I have spent much of the past 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, my interviewees often shoot straight to romantic love. This is partly down to the inadequacy of our language: that small word has to do a lot of heavy lifting. But it is also because of the multibillion-pound industry that has convinced us the search for “the one” is the be-all and end-all. Mention love and that’s where we immediately go.
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 have spoken to people from different backgrounds who have made me rethink our acceptance of romantic love as the dominant narrative. For some it is not a priority, for others it is a restrictive stereotype, while for others it can be a source of risk. As Valentine’s Day comes round again maybe it’s time for a different perspective.
Human love is a special thing, unique in its longevity and the sheer number of beings we are capable of loving. We can love our family, our friends, our lovers. We can also love across the species boundary and the spiritual divide. And as AI romps ahead it may be that one day we can find love with an avatar or robot.
In part, writing my book was driven by a desire, born of a decade of research, to get us to re-engage with and celebrate the different types of love in our lives. All forms of love carry the same joys and benefits as romantic love. In some cases, such as with our best friends, the love we have for them can be more emotionally intimate and less stress inducing than any we have with a lover.
Demographic data shows that the downgrading of romantic love is, to some extent, already happening. 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 people believe in “the one”.
This change is particularly striking for women. Go back 100 years and your survival was predicated on finding a man who would support you and your inevitable brood of children. But with emancipation and the arrival of contraception women can choose not to partner themselves to anyone else and can remain happily child-free.
Instead, they can build loving relationships with other people and beings who are capable of fulfilling all their needs. Relationships, science shows us, are underpinned by the same biological and psychological mechanisms and are as beneficial to health and wellbeing as romantic love. Any hierarchy of importance is a cultural construct.
Even when we consider romantic love there is a spectrum of opportunity beyond monogamy which we rarely acknowledge. At one end are the aromantics who do not experience romantic love. It shows how far we have swallowed the romantic love narrative that they are characterised as being cold and unloving. But my aromantic interviewees do not lack love. They have full and loving lives, with family, friends, even queer platonic partners with whom they may have children. Their main issue is navigating a world where every person, every media outlet appears to be obsessed with romantic love.
At the other end of the spectrum are the polyamorists. A group who experience romantic and sexual love with more than one partner. Again, the all-pervasive narrative of romantic love has led us to depict those who practise polyamory in a less than favourable light. They are characterised as being promiscuous, immoral, untrustworthy and dissatisfied.
But to be successful, polyamorous relationships have to be based on trust, truth and open communication. They are moral because love for another is openly acknowledged rather than hidden in the secret of an affair. And while people can stay in monogamous relationships because of the legal ties that bind them, polyamorists recommit to their relationships every day.
The power of the romantic narrative to drive dating behaviour and commerce is clear but it may also have darker consequences. In 2017 the testimony of 15 women regarding intimate partner violence (IPV) was published. It was clear that one of the issues 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’re being abused). Love is about losing control, being swept off your feet, having no say in who you fall for (even if they are violent). Lovers protect each other, fight for each other to the end (even against the authorities who are trying to protect you). It is interesting to contemplate the power of our words. We speak without thinking but the stories we tell our children have consequences.
Perhaps when ones survival, social standing and acceptance is predicated on coupling up, the obsession with romantic love is understandable. And it will always have a place in the spectrum of love. But we can experience love in so many different ways that we underestimate, even neglect. We are missing out on so much.
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 commercial invention that has run its course and that we need to embrace all the opportunities for love in our lives to fully experience what it is to be human. It’s time for an inclusive celebration of love rather than an exclusive one. Time for a rebrand.