What if when it comes to love, we got it wrong?
Romantic love has a long history; Petrarch and Dante wrote about it in the 1300s, and even the Bible gets pretty steamy with the Song of Solomon. But the idea that romantic love is the great goal of life is relatively new. For much of human history, the kind of love that made John Cusack raise his boombox in Say Anything was referred to as “lovesickness,” a mixture of intense romantic attraction with elements of obsession, impulsiveness, and delusions. This view of love as a sickness isn’t totally off base. Today scientists have linked “lovesickness” to the flood of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in our brains, a chemical reaction that looks a lot like what happens when we’re on drugs.
It wasn’t until 1750, when Romanticism found its way into poetry, art, and philosophy, that romantic love began to have its day. Before that marriage was less about love and more about economics. During the industrial age, as people began making enough money to think about marriage as more than a means to procreation and financial support, Romanticism dug its claws in deeper. Individual rights and the pursuit of happiness gained importance, and with them came the idea of marrying for love.
During the 1800s as the number of publishing houses in the U.S. and Britain increased, the dark fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm made their way to the public. I remember those fairy tales, where Cinderella’s sisters get their eyes pecked out by birds, and the Little Mermaid’s tragic ending is turning to sea foam. But thanks to Walt Disney, the aftertaste that those stories leave with me is now a happy one.
After World War 1 and the Great Depression, Walt Disney saw that people were growing weary of sad tales and wanting to escape their bleak reality. Beginning in 1937, Disney launched a golden age of movies that borrowed from the old fairy tales, but gave them happily ever after endings. It was in the prettier versions of those old stories that our cultural obsession with romantic love reached its peak.
I bring up this history because with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I think it’s worth examining our assumptions about love. I’m not just talking about the love we associate with marriage or even with dating or sex—though the conversation certainly applies to all of those places, too. I’m talking about the perceptions of love that affect us whether we are single or married or divorced or widowed. It’s a belief so common in our culture that we have to zoom out in history to realize that we’ve been indoctrinated. The idea that Romanticism has fed us—that we’ve swallowed whole—is that whether in friendship or dating or marriage, our most important quest in life is finding “the one,” that person who at last will solve all of our problems and make us whole.
In his essay, “How Romanticism Ruined Love,” Alain de Botton says, “We can at this point state boldly: Romanticism has been a disaster for our relationships. It is an intellectual and spiritual movement which has had a devastating impact on the ability of ordinary people to lead successful emotional lives. The salvation of love lies in overcoming a succession of errors within Romanticism. Our strongest cultural voices have—to our huge cost—set us up with the wrong expectations . . . .We’re surrounded by a culture that offers a well-meaning but fatally skewed ideal of how relationships might function. We’re trying to apply a very unhelpful script to a hugely tricky task.”
I think Alain de Botton is right. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with romantic love, but that we’ve zoomed in on it so close has blinded us to the bigger picture. Whether with a best friend or significant other, we expect it to be all snuggles and self-fulfillment, and think there’s something wrong with us if it takes work.
I’m not anti-romance. I still love a bouquet of roses and a shared bottle of wine. Our desire to be cherished is innate to our humanity, and we all deserve to be looked at with love and admiration. It’s just that when we fix our gaze on romance alone, we miss out on all of the other gifts that relationships can give us.