Society & Culture: What’s Love got to do with it?

My students at Wilmington College, who are mostly in the non-traditional category, must wonder if I am serious or kidding when I say, “two words I avoid using in English are love and happiness.” Some of them laugh, some of them put frowns on their faces, and others probably don’t know how to react. Surely, they all think I am unusual in this regard.

I need to explain why I would make such a seemingly ludicrous statement. In this essay I am going to focus on love; in another I’ll tackle the pesky word happiness. Countless books have been written on the topic of love, and this is in addition to the almost infinite number of books, both in fiction and non-fiction, that come under the category of love stories.

The Greeks can be credited with the first important exploration in Western Civilization of the concept. They identified three categories of love: Eros, Philia and Agape. Eros deals with physical love demonstrations and sex; Philia deals with love of others and is the basis for friendship; Agape is the concept of love as a pure ideal and the basis for brotherhood. These brief descriptions are admittedly very simple ones; if you are interested in exploring this matter in more depth, there is plenty available out there.

Anyone who has taken even a mild interest in Medieval History knows that the concept of love was developed in the High Middle Ages of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. Love became an ideal that would have made, I suspect, Plato quite happy (let’s see, maybe I should say content). Once the concept got firmly established in the broad culture of the West, there was no way to eradicate it. We are still dealing with the effects of that concept today, a long time after rational and scientific thinking emerged.

So, you, the reader, might be wondering, what is the problem with love? Well, I can think of plenty of problems with this word. One of the difficulties I have is in knowing where to start, especially since I am interested in the contemporary connotations of the word, not the historic ones. When I am not sure how to start, I have found the best way to proceed is simply to select a sub-topic and dig in.

The place I am going to start, perhaps to get it over with, is the connection between love and sexual relations. It is important to make an important disclaimer here:  I am a heterosexual male (this is intended to be simply a fact, and does not have any deeper implications), but I am accepting of any kind of close relationship between consenting adults. I am accustomed to making the effort to consider every other perspective out there, but I will admit that I cannot reasonably do this. If I suggest that a woman’s perspective might be such-and-such, I know some readers will immediately think, ‘He’s a man, so he couldn’t possible understand a woman’s perspective on this matter.’ I won’t argue that point. Besides, I am an Existentialist; that implies I don’t know anyone else’s perspective other than my own.

Now, I will press on. There is plenty of literature available explaining why men to not necessarily have any emotional connection with sex. Some of the discussion gets rather scientific, but is nonetheless interesting. The real question is, does one have to have some sense of ‘love’ for the other person in order to have sex? Of course, this begs the question of what love means itself. The answer to that question should be obvious, but I understand that there are countless attitudes about it.

I have spent the last two years studying paleoanthropology (one of my hobbies is studying deeply things that I find highly interesting). That is a truly fascinating topic, one that I will surely write essays on at some point. If I just focus on modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, then we have at least two hundred thousand years (CHECK THIS) of history that we can look at. Social anthropologists, if they study that far back, may suggest that as a species we have a tendency toward monogamy. There are some physical reasons for this, certainly, as the name of the game for most of this time (and perhaps even today) has been survival. If something favored survival, it was practiced by those who wished to survive.

Would we, therefore, translate the ‘instinct’ of staying with a single mate (if indeed this can be scientifically substantiated) into an early form of love? That would imply that there would have been some degree of emotional attachment between the mates. By the way, I put that term in italics for a reason, which I will get to soon enough.

I think we must conclude that this is the case. There are plenty of species of mammals that demonstrate that monogamy is not the best way to survive or to ensure the survival of the species. The males of many species will take every opportunity to reproduce, and even risk their lives in mortal combat in order to engage in reproductive activities. No matter how cynical one might be about the nature of humans, few of us would suggest that we have that same instinct.

I will suggest that the monogamous instinct is the harbinger of love. The two beings, a male and a female (which I will go with for simplicity’s sake), developed a sense of attachment because it was understood by both that this was best for everyone involved, especially any offspring that survived. When two adults had to spend years, perhaps even decades, together in order to ensure their survival and that of their progeny, there would have surely been some sense of attachment involved.

It is important to point out a fundamental difference between humans of two hundred thousand years ago and those of today. We are of the same species, so there is virtually no difference in that regard. Since this started long before civilization, we must assume that the differences between two people prior to civilization would not have been based on those differences that can inhibit close relationships (attachment) today, such as:   Physical attraction; differences in personality – ‘I’m an extrovert, while he’s an introvert’; differences in personal interests – ‘she is dedicated to reading and learning, while I prefer to learn by doing’; religious beliefs; and potential degrees of jealously when it comes to people having close relationships with others.

