“The ideal of courtly love swept through the feudal courts of medieval Europe and began a revolution in our attitudes toward the feminine values of love, relationship, refined feeling, devotion, spiritual experience, and the pursuit of beauty. That revolution finally matured into what we call romanticism. It also revolutionized our attitudes towards women; but it left a strange split in our feelings. On the one hand, western men began to look on woman as the embodiment of all that was pure, sacred, and whole; woman became the symbol of anima: “My Lady Soul.” But on the other hand, still caught in the patriarchal mind, men continued to see women as the carrier of “feminine” emotionalism, your rationality, softness, and weakness – all of which are more symptoms of a man’s own feminine side than they are characteristics of women.
It’s still hasn’t occurred to Western man to stop looking on a woman as the symbol of something and to begin seeing her simply as a woman – as a human being. He is caught in the ambivalence he feels towards his own inner feminine, sometimes rushing toward it in search of his lost soul, sometimes disdaining it as a needless complication in his life, a “wrench in the gears” of his patriarchal machinery. This is the unhealed split within man that he projects onto outer woman, the war he fights at her expense.
A few things have changed since the days of courtly love. At the beginning, when it was still a spiritual ideal, courtly love did not permit sexuality or marriage between the lovers. They sensed that the other worldly intensity of the adoration could not mix with personal relationship, marriage, and physical contact. By contrast, we always mix romance with sex and marriage. The main thing that has not changed over the centuries is this: our unconscious belief that “true love” must be a mutual religious adoration of such overwhelming intensity that we feel all of heaven and earth revealed in our love. But unlike our courtly ancestors, we try to mix that worship into our personal lives, along with sex, marriage, cooking breakfast, paying the bills, and raising children.
The courtly belief that true love can only exist outside marriage is still with us today, unconsciously affecting us more than we know. A man expects his wife to take care of the children, to have food on the table, contribute to the family income, and back them up in the daily struggles of human life. But some other part of him wants her to be the incarnation of anima, the holy Lady in the sky who is always beautiful and perfect. He wonders how the pure in shining God is who he adored turned into this ordinary wife who seems utterly unreasonable. A woman sees her husband working, paying the bills, getting the car repaired, and defending his empires, living the ordinariness of life. She wonders what happened to the night who adored and worshiped her when he was “cording” her, in the days when everything was so intense, so ecstatic, so blissful. The old unconscious belief returns to haunt them, whispering that “true love” is somewhere else, that it can’t be found within the ordinariness of marriage.
These are the terrible splits that we all carry around within us. On the one hand, we want stability and relationship with an ordinary human being; on the other hand, we unconsciously demand someone who will be the incarnation of soul, who will reveal the godhead in the Realm of Light, who will move us to a state of religious adoration and fill our lives with ecstasy. Here we find, still living within us, the Catharist fantasy, the religious ideal in disguise.
Each of these ideals is a psychological truth; each is a fantasy playing through us, telling us who we are, what we are made of, and what we need.
The religion of the Cathars and its offspring, courtly love, are carriers of the most magnificent fantasy in the mind of Western man, the fantasy that romantic love carries for us today. But this awesome fantasy is no illusion: all fantasy is reality, reality expressed in symbol and flowing from an ineffable source. Catharism is the fantasy of finding one’s lost soul. It is the wondrous fantasy of discovering that the inner world is real, that the soul is real, that the gods are real, and that we can truly find that world, that beauty, that communion with the gods.
Many men would agree that romantic love is a “fantasy,” but they would not know how great a thing they said – for as it is a fantasy, it is also a truth, a truth that we can live, if we will understand it on the right level. The truth behind fantasy has to be earned. To find that reality, we must look behind the fantasy and its symbols; we have to give up trying to live the Catherine’s and courtly fantasies literally – outside ourselves, with mortal people in the temporal world – and live this fantasy’s truth as an inner event, in inner fact, experienced in the timeless realm of Her whom we now affirm.”
– Dr. Robert Johnson in WE: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love