I have spent much of the last decade talking to people about love. I make it clear that any type of love is a welcome topic, but when I ask what love is, people often shoot straight for romantic love. This is partly due to the inadequacy of our language: this small word must do a lot of work. But it’s also because of the multi-billion pound industry that has convinced us that the search for “the one” is the be-all and end-all. Mention love and that’s where we go immediately.
But does this obsession with romantic love still reflect the lives we lead? In my new book, Why We Love: The New Science Behind Our Closest Relationships, I spoke to people from different backgrounds who made me rethink our acceptance of romantic love as the dominant narrative. For some it is not a priority, for others it is a constraining stereotype, while for others it can be a source of risk. As Valentine’s Day returns, it might be time to take a different perspective.
Human love is a special thing, unique in its longevity and the number of beings we are capable of loving. We can love our family, our friends, our lovers. We can also love across the boundary of species and spiritual division. And as AI progresses, we may one day find love with an avatar or a robot.
In part, writing my book was motivated by a desire, born out of a decade of research, to get us to re-engage and celebrate the different types of love in our lives. All forms of love provide the same joys and benefits as romantic love. In some cases, like with our best friends, the love we have for them can be more emotionally intimate and less stressful than anything we have with a lover.
The demographics show that the downgrading of romantic love is, to some extent, already underway. Figures from the Office for National Statistics and Relate show that by 2039 one in seven people in the UK will be living alone and today only one in six believe in ‘the one’.
This change is particularly striking for women. Go back 100 years and your survival depended on finding a man who would support you and your inevitable brood of children. But with emancipation and the advent of contraception, women can choose not to associate with anyone else and can remain happily childless.
Instead, they can establish loving relationships with other people and be able to meet all of their needs. Relationships, science shows us, are underpinned by the same biological and psychological mechanisms and are as beneficial to health and well-being as romantic love. Any hierarchy of importance is a cultural construct.
Even when we consider romantic love, there is an array of opportunities beyond monogamy that we rarely acknowledge. At one end are the aromantics who know no romantic love. It shows how much we have swallowed the romantic love narrative that they are characterized as being cold and loveless. But my aromantic interviewees are not lacking in love. They have full and loving lives, with family, friends, even platonic queer partners with whom they can have children. Their main problem is navigating a world where every person, every medium seems to be obsessed with romantic love.
At the other end of the spectrum are polyamorists. A group that experiences romantic and sexual love with more than one partner. Again, the pervasive narrative of romantic love has led us to portray those who practice polyamory in a less than favorable light. They are characterized as promiscuous, immoral, untrustworthy and dissatisfied.
But to be successful, polyamorous relationships must be based on trust, truth, and open communication. They are moral because the love for the other is openly acknowledged rather than hidden in the secrecy of an affair. And while people may stay in monogamous relationships because of the legal ties that bind them, polyamorists recommit to their relationships every day.
The power of romantic narrative on dating behaviors and commerce is clear, but it can also have darker consequences. In 2017, the testimonies of 15 women concerning domestic violence (IPV) were published. It was clear that one of the problems with IPV was the stories these women had heard about what love was. Love overcomes all obstacles and must be maintained at all costs (even when you are abused). Love is about losing control, being swept away, having no say in whoever you fall for (even if they are violent). Lovers protect each other, fight for each other to the end (even against the authorities trying to protect you). It is interesting to contemplate the power of our words. We talk without thinking but the stories we tell our children have consequences.
Perhaps when survival, social status, and acceptance hinge on mating, the obsession with romantic love is understandable. And it will always have a place on the spectrum of love. But we can experience love in so many different ways that we underestimate, even overlook. We miss so many things.
Maybe it’s time to admit that for a significant number of people, romantic love is no longer the ultimate goal, that Valentine’s Day is a business invention that has had its day and that we must embrace all the loving opportunities in our lives to fully experience what it is to be human. It’s time for an inclusive rather than exclusive celebration of love. It’s time to change the name.