Romantic love in Western societies is often portrayed in a stereotypical way: two fiery halves, seeking each other to find their complete and original state. Few people find this happiness because it is a myth, dating from plato. In Greek mythology, the perfect lovers were brought together and cut in half. Love is therefore the desire of each part to find the other that is missing.
This myth persists in popular culture, romance stories, and romantic comedies. This affects our social identity, which for many is formed by stereotypical and scripted representations of relationships. Often, less consciously, we keep looking for our “missing half” – the ideal – but divorce rate attesting to why this ideal does not exist.
Nowadays, many people escape into the virtual world in search of the ideal relationship. Online dating, flirting, and sexting are often used as an antidote to loneliness, lack of privacy, and the painful experience of loss. In cyberspace, we can be who and what we want to be. This pleases us, but it seduces us and draws us into the imagination: the world of the unconscious where desires that we didn’t even know we had are immediately fulfilled in the virtual world.
It is easy to get addicted to this virtual world because real love cannot compete with it. For some, a return to reality is difficult, if not impossible, because increased internet addiction and online infidelity spectacle. This can lead to various emotional (stress, hopelessness, anger, pain) and behavioral (fighting, pornographic revenge, divorce, drug addiction, binge eating or not eating) reactions. The link between stress, a broken heart (love sickness), mental health (depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia) and physical health (exhaustion) is good documented.
Consequences of love
The long-term consequences are less well known, but one can guess. We know that the quality of our relationships and social circumstances can have profound influences on our brain.
Recent advances in epigenetics – a set of modifications to our genetic material that changes the way our genes are turned on and off without altering the genes themselves – suggest a link between social experiences, gene expression, neurobiological changes and behavioral variation. A growing body of evidence explains how the social environment enters our minds through epigenetic mechanisms and how these affect our offspring. In other words, the physical effects caused by our social experiences could be passed on.
If emotions, conscious thoughts and unconscious beliefs are indeed part of our social environment and influence our genes through epigenetic mechanisms, what are the possible long-term consequences of the myth of romantic love? If epigenetic processes play an important role in psychiatric disorders, and love sickness (broken hearts) can lead to mental health issues, can the two be linked? In the absence of longitudinal cohort studies, where the same group of people are observed over long periods of time, we just don’t know yet.
But we know that socially constructed the notions of romantic love and marriage constitute us. They start in early childhood and continue through adolescence and adulthood. Google “romantic love” and see what happens. We consciously and unconsciously develop expectations about our romantic relationships and try to fulfill them. When these notions are inaccessible, stress is inevitable. And the impact of stress on our immune system, heart and mental health is well documented.
It is high time that we stop chasing fictitious love. Acts of love are as diverse as the people who exchange them with each other. They are often banal but caring. If we break the myth of romantic love, we can start to have more realistic expectations of relationships and in turn lead happier, healthier lives.