If love isn’t a magical force predestined by the universe, then what is it?
Who doesn’t love The Princess Bride? It’s one of those rare movies that cut across gender and genre lines thanks to the powerful combination of pirates, young Fred Savage’s aversion to kissing scenes, the word “princess” being right there in the title, and love. True love. You want romance? Sure! You want comedy? There you go. You want swashbuckling adventure? Got it. You want an uplifting affirmation of the power of love? Yep. The Princess Bride is the movie for you.
Pew Research does polls. You probably hear about them the most during election years, but they actually keep up with things that are waaaaaay more consequential than who the next president is going to be.
They poll for American attitudes about marriage, sometimes with surprising results. For example, it turns out that Americans, by more than 2-1 (69%), don’t believe that there’s a single, special, “one true love” for everyone. Huh. That strikes me as really weird. What about the wuv, twoo wuv, of The Princess Bride! For that matter, think of all the other books, TV shows, and movies that tell us there’s one special someone, a soulmate, for everyone.
The notion of a soulmate is almost as ubiquitous as the notion that love is the most important reason to get married, which, it turns out, we do believe (by the whopping margins of 93% among married folks and 84% among those who are unmarried).
At first, it struck me as odd that a concept that’s such a strong part of our culture—the idea of a soulmate—is so heavily doubted. What draws us to the idea of a soulmate? Why does society push the notion of having one true love on us if, collectively, we don’t actually believe such a thing exists?
Based on nothing but an offhand supposition, I’m going to suggest that it’s because we know how important love is (at least to the 93% of married folks who think it’s the most important part of their marriage), but we’re not sure what it is. Most of us can recall times that we thought we were in love with someone only to find out that the relationship wasn’t what we expected. We know we want to love the person we marry and have had previous marriages or other romantic relationships end when what we thought was love didn’t pan out the way we expected. So we’ve gone on to find someone else. Love is important, but complicated. Soulmates are timelessly appealing because they’re simple, but they don’t jive with our actual experiences of such a complicated concept.
In the last week or so, we’ve published a few articles about people grappling with what love is and how it relates to their marriages. In one article, the author realized he’d lied to himself about loving the woman he’d married after he became aware of how little they had in common. In another article, the author had to face the fact that ending his marriage was the most loving thing he could do for his wife because his love for her was different from the love he would feel for a partner. In a third, the author described how the decisions and actions she took on a daily basis define her love for her husband—even when the circumstances seem to dictate a feeling very different from love.
Of course, each of the articles had far more nuance than I can recap here and I’d encourage you to read them for yourself. At their core, each piece implied a different assumption about what their authors meant when they talked about the love they held for their spouse.
All this thinking about whether people are in love with their partners and whether that love means their marriage should remain intact has got me wondering: if we think love is the basis of marriage (and it is, according to this unscientific selection of articles and the 93% of the married people scientifically polled by Pew), and if we don’t think it’s a mystical, cosmic, Princess-Bride-type force uniting two souls (and 69% of us don’t according to Pew), what exactly do we mean when we talk about love between spouses?
Here are some ideas:
- Love is a feeling you get where you’d do anything for your spouse—where you value them more than you do yourself. It’s what you feel when you genuinely want the best for another person. So, you love someone when you hope things go well for them and when you’re willing to sacrifice your own needs to meet theirs.
- Love is the heady feeling you get where you can’t think of anything but the person you’re in love with. So, you love someone when you’re so head over heels that they consume your thoughts.
- Love is the feeling you get where you want to have sex with a particular person more than any other particular person. So, love is physical attraction, desire, or lust.
- Love is social contract between two people that involves making regular decisions to do what’s necessary to face the world as a team. So, this would mean you love someone when you’ve made an agreement to work and live together regardless of the difficulties.
- Love is a biochemical reaction that has evolved to bond individuals together for mutual self-preservation and an enhanced chance at successful reproduction.
Enough people are going to read this that I can confidently state that each item on this list will have at least one person out there read it and identify strongly with it, while dismissing at least one other item as superfluous, absurd, or immoral. But here’s the real kicker: I bet the five definitions of love that I came up with based on a few minutes of contemplation and a minimal amount of research on Google don’t even begin to enumerate all the ways people define the love that makes their marriages work (or not work, as the case may be).
This emotion provides the foundation for 93% of the marriages in America. We spend billions of dollars watching people act out various incarnations of love in movies and on TV. We spend countless hours reading stories and articles about people’s experiences of love. We talk about falling in love, making love, being in love, and falling out of love. We have a holiday dedicated to love (that’s Valentine’s Day, for anyone who’s stumped) and most couples try to celebrate the anniversary of their love. Some people even say that God is love.
What exactly do we mean by it? What do you mean by it? And how can we have purposeful loves, much less purposeful marriages, without a clear idea of what love means? We clearly wish it was as simple as having a soulmate predestined by the universe, but most of us don’t believe that to be true. For myself, I think married love needs all five of the forms above in varying degrees and at different times. And I’d bet that sometimes couples may need to lean heavily on just three or four to get through the lean times.
Toss your comments into the ring! What does love mean to you? And, if you like, submit an article about it (you can email submissions to [email protected]).
Image: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com/Flickr