Romantic Tension: When Love and Hate Overlap

Romantic Tension—it’s the scenario so well known in fiction of all genres, where conflict, not resulting from simple misunderstanding but from actual clashes of independent personalities, somehow blossoms into romantic affection. It may be an odd sort of suggestion, but I am inclined to think that this Romantic Tension might, perhaps, have something to do with the fact that predictable stories have become a serious problem in Western culture. Certainly, they've always been a problem in one sense, but, until recent centuries, romance was predictable because it just seemed the characters were too well-suited for one another not to marry in the end. I would like to suggest that, in spite of our efforts, we have still managed in this era to retain the predictability we so longed to be rid of, and that, agreeably with our efforts, we have at the same time lost true romance. It is now the presence of animosity, rather than amity, that signals the beginning of a romantic relationship, and the higher the level of tension, the longer love and hate can overlap, the better we like it.

The cheapening of love stories follows, I believe, on the heels of the cheapening of our concept of love itself, and given the strong influence that literature and film have on the shaping of our ideas, it seems as though the cycle has the potential to be never-ending. Given the focus the culture of our day has placed on Eros and even on Philo, this seemingly golden and benevolent reign of Romantic Tension over some of the most powerful tools of mass-indoctrination might, perhaps, have the potential to affect our own relationships in serious ways.

I would say that Romantic Tension, as it appears in the books we read and the movies we see, has the potential for serious, practical influence, and I would not say that its influence is either pandemic or even very strong over real-life situations. I think, however, that the only reason we do not see a clear manifestation of its influence and logical consequences in the lives of even those people who seem to live from one media dose to the next, is that, in spite of ourselves, we still persist in disconnecting fiction from real life. We still manage to scorn and condemn behaviors or mindsets in real life that we love to death in make-believe. The only good thing about that form of hypocrisy, as with all other forms, is that we do reject the bad things at least on one level. We will watch movies and read books about two free-spirited individuals whose personalities clash at every meeting but whose very dislike of one another draws them closer together in the end; yet how many of us actually pursue romantic relationships with people we can't stand? How many real-life courtship stories begin with an explanation of how much conflict there was in the couple's relationship before they really fell in love?

The next question I would like to venture is, How many divorce stories begin that way? Real conflict doesn't tend to go away just because a person's good qualities seem to outweigh the bad ones; it simply goes to sleep. In real life, the human memory is fickle, and if we are realistic, we know that in a fallen world it is only a matter of time before strong personalities collide. A relationship founded on Christian “Agape” love, and on the biblical commands for husbands and wives, will weather the storm and move forward, but when the “love” is built on tension itself, how long should we expect it to go before it reverts to its original state? Just how big of a conflict does it usually take for any of us to start remembering the faults of our opponent? I am not suggesting that Romantic Tension in the movies is what is responsible for the devastatingly high divorce rate in the Church. I do suggest that divorce results from a serious neglect of the Christian commandments that govern love and marriage, which is something it has in common with Romantic Tension.

Christian love is patient and kind; Christian love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with truth. Christian love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things1. If we can't even love our future spouses this way, how dare we think we can love our enemies like that2? The problem with the unnatural number of books and films that center around Romantic Tension is not merely that they capitalize on unchristian behavior, but that they make it feel acceptable.

As my sister pointed out to me, in order for Romantic Tension to work, both parties have to be doing exactly the opposite of what the Holy Spirit has commanded them to do once they are in a marriage relationship. A man who is truly prepared to give sacrificial love to his wife, a woman who is truly prepared for a life of submission to her husband, will not—cannot—be a party to ongoing tension in a romantic relationship or, really, in any other kind. I think most of us are already quick enough to believe ourselves more sanctified and ready for the spiritual responsibilities of marriage than we really are. The movies we watch and the books we read not only encourage that natural misconception, but add to it the idea that, even if we do still have serious flaws to overcome, it is really only a short, easy trip from one pole to the other. Do men owe servant leadership to women who are not their wives, or do women owe church-like submission to men who are not their husbands? Of course not. But men and women who do not in all company exhibit evidence that they are capable of rising to that level of responsibility, probably are not—and in the long run will probably prove they were not.

My intention is not to say that, because Romantic Tension is a bad thing, we ought therefore to avoid all exposure to it in otherwise unobjectionable media. What I do want to communicate is an understanding that we ought never to be pleased with real, unrepented Romantic Tension, in whatever form we may see it. What I would really like to encourage is a view of reality and of Christian love, in and out of marriage, that won't let us be pleased with Romantic Tension, because real life simply doesn't work that way. Real love doesn't work that way.

1 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
2 Matthew 5:44-45


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