Joseph Campbell on Why Perfectionism Kills Love and the Pathway to Bliss in Romantic Relationships
“Perfection is inhuman… What evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
the myth fails, human love begins,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. “Then
we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” Indeed, just like perfectionism kills creativity, it also kills love — the more we mythologize and idealize the person we love, the more disillusioned and disheartened we grow as we come to
know their imperfect humanity which, if untainted by these blinding ideals, is the very wellspring of true love. That is what playwright Tom Stoppard captured in what is perhaps the greatest definition of love, in his notion of “the mask slipped from the face,” the stripping of the idealized projection, the surrender to the beautiful imperfection of
a human being.
A century and a half after Stendhal’s insightful ideas on why we fall out of love, Campbell builds upon Carl Jung’s psychological theory of anima (the
female ideal in the masculine unconscious) and animus (the
male ideal in the feminine unconscious), and explores how our clinging to those ideals blinds us to the most rewarding part of romance.
His focus on marriage is especially timely and poignant today, when the institution of marriage is
being reimagined to be more inclusive and more just, which also means it’s being challenged to rise to higher standards of integrity. Campbell writes:
Two people meet and fall in love. Then they marry, and the real Sam or Suzy begins to show through the fantasy, and, boy, is it a shock. So a lot of little boys and girls just withdraw their
anima or animus. They get a divorce and wait for another receptive person, pitch the woo again, and, uh-oh, another shock. And so on and so forth.
Now the one undeniable fact: this disillusion is inevitable. You had an ideal. You married that ideal, then along comes a fact that does not correspond to that ideal. You suddenly notice
things that do not quite fit with your projection. So what are you going to do when that happens? There’s only one attitude that will solve the situation: compassion. This poor, poor fact
that I married does not correspond to my ideal; it’s only a human being. Well, I’m a human being, too. So I’ll meet a human being for a change; I’ll live with it and be nice to it, showing
compassion for the fallibilities that I myself have certainly brought to life as a human being.
Decades later, Dan Savage would come to call this “the price of admission” — the most potent antidote to the perilous myth of “the one,” which is built upon a scaffolding of illusion and unattainable ideals. Campbell
captures this with clarity at once grounding and elevating:
Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love — and I mean love, not lust — is the imperfection of the human being. So, when the imperfection of the real person,
compared to the ideal of your animus or anima, peeks through, say, this is a challenge to my compassion. Then make a try, and something might begin to get going here. You might begin to be
quit of your fix on your anima.
It’s just as bad to be fixed on your anima and miss as to be fixed on your persona: you’ve got to get free of that. And the lesson of life is to release you from it.
The principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship. So when the fact shows through the animus or anima, what you must render is compassion. This
is the basic love, the charity, that turns a critic into a living human being who has something to give to — as well as to demand of — the world.
This is how one is to deal with animus and anima disillusionment… That’s reality evoking a new depth of reality in yourself, because you’re imperfect, too. You may not know it. The world is a
constellation of imperfections, and you, perhaps, are the most imperfect of all. By your love for the world you name it accurately and without pity and love what you have thus named… This
discovery can help you save your marriage.
And yet, paradoxically, Campbell argues that this is the task of life — not to avoid these anima and animus projections, which we all carry, but to confront them with courage and do the
work of disillusionment so we can get to the imperfect realness of which true love is woven. (This is what Rilke meant when he counseled his young friend that “for one human being to love another … is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks … the work for which all other work is but
preparation.”) Campbell speaks to the necessity of both the preparation and the work itself:
One of the boldest things you could possibly do would be to marry that ideal that you’ve fallen for. Then you face a real job, because everything has been projected onto him or her. This goes
beyond lust; this is something that goes way down. It pulls everything out. This anima/animus is the fish line that has caught your whole unconscious, and everything’s going to come up — the
Midgard Serpent, everything down in the bottom. This is what you marry.