My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 147
Romantic love is a disease, a temporary madness. Obsessive, passionate, it makes us lose sleep and our appetite, it makes us crave another human being, sending us on a rollercoaster of violent feelings that range anywhere from elation to depression. It makes us do crazy things. Indeed, given its psychological profile, one might wonder why it hasn’t been classified as a mental disorder in the DSM-5.
Of course, romantic love is so commonplace that few stop to think of its pathological aspects. But what sort of thing is romantic love? I am not talking about the love for one’s parents, country, pet turtle, or chocolate. I mean instead the kind of love one finds between Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, Audre Lorde and Frances Clayton.
Philosophers, such as Robert Solomon and Berit Brogaard, psychologists, such as Phillip Shaver, Hillary Morgan, and Shelley Wu, as well as ordinary people, think that romantic love is an emotion. One reason for this is that emotions are felt. That is, there is a particular feeling to a given emotion. For instance, when we feel afraid, we feel small and wish the frightening thing disappeared. Since fear isn’t typically a pleasant emotion, it is considered to be "negative". On the other hand, when we feel joy, we feel excited, elated, and open to the world. Since it is enjoyable to feel joy, it is "positive". Certainly, romantic love can be felt. However, it is much harder to pinpoint a paradigmatic feeling of love, and characterize it as a positive or negative phenomenon. For it feels thrilling in an anticipation of a reunion, cozy when snuggling on the couch with popcorn and Netflix, deeply intimate when making love, being engrossed in a conversation, or facing adversities together. But it also feels painful and devastating if it is unrequited, agonizing when betrayed, perhaps even shameful when it is directed at someone whom the lover herself deems unworthy. The heterogeneity of the hedonic character of romantic love makes it misleading to identify it as a specific emotion.
It may be objected that emotions like anger and sadness can sometimes feel good, while amusement and pride may occasionally feel bad. However, these instances are exceptions to the rule. Yet, when it comes to romantic love, both positive and negative feelings are just as typical.
Indeed, the rich variety of feelings of romantic love can be explained by the fact that romantic love can be manifested in a number of different emotions: one is happy when the beloved arrives, sad having to separate, afraid of their disapproval, jealous when they give inordinate attention to someone else. All these emotions are manifestations of love. They are tied together into a complex whole. This suggests that romantic love is not just any one emotion but a pattern comprising countless disparate emotions.
"In addition to the rich variety of feelings and emotions of romantic love, there are also beliefs, desires, and actions that go with it. All these different behaviors and states of mind constitute the greater phenomenon of romantic love, showing that romantic love is not simply an emotion."
Is there a cap on their number? Are there emotions that are incompatible with being emotions of love? This question requires further investigation but it appears that even an emotion like hate can be an emotion of love: "I hate you because I love you" appears to be a perfectly intelligible utterance. "Odi et amo" says the Roman poet, Catullus.
In addition to the rich variety of feelings and emotions of romantic love, there are also beliefs, desires, and actions that go with it. All these different behaviors and states of mind constitute the greater phenomenon of romantic love, showing that romantic love is not simply an emotion. When in love, we experience intrusive thoughts about the beloved, fantasize about them, reminisce on the time spent together, obsess over every little gesture and phrase, wonder what they are doing right now, desire to be close to them, want to make love, wish to share meaningful experiences together. We do things because we love: we help them move or take care of them when they are sick. We may even lie, steal, and murder on their behalf. We may also deceive our beloveds to protect their feelings and insult them or even hurt them to make them see our point. The self-serving desires and hurtful actions produced by the love we feel show that love is not an intrinsically moral phenomenon. While attempting to justify one’s harmful actions by saying ‘I did it because I love you’ has little merit, it is evoked enough to render the expression and the pattern of behavior intelligible, and to some, even excusable.
It may be objected that emotions are comprised of components such as beliefs, desires, and actions. If so, romantic love may be an emotion after all. In fearing the collapse of the financial markets, one believes that the situation is unstable, one desires to protect oneself from the loss, one acts to protect one's savings to the best one can.
Even if we think of emotions in this way, romantic love still does not fit the profile. Each emotion has components but they are highly restricted. In fear, one may believe that the situation is dangerous, desire to flee, attempt to flee or freeze. But the beliefs, desires, and actions involved in romantic love are virtually unlimited. The unparalleled multifariousness of the ‘components’ of romantic love takes it beyond the category of emotions.
