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Love is, inarguably, an important part of human nature. Love is how we connect to hobbies, interests, places, food, and even to people, whether that be parents, grandparents, cousins, or spouses. There are different forms of love—parental, fraternal, unconditional, religious, and romantic love. Falling in love is the goal of emotional and social development, and anything less is considered a dismal existence. But, why is that? Why do humans care about this type of romantic love so much?
One could argue that humans value romantic relationships more than any other relationship because of the urge to procreate. However, there are other ways of achieving this; romance wasn’t always the prevailing social sentiment in relationships and marriage. Prior to the 1800s, when romantic literature came about in Europe, romantic love was not widely sought. Before that, people bonded for survival, since strength in numbers was—and always will be—more advantageous than being alone. Marrying and forming relations was for procreating and building stable finances, not for “happily ever afters.”
This is why arranged marriages were so prevalent and still happen in today’s world. Plato, as well as other Ancient Greek Stoics, felt that the highest and most respectful form of love is sexless love between friends and family—also known as platonic love, in respect to his name.
In fact, until the 1800s, romantic love was considered a problem or a disease one contracted, like tuberculosis, because of the erratic things one’s passions made them do.
When families arranged for a couple to marry, it was often in an effort to combine farms and other resources, and a common fear was that one person in the arrangement would fall in love and elope with someone else. These actions could leave the family disgraced and in need of money, food, and a number of other essentials necessary for survival.
Perfect examples of literature warning against love are Shakespearean plays. Romantic love is featured in a lot of his famous works, arguably to point out the folly of one’s passions. Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet all explore what can happen when individuals follow their hearts instead of their brains—the end result is generally comedy or tragedy.
The Romantic era changed everything. Focusing on the passions of an individual—their love, feelings, etc.—made society suddenly focus on how everyone felt rather than what everyone needed to survive. Once the “happily ever after” message rolled in from the Romanticism movement, Hollywood took it and ran with it, selling everyone love. This is how romantic love became a staple of our media today.
In the article “A Brief History of Romantic Love and Why It Kind of Sucks,” Mark Manson writes, “Like most things in the media, the portrayal of love in pop culture is limited to the highlight reel. All the nuance and complexities of actual living through a relationship is swept away to make room for the exciting headline, the unjust separation, the crazy plot twist, and of course everyone’s favorite happy ending. Most of us have been so inundated by these messages throughout our entire lives that we have come to mistake the excitement and drama of romance for the whole relationship itself.”
So, according to Manson, once Hollywood got a hold of romantic love, it celebrated it into oblivion and placed it on a pedestal. Movies and shows focus on the most passionate, dramatic moments, and how the couple lives happily ever after instead of the real effort a romantic relationship takes to thrive and last.
This “highlight reel” is what everyone imagines when they think of love, what everyone desires when they say they want a relationship, and what society is so obsessed with.
This explains a lot about why romantic love has become the pinnacle of human relationships. For example, my niece, who is only four years old, already giggles about boyfriends and marriage, which are things I couldn’t even fathom at her age. These inclinations are strongly influenced by the shows and movies she watches: Princesses finding their princes or unlikely male heroes to fall for, scullery maids getting dolled up for a king, and Valentine’s Day cartoon specials all parade around and instill the idea of the importance of falling in love in my niece’s little head.
And you can’t forget about the gossip (yes, kids gossip) in her Head Start program. Maybe one of the little kids made a joke or was playing house and set the idea off in her mind. Or, maybe the notion came when a passerby joked about her breaking boys’ hearts when she gets older, despite her having no clue what that means. While it’s cute and light-hearted because she’s a kid, it also points out how soon the quest for romance is instilled and perpetuated in our society.
Romance is a strong part of our lives. It’s inundated in our media, our conversations, and our decisions when moving forward with our futures. That’s inarguable. But, it also makes you wonder: Where does that leave people who never have a long-term romantic partner, get married, or have kids? How does our view of romantic love’s fundamental importance affect them?
Regardless of reasoning, being single in today’s society is seen as somewhat of an oddity, despite the push for more acceptance among millennials to deemphasize the importance of having a romantic partner in life.
Basically, once puberty is done wrecking the body, people are expected to begin gaining romantic/sexual attention from others. The older you get, the more having a partner is anticipated by family, friends, and general society. It starts to become bizarre, weird, and pitiful the longer a human being is alone. This is to say nothing of sex and sexuality, which, for the purposes of this article, I won’t separate and differentiate.
The older you get without a long-term relationship and frequent sex with a romantic partner, the more you’re viewed as pitiful or shrewd. The viewpoint is worse for women as they get older than it is for men, of course. The terms “old shrew,” “spinster,” “cougar,” or “crazy cat lady” didn’t come from thin air, after all. If a woman isn’t in a relationship with anyone she is a spinster or a prude. If she’s experiencing frequent relations, but not in a serious relationship, she’s disrespected as well. These terms are regarded for women over 30 who have never been married and don’t have a romantic partner—typically, a husband or boyfriend—in their lives.
There is also a real danger to society by clenching onto romantic love. Abusive romantic relationships (or even unsatisfying ones) are an unfortunate side effect of human interaction. Some people even feel that being in an abusive or tumultuous relationship is better than being single. This is because the idea of that fairytale romance and marriage is so ingrained in us as a goal that we fear being alone, of being losers or weirdos because we don’t have anyone to share a bed with at night.
Numerous studies, like the one conducted by the University of Buffalo, show that being single or in a high-quality relationship is more beneficial for one’s health than ever being in an unsatisfying or abusive one. This isn’t to say that romance shouldn’t be pursued at all. It, like familial love, is a part of human nature, and should not be stamped out or suppressed just as it was in the ancient world.
But, we also shouldn’t laud romance and sex above all else and reject the notion that someone can find fulfillment in life in other ways.
Perhaps it is better to make a slight detour from the quest for romance. It works out exceedingly well for some, but it doesn’t work out well for others. A man in his 50s or 60s shouldn’t feel obligated to find love and get married just because it is more socially acceptable. A businesswoman in her 20s or 30s should not feel an expectation to put her career on hold in order to marry and raise a family. Our views on romantic love are a little warped and a lot obsessive.
As a society, our definition of a successful life should be expanded to include the worth of other relationships that can be just as fulfilling as a romantic one. The love of parents, siblings, friends, and yes, even the desire for personal success, are all just as worthwhile as romance. The focus on finding a permanent romantic partner should be expanded to include maintaining positive friendships and familial relationships. We’re not expected to focus the majority of our time and effort cooking and perfecting one dish, are we? So why are we all expected to wholly focus on one type of relationship for the majority of our lives?
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