As we know, it doesn’t work. Romeo thinks his beloved Juliet is dead and kills himself, and upon waking up, she kills herself too. They literally die for love. But is the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet that a family feud prevented two star-crossed lovers from being with each other? Or is it that they didn’t even give each other a chance to find out how genuinely compatible they were before going to drastic, codependent lengths to be together? Because literally hours before Romeo meets Juliet, he’s hopelessly in love with her cousin, Rosaline. When Benvolio advises him to get over her, Romeo is indignant:
He that is strucken blind cannot forget
The precious treasure of his eyesight lost.
Show me a mistress that is passing fair,
What doth her beauty serve but as a note
Where I may read who pass’d that passing fair?
Farewell. Thou canst not teach me to forget.
I mean, the guy is convinced that no other woman could compare to Rosaline, and that he could never forget her, and then he goes to a party and TOTALLY FORGETS HER.
Juliet is a 14-year-old virgin when she decides to commit to Romeo for the rest of her life. When I was a 14-year-old virgin, I thought I was head over heels in love with someone who used emotional blackmail to get chicks. I have also fallen in love with, at various times, someone who ended up being an ardent Rush Limbaugh supporter, several someones who had really, really gross Asian fetishes, someone who regularly passed out on other people’s lawns from drinking too much, and, maybe worst of all, someone who had married his long-term girlfriend a month before telling me that he wanted to leave her to run off with me. Each of these people was the love of my life. Or, rather, the love of that particular point in my life. All of these boys were at their dreamiest and most perfect when I didn’t know much about them yet, when they were capable of playing whatever part in whatever fantasy I needed them to be a part of.
There’s something rebellious and maybe even dangerous in falling for someone you barely know, and it’s precisely that element of recklessness that makes this kind of love so thrilling. The first day of being in love is always beautiful. The second day is beautiful. The third, fourth, and fifth days are beautiful. The 380th day, though? If you even make it that far? Maybe troubling. Maybe boring. Sometimes beautiful, but more like hard work.
When I was 23, a poet in my MFA program followed me into the girls’ bathroom and told me he would follow me anywhere. We fell in love so fast I could not even tell you how exactly it happened. From the moment we met, we spent every single night together. He signed all of his letters “Your Owen” and I signed all of mine “Your Jenny.” It was a showy and fraught love. We streaked outside in the rain. Our friends were convinced we lived in a permanent state of undress. We didn’t see anyone but each other for weeks. When one of us felt even the slightest hint of sadness, the other one did, too. Early on in our relationship, I suggested that we spend a night apart, and just as I was about to leave, he suddenly became so woozy and feverish that he was unable to stand up. We ended up going back to my apartment where I made him soup and held him in my arms until morning.
“I’m madly in love with him,” I told every single person I knew. We depended on each other for everything—forgetting that, once upon a time, we both lived entire lives without each other, and those lives weren’t necessarily miserable. But I was obsessed with someone who was obsessed with me, and we were both obsessed with being in love. It was unsustainable and eventually destroyed us both.
Why do we have to be madly in love? Why does love have to drive us mad? Why can’t it drive us to health? A healthy relationship gives each person in it room to make mistakes, to be fallible, to have interests and desires outside of the relationship. When your happiness depends entirely on one person, you are not in a healthy, loving relationship.
When I was younger, I focused so much on falling in love that I completely failed to consider what it would mean to stay in love. And I still don’t know what it means exactly, but I do know that I don’t want to spend every day of my life reeling from it. I do know that I want my story to go on long past the first thrilling kiss. After Romeo and Juliet have sex for the first time, Juliet wishes to keep him as a pet, a plaything who always remains by her side. He’s totally into it, but she reconsiders and confesses, “Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.”
In the end, “much cherishing” is what ends Romeo and Juliet’s lives, and it’s what ended Owen and me. We broke up after three years together. The thrill of how quickly we fell in love was all but replaced by the chokehold we had on each other. I had to confront something painful: that just because you fall for someone, and just because that initial fall is stupendously, indescribably wonderful, it doesn’t mean that this person is right for you in the long run.
I think there’s another kind of cherishing that is possible, one that doesn’t kill us. Last month, I went with my parents to the dentist to get a cavity filled. My mother went to get some groceries while my father and I were in the waiting room. I noticed that he had his phone clipped to his belt.
“That looks so dumb,” I said.
“Well, I don’t miss your mother’s calls this way.” And he didn’t. My mom called five times, always to ask some trivial question, like whether she should get shiitake or king oyster mushrooms. And each time my father picked up. As we were walking to the car, I noticed that my father still walks on the side of the road closest to the cars. “In case a car gets too close, it’ll spare you and your mother,” my father used to say.
I used to think that was unnecessary and annoying. Maybe she would prefer to walk on the outside. But now I know that it’s an act of love. That all of it is an act of love.
As thrilling as it is, love can’t always be desperately intense and all-consuming. Maybe instead of wanting to disappear into love, we might decide to emerge more fully because of it. Maybe true love encourages us to embrace the ugly, boring parts of each other with as much tenderness as we would the plainly beautiful parts. For years, I was dying for love, but now, finally, I think I’d prefer to love someone so much that it doesn’t hurt at all. ♦
*Names have been changed.