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What do dreadlocked European hitchhikers, inner-city 14-year-olds and ancient bar rats have in common? Perhaps the unspoken desire to “surrender myself into the arms of a beautiful stranger… who really loves me.”

This paradox is the modern, shall we say, cult of the beautiful stranger, and it has permeated nearly every romantic ideal in our society. It’s the romanticized version of Hooking Up — you get to have a one/two/three-night stand and feel all warm and fuzzy about it. It’s also the beginning of most modern-day relationships: This new and exciting person likes me! Granted, we’ve only made out and talked about things we agree on, but heck, that’s half of what you need, right? Maybe three-quarters?

In a less sexual way, the cult presents itself in all the connections with all the strangers in all the cities in all the world, in effortless, transitory friendship, to be forgotten or remembered, who knows?

The cult insists on more passion with the novel than with the tried. It asserts that when things get tough, the tough get going… somewhere else. It notes that no person should have any more claim on anyone than anyone else. It is offended at restraint and gratified with excess. It spurns the 1950s and embraces the 1960s. It would like to plant, harvest and consume in a single day.

It is responsible for the heartbreak of countless people who surrender themselves into the arms of beautiful strangers only to find, distressingly, that the liberation they expected to find there is converted to the entrapment of their own hearts. The libertine fantasy of true love for an hour may evolve unrecognized into the desire for true love, one love, always. But this requires that the beautiful stranger become a stranger no more: an odd return to traditional life-long monogamy. Mating for life requires dedication, commitment. It requires mundane things like budgeting, keeping your promises, and agreements on how to spend the weekend. It denies antipathy. It denies apathy. It denies, even, to some extent, independence. But tragically, even life-long monogamy in our current time has stolen from the cult of the beautiful stranger, and hence you find people, even those with good intentions, railing that marriage has lessened their individualism, their financial independence, the unadulterated time they once spent on their hobbies. And compared with all the other previous sexual partners who did not expect anything other than a little temporary fun, my gosh, that’s too much to ask, and hence you’re a real nag. Women even advise each other: “to avoid sounding unbalanced, keep your expectations in check. Realize that this wonderful man had a very full life before he met you and that this life will continue. Yes, you’re part of it, but you’re not the only part of it… show him you’re an independent person.”

So in other words, don’t expect to be too much a part of his day-to-day? But what else can you do when you unify with another distinct person?

Those emerging from the aftermath of such relationships may not even realize what they expected until well after they have been abandoned, such is their unflinching acceptance of the cult of the beautiful stranger. Why are they so sad? What’s wrong with them? Why does rejection hurt so much? Socially, they have done nothing wrong and had nothing wrong done to them. So psychologically, they may turn to any number of things to help them “cope,” to take control or to numb themselves to the pain of rejection by their beautiful strangers. Eating disorders, self-mutilation, alcoholism, drug use and a spiral of promiscuity may emerge. It is difficult to find causational studies between having multiple short-term partners and these other behaviors, though looking at correlative statistics from the other direction seems telling: “women with bulimia are at higher-than-average risk for dangerous impulsive behaviors, such as sexual promiscuity” and “children who hurt themselves often engage in other forms of at-risk behavior, including drug and alcohol abuse and sexual promiscuity.”

One anorexic explained in A Return to Modesty that “the idea of being cared for in a non-sexual way was not something I could understand” (p. 59). The conflict between life and need (and the lacking emotional connection) left her perpetually nauseated; many women in similar circumstances lose weight rapidly, or, conversely, gain it as they turn to food to fill the void. It’s also well-accepted that some may numb the pain specifically by doing the very thing that caused it in the first place. How beautiful indeed is this alternate, fleeting reality, where even with a stranger acceptance is possible again!

Interestingly, in these settings, promiscuity is seen as a bad thing by nearly everyone; as self-destructive, and yet the expectation of serial monogamy is all the while paraded on the front of nearly every magazine on our Western stands. Serial monogamy, having one partner at a time over days or weeks or months, is not necessarily incongruous with promiscuity. It is certainly not incongruous with hitting on the beautiful stranger.

And we still think that our beautiful strangers are out there, waiting for us. If we thwart fate and somehow manage to stay with them for awhile, the perfection of this initial mystery will no doubt remain. Because, after all, they are the pinnacle of the cult; almost divine in their shrug at our lack of real commitment.

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