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Getting our Religion: When relationships are like cults, and other mysteries

emily-j Culture, Relationships , ,

Last relationship article for Industry, just found as I dust off this blog. The original had more explicit details about said religion, but had to pull back. Ah, culture reporting, how I’ll miss you?

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getting our religionI saw a play recently, a solo performance about one woman’s time in a certain popular and celebrity-focused religion—one that has been much in the news over the past year. The performance was manic, self-effacing, and very funny. At one point she mentioned, almost in passing, that she’d been drawn to the church after a series of personal setbacks, including the breakup of a relationship. Well, of course. The salient detail leapt out of the surrounding scene and established itself as a vaguely formed question: Why do people get religion just when they are the most disappointed by life?

Was it simply a consolation for loss, or does the upset applecart of expectations serve some useful purpose—do setbacks motivate us to something greater than ourselves and our piddling desires? Perhaps in the dashed hopes of material success (which either falls flat or doesn’t do what you thought it would) spiritual rewards are all that are left.

relationships not so different

For some relentless (or so they think) rationalists, religions and cults are as good as synonyms. Similarly, good relationships and dramatic trainwrecks are of the same species.

Religion’s significance in people’s lives has decreased in modern life, so maybe now weird cults and idolized relationships are replacing them.

The former often have brutal indoctrination techniques using techniques of sensory deprivation, for example, to create malleable subjects. A charismatic guru type puffs up and then flattens young recruits’ self-importance, often tangling romantically with devotees.

relationships like cults

There’s…

  • Indoctrination from early ages
  • Possibilities for isolation, you-and-me-against-the-world thinking
  • Potentially controlling dynamics, both aggressive and under the surface
  • Resistance to learning how relationships work to learn how to “do” them better, and instead a reliance on emotion, instinct and magical thinking
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • A certain smug condescension toward outsiders

The proof is not just a guess. Looking through the average ladymag, incredibly heavy marketing techniques surround love, religion, inner peace, etc. Ecology: Save the World! Business: Get Rich Today! Cosmo: Find your Soulmate!

Lastly, similar to cults, relationships are easy to get into, and hard to get out of. When we do leave a dominating relationship, we find we have all this extra free time and energy (and sometimes money). Our focus, now free from obsession, can be self-directed, motivated towards something personally meaningful.

cults natural/temporary

We both crave and fear this kind of total devotion in love and life that relationship brings. We want the greater meaning but dread having to own up to the process. Likewise, the difference between the awe we feel for the state of love and for god is so slim at times as to make their objects indistinguishable. In early country songs, religious songs were always about love and love songs were usually about murder.

As for any expectation of rescue, we can’t help a little pining for Love or God, periodically.

Most of the rewards of life are to be had on more solid ground, in the details, where we live. Everyday needs and challenges are met, and we get closer to each other like a fabric worked over time.

But one day again, it’s not enough; we want something of greater significance. Challenge and conflict over comfort and stability. Lofty goals are hard not to want, but age tempers the impulse, brings them down to earth. Maybe old-fashioned religion (the sudden call to God when, “I never do this!”)  and the tendency to fall crazy in love is the balloon we try to float off on, to keep things moving.

The disillusionment of material success (gained or lost) provokes bouts of spiritual or emotional growth, however crazy their tactics may seem.

Originally posted in Industry magazine’s September 2016 issue.

 

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