The complexity of romantic love and its diverse manifestations suggest that it is best categorized as a syndrome. A syndrome is a pattern of particular kinds of symptoms: thoughts, emotions, desires, and behaviors that tend to co-occur. What explains this co-occurrence? Clearly, romantic love has biological underpinnings. Perhaps these can explain its passionate and obsessive nature, the unique focus it places on the object of adoration. But the details of its meaning and practice are provided by cultural norms. This is evident from the fact that different cultures have different norms and attitudes with respect to romantic love. In the West, for instance, it is considered to be one of the most important experiences life can afford. It is often viewed as part of a larger script for a happy life in which participants advance through multiple stages such as meeting, dating, developing “feelings” for one another, becoming a couple, moving in together, getting married, and having children. On the other hand, cultures that continue to practice arranged marriages, believe that romantic love is too unstable a basis for such a serious social institution. Attitudes in those cultures may range from deeming romantic love an undesirable disruption of the social order to classifying it as a whimsical quirk that need not be taken seriously. The same view of love prevailed in Western culture up until late 18th century when it began making its way into the household and slowly becoming a basis for marriage. Furthermore, in our culture jealousy is considered a required proof of romantic love, while in the Mosuo culture it is regarded as ridiculous. Gender norms also influence the experience and the practice of romantic love. Heteronormativity dictates that males do the chasing and females play coy. Romantic love in our culture presupposes monogamy which demands emotional and sexual exclusivity between two people.
In addition to cultural variability in the symptoms of romantic love, diversity can also be found on the individual level. Some lose sleep, while others do not; some want to spend all the time together, others do not. These individual idiosyncrasies may in part be due to the person’s attachment style — a relationship style one acquires through the interactions with one’s mother or primary care giver in their infancy. These styles were first identified by an English psychologist, John Bowlby, in the 1960’s as secure, anxious-ambivalent, and anxious-avoidant. They explain the ways the lover feels and expresses love towards the beloved. They also explain the lover’s own needs and expectations towards the beloved’s behaviors and feelings. That is, the degree of emotional dependency, of closeness and intimacy, of involvement in shared activities, and the amount of attention dedicated to one another is in part determined by this very early experience. Indeed, it is plausible that mismatch in attachment styles — the misalignment of the partners’ romantic needs and expectations — is responsible for some of the relationship issues couples face.
At this point you may wonder whether my account of romantic love is paradoxical. On the one hand, I've said that romantic love is a madness, a disease that takes over one’s mind and body, holding one in its grip; on the other hand, that it is highly variable across cultures and among individuals. How can it be both so robust and so flexible at the same time?
"[Through] philosophical examination, the conclusion at which many polyamorists arrive is that our relationships can be enriched rather than impoverished by delighting in the pleasure our beloveds derive from having other relationships."
While the underlying obsessive passion is the driving mechanism that explains our being under its control, the idiosyncrasies of its symptoms point to its malleability. Indeed, one cannot voluntarily fall in and out of love. We may seek love, hope it will come into our lives. We may register on OkCupid, Tinder, or Bumble, attend singles’ nights at a local bar, or ask friends to set us up. But none of these actions are guaranteed to produce the desired amorous state. Likewise, we may avoid those for whom the heart aches but who do not return our passion. We may wish for the painful, inconvenient love to go away. But there is no pill, no method yet invented that would awaken love or extinguish it. In this way romantic love is like a condition that may or may not be desirable in certain circumstances, but which no amount of conscious effort can induce or terminate.
At the same time, the symptoms of romantic love, the thoughts, desires, emotions, actions through which it manifests itself, can be manipulated. This is evident from the positive effects psychotherapy and couples counseling may sometimes produce. But it is even clearer from the experiences of the members of sex-positive polyamorous communities. Manipulation and shaping of the love symptoms is achieved in part through reflection and critical examination of our feelings, desires, emotions, and actions we associate with romantic love. For instance, many people feel jealous of their partners: that unpleasant emotion is commonly considered to be an essential feature of romantic love. However, jealousy is susceptible to change once we begin to inquire into its nature and its role in our relationship: do I really feel that I am entitled to my beloved’s body and sexual desire? To her love? Can I be justified in thinking that she owes it to me or that I am making a legitimate claim on her sexuality and emotions? What do I lose by her being attracted to others? By her having other romantic affairs? What do I gain? Why think that commitment is best understood as sexual and emotional exclusivity? In what ways if any is my beloved’s sexual pleasure and unique and meaningful experiences she may have with others contrary to her loving me?
Through philosophical examination, the conclusion at which many polyamorists arrive is that our relationships can be enriched rather than impoverished by delighting in the pleasure our beloveds derive from having other relationships whether sexual, emotional, or both. Indeed, compersion — an emotion term that designates the feeling of pleasure derived from the thought of the pleasures the beloved experiences with others, has been making its way into our daily vocabulary.
It is clear then that the ideology of romantic love which dictates the feelings, emotions, beliefs, desires, and actions one should undertake while in the state of love, deeming them appropriate and “natural”, is not written in stone. While the underlying passion focuses our attention on our beloveds and makes us fixate on them, the ways in which we experience this passion, its manifestations through its multifaceted symptoms, can be affected by our judgment and effort. This is good news as one need not settle for the romantic dogma provided by society, family, religion, or peers. Rather, with some work and luck we can determine what our love should be like for ourselves. The choices we make about love’s ideology, the features we select to be central to it, make romantic love an authentic expression of who we are. Thus, the disease can be converted from an insufferable madness to a creative project, and even a work of art.