The Myth of Romantic Love

by Carole Herbster, Psy.D. - Date: 2007-03-18 - Word Count: 1271 Share This!

One of the biggest influences in today's relationships is based on a misunderstanding. If you ask people what love is, the most common response is that "love is a feeling." As long as we define love as an emotional state, marriages are at risk. Surprised? The reason why most people define love in that manner is that movies, songs, and novels tend to characterize in that way. The romantic idea that one can fall in love with another person that she has never met is a wonderful fantasy. But if you back up a minute and think about it, does it really make sense?

It is understandable why we are so attracted to this fantasy. After all, if love is a feeling, it makes the whole dating process so much easier. First, it makes choosing a potential spouse an automatic process. You see Ms. Right across the room and your biochemicals start to churn. You feel great as your brain secretes substances associated with attraction. The song you heard when you met, stirs up intense feelings every time you hear it. Problems seem to fade away as if no longer important. We are not at all accountable for this choice. The decision is being made for you, rather than by you.

If the other person is feeling the same way, a connection is launched. You feel awesome as you begin to pursue a relationship. If the feelings continue, you become even more certain that you are on the right track. If the feelings wane, then you start to decide that this relationship may not be "the one." You are guided purely by your brain chemistry and the resulting emotional response to it. This integral decision is being made purely on emotion, not logic, reason or practical considerations.

So where does our attraction radar come from? How does our brain decide that the stranger across the room is the right one for us? To make a long story short, children learn at about three years of age that two people are actually separate and therefore, the child and the other person are now in a relationship together. This is the time that children learn what love is. Unfortunately our primary teachers, our parents, are not always the best model for a loving relationship. If the child comes from an abusive household, her brain will be programmed to be attracted to similarly abusive men. If he is raised in a highly judgmental and critical household, he will be programmed to be attracted to rejecting and withholding individuals. Remember there is no logic or right and wrong associated with this choice. It is purely what is programmed by the brain at the time.

In other words, our attraction is prompted by the emotional understanding of a three year old. Think about that! Would you want a three year old choosing your next spouse? That is why you must supplement those biological signals with a dose of logic and reason before pursuing a long-term relationship. Attraction can be one component of the decision-making process but should not be the primary driving force. Three year olds just are not that insightful or wise.

To put this in context, love as a primary motivation for marriage is only about a century old. Before that, more practical considerations dominated the decision making process. Parents of the couple played an active role in choosing mates. Each member of the couple would be sizing up the other based on what is needed to clothe and feed their future family. Does each spouse have the skills necessary to provide for the families primary needs? It is only when basic needs were no longer the focus that we can indulge our emotional/biochemically-generated impulses.

I once hosted a chat on the internet about love. When I suggested that love was not a feeling, I received a flurry of hate responses and belittling suggestions. Even the very utterance of a different definition could not be tolerated by most of my young audience. It's as if I was robbing them of an integral part of their belief system and threatening the very basis on which they lived.

That is how profoundly this misunderstanding has invaded our beliefs. Any slight challenge to it, results in a strong and definitive attack on my expertise and character. To be fair, challenging a basic belief certainly will stimulate a powerful response. We so much want our romantic fantasies to be real that we actually sacrifice the well-being of our relationships to maintain it.

I hate to bring up logic again but please indulge me. We as human beings cannot hold two opposing feelings at the same time. If I was mad at my husband, I would no longer be able to love him based on the emotional definition of love. The fact that so many people believe in the myth of love is one of the reasons that so many relationships dissolve. If we are going through hard times which are inevitable in life, we cannot maintain love as an emotion. Rather we become overwhelmed with stress and anxiety and we interpret those feelings as "falling out of love."

Slowly the relationship becomes plagued with negativity because the feeling of love cannot be re-established easily. As we struggle to regain that feeling, we begin to think that our relationship is failing. We may be better off leaving rather than on trying to replenish what was temporarily lost. Anger and discontent ensue and who suffers - of course, our children. Might it be worth looking at the question of love once more to see if another definition may be more accurate and more sustainable over time?

So if love is not a feeling, then what is it? Love is a verb and should be understood as an action rather than a feeling. The definition that I believe best captures the spirit as well as the letter of the concept is "love is a decision backed by behavior." So how is that different? Let's go back to the example above. I have become angry at my husband for some perceived transgression but now that I decided love is not a feeling, my commitment to my husband is not impacted by my temporary state. Even though I might be angry, I can still love him based on my decision to do so.

Instead of lashing out impulsively because I am angry, I act in accordance to my decision and sit down and discuss what happened without the uncontrolled expression of rage and frustration. We resolve our issue without drawing psychological blood and this discussion will only make our relationship stronger. My feeling turns from anger to compassion and understanding. After all, feelings are fleeting and basing decisions on fleeting events is an immature response.

Another distinction between love as a feeling versus an action is related to the underlying assumption of who is accountable for maintaining the relationship. If you are using emotions to guide your actions, then each partner is looking for the other to make the situation feel better. When our needs are not being met, we consider the other person as failing in his role as spouse or partner. However, if you shift to the thinking-oriented definition, the person with the emotion becomes responsible for resolving it. Instead of looking outside of ourselves, we are expected to think about how we are feeling and then act in a loving way towards our partner regardless of our emotional state. We promote a sense of love when we take responsibility for our own feelings and the way we deal with them. The mature definition of love focuses on being loving, not just getting love.

Related Tags: relationships, dating, love, romance, family, marriage, divorce, mental health, couples, psychology

Dr. Herbster has been a Clinical Psychologist for 14 years. She was a talk radio co-host for a program called "Practically Speaking" which dealt with the challenges of families in our contemporary world.

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