Changing How the World Thinks

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Dispelling the dangerous myths of love

Why the happily ever after fantasy may be harmful

dangerous myths of love sara protasi

True love. Everybody wants it and nobody really knows what it is. Ask around, and you will get a lot of different answers. However, put those answers together, mix in selected literary classics, add a dash of pop culture and a sprinkle of internet memes, and you get roughly the following ideal: true love is loving and being loved forever by someone who cherishes you more than anything else.

We can break down this ideal to a few central tenets.

First, there is the surprisingly ancient idea that true love is about ‘finding the One’, the person we are destined to be with, our other half. We wander on the earth looking for the one person who can complete us. In this fatalistic way of approaching true love, true love is rare, insofar as it is bound with luck and uniqueness. This conception is usually appealing to younger idealistic people, although we might wonder if it’s going extinct in the era of polyamory.

True love, in this framework, is about loving a person notwithstanding their changes through time and loss of attractive qualities.

While uniqueness is typical of romantic love, a second feature, unconditionality, goes well beyond the marriage vows of “for better and for worse” and extends to all kinds of love. The allegedly purest love—maternal love—is the paradigm of unconditional love. But there are two different senses in which love can be unconditional.

The first sense we can call resiliency: love is expected to be resilient in the face of changes, especially negative changes in the beloved. True love—according to this ideal—does not look for upgrades, and rejects substitutions: “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds”, as Shakespeare puts it in one of his sonnets. Thus, we should keep loving our friends, even when we grow different. We should keep loving our ageing partners, rather than chase younger ones. We should keep loving our children, even if they turn out to be assholes, or mass murderers. True love, in this framework, is about loving a person notwithstanding their changes through time and loss of attractive qualities, whether that be beauty, youth, wealth, or even moral character.

Resiliency is often connected with the second sense in which love can be unconditional, which we can call selflessness: love is supposed to be about caring for the well-being of the beloved above and beyond one’s own. The epitome of this ideal is that of the ever-giving mother. But self-sacrifice is seen as a sign of true love in other domains as well.

A further component of the ideal of true love is reciprocity. This is especially the case in the context of chosen loves, like romantic and friendly love. It is also a more distinctively modern ideal; unrequited love used to be seen in a more favorable light, judging by the masterpieces that celebrated it. Now, it tends to be dismissed as stalking, or unhealthy obsession.

An ever-lasting blissful reciprocated unconditional selfless love is not what we should aspire to.

Finally, true love should involve eternal bliss. Fables ending with “happily ever after” retain their charm even as divorces are the norm, not the exception. If true love is unconditional, then why would it ever end? If it is reciprocated, and each lover puts the other above oneself, why would it not be happy? There might be initial struggles, temporary misunderstandings, missed connections. But true love defeats all obstacles, and keeps at bay loneliness. It annihilates sadness, assuages anger, renders jealousy superfluous, and is incompatible with envy.

The cynical reader at this point will blurt out that all of this is impossible to attain. An illusion. A deception. An impossible dream. That we should be content with love that is free of outright egoism, blatant contempt, unabashed betrayal, futile pining. That parents have children for narcissistic reasons; that children treat their parents poorly and do not repay their sacrifice; that many friendships are based on reciprocal interest; that romantic love is born of the evolutionary need to raise immature offspring and is not meant to last a life time.

But, while the cynic is right to point out that most ideals of true love are unrealistic and thus damaging in holding people to impossible expectations, that is not the critique I wish to move here. Rather, I intend to suggest that these are not ideals worth having. They are myths, (sub)urban legends. An ever-lasting blissful reciprocated unconditional selfless love is not what we should aspire to.

Start with soulmates again. It might be the case that, phenomenologically speaking, when we truly love someone, we develop a shared identity with them—we think in terms of “we” as opposed to “I”. In romantic love, sexual intimacy increases this sense of communion, but even in the parent-child love we see the same compulsion. In breastfeeding, cuddling, playful wrestling, and sleeping together, parents attempt to become one with their young children. But that’s not a feature of love that we should wish to have all the time.

Truly loving someone may mean accepting that they will never love you back.

Developmental psychology has taught us that healthy attachment requires and produces healthy boundaries, and that a nurturing parent knows when to step aside and let their child go explore the world on their own. Relationship therapists give the same advice to troubled spouses: there can’t be desire without distance. Similarly, doing something nice for another person does not make much sense if I see the other person as a part of me.

A more attractive conception of soulmates is alluded to in the TV show Six Feet Under: a soulmate is “the person who forces your soul to grow the most”. The idea that true love is essentially tied to the growth of one’s soul is as old as the idea that soulmates are perfect halves of a soul. Indeed, both notions appear in Plato’s Symposium. The highest form of erotic love, for Plato, requires transcending the particularity of actual embodied beings in order to grasp Truth and Beauty, in rigorously capital letters. More generally, for many ancient philosophers one cannot be truly happy and cannot truly love without also banishing vice from one’s life. Happily ever after, assuming it can be achieved in one’s lifetime, is never about feeling good, but is about having a healthy soul.

And having a healthy soul, finding someone who forces our soul to grow, is hard work. It is sometimes crushingly arduous work. It may involve getting angry with those we love, pushing them to be better, or envying them for their success and thus becoming motivated to emulate them. It may require being away from them for long periods of time, or even never being in a relationship with them. Truly loving someone may mean accepting that they will never love you back.

True love, then, need not be long-lasting, reciprocated, or void of negative emotions and unpleasant feelings.

True love, then, need not be long-lasting, reciprocated, or void of negative emotions and unpleasant feelings. It is also debatable that it should be unconditional. If true love can end, then it better end for good reasons. If our soul is withering and wilting in a loving relationship, then perhaps we have reason to stop loving (even though we may still have obligations of care, as in the case of an abusive but sick and frail parent).

The ideal of true love may also turn out to be ideals, plural. Different souls require different conditions to flourish: the sturdier ones might withstand, or even require, stronger winds and longer droughts. More delicate ones might need milder climates and shelter from the elements. Some, then, might indeed experience true love as if they fell into a Hallmark movie, while others, in my view most of us, will do better to look for love—and truth, and beauty—in the stranger, messier places that humans live in.

If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

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