are potentially very fulfilling simply because we're not taken with the image of ourselves in those relationships. A friend said to me once "I'm not so sure I was in love with her. It was more like I was in love with the idea of myself as the guy who was in love with her." I think this is sort of what he was getting at. Anyway, this seems to be one cultural script we can follow when it comes to romantic relationships.
Then there's this other dynamic that's much more destructive. I have a number of acquaintances who can only manage to be attracted to someone if one or both of them are cheating. And a lot of lip-service is given to how wrong and shameful cheating is in this crowd, but really, most of it just seems to be lip-service. It's a script they've learned to appease a society that doesn't officially approve of cheating. But deep down, I suspect they don't feel that they've done anything wrong, or that they're responsible for the damage they routinely do to others. And I think this is due to another cultural script we have.
You see it all the time in movies and books. Two star-crossed lovers meet and are so attracted to each other instantly that they have to be together, no matter how many people they have to betray to do so. And it's passionate and intense and they're swept away by the experience. It's The Bridges of Madison County or the English Patient, in one form or another, over and over again. "This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime" and a whole lot of other ridiculous nonsense that sounds kinda like that. And the experience is epic and life-changing and soul-consuming. You become more fully yourself when you're with this person, whatever that means: "I was acting like another woman, yet I was more myself than ever before." Well, you were acting like a treacherous asshole, so apparently that's who you really and truly are. And this person helped you discover that, and that's a good thing?
Except that in the end it isn't epic and life-changing and soul-consuming, and the passion burns out and you're left with a couple of inconsiderate schmucks who just fucked up a lot of people's lives. But the thing is, the experience is constructed (and no doubt experienced) as this thing that's bigger than you, bigger than the two of you. It's this Force of Nature, and you're just a helpless leaf caught up in the whirlwind of it all. And leaves don't have agency. Moral responsibility cannot be attributed to mere leaves. So you are excused of all wrong-doing.
But the experience is transformative in other ways, right? You become this new person within the body of the illicit relationship. You're passionate and poetic and so special and unique that you're totally worth taking huge risks for. It's exciting and an escape from everyday life. And it sets you apart, because the same rules that apply to ordinary people don't apply to you. If someone suggests that the rules do apply to you, you dismiss them with a sneer, thinking that they've just never experienced the depth of passion you're experiencing (or something along these lines). If your bf/gf/husband/wife/partner, who you're cheating on at the time, were to cheat on you, you would be outraged and wounded. But this is not hypocrisy, because in this script you are special - the rules don't apply to you - while they are ordinary people and thus governed by the laws of convention.
And what does all of this sound just exactly like? Religious experiences. A transcendental reality. Epic, transformative, irresistible, intense. So I suppose in this framework, being in the grip of a religious experience exempts one from moral responsibility as well. Think Abraham sacrificing Isaac here (sorry Kierkegaard, I think I just finally really got this, because, seriously, I was way too young when I first read you anyway). And maybe the chronic cheaters are looking for the transformative religious experience that's a perennial object of obsession in our culture. But dontcha think by now we should get over the whole immature "I need to be swept off my feet and have a transformative (change you can believe in) experience or I'm just standing outside the fire and missing out on the real experiences" thing and realize already that love is what you do, not what you feel in the moment that will change in a heartbeat, and that mature people live with their feet on the ground and their loved ones' best interest in their heads at all times, not just when it feels good? In other words, Jesus Christ I am sick to death of immature self-absorbed people. But also, this is another way in which the ridiculous cultural scripts and expectations we cling to are much more than harmless entertainment, and do very real damage to real people in the real world.