Friday, January 17, 2014

Definitions of Love

Yesterday, while killing time at the vet's, waiting with my cats until it was time for them to submit to the indignities of their annual check-ups, my eyes wandered the room, looking for something, anything to read. (Lugging around two large cats, even in carriers, leaves no hands free to hold an iPad or a book). Expecting to find handouts about pet foot, or perhaps, if I was lucky, a glossy copy of Cat Fancier, I instead came across a newsprint magazine with very brief self-help and spirituality articles sandwiched between lots of advertisements. Not my usual reading material, but hey, I needed something to distract me from the plaintive kitty chorus my two furry companions were singing, attempting to make me cringe with guilt for bringing them to a place with strange people, sharp needles, and big, smelly DOGS .

I quickly skimmed through inspirational words about renewing yourself during mid-life, and a profile of a doctor working to help war veterans through acupuncture, before coming across something a bit more relevant: an essay that encouraged readers to think about romantic love not as a state of being, but instead as an emotion. Try thinking of love as a feeling, like anger, sadness, or happiness, the author wrote, instead of a constant, something that's always there. Imagine love as a feeling, as a moment of pleasure, something that comes and goes rather than something that's with you all the time.

Why embrace such a definition of love? If you regard love as a feeling rather than a state of being, the author suggested, then your goal becomes not to find someone to love, or someone who loves you, but instead to create more moments during your day, during your life, where you have the opportunity to feel the emotion of love. Recall moments when you've felt love, and think about what you did that allowed you to experience that feeling. And then think about what you can do in the future to bring about other, similar moments, moments that foster the emotion of love. And then act to create the circumstances most likely to welcome and nurture that feeling.

Touchy-feely, yeah. But food for thought, nonetheless. Such a conception of romantic love struck me as quite at odds with the way love is presented in much romance fiction: "You're my other half"; "I'll love you forever"; "I'll never feel this way about anyone but you." In Romancelandia, you find the person you love, and who loves you back, and you've reached your goal; the story ends. The difference between this self-help article's view of love and the one more commonly embraced by the romance genre made me wonder: why is romance fiction so invested in this one narrative of love? What do we gain by focusing so tightly on it? What do we lose by not considering other definitions of love?

What other conceptions of romantic love are out there in the world? Some links to kickstart thinking:

The 5 Ways We Define Love (And Why They're Wrong)
What is Love? Famous Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History
7 Other Definitions of Real Love Worth Considering

What would a romance novel look like that embraced a different definition of love? Would we even consider it a romance novel anymore?

My two kitty choristers. Because you can never have enough
cute cat pictures on the web...


  1. Romance novel love is rather ridiculous, isn't it. I've ever heard romance novels described as emotional pornography by people who thought that concept much more dangerous than any mention of explicit sexual practice. And though I wouldn't go that far, the actual practice of love in my own life does not resemble that of a romance novel in the slightest. Well, except in the fact that my husband and I fought like banshees before we were married and now only very rarely have any sort of conflict at all. I don't regard that as normal particularly, though it's a common enough trope in romance novels (I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I love you). We just had one fairly major sticking point early on and we worked out a compromise on it before we married. I know other people fight in marriage much more often than we do.

    I guess the article you read is probably more relevant to my own experience in marriage. Sure, there are romantic moments and moments where I feel myself to be deeply in love with my husband, but more often, we're engaged in day-to-day activities that make love more of a practice than an emotion. I kiss him goodbye in the morning as an expression of love since I would much rather he slink away and leave me to sleep, left to my own selfish devices. He does the dishes, even after I have made an epic mess in the kitchen for the sixth time in two days, not because he likes doing dishes but because that is an expression of his love for me. Neither of us are feeling much love for the other in the moment, I don't think. But those actions are still made in the practice of love.

    I enjoy romance novels for the emotional rush of two people finding themselves suddenly in need of one another. I don't expect to have that newness in my life again (at least, I rather hope not since I've committed to my husband for life), but it is rather fun to be in on the game again, if only vicariously and fictitiously. I don't necessarily believe that the vision of love they portray is realistic in very many cases. And I don't mind that it isn't. I live the practice of love beyond the newness. Why would I need to read about it?


    1. Well! I was going to say something brilliant yet pithy about love as an action rather than a feeling, but I think Elisabeth just did. I'm right there with ya, sister.

    2. The most useful statement I've ever read about marriage is that you fall in and out of love with the same person constantly, and those who remember that are the ones who stay married. And yes, actions are a good way to nurture the feeling that ebbs and flows.

      I often wish this were addressed when reading paranormals in which immortal beings end up together. It's always projected as eternal bliss and the inherent issues are never discussed.

    3. This reminds me of something I've heard from the pulpit: that love is a verb (action), not a noun (feelings). No wonder I feel so frustrated when passionate feelings are what brings the couple together, are the glue that binds them, and are the evidence that they're meant for each other when a novel is not an erotic romance.

      Willaful -- Eternal bliss is a given in a paranormal; it's part and parcel of the fantasy elements of the subgenre.


  2. This overwhelming all-or-nothing emotional approach to m/f romance is part of what bothers me about the genre. I get that it's a wonderful ideal, but it's not reality for most people most of the time, and it's not necessary to healthy relationships. It's even possible that holding this up as the ideal is fundamentally unhealthy. It may well contribute to rigidly heteronormative ways of looking at the world and relationships as well as unrealistic expectations that don't foster real partnership and communication.

    I am probably biased (and an outlier), though, because I'm more interested in realistic and aspirational love stories (aspirational in the sense that it gives the reader something he or she could realistically aspire to or learn from) rather than stories that are more in the nature of fantasy (in terms of function, not necessarily subgenre), wish fulfillment, or entertainment. I know some people consider "escapist" a pejorative, but they shouldn't; there's nothing wrong with reading something for enjoyment as a way of getting away from the everyday grind, and "escapism" probably best describes the function of romances for some (if not all) of its audience some of the time. The concept of "one true love" (which I don't believe and consider empirically indefensible) fits better within the fantasy/entertainment/escapist side of romance than the realistic or aspirational one.


  3. I've often thought of love as an action, rather than a feeling, too. But then I can get to resenting that love by this definition is all about doing things for someone else. Feels a bit too close to the Christian self-sacrifice that my early encounters with religion espoused, a self-sacrifice that has clear gendered implications.

    What spoke to me about the article I read at the vet's was the idea of love as a feeling, not a "happily ever after/I love you forever" feeling, but a feeling of shared pleasure with another, and the idea that one could act not just to SHOW love to another, but could act to foster more opportunities for this MUTUAL sharing of pleasure. Less about the self-sacrificing aspect of love, and more about the pleasure of love.

  4. In the context, "love is an action" had nothing to do with romantic love and wasn't gendered in nature -- it had to do more with agape (showing love for all). While looking to match actions one-to-one is a recipe for resentment, a relationship where one person gives all the time and the other person takes is no better. I believe in mutuality, not self-sacrifice.