In ancient times and throughout the middle ages in Europe, marriages were often arranged by families for their children and had little to do with love. A successful marriage was perceived as one that brought material advantages to the participants and their families as well as offspring for family lines. The notion of romantic love was considered unrelated to marriage. However, this doesn’t mean the desire for passion and romance didn’t exist.
Courtly love – a forerunner of romantic love – was alive and well and celebrated in both literature and poetry during the middle ages. Its impact continues to echo today and influences the western world’s concept of ideal love. Courtly love endures as the driving force behind the timeless flow of poetry, song, love stories, plays, chick flicks, and forms the basis of romantic novels and historic romantic literature. It shaped what we think of when we hear, “Be a gentleman” or “Behave like a lady”.
Courtly love was best characterized as a spiritual (non-sexual) relationship between a knight and noblewoman – the woman was already married to a nobleman. This relationship was based on completely new view of love that idealized the feminine spirit. The woman became the symbol of beauty and perfection and embodiment of all that was pure and sacred. She, in turn, inspired the knight to be noble, spiritual, refined, and high-minded. She made him want to be a better man.
The focus of courtly love was spiritual rather than physical and rules of the time demanded the chastity and fidelity of the woman. After all, she was already married (pre-arranged, non-romantic marriage) to another man. The relationship was an idealized, spiritualized relationship designed to lift them both above base physical desires. To have a physical relationship with this divine feminine spirit would be to treat her as an ordinary mortal woman and work against the vision of her as goddess and symbol of the eternal and pure feminine spirit.
Without the ability to satisfy what must have certainly been intensely building sexual desires, these lovers kept themselves aflame with an unrequited desire for each other. They spiritualized this desire by seeing each other as symbols of the divine archetypal world and never reduced their passion to mortal pleasures of the flesh. In doing so, they sustained transcendent spiritual ecstasy.
Despite our modern tendencies to sexualize every relationship, we still seek the archetypal influence of courtly love. Some men long for a woman who symbolizes something so perfect and divine that she inspires feelings beyond physical attraction and beyond love to a sense of worship. We seek the spiritual intensity of ecstatic meetings and the tearful, despair of parting. The same is true of some women.
This love uplifts us, refines us, and gives new meaning to life. We expect true love to be a feeling of such overwhelming intensity and mutual adoration that we feel heaven and earth revealed in our love. Love becomes a transcendent experience – an ecstatic religious-like experience.
When a woman induces this sensation in a man, he is overwhelmed by her beauty and goodness. She is more than a woman. She carries our soul’s image of feminine perfection – she is a divine goddess. It is as if she walked out of his dreams. He will endure great adventures and hardships and accomplish mighty deeds to honor her and live up to the sense of nobility that she inspires in him.
In the time of courtly love, there would be no physical contact and the divine energy continued to build with no release. In modern times, we have sex. Courtly love with physical contact becomes romantic love. As we all know too well, the fiery passion of romantic love burns white hot for a while then flames out. Unlike our courtly ancestors, we mix sex, cooking, eating, working for a living, chores, paying the bills, raising children, and other day-to-day activities with the spiritual worship of our lover. Over time, we become less divine and more human in one another’s eyes.
It is easy to say, “Well, that’s life. We ARE human! This is true but many of us don’t look at relationships through the lens I am using here. When our lover becomes “mortal,” we don’t see or understand what is happening. We begin to wonder what happened to the person that swept me off my feet and made me see life in a new light. What happened to my knight in shining armor or my fair lady?
Real-life dims the light of the god/goddess. We begin to look for signs of the divine in other people. This battle rages within us. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we demand someone who will carry our soul’s projection of the ideal man/woman and return us to a state of transcendent spiritual ecstasy. If not our current lover, then someone new. This leads to a destructive cycle that will one day repeat again when our next “most amazing lover ever” becomes mortal.
What do we do? This is a question I am exploring throughout my writings on the Dionysian Experience. For now, I do have a couple thoughts to share. We must recognize the nature of romantic love and how well defined and chronicled these feelings are. No matter how strongly we feel love – even when we think no two people have ever loved like you before – it is a universal human experience emanating from a shared archetypal dream.
Romantic love also follows a somewhat predictable cycle – the luster will fade over time. No mortal can indefinitely sustain the divine projection of another’s soul. Understanding the spiritual nature of romantic love and the friction it generates when blended with day-to-day life is something we will all face at some point and need to be prepared to handle.
Instead of considering it a cosmic insult if someone fails to carry our soul’s projection of anima/animus, we can tend to this part of our spirituality through writing, reading, and the arts or even in our private daydreams. Transcendent love was never meant to be an infinite experience. It is, however, an important part of our spirituality and needs to be tended to. If we deny or repress this desire, it will return in a more dangerous form that we will also have to deal with.
We should also recognize that our lover (just as we do) has his or her ideal anima/animus. While we can’t carry another person’s soulful projection indefinitely but we can carry it in moments. Find out what it looks like to your lover – communicate. Is it something that can be explored in sexual role play and fantasies? Does it involve more courting-like behaviors such as love letters, poetry, flowers, romantic baths, etc.? Certain things may not matter to us, but does it matter to our lover?
If we can capture even flashes of our lover’s soul projection, we have the opportunity to create transcendent spiritual experiences for our lover. And, if our lover returns the same energy to us, we have the opportunity, in transient moments, to walk hand-in-hand in the realm of the gods.
You can find more my writings on love and sexual psychology here – Dionysus and Psychology