The Western concept of romantic love is appalling and causes a lot of damage. There are days when I want to go back in time and kick Eleanor of Aquitaine’s ass. 
Here are the ideas that I see are most common, and ideas I think are about as unproductive as can be.
This idea is first because it is the absolute worst. Do I enjoy romantic passion? C’mon, I’m polyamorous. Of course I do! The crucial thing to remember is that obsessive passion simply is not love. It’s a chemical reaction. Is it fun? Sure. But it’s as addictive as caffeine, cocaine or any other stimulant you might care to think of. Basing a life decision on it is foolish. And have I been such a fool? Of course I have! Haven’t we all? Love, real love, has almost nothing to do with either emotion or chemicals. And for all that the whole polyamorous “It’s not about the sex” mantra frustrates the living soul out of me, there is one thing that is correct: love is not about sex.
Love as defined as romantic passion is forever, and if it goes away, then it must be that it was not True Love.
No. I sometimes wonder if when in the initial throes of romantic passion if love is even possible. You see, one of the issues of romantic passion is a perceived dissolution of ego boundaries. You’ve probably all heard the phrase “I and my beloved are one.” The thing is, that when the chemicals that cause romantic passion go away, the ego boundaries snap back into place. Lotta people don’t like when this happens and will often go rushing off for the new high – that new feeling of “oneness”, without stopping to examine what the natural stages of a mature relationship are or can grow into.
The person to person adult love is only possible in a “self” to “self” – a relationship in which you no longer have that addictive need for your partner. If you’re addicted to the romantic high, you’ve actually objectified your partner and turned him/her into a commodity. Can you love (as in have a personal relationship with) coffee or cocaine? No, but you might find the withdrawal unpleasant when you cannot get it. “It” is the operative word here. You love people. Once you turn that person into an “it” or a thing, love isn’t even possible.
I am not at all trying to assert that you must be unemotional and passionless to love. In a healthy, fulfilling person to person adult relationship, there will be play, laughter, tears, snuggling, lovemaking and all those things that humans do to be close. Anyone who has had a long term relationship of the sort I am describing will still feel warmed by a particular look in his partner’s eyes, will still find the warmth of his touch exciting – all of that I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t care whether or not you keep the relationship. Of course you care! That’s the point! It’s just that the ego boundaries will be firmly in place, you each will respect and even honor each others’ individuality, and you’re not panicked at losing your “fix”. You won’t panic if something happens and the relationship goes away.
Romantic Passion is a good basis for choosing life partners.
Choosing a romantic partner whose values are very different from your own is going to make for a bad life partnership. Now I want to differentiate between values and tastes. If you like free-form jazz and your partner prefers baroque, or you like Indian cuisine and your partner prefers steak and potatos, it a matter of taste, not values. I also want to make it clear that when I say values, I do not necessarily mean “morality.” There are people whose personal values are such that they set their careers above all else in their lives. This is neither moral nor immoral, but a matter of what that person… values. Values can include morality, of course. My values are such that I would not be able to have a successful relationship with a serial killer.
A successful life partnership will be with someone whose values are similar to yours. Note that I said “similar”, because after all, love occurs between individuals. Individuals will have differences. If you could quantify it (which you really cannot, other than a very rough approximation), you might want to say that you don’t want more than a 15% variation from your own values. Any more than that, and that relationship will really only feel good as long as the chemistry lasts.
Interestingly enough, when the idea of courtly love as we know it started, it was never intended to be a life partnership such as a marriage. By its very nature, it was supposed to be adulterous, and having nothing to do with the duties and obligations attendant upon the noble marriage relationship. Even in the stories of Guinevere and Lancelot, the whole thing fell apart when they attempted to move in together.
Okay, so here I go on about what ain’t love. So what is love?
In spite of my deep love of the book Stranger in a Strange Land, I have to admit that Jubal Harshaw’s definition, “Love is that condition in which the happiness of the other person is essential to your own” is a bit off base. You see, I could love someone who has a mental illness such as depression, and while loving that person deeply, might still be happy myself.
I like M. Scott Peck’s version a lot better — “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Do notice that the way Peck expressed that. He did not say “oneself”. He said, “one’s self”. This is an important distinction. Selfhood, individuality and self-ownership are very important to the exercise of (if you will excuse the expression) true love. You cannot love someone else until you have a fairly solid sense of your own self.
Love is also a choice. This is where it differs quite a bit from romantic passion. Have any of you fallen hard for someone you wish you hadn’t? (I have in the past). But when it’s love, when you’re there willing to extend yourself for that person’s spiritual growth, you find yourself making conscious choices. You also find yourself setting personal boundaries such that you’re in a position to be more capable of investing yourself in another’s personal growth as needed. As the other person decides he needs you, and you decide you can give, mindja. I don’t suppose anyone who has read my stuff thinks I’m into that “for your own good” nonsense in an adult relationship.
 Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the principal architects of the whole “Courtly Love” tradition, from which we Westerner have drawn many of our ideas of love and romance. In fact the word “romance” itself comes from the narrative poems about chivalric heroes and their ladies.
 “And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.” Granny Weatherwax in Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett. (And you can stop that damned eyerolling. Pratchett is a very wise man, and the character of Esme Weatherwax is actually a pretty loving person).
 As in social class nobility. Peasants didn’t have time for all that stuff.
10 thoughts on “On the Nature of Love”
First: I think you mean “dissolution” rather than “disillusion” in the paragraph that begins “No. I sometimes wonder…”
Second: Yes. But this one is easier for me, perhaps, given that most of the time, I get to know people before I fall in love with them. From another angle: if it’s love, you aren’t just having hot sweaty fun between the sheets, you’re taking care of each other when things aren’t going so well, and sometimes getting in the way of planned or expected sexy or romantic time together.
I love Terry Pratchett.
It has taken me many years, and many failed relationships, to come to the understanding of what you wrote about here. I just wanted to say “Thank You” for writing it.
Thanks. Bad as sex education is in this country, love education is even worse.
Thanks for pointing out the misspelling, Vicki! I fixed it.
Exceptionally well-said. I stand up and cheer “Brava!!” for this one. Thank you for posting it. 🙂
Oh WOW, these are exactly my thoughts, but way more eloquently expressed than I have done so far. I was interviewed by a Swedish newspaper a week ago on “finding the Right Person” and I talked about this. I used the words “we need to de-romanticise love”.
Having a fling on the basis of intense passionate sexual attraction can work, but a relationship based on it is pretty doomed. You’ll either be in a constant state of agony from insecurity, trying to make yourself into what you think the other wants, or be frustrated that the person isn’t what you wish they were.
And hey, Pratchett rocks, and Granny Weatherwax is a true role model.:-)
Very well put. And as much as I admire Heinlein and have always liked that definition, I think you might be onto something here.
And don’t let them give you any flack for Granny Weatherwax, either. She had a lot of wisdom, that one.
“obsessive passion simply is not love. It’s a chemical reaction.”
I’m pretty darned sure love is a chemical reaction too. Not many things that occur in the human mind aren’t.