Segment 22 – Romantic Love

Today we looked at what might be the most widespread myth in Western culture: the myth of romantic love. Hear us chat about it here:

We played ‘This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)’ by Natalie Cole – which my girlfriend reliably informs me is featured in at least five rom-coms – and ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth‘ by Belinda Carlisle – a track that exposes the religious nature of romantic love in no uncertain terms.

So what is the myth of romantic love? It’s a kind of narrative, a group of ideas that guide people’s lives and imbue them with meaning. Some of the central tenets of the myth include: that we each have ‘the One’, the single person who will be perfect for us, our soulmate; that we can fall in love at first sight, just by clapping eyes on the right person; that the love will be everlasting; and that “I love you” is a sacred phrase, that should only ever be uttered with absolute sincerity. Pretty much all of these are consistent elements of rom-coms.

Love is not a universal, essential experience inherent in humanity. Of course there are biological aspects to attachment and eroticism, but different cultures differ on the rules of how people should relate to one another. The idea of romantic love – an intense, personal relationship with an idealised other – is a peculiarly Western construct, and one that developed slowly since the eleventh century. It really took off with the increase in rampant individualism in the modern West: the idea that we should be free to choose our own partners based on personal bonds is central to this idea of romantic love.

Also with modernity (we’re talking seventeenth, eighteenth centuries here) we saw the breaking of the hegemony of Christianity in defining how people should interpret the world and give meaning to their lives. Both the institutional power of Christian churches and personal belief in God have declined, more or less steadily, since then (this is not to say that it will die out entirely, there have been signs of revival in certain sectors of the West in the last couple of decades). What early modern philosophers were rejecting in the Christian God were his authoritative roles, his power in controlling the individual’s life. This assault on Christian symbolism left behind, however, the idea of having a personal relationship with the ultimate. That desire was relocated to other systems and ideologies in the West – most strongly, perhaps, to the myth of romantic love.

So we’ve seen the shift of religious qualities from God and Christ to personal human relationships and the idealised ‘lover.’ Romantic love becomes a source for mystical experience – being lifted out of yourself and being absorbed in something greater (an idea prevalent in mystic thought worldwide, from Sufis to Buddhist monks). The lover is also given a salvific quality, meaning that they have the power to ‘save’ the individual. We see this throughout rom-coms. At the start the individual is waylaid, disenchanted, unhappy, and through the discovery of their love with their soulmate, they are transformed, authenticated, they discover their true self, they become self-actualised. This is often tied into a whole host of other things that the West attributes to successful people: once they fall in love, they get the house, they get the promotion, they’re popular, they’re happy, and so on. In this we see the qualities of the heavenly afterlife relocated to the secular sphere, to having a perfected life. The lover can attain, as Belinda Carlisle sung, heaven on earth.

And people believe this. I believe it too, to a certain degree. This is the myth of romantic love, and it has a good claim to being the undeclared religion of the modern West.

P.S. The ideas presented in this post are a simplification and butchery of a thesis written by Sarah Balstrup. Anything worthwhile comes from her; anything else, from me.

P.P.S. I do this segment as a volunteer on 2ser, community radio in Sydney. At the moment its our Supporter Drive, themed ‘Share the Love’ (thus this topic). In Australia, community radio has a crucial role in providing an independent voice in the media landscape. Please consider supporting the station, which literally needs your help to survive. So head to their website and chuck ’em a few dollars.