We humans

Here’s why we long for that perfect love to arrive — even when we’re happily coupled

Apr 14, 2022 /

Have you ever found yourself listening to a sad song over and over? (You’re not alone: People play the sad songs on their playlists 800 times on average, versus 175 times for the happy songs.) Or felt strangely thrilled by a rainy day or night? Then you’ve experienced what Susan Cain calls the bitter­sweet state of mind. 

And while you’ve probably never thought of sadness as a superpower, Cain begs to differ. We should listen — after all, she’s the one who showed us the gifts and benefits of introversion, via her 2012 book Quiet and her blockbuster 2012 TED Talk.

In her new book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Cain invites us to embrace that feeling where joy and sorrow meet. Because when we learn to acknowledge our own heartache, she says, we’ll discover that it can be an unexpected path to creativity, connection and love.

Here, she explains why so many of us still dream of finding our soulmate — even when we’re happily partnered — and what this longing reveals about us and about being human.  

An elegant Italian woman, worldly, sophisticated. Francesca. At the end of World War II, she meets and marries an American soldier, moves with him to his small Iowan farm town. Her husband is kind, devoted and limited. She loves her children.

One day her family leaves town for a week. She’s alone for the first time in her married life. Until a photographer knocks on the door, asking for directions, and they fall into a passionate, four-day affair. He begs her to run away but at the last minute, she says goodbye to him, and they long for each other for the rest of their lives.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it comes from The Bridges of Madison County, a 1992 novel that sold more than 12 million copies, and a 1995 movie, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, that grossed $182 million. 

The story split people into two camps: one that loved it because the couple’s love was pure and endured over the decades and another that saw it as a cop-out — that real love is working through the challenges of an actual relationship.

It’s the fantasy of the missing half that prevents us from appreciating the partners we do have.

Which was right? Should we learn to let go of the dream of fairy-tale love to fully embrace the imperfect loves we know? Or should we believe Aristophanes, as told in Plato’s Symposium: that once we were all conjoined souls, so ecstatic and powerful in our oneness that we aroused the fear of the Titans, who made Zeus break us apart?

In 2016, Swiss-born writer-philosopher Alain de Botton published an essay in The New York Times called “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” It was the most widely read op-ed of the year, and it argued that we would be better off if we’d renounce the Romantic idea that, as De Botton put it, “a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.”

De Botton followed this with seminars offered by his organization, the School of Life, which operates across the world, from Sydney to Los Angeles, where I sit now at the Ebell Theater alongside 300 classmates. De Botton’s class is grounded in the idea that “one of the gravest errors we make around relationships is to imagine that they aren’t things we can get wiser or better at.” 

Alain believes it’s the fantasy of the missing half that prevents us from appreciating the partners we do have. We’re forever comparing their flawed selves to “the amazing things we imagine about strangers, especially in libraries and trains.” In his class, he demonstrates this with an exercise called “The Anti-Romantic Daydream.” We’re shown four images of potential mates, two men and two women.

“Pick the person of the four who most appeals to you,” instructs Alain. “Imagine in detail five ways in which they might turn out to be very challenging after three years together.”

Over the course of love, real life will intervene.

One audience member picks a photo of a woman in a red headscarf with a wistful expression. “She has exactly the same look my dog has when I leave him, so she may be quite needy.”

A woman chooses a photo of a slender young woman in a library. “She might be a book reader,” she offers. “But whatever she reads, you have to also. And you have to validate all her choices.”

Alain is brilliant: a droll and insightful author and speaker. But even as we apply his insights to our love lives, there remains the question of Francesca’s longing — of our longing.

So, what should we do about it?

When you feel these longings arising in your own love life, you’re going to think there’s something wrong. The most confusing aspect of romantic love is that most enduring relationships start with the conviction that your longing has now been satisfied. The work is done, the dream is realized. But that was the courtship phase. 

Over the course of love, real life will intervene, in the daily negotiations of managing a partnership and possibly a household, and in the limitations of human psychology. You might find that he instinctively avoids intimacy, while you anxiously chase it. You might discover that you’re a neat freak and she’s a slob, or that you’re a bully and he’s a doormat, or that you run late and she’s punctual to a fault.

Your relationship won’t be perfect because no relationship is.

Most likely, your relationship will be an asymptote of the thing you long for — that is, bringing you close but never touching that dream you once glimpsed. As Sufi teacher Dr. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee says, “Those who search for intimacy with others are reacting to this longing. They think another human will fulfill them. But how many of us have actually ever been totally fulfilled by another person? … We want something more fulfilling, more intimate. We want God. But not everyone dares to go into this abyss of pain, this longing, that can take you there.”

If you’re an atheist or agnostic, such talk of “wanting God” probably makes you uncomfortable or impatient. And if you’re devout, it might seem obvious. 

As for me, I believe that the bittersweet tradition extinguishes these distinctions between atheists and believers. The longing comes through Yahweh or Allah, Christ or Krishna, no more and no less than it comes through the books and the music; they are equally the divine, or none of them are the divine, and the distinction makes no difference; they are all it.

When you went to your favorite concert and heard your favorite musician singing the body electric, that was it; when you met your love and gazed at each other with shining eyes, that was it; when you kissed your five-year-old good night and she turned to you solemnly and said, “Thank you for loving me so much,” that was it: all of them facets of the same jewel. 

And yes, at 11PM the concert will end, and you’ll have to find your car in a crowded parking lot; and your relationship won’t be perfect because no relationship is; and one day your daughter will fail 11th grade and announce that she hates you.

But this is to be expected. The Bridges of Madison County was a story about the moments when you glimpse your Eden. It was never just a story about a marriage and an affair; it was about the transience of these sightings, and why they mean more than anything else that might ever happen to you.

Excerpted from the new book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain. Copyright © 2022 by Susan Cain. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

In her newest TED Talk, Susan Cain explains how heartache can bring us closer to the beauty of life — watch it here: