I’ve always considered myself a romantic, perhaps a hopeless romantic. Long before I hit puberty my mind was full of romantic gestures from pop culture and, of course, pop music. Perhaps the prolific songwriter Diane Warren (who has penned songs for everyone from Celine Dion to Milli Vanilli and Michael Bolton and even Aerosmith) is the biggest culprit. These songs follow familiar motifs surrounding romance, they’re grandiose declarations of love or the lack of love or the disintegration of romantic relationships. When it’s good it’s really good and when it’s bad it’s horrific. When you’re in love your life has meaning, and when you’re not it is at best empty or at worst unbearable.
Though lately that fog has lifted, those illusions have been slowly disassembled and I find myself thinking about another song entirely. One by Hadaway actually.
What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more
Perhaps I should backtrack a little. My own personal relationship history (as fragmented as it is) has made me realise that relationships take work, that passions can be shortlived and that people can be fickle. Perhaps at its core it is like those Diane Warren ballads – intense and dramatic – but there is more mundane territory to be explored and mapped too.
Even more than that though as someone who religiously sits somewhere between being agnostic and atheistic I began to wonder if my belief in love wasn’t a tad superstituous, perhaps a tad silly. Perhaps love doesn’t exist as a force, perhaps it’s merely a human construct that can be explained through an understanding of psychology, sociology and biology. I mean many historical references seemed to explain marriage in terms of property (either in the sense that the woman was the property of the man, or some sort of asset merger took place through the union). Even the idea that we should like our partner, that they should be some sort of ‘soul mate’, is a relatively new invention – James Alison suggests as recent as the 17th century.
I look at those around me and notice that many of them have abandoned the language of love in favour of talking in terms of ‘needs.’ And I don’t just mean in terms of sexual gratification, though that is certainly one of them. In some ways for some people (at times myself included) flirting becomes a valuable exercise in and of itself. It can bolster one’s ego without having to lead anywhere particular. Endorphins and self-esteem can be a potent heady mix.
I used to think this was a terrible, deeply cynical way of looking at things, but perhaps it is just pragmatic.
But then there are people for whom I have a very deep affection, and that affection feels very genuine. Perhaps it is just a conditioned response to a specific stimuli (specific person) but I like to imagine it is something more. Mostly though I feel none the wiser despite all the time I spent pontificating on this and other things. I guess what was most difficult to tangle with was the quiet realisation that I probably wouldn’t have the kind of epic romance I imagined as a pre-pubescent kid. Whatever it is and is not, it will be different to the fanfare inside my head. Sometimes it’s just hard to let go of your personal illusions.
So tell me… what is love?