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I am surprised from time to time how many people I encounter who are not in a romantic relationship.  I am not talking just about marriage, but rather am referring to a romantic relationship of any sort.  (The Pew Research Center reports that some 31% of American adults fall into that category, while Forbes reports that 57% of single adult Americans are not looking to date.)  Why is this?

One possible explanation is that people are not loving themselves enough.  To quote a cliche often uttered by the drag entertainer RuPaul, “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”  It may very well be that the stresses of the contemporary world are such as to create a deficit of self-esteem among people.  We have all heard about the deleterious effects that the curated lives of others that people see on social media can have on a person’s mood and self-esteem.  However, I will leave it to psychologists studying that topic to reach conclusions on it.

Perhaps my personal impression on this point has something to do with the fact that I hang out with a lot of other gay men, and I think it plausible that the unique circumstances and challenges of the gay male condition are a contributing factor.  But I do not think that explains all of it, as I encounter plenty of straight people who are also not in relationships.  I think there is another factor to consider — and that is the fear induced by the risk of being hurt.

All relationships entail risk.  Whether we are talking about a friendship, a romantic coupling, a business partnership, or a parental or other familial relationship, we make ourselves vulnerable to another and risk being hurt, cheated, or harmed in other ways.  When it comes to romance, almost everyone has been hurt by a prospective or actual romantic partner at some point in their lives.  We are programmed to avoid pain, and so that hurt can make us avoid the risk that would be entailed by another romantic relationship.  I think that that is what is at work in the case of many of the singles I encounter.  Of course, they may not even realize that this dynamic is at work in their situation and when engaged in a conversation about their status will articulate other explanations, such as that they are waiting for the right person or that they prefer being single.  While these explanations may hold true in some cases — as there are people who enjoy the independence of being single or who are very particular about mates – I suspect that in many cases they are little more than rationalizations.

You may ask why we should care about this.  The fact is that it is natural for humans to pair up with a partner, and romantic relationships bring so many benefits and provide for so many of our needs, be they social, sexual, emotional, or even financial.  So, not surprisingly, people in stable relationships tend to be happier and healthier than those who are not.

On the subject of why we put ourselves through the risk and pain of being in a romantic relationship, the 1977 film Annie Hall is instructive.  The film, which chronicles a romantic relationship between two people played by Woody Allen (Alvy) and Diane Keaton (Annie) from beginning to end, features a telling joke.  The joke involves a man who goes to see a doctor and laments to the doctor that his brother thinks that he is a chicken.  The doctor inquires of the man why he doesn’t just tell his brother that he is not a chicken, to which the man replies, “I would, but I need the eggs.”

To me, what Woody Allen is trying to say with this joke is that the reason we put up with all the pain and delusion that accompany love and relationships is because we need them.  The romance between Alvy and Annie had its challenging moments (and certainly its happy ones too) and ultimately ended, but what they got out of the relationship made it worth it.  Likewise, we need to continue to accept the risks of pain and breakup, because we need the benefits of romantic relationships (the eggs).  As Plato put it, “the madness of love is the greatest of heaven’s blessings;” and so I think that he too would consider all the craziness and delusion we endure to experience it to be worth every bit of it.

The German synth-pop band Alphaville has also weighed in on the love/pain issue and would seem to be on the same page as Woody Allen when it comes to romantic relationships and pain.  Their song Heaven on Earth contains the following lyrics: “You know that love’s the answer, the greatest ruling force, that carries you forever,  beyond the farthest cause. . . . The things we got to do . . . Love like you’ll never be hurt. . . . Live like it’s your last day on Earth.”  They are clearly extoling the power of love and they are saying that you should never let past heartache or the fear of pain keep you from pursuing love, because it’s that important.  What’s more, they are telling us to live life — of which love is a central part — to its fullest extent every single day.  This is sage advice to those who are allowing the wounds of past romantic relationships keep them shackled to singlehood.

The next and final reference on the subject of love and pain might take you by surprise, for it is the Buddha.  What, you may ask, did a figure who devoted his life to contemplation, meditation, and spiritual teaching, and who left his wife early in his life, possibly have to say about romance?  Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.  Some who have only a passing familiarity with Buddhist thought might be forgiven for thinking that the Buddha counseled against involvement in romantic entanglements, as he taught that attachment is the source of suffering in this world.  However, that would be a facile interpretation of what the Buddha thought on the topic, as love and compassion are central to Buddhist thinking.  When the Buddha spoke against attachment, he was inveighing against clinging to things, including relationships, when the time has come to let go of them, perhaps because a person has passed away or has moved on to a new chapter in their life.  Thus, like all things in this universe, relationships – even relationships based on love – are impermanent and not to be held onto when their time has passed.

There you have it – film, music, and spirituality all telling us not to be afraid and to embrace loving relationships, for without them our lives are greatly impoverished.