Thursday, July 28, 2011

Verisimiltude: Natural Romance - A Time and a Place

Reading thuRsday

Given the title, you may expect curmudgeonly comments along the lines of, "Get a room!" but what I really want to talk about is food poisoning.

Once, in a conversation with my brother-in-law, he mentioned that he'd suffered through a bout of food poisoning. I asked how he knew it was food poisoning. "You know sometimes you're sick enough that you're afraid you might die? With food poisoning you're sick enough that you're afraid you might live."

I know, it's not a pleasant topic. I mention it, however, because I recently had the pleasure of fearing that I might live and can assure you that during the experience I didn't give a single thought to romance.

Long ago I studied a computer simulation of simple organisms. The creatures moved through their environment searching for food and could reproduce only after they had accumulated enough excess energy. Of course, movement burned energy and food wasn't evenly distributed, so the organisms had to develop search strategies to find enough food close by to be able to reproduce.

As abstract as that simulation was, it captured an important element of natural romance: because it takes effort above and beyond what is required to simply survive, there's a time and a place for it.

We've discussed the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs before, but I wanted to call your attention to the fact that love and intimacy don't register until the third tier. Sex is in the first tier of physiological needs. That gap illustrates the difference between reproduction as a biological imperative and romance. Indeed, natural romances is as much about the fourth tier--esteem: respect of others and respect by others--as it is about the third. And true love, in a partnership where you're a genuinely better person because of the other, moves you toward the pinnacle of the pyramid.

This hierarchy also shows why structurally, romance occurs only after people have established themselves as competent, viable individuals (i.e., have learned how to satisfy their needs on at least the first two tiers).

In addition to these structural needs, there are corresponding needs for time and a place in the social and cultural dimensions. For example, most societies frown on excessive displays of affection in public spheres. Because we are social creatures, finding a partner who knows how to behave appropriately is as important as a partner who is healthy and knows how to acquire and manage the resources that satisfy our physiological and safety needs.

So I suppose I really have come full circle back to, "Get a room!"

More to the point, unless your story is specifically about people living way outside social and psychological norms, natural romance is much more about patience and discretion than passion and erratic behavior.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /