Words by Jada Phillips
Love is an essential element of the human experience. Countless songs, poems, movies, books, plays and art have all featured it as its focus. It is the unifying force that goes beyond logic, languages, religions, culture, borders and time.
Romantic love is particularly significant as people make their most important life decisions or form their personal values around it, like buying a house with someone or who somebody will raise their kids with. Despite the common thread of love that dominates our experience as humans, there is still very little consensus or understanding on what it actually is. If anything, love is made to be some mystical force that shouldn’t be understood. Trying to quantify or define it would make it lose its enchantment. Love is love. It is meant to be felt.
However, many have sought to explain it through various lenses. The first understanding of love is through biology. Dr. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist and human behaviour researcher who has led much of the research into the biological functions of love. In her work, she has found that love is a mechanism of evolution developed in the brains of mammals for the purpose of mating, reproducing and parenting. These internal motivation systems are lust, attraction and attachment.
Humans develop an increased focus or an attraction on a preferred mating partner. Attraction in romantic love manifests as feeling ‘butterflies’, constantly thinking about the person of romantic interest or desiring an emotional connection. Once a romantic attachment is formed, people report feelings of calm, security and comfort. Lust has evolved to motivate people to seek sexual gratification and further sustain the romantic bond that has been formed to have children. All the while people experience love, our brains release chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin and adrenaline to motivate our romantic behaviours.
While it is true that much of the feelings of romantic love can be explained by biology, not all of it can be completely explained. The very essence of love cannot be reduced down to hormones and brain activity. All humans are born with their specific DNA and consciousness, but our very soul, our truest selves can never be explained by science.
More importantly, people have evolved differently for their specific needs. People have various heights, skin colours and eye shapes. Can’t love differ for people as well? While the scientific explanation of romantic love relies on the end goal of mating and producing offspring. Not everybody has evolved to express love heterosexually or monogamously, nor with the desire of having children. As Dr. Carrie Jenkins, a Canadian philosopher wrote in her book ‘What Love Is: And What It Could Be’, “If we didn’t set out by assuming that love was originally all about “male-female” reproductive coupling, then we wouldn’t later need to backtrack to try and accommodate queer love as some kind of deviation.” For asexual individuals, they are capable of falling in love with very little sexual interest.
Another understanding of love is through social constructionist theories that argue love is a product of society and culture. Many pillars in our societies are socially constructed like laws, money and countries. Just because something is socially constructed does not negate the very real consequences it has on our lives. Similarly with love, as a social construction, it serves a specific purpose at a specific time and place. Romantic love takes on a specific social function that differentiates it from all other types of love. The cultural norms and practices dictate what true romantic love looks like.
For example, the upper class of Victorian England’s conception of love was a largely asexual admiration or devotion for their partner following Christian values. French structuralists have argued for example that the French language heavily impacts people’s understanding of their romantic love as it is based on the language in which they use to talk about their relationships. Before the 4th century, Ancient Greeks believed that the only worthy romantic love was between men. Much of the inscriptions on vases from between 500 – 400 BC feature men as the love interest. These constructions of love cannot be explained by a scientific theory of evolution, rather a change of normative cultural values. We as people literally construct romantic love by being in love.
Social constructionist conceptions of love are all encompassing as society literally creates the definition of love, social norms still place any ‘alternative’ love, like polyamory, in the peripheral of the hegemonic. Being in true romantic love is still mostly seen as a heterosexual couple falling in love, marrying, getting a home with a white picket fence and building their nuclear family.
As love plays such a fundamental role in our human experience, there are of course implications of being in love. Love and all its forms has become fodder for political debate. Political philosopher Michael Hardt notes, “The modern concept of love is almost exclusively limited to the bourgeois couple and the claustrophobic confines of the nuclear family.”
This bourgeois couple represents traditional love and more greatly, conservative values. Those who love certain people or love in a different way are scapegoats for a political campaign. The politicisation of love is at its core the politicisation of those in love.
With all of the onerous expectations and politicisation of love, some people have chosen to forgo the social conventions of love entirely. The free love movement was made popular in the 1960s as a social movement to promote the ‘free union of adults’. Free love was a radical ideal of being able to give and receive love in whatever way was most authentic to them without any constraints. Romantic and sexual matters were meant to be free from state intervention and conservative social or legal values.
Love has been argued as a continuation of human evolution, as a function of society, as a tool for political ideals or an opportunity to fight back societal expectations. Love is both all of these things at once and something else entirely. Love represents the best and worst of humankind. The mystique of love is that it is completely dependent on the person in it. Love is whatever we choose to define, practice and receive it as.