Love is a concept shrouded in myths. We don’t see love as on a continuum, at one end of a spectrum that starts with friendship or NSA sex. We don’t usually see love as flawed, fallible or even temporary in the same way that we see friendship and other sexual relationships. Somehow, love is supposed to be perfect and endure forever and ever. Love is supposed to mean the same thing to everyone and to be experienced in the same way by everyone. And the word “love” in English is used synonymously with the word “commitment”.
Love is a priveleged concept; it is always seen as sacred, pure, in no need of explanation or defence. While other feelings and relationships may be publically scrutinised, debated or denounced, love is not subject to any challenge. Even in the equal marriage debate, love is used as the justification for equal marriage, precisely because it is so difficult or unthinkable to argue against love. The anti-equal marriage brigade resort to arguing that homosexual love is not-love; they do not challenge the pro-equal marriage supporters by arguing that love should not be priveleged or that love and marriage are irrelevant to each other. It is implicitly assumed by both sides that love should be rewarded by or lead to marriage and that love should be priveleged.
The Catholic Church and other random right-wing moralists, whether politicians, NGOs or think-tanks, criticise every other sexual emotion on the spectrum except for love. Love is immune. In fact, love is often favoured and other sexual emotions are compared to it unfavourably. Love is the ideal.
Women a little older than me may remember dreaming of – or being socialised into dreaming of – experiencing true love like Princess Diana. For those around my age, it was Cinderella, Princess Jasmine, Belle and Ariel. For those who are younger, Bella Swan is their role model. Previous generations had Shakespeare’s Juliet and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, unDisneyfied. Obviously, this is part of the reason why we put love on a pedestal. But the really interesting thing is that all of us expect to experience love in the same way as our fictional or celebrity heroines. We don’t entertain the idea that love might feel different to different people, or feel different with different partners or at different ages.
Love is inextricably linked to marriage and
the family the two-parent heterosexual monogamous fertile family. Female children and teenage girls take it for granted that they’ll fall madly in love with their very own Prince Charming and get married. The reality for a lot of people, though, is marrying someone you like a lot and who you get on with; the scorching fires of I-can’t-live-without-you passion and wild romance seldom lead to stable relationships, as the magic fizzles out after a while. Yet, we continue to delude ourselves that we’ll ‘find our soulmate’ and ‘know it’s true love’ and ‘live happily ever after’. This is because we see love as a shining, separate entity, instead of an emotion resting on the far side of the casual sex-friendship-like-like a lot-love spectrum.
This is quite harmful, because the separation of love from all other close, bonding, sexual, romantic, passionate and friendship feelings leads to seeing love as copletely cut off from all other feelings. We tell ourselves that it’s either love or it’s not love. So, if we like a girl or guy, we might think we are “in love”. After all, we can’t stop thinking about them and love being around them, so it’s got to be love. Thinking you care more deeply about someone than you do is probably inevitable, but separating love from all other emotions only exacerbates the problem. Another effect is that we think in terms of lust and love, as if they were polar opposites. We think that if it’s casual, short-term or has no clear direction, it’s just lust, when in reality there could be friendship feelings or other feelings there, too. Everything is lust if it’s not love. And love is ranked as superior to lust; women are meant to love, not lust, and to prefer to get love instead of getting lust.
It would be better if our language allowed a more nuanced discussion of the spectrum instead of using love-words (love, romance, commitment, faithful) and lust-words (casual, passion, hot, sexy) as if they were mutually exlusive. For cohabitees, polyamorous people, swingers and those in open marriages, our language and discourse are unhelpful and redundant.
And we think love cannot be flawed; if a man beats or sexually assaults his wife or a woman hits her child, these individuals didn’t love their victims. But there is no reason why someone can’t be in love and still abuse or assault their loved ones; it’s not normal, natural or acceptable, and could be referred to as ‘pathological love’ but it could happen*.
Love is seen as an end in itself, a goal to be achieved, a meaningful pursuit even for a successful career woman. None of the other feelings on the love-lust spectrum are seen in this way. Lust is not seen as a meaningful goal for women to pursue, or an end in itself for anyone. In fact, women who enjoy recieving lust or openly have too much of the emotion themselves are often slut-shamed.
Love, in the West, is usually equated with commitment. But should it be? In our modern society we sometimes forget that love wasn’t always thought of as permanent or as requiring faithfulness; even Shakespeare’s Romeo fell in and out of love with Rosemarie quickly, and in love with Juliet almost instantaneously, similarly to the way King David fell in love with Bathsheba as he saw her nude. The Hindu god Krishna is continually unfaithful to his consort Radha whom he loves dearly. And I have heard – I think most people have – of one-night stands or even holiday sex turning into cohabiting and then marriage. While I can’t take seriously the claim of “I felt love for everyone I slept with”, it may be possible to be truly in love with someone for a short time. After all, that’s why marriages fail – people fall out of love. So why couldn’t people be truly in love, but not have any plans to commit? Does being in love mean you have to want to be with that person until you’re 80? Or is it possible to be in love but know you can’t be with them forever, and, when you do leave them, you wuld always remember and think about them?
In regards to the glamorising and glorifying of this emotion called love: Love is nothing special. It’s just the end-point on the spectrum when the feelings of friendship and sexual attraction intensify.
*I’m not saying all or even most people who assault/abuse their family members love them. I’m just saying it could happen. And I’m certainly not saying that their love somehow “lessens” their crimes – it doesn’t. Arguably it makes their crimes worse.