Modern culture teaches us that success in love all depends on finding the right person. Romantic films and novels focus almost exclusively on the couple’s journey from first butterflies to the altar – think Pride and Prejudice, When Harry Met Sally, and (especially in the holiday gloom) Love Actually. For these protagonists, the path can be fraught with awkwardness, misunderstandings, and the boundaries of social class, but the wedding at the end of the story brings a resolution to all the couple’s problems and neatly lays the foundation for their long-term happiness.
Our collective fetish for the beginning of a relationship is at best unhelpful, and at worst is setting us up for deep disappointment. These stories obscure the reality that the challenge of relationships is not making it to the altar, but being able to live with each other afterwards. I’m certainly not the first to wonder why a ‘happily ever after’ is so elusive, but while many are waking up to the failed promises of Romanticism, we still struggle to dislodge these seductive stories from our imaginations. We want love stories that offer us redemption and hope, but in so doing we are left without a reliable guide to the institution we have been taught to expect so much from.
What we need is an injection of wisdom and glamour from the ancient world. In ancient Greece one of the most revered icons of relationship success was Penelope, queen of Ithaca who waited 20 years for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan war. Odysseus and Penelope had everything going for them. They were both intelligent – Odysseus was the master strategist for the Greek army and Penelope repeatedly outwitted every man on Ithaca. Their good looks attracted scores of admirers, and they were king and queen, with a house full of all the prestige items a king could ever want. Yet despite all these advantages, their marriage still encountered enormous difficulties. The fact that their marriage was difficult was not a personal failing, but an inevitable part of life.
Stories that depict the hardships of marriage, without either partner being at fault, set our expectations low so that we will not be disappointed by unrealistic hopes of perpetual happiness. The story of Penelope and Odysseus presents a dire scenario that could defeat even the most committed Romantics. Penelope spent 20 lonely years raising a son who had never known his father, and fending off no less than 108 inferior prospective husbands. Odysseus spent nine years waging war on Troy, to retrieve a King’s cheating wife, before encountering angry gods, a cannibalistic Cyclops, and the underworld itself. The demands of their society and their gods bring immense personal suffering on both parties.
The Odyssey acknowledges another truth that modern love stories have been reticent about: that love must not only encounter suffering, but will often be the cause of it. Odysseus could have spent eternity at a banquet of the gods or in an eternal love affair with a goddess, but he chose to stay in his marriage. Penelope, too, felt the pressure to remarry and give up on the relationship. Their dedication to each other came at a high price, but proved to be worthwhile. Any relationship worth the glory the poets lavished on Penelope and Odysseus demands self-sacrifice.
Despite our many advances in technology our own relationships are not immune to many of the hardships of the ancient world. We are less likely to send our partners off to war, but more likely to lose them to high-stress jobs, drugs, or the allure of other partners. Far from being an archaic fairy tale, the Odyssey can galvanise us against the struggles we will face over a lifetime.