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Mae Martin: "We're used to toxic love stories, but what does it take for two people to be truly happy?"

With the second season of her warm romcom Feel Good now out, the comedian and writer explores what she's learnt about the real meaning of love

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Leonardo DiCaprio is kneeling in a desert, his Hawaiian shirt billowing open revealing a bandaged stab wound. He’s staring at the sky, face contorted in pain as he screams “JULIEEET!” I am 12 years old, eyes wide, staring at the TV in my parents’ basement, and I’m having two thoughts. 1. Where can I get a Hawaiian shirt like that? and 2. This is what love is. Pain. Love is pain. And until I have felt pain that visceral, I won’t have felt real love.

The notion that romantic love is tied up with pain and drama is an age old one, and one that took root in my brain early on. It’s unfair to blame Romeo & Juliet, or indeed Leonardo DiCaprio himself, for planting the seed. Really the trope of doomed, torturous, agonising love is as old as human civilisation. I mean, weren’t Zeus and Hera constantly causing mayhem in one another’s lives? Not to mention Dido and Aeneas, Tristan and Iseult, Buffy and Angel, the list goes on. And as a dramatic, emotional child, I soaked it all up like a sponge. I remember long before I ever even had a relationship I used to fantasise about my first break up. “It will be raining. And we’ll be standing in the street. And right after he breaks up with me I’ll get hit by a car. And he’ll be chasing after the ambulance yelling ‘I made a mistake!’ and I’ll be like ‘Close the door. I don’t know him. I thought I did, but I don’t.’”

The trope of doomed, torturous, agonising love is as old as human civilisation

romeo and juliet
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It’s not surprising that we’re drawn to drama. From a narrative perspective, a story about a happy domestic life plodding along with very few bumps along the road isn’t particularly compelling storytelling, and as a result we've been inundated with problematic love stories from a young age. The problem is, the reality of romantic pain, toxicity, indeed, emotional abuse, is very different to the perfectly soundtracked fantasy of a Baz Luhrmann film. It’s a lot less running in the rain and a lot more anxiously staring at a phone and wondering why someone is not texting you back even though you can see that they’re online.

Love itself should feel enriching, safe and warm

Many people have had the experience, often in your twenties, of falling hard for someone “complicated”. Someone who is hot and cold, who seems to be constantly accompanied by a whirlwind of drama, but who makes you feel more alive than you ever have. When we get drawn into these situations we can easily think, “Oh this is what love feels like”. After all, that feeling of being “head over heels” and “upside down” is what we read about in books, hear about in songs, watch in movies. The vertiginous highs and lows, the butterflies. The truth is, though, a lot of those physical sensations that we’re confusing for intoxicating true love are in fact the symptoms of a fight-or-flight response, and are often good indicators that you’re in an abusive situation which is playing on the feelings of unworthiness or low self esteem that many of us harbour. When someone you love says something cruel to you, it's so easy for even the most confident person to think "yeah, I guess I've secretly always thought I'm a bit of a repulsive worm too. Wow, I guess I've finally found someone who really sees me."

Unlearning the belief that love should hurt has been a lifelong process for me and I don’t think I’m fully there yet. Even now I have a doubt that creeps in at night - “yeah, that kind of love is ultimately bad, but doesn’t it sometimes also feel good? Can love stories like that ever have a happy ending?” It’s a theme I’ve explored in my show Feel Good, and I was relieved to find that it’s one that struck a nerve with lots of other people.

mae martin charlotte ritchie feel good

I now believe, I think, that the old aphorism “love is pain” is true, but not in the way I understood it before. Love is pain because you’re opening yourself up to the possibility that it will end. That there will be loss. One of you could die (we all do eventually, annoyingly) or (and this is more probable to happen first) the love will die. Most loves do. This potential for being hurt is what makes loving someone one of the bravest and scariest things we can do with our lives. So sure - love can lead to pain. But the love itself shouldn’t hurt. The love itself should feel enriching, safe and warm, at least most of the time. Not draining and destabilising. And we all know that Romeo and Mercutio would have been a better match, anyway.

Feel Good season two is available to watch on Netflix now.

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