Today we can find any excuse we want if the love, the attachment, is not there any longer. The problem sometimes is that while there is no intellectual love, there may be some degree of physical attraction. A man my think, ‘surely we can separate the physical attraction from the emotional (or psychological); I feel like having sex, and we don’t have to agree on everything to do that, do we?’ Meanwhile, the woman might just be thinking, ‘Hold on a second; there is no separating the physical from the emotional. You are asking me to do something that implies a commitment, which could result in some serious sacrifices on my behalf. I couldn’t just do that randomly, even if I felt like it.’ Modern technology and birth control certainly come into play, but I don’t think they have much to do with this controversy.

Now, I will explain attachment. Psychologists will describe the most basic form of attachment as what develops between an infant and its mother. The newborn infant is almost totally dependent on its mother. The mother is the focal point of all activities, and the purpose of the newborn infant in the first few years is simple – to survive. Instinct and the sub-conscious mind propel the infant into a relationship of the deepest attachment.

That attachment, at first and perhaps for years, is very much a physical manifestation, and eventually it becomes a psychological one also. Every sensory perception of the infant is tuned into the being that brought it into the world. Obviously, that infant is not consciously thinking about the various ways of manifesting its attachment – it is unconditional and instinctive. I see no reason to describe it in any other way than attachment.

Why should this be any different for people as they grow and mature? The level of attachment may increase or it may decline. It may transfer to others, and in some unfortunate cases, there may be no object of attachment at all. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that the attachment can’t be shared with others. The child can grow to have deep attachment to the father (or father figure) to siblings and other relatives, as well as to friends, teachers and lots of others. There should be no boundaries to the levels or targets of attachment, although I would argue that most of us have relatively few attachment figures in or lives.

So, what is the difference between love and attachment? My principal problem is with the use of the word love. It must be one of the most often used words in English. It seems to have absolutely no limits when we want express something that we enjoy. Do you doubt my conjecture? Then consider the following:  “I just love the way you did your hair!” “I love the newest album by Beyoncé”; “I love to go walking in the forest on a quiet, cool morning in fall”; “I love to go shopping at the new mall”; “I love the way they cook the Brussels sprouts in this restaurant.”

When we overuse a term, doesn’t it begin to lose its meaning? I just can’t make the connection between love of a person that I have been living with for forty-two years and a green vegetable that needs a lot of preparation to stimulate the palate. Nevertheless, we go through this routine every day of our lives.

I propose we use love for all of those artificial things and switch as soon as possible to using the term attachment when it comes to describing close relationships with people. I know that there is something a little strange about saying, ‘I am attached to you’ to your significant other, family member or close friend. But, doesn’t it have so much more depth of meaning? Besides, when we invent new words and coin new phrases, they may sound strange to us at first. Then, when millions of people are using the new verbal expressions, we get used to them, and they take on a special sense and we embrace them.

We are unlikely to ever describe our relationship with a person’s hairdo, a shopping mall, or vegetables as one of close attachment. That sounds absurd even to me, but using the term for another human being has the potential to really catch on, doesn’t it? Just think about it. You are on your way out the door for a day of rigorous devotion to work, and as you leave you blow a kiss to your significant other and shout, “I am attached to you!” It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

I must admit that my personal experiment with attachment has not shown great results. I have tried countless times to convince my wife of the value of the concept of attachment. I even go a little overboard and sometimes tell her that I am deeply attached to her – how can she not be convinced and moved? Alas, it seems she just doesn’t quite get it. That does not mean I will give up trying, however.

Now, here is the real problem with love. The expectations are simply way too high. How many times have we heard these types of comments? “I am searching for the love of my life,” or, “I have to find my soul mate.” Sometimes you hear something similar to this – “I’m looking for that one special person out there who is just right for me.”

The problem with this thinking is it implies that there is only one person, or an extremely small number of people, with whom one might have a life-long relationship. Well, there are about 7 billion people on the Earth now. If you are looking for just the right person, you will be very busy. And what happens if you live in the United States and that very special person, the one in a million (or a billion) lives in, say, Uruguay or on Easter Island? You might as well spend your money on the lottery, because your chances of finding that perfect match probably has worse odds.

Why is this relevant? One indicator is the divorce rate, at least here in the United States, which is about fifty percent. People go through a lot of trouble and expense sometimes, and almost express their vows about “devotion” and “love” and “commitment” for “all eternity”. Then, within a few years, about half of those relationships start to fall apart. Who could possibly meet those expectations? It is totally unreasonable, and puts too much pressure on people.

 I have an alternative suggestion for simple, right-to-the-point wedding vows that remove some of that pressure. “I am making this commitment today to be attached to you, for the indefinite future, and to get along with you as best I can. However, I also know that people grow and change all of their lives. So, if over the next few years or decades, we grow apart and pursue totally different interests and feel that we can no longer live together collaboratively, I am prepared to remove my attachment to you and devote it to another (or others). If you are prepared to accept this, I will make my best effort to achieve our goal of living together indefinitely.”

 That is nice, to the point, and realistic. It does not create this enormous pressure of having to make a commitment for “all eternity” (which is a very long time!). Who wouldn’t feel bad about breaking a commitment that was made for eternity?

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