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The fate of romance

In the beginning of a typical romantic attachment, whether to a human being or a motorcycle, there’s a period of infatuation. The object of desire is feverishly imbued with idealized qualities based more on our hopes than on evidence or the constraints of reality. We might concede the person or bike isn’t Perfect in some objectively universal sense, but they or it is absolutely perfect for us. The focus of our energy and attention narrows to the pursuit of this “pearl of great price,” and we’re willing to make almost any concession for it. After all, our ultimate happiness and fulfillment for the rest of our lives hangs in the balance—how could we survive another day without that man/woman/motorcycle?! Of course, this sounds ridiculous when we’re not in the throes of such insanity, but it makes irrefutably perfect sense when we are; there’s no reasoning with us when we’re in the deep end of this pool.

Listen to this column as Episode 6 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes; the episode includes a Q&A session about bias and self-selection in motorcycling communities. Submit your questions to Mark by emailing [email protected]. Please indicate if you’re willing to get on a Zoom with Mark to ask your question in person.

While there are (hopefully) substantial differences between our relationships with people and our relationships with objects, there are also striking parallels we may not necessarily notice. Let’s examine some of these in romances with our lovers and our bikes.

Part of what allows infatuation to swell to such outrageous proportions is simple ignorance. We know some things about the Other (a term I’ll use for any object of desire, fleshy or metallic), but the amount we don’t yet know is vast; it dwarfs whatever fragments registered at the outset and immediately filled our perceptual field. There’s just not much information to compete with our fantastical elaborations on what little we’ve learned thus far, and we invariably turn a blind eye whenever counterpoints start to emerge. We ignore, dismiss, excuse or minimize them, or even imagine ourselves learning to value them via some sort of alchemy. Maybe this unwanted element is just what we need to grow, if only we embrace it! Understandably, we don’t want anything to spoil the purity of our bliss. We cling to favorite details—those eyes! that exhaust note! and other thrilling moments from our first outing together—as the bigger picture taking shape includes less salutary features: those feet! that seat! and those startling moments when we were way out of sync.

Photo by Leah Kelley.

Eventually and inevitably, imperfections become impossible to ignore or spin. We learn painfully disappointing—perhaps even crushing—lessons about how our imaginations and rationalizations ran wild, untethered from reality. Sometimes the resulting shift is so precipitous and extreme our perspective flips from idealization to devaluation. How could we have been so blind, so foolish?! No way we can get along with someone who holds those opinions. Buyer’s remorse sets in, as we focus on how much we paid for a bike with ergonomics intolerable after an hour in the saddle. We may even conclude, fairly or unfairly, we’ve been tricked by false advertisement. Our friends insisted he/she was our type. The magazine articles all agreed this bike was the best of its kind. It seemed so at first, but then we found out “the truth” (likewise incomplete).

Whether we chalk it up to deceitful betrayal or our own gross error in judgment, we jettison the relationship and lick our wounds in preparation for a renewed search. When the perceptual shift is more gradual, we may hold on for a long time, tolerating the “thousand cuts” one by one, even after realizing the relationship’s death is unavoidable. In the end, the couple breaks up or the bike gets sold. For some people, this cycle repeats unchanged indefinitely, especially if they only compare people and things to abstract standards impossible to meet except within the initial illusions.

Alternatively, some relationships survive the exhaustion of infatuation. They still involve a multitude of disappointments as fantasies give way to realities, but something else happens simultaneously to keep the ship afloat: positive discoveries. While there are real losses to be digested, these are offset by a growing appreciation of hidden virtues only apparent with time and experience. Hence, imaginary assets are replaced with real ones, maybe superior to those initially superimposed. Such happy surprises fuel the hope even more may be forthcoming, but they also establish a bedrock of substantive, realistic, reliable qualities which form the foundation of lasting trust, admiration, gratitude, and devotion. Hopes are replaced with confident beliefs, and infatuation ripens into a more mature version of love. Problem areas might also be smoothed out with patient effort.

Wear your gear – this photo for illustrative purposes only! Photo by Asad Photo Maldives.

No, my paramour doesn’t share my taste in music, but they demonstrate the same strong convictions about key social issues. I can go see my favorite band with friends instead, and on balance it’s fine. My bike’s weight is more intimidating at low speed than I expected, but I’ve never felt so securely planted on the interstate. I can replace a few parts with lighter aftermarket pieces, get to the gym more often, and find a riding school focused on low-speed maneuvering. We find compromises and workarounds, and the good things continue to outweigh the bad.

If only the hard part were over! Now there’s the issue of keeping love alive for the long haul. A crucial aspect of doing so is making discovery a constant. Novelty and risk are required to avoid stagnation, complacency, and boredom, all of which can develop even when we think highly of the Other and our relationship is going well in many regards. Exploration often grinds to a halt at the edge of our fear or shame. Do we really want to find out more about ourselves or the Other? What if something terribly negative gets revealed? An unspoken policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” can shut down the vitalizing process that carried this relationship out of the infatuation phase into something more realistic and truly intimate. Such paralysis dooms many a lengthy union. Whether or not the parties part ways, the spark is lost. Fortunately, it can often be found again via renewed exploration.

With another person, discovery requires repeated forays into the frontiers of privacy, opening up about our pasts, our interiors, and our dreams, letting the Other know us in increasingly authentic and complete ways. It also requires mutuality, with the Other sharing more, too, dropping pretenses and protective facades. This won’t happen without a well-established atmosphere of genuine acceptance and empathic curiosity – a sincere interest in understanding each other, as opposed to a quest to gather ammunition to use against one another later, or a dismissive assumption we already know everything important about our mate. People only reveal what they believe is safe to show, and only to an audience they think cares. Maybe discovery unfolds as a couple takes on new challenges wherein both are learning about themselves and each other, but it can also happen amidst the mundane routines of everyday life, as each inquires about the other’s experience in deeper detail. Each of us is an infinite universe no one else can ever map out completely; there’s always more to understand.

Photo by Scott Lindroth

In the case of a motorcycle, ongoing discovery also involves pushing the envelope. We take our bike to a track day, riding school, new trail or on a longer trip and develop a keener awareness of what it can and cannot do, as well as what we can and cannot do (at least not yet). Or, without doing anything special, we deliberately pay more attention to the sensations of steering and traction feedback it provides, and to our own habitual posture and reflexes. Curiosity, honesty, and non-defensive openness are required here, just like with people. We might not want to admit our bike’s suspension needs upgrading, or our cornering skills need work. We might flinch at the critique of an instructor or be embarrassed/self-critical upon realizing we failed to pack some essential our tour-mates all knew to include. We will have to reckon with unwelcome discoveries, but we may also find out our bike can do things we never imagined, like dance through a rock garden where we expected to crash. Our own strengths may surprise us, too; who knew we could patch a busted valve cover with the JB Weld we brought along on a whim?

Love is a beautiful thing, but it must perpetually navigate countless threats. On second thought, love doesn’t have to do any navigating, we do.

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.







One thought on “The fate of romance

  • Mark,

    You have an amazing way with words, thoughts, and concepts. I’ve followed your writing since your early days in MCN and continue to be inspired with every article. Thank you for your hard work providing a way to make us better riders… and humans.

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