"All you need is love" sang the Beatles. "What is this thing called love?" croons the famous song by Cole Porter. "Love will keep us together" declares Captain and Tennille.
Romantic love has been the subject of music, art, literature, cinema, philosophical thought and scientific research for some time. At AUT, we recently put together a YouTube video on "The Science of Love" in order to make sense of the topic.
The topic of love is one that fascinates us. The experience of love is one that can bring us joy, happiness or bliss, as well as pain, confusion and heartache.
To unpack this elusive but powerful force, for the next three weeks I'm going to do a short series on rethinking love. We need to shift our expectations of how love comes together, what it feels like, and how it can work as part of a functioning long-term relationship. To do this, I want to draw on the work of contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton, as well as sharing insights from my own research.
The way we love is heavily shaped by the outside world. It is influenced by the social, cultural and historic juncture we find ourselves in. The stories we hear about love (via media and historical narratives, for example) hugely shape our understanding and expectation of what love is, how it should unfold, and what it should feel like.
de Botton traces our current understanding and practice of love to an intellectual movement of the late 1700s, called 'Romanticism'.
Romanticism was heavily dedicated to the arts, poetry and literature, and it had a lot to say about love. First and foremost, Romanticism espouses that there is a 'soulmate' out there for everyone. A person who is your spiritual 'other half', and will not only complete you, but by finding them, all your problems, worries, concerns and daily burdens will magically disappear.
Once you've found 'The One', it will fix everything from your loneliness to your daily existential crises about the true nature of the world and what you should really be doing with your life. You will live happily ever after like in the fairy tales, and this will be effortless, almost magical and largely driven by your intrinsic understanding of each other. If only. But more on that next week.
So, how do we find this person? According to romanticism, and as deduced by de Botton, it is by mere 'instinct'. One day, somewhere in a public place, or at a party, or at work, you will meet someone and there will be a special, unexplainable feeling you get when you see them.
This feeling is now bound up with sexual attraction, but was originally more of a spiritual union. This odd but exciting stirring is to indicate that this person could be the one for you, even if you don't actually know anything about them.
The notion of 'love at first sight' captures the essence of the Romantics approach to love – you will one day, quite randomly meet your soulmate and you will magically know they're the one for you.
And hopefully you find this person as soon as possible (or at least by your 30s, in contemporary New Zealand). Here blind love becomes the basis of marriage-type relationships and the way to find said love is via instinct.
Before romanticism, marriages were focused much more on practicalities. They were about uniting certain family bloodlines, or combining certain bits of land or other resources.
They were marriages based on 'reason' versus 'love' and we often arranged by the elders of a family. Such dynastic marriages were how lifelong partnerships were made for thousands of years, before Romanticism ushered in the mystique of what we now consider romantic love.
What Romanticism also espouses is that you are meant to love everything about your partner, forever. You should find all their personal quirks or weird habits endearing and adorable. They should never get on your nerves or frustrate you, if you truly love them.
Romanticism dictates that love should come together rather magically, work instinctively and be painlessly harmonious, without any deep prior understanding of the other individual, or any ongoing work on the relationship by the couple.
Now while we gravitate to these beautiful ideals (and they are hard to fully dismiss), de Botton firmly contends that Romanticism has been an utter catastrophe for our capacity to have good long-term relationships.
He contends, and I agree, that if we are to ever have a real chance at love, or a functioning, thriving and loving relationship, we have to let go of the many romantic notions, thoughts and feelings that got us into certain relationships in the first place.
I know this may bring gasps of horror to some readers, but I will explain what I mean in the coming weeks. Next week, I'll offer some alternative understandings of love that can set us up to succeed much better at love and relationships.
Find the original publication here.