It’s called Valentine’s Day, but much like Christmas or the Super Bowl, it is hardly a single-day event in America anymore. The diamond and lingerie companies now roll out ads in January, ensuring you’ll be properly shamed into buying their products by February 14, and then Hollywood bombards us with trailers for sappy holiday films. But I'm not here to bemoan the crass commodification of romantic love, the decline of the rom-com, or the prevalence of heteronormativity and Photoshopped beauty in advertising. My gripe is with love itself.
”What is love?” Haddaway famously asked. It’s a legitimate question. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that it was a survival tool that promoted interdependence and parental responsibility while also limiting exposure to STDs. Neurochemists have discovered it actually makes us high. Others think love is a hoax. Nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer believed that “love is an illusion like no other; it will induce a man to sacrifice everything he possesses in the world, in order to obtain this woman, who in reality will satisfy him no more than any other”—but it’s an essential illusion, tricking a man into thinking he's acting in his own interest when, in fact, he's helping preserve the species. American psychologist Robert Sternberg’s “triangular theory of love” posits that it’s simply the combination of three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. And M. Scott Peck, in his 1978 self-help classic The Road Less Traveled, argues that “falling in love” is not love but a “temporary” and “sex-linked erotic experience,” adding that...
...the myth of romantic love is a dreadful lie. Perhaps it is a necessary lie in that it ensures the survival of the species by its encouragement and seeming validation of the falling-in-love experience that traps us into marriage. But as a psychiatrist I weep in my heart almost daily for the ghastly confusion and suffering that this myth fosters. Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth.
Actual love, he writes, is based on a disciplined commitment to improving another person: “If I truly love another, I will obviously order my behavior in such a way as to contribute the utmost to his or her spiritual growth.” So who invented this pernicious, exhausting myth? Some blame it, predictably, on the French. Michael Delahoyde, aka “Dr. D.,” a “clinical associate professor” in Washington State University’s English Department whose faculty page is a work of art,1 describes it as “an artistic phenomenon or construct—a literary or performative innovation of the Middle Ages.” British sociologist Anthony Giddens, meanwhile, claims it didn’t take root until the late eighteenth century:
Romantic love introduced the idea of a narrative into an individual’s life…. The telling of a story is one of the meanings of ‘romance’, but this story now became individualised, inserting self and other into a personal narrative which had no particular reference to wider social processes. The rise of the romantic novel more or less coincided with the emergence of the novel: the connection was one of newly discovered narrative form.
A search for “love” in Google Books’ Ngram Viewer adds weight to his theory: Use of the word peaked in the mid-1800s, coinciding neatly with the height of the romance-obsessed Victorian novel.
But on this side of the pond, contrary to that graph, the conventional wisdom is that love peaked in the 1960s—specifically the “Summer of Love,” in 1967. I’ll even go so far as to pinpoint an exact day: July 7, 1967. That’s when Time magazine came out with a trippy cover featuring “The Hippies,” a subculture famous for practicing “free love,” and also when The Beatles released the single “All You Need Is Love.” Written to be a simplistic anti-war slogan that anyone in the world could understand, the song is nonetheless a perfect example of how love can render delusional an otherwise reasonable, intelligent human being like John Lennon. Its chorus is demonstrably untrue. Love is quite far down on the list of things that humans “need”—in fact, it's not on the list at all. Humans need oxygen, water, and food, in that order. Everything else is optional (though clothes and shelter are nearly essential, depending on the climate). Humans are perfectly capable of living an entire life without love. Squirrels don't love and they seem to be doing just fine.
Anyone who claims that “love is all you need,” like it’s some kind of panacea, is no better than a snake-oil salesman slinging a bogus elixir. Love is at least as harmful as it is beneficial. What’s odd is that our culture recognizes as much, and yet it venerates love while romanticizing the pain it can cause. Yes, we say, ”love hurts, love scars, love wounds,” but such are the risks. The thing is, falling in love is kind of awful, too! The symptoms are much the same as heartbreak: You can't eat because you’re permanently queasy, can't sleep when she’s not beside you, can't pay attention at work or think straight at all (I write and read books far less when I’m infatuated with someone), and you spend most of your time crafting overwrought emails, looking at photos of her, and stalking her social media accounts. We wax lyrical about how love makes fools of us, but there is nothing admirable about being a fool.
Love has certainly made a fool of me before—I have the passport stamps to prove it—but I can't say with certainty how many times I've fallen in love. Maybe five times, maybe twice, maybe never. This is exactly the problem with being "in love": It is the most subjective feeling in the human experience. "You'll know it when you feel it," people say. This is horseshit. I have been convinced several times of it, only for the feeling to fade (or be stomped out). Furthermore, several people who have told me “you’ll know” are no longer with the person who made them "feel it." The notion of “one true love,” that there is a single person in this world who you were meant to fall in love with, has mercifully fallen out of fashion—although less because it’s clearly an illogical fantasy and more because that would spell doom for many of us (what if your one true love happened to live in Papua New Guinea?). But “true love,” minus the “one,” somehow persists. It exists in opposition, apparently, to fleeting love—to flings, crushes, and affairs. But really it’s just another form of social elitism: If we believe we have found true love, we are better at life than those who have not.
This week you will see sad sacks on Twitter lamenting their lack of love. This passage from a recent Atlantic piece—about a study dismissing the existence of everlasting love, no less—exemplifies our culture’s attitude toward being loveless in February:
With Valentine's Day around the corner, many Americans are facing a grim reality: They are love-starved. Rates of loneliness are on the rise as social supports are disintegrating. In 1985, when the General Social Survey polled Americans on the number of confidants they have in their lives, the most common response was three. In 2004, when the survey was given again, the most common response was zero.
We all know that loneliness can kill you, but Schopenhauer makes the connection explicit, writing, “Intense love concentrated on one individual may develop to such a degree, that unless it is gratified all the good things of this world, and even life itself, lose their importance. It then becomes a desire, the intensity of which is like none other; consequently it will make any kind of sacrifice, and should it happen that it cannot be gratified, it may lead to madness or even suicide.” This is perhaps the most pessimistic interpretation of love that exists—one which, if believed, would suggest that many of us shouldn't even bother pursuing love, lest it kill us. I would not go nearly that far. I'm not opposed to romantic love, whether it be an actual feeling or a cultural construct (or both). Nor do I write this out of bitterness and brokenheartedness. I think W. B. Yeats’s “Never Give All the Heart” is one of the ugliest, most pathetic poems ever composed. And while I do enjoy spending a fair amount of time alone, I’m not foolish enough to believe that I’m happier now than I would be with someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. But let’s please stop, as a culture, pretending like there is nothing in the world quite like falling in love, and that we should aspire to finding it above all else. That’s not just an insult to the human experience. It’s an insult to life itself.