How romantic love is poisoned by myths about exclusivity, possession, jealousy, eternal love, mind reading, and others
Finding the love of your life - and keeping that love alive - is the most common and valued goal in our modern culture. As measure of success in life, it ranks up there with money, health and fame. But love should be more easily attainable than wealth and fame. It’s something that everybody should get, one way or another. Right?
Of course, I am talking about romantic love here. There are many other kinds of love: for our children, for our parents, for our friends. There are also more abstract forms of love, like the love of God, the love for our country, and the love of virtue and ideals. However, there is something especial about romantic love that makes us obsess about it, whereas the other forms of love are taken for granted, or even as a duty.
Scientific studies emphasize the importance of romantic love by showing that married people tend to be healthier and live longer, while loneliness is a health hazard, especially as we age. This may be true, but it also increases our craving for love, and our despair if we have not found it, our grief if we have lost it to abandonment or death. That cannot be healthy, either.
Romantic love starts with a sexual attraction, progresses though infatuation and courtship, and ends in marriage or cohabitation - what has been called the “relationship escalator.” Since it serves as the basis for marriage, which is the form of personal economy encouraged by our society and tax laws, there is a strong cultural pressure to get it. Accordingly, not being in a relationship is considered a personal failure, especially for women. On top of that, children are the future of society, and they are conceived and raised inside marriages. Hence, romantic love forms the underpinning of our society.
Society responds by creating a huge amount of content that idealizes romantic love in the form of music, novels, movies, advertisement and television series. Love is everywhere, and a lot of our consumption habits revolve around it.
However, in reality, the beliefs that we have about romantic love are the source of a huge amount of misery. About half of all marriages end in divorce, and many more relationships end even before marriage. When you date, heartbreak is a much bigger hazard than any sexually transmitted disease.
Recently, there has been a growing criticism, not so much of romantic love itself, but of many of its myths that produce unrealistic expectations and demands that are too heavy for us and our lover. Alternative relationship models like polyamory and other forms of ethical non-monogamy are blurring the boundaries between romantic love and friendship, and questioning many of its assumptions.
I have listed here twelve of the myths of romantic love, and tried to explain how they harm us.
1. I don't need anyone but you
A lot of people, when they fall in love, put all their time and energy into the couple and relegate their friendships to the background. This gets even worse when they get married or move in together, since the couple provides easy, build-in companionship while friendships require effort to reach out.
This derives from one of the most basic beliefs of romantic love: that there is one person who complements us perfectly. However, we are complex beings with a wide variety of needs, and finding someone who satisfies them all is practically impossible.
Going into a relationship with these expectations leads to frustration because nobody can be our perfect match. Moreover, requiring our lover to change to fit our needs and desires strains the relationship. A healthier attitude is to value our friendships, understanding that each person brings something different to our lives.
Polyamory goes even further by proposing that we would live a fuller life by loving several people that complement different aspects of our lives. That way, we won’t have to demand that just one person fulfills all our needs.
2. Love at first sight
The myth the love at first sight is based on this idea that there is one person who complements us perfectly, plus the belief that there is a magical way to instantly recognize that person. Complementarity produces such a strong attraction that when the two people meet, love arises instantly.
The reality is that, while there are many instant crushes, they are based on strong sexual attraction or even a strong emotional report, but these things can easily evaporate as they get to know each other. Taking that sexual attraction to bed could be a good first test. Dating for a while with a mindful attitude, curiosity and lowered expectations can lead us to a better judgement about how a good match we are. Mature love is based on the gradual discovery of the other person and our affinity for them.
3. I will love you forever
With the divorce rate in most Western countries hovering around 50%, it is clear that loves that last a lifetime are more the exception than the rule. And that doesn’t even take into account the separations that happen before marriage, and the many unhappy couples who continue to live together because they can’t or they won’t break up.
Believing in eternal love is absurd. It is better to start a relationship knowing that it may not last forever. That way, when the breakup comes, it will be less painful. Being mentally prepared for the decline of love also helps us build up the resolution not to hurt our lover when it happens. There should be no blame and no shame. It’s just a fact of life.
There are some relationships that last “till death do us part.” Perhaps it is luck, or working to maintain the relationship, or considering things realistically from the beginning.
4. You are mine
Romantic love tends to be possessive, something that we rarely find in other forms of love. Our lover is seen as something that belongs to us, an extension of ourselves.
Forming a couple becomes an acquisition, a purchase in which I exchange my duties towards you for your obligations towards me. This transaction entails a loss of freedom that turns marriage into a prison. There is an emphasis on "fidelity", that is, on the fulfillment of a marriage contract whose first clause is sexual exclusivity.
It is much healthier to see our lover as someone who belongs to himself or herself. Relationships should be based on shared experiences, empathy, kindness and mutual care.
5. Jealousy as a sign of love
Possessiveness inevitably leads to jealousy, which our monogamous culture has turned into a virtue and a measure of the intensity of love. This is why “crimes of passion” are romanticized, justified and often forgiven.
The result is a lot of women abused and murdered by men who base their self-esteem on their ability to make them their prisoners. Not to forget the many men trapped by emotional blackmail, guilt trips and other forms of psychological abuse.
The glorification of jealousy hurts and can even kill.
6. Love forgives everything
Another dangerous myth that serves to perpetuate situations of domestic violence is the ideal of a woman as a selfless person who is capable of forgiving everything in the name of love.
Forgiveness can be liberating, it is true, but as long as the abuse has ended and the abuser has made the necessary reparations.
Ideally, forgiving should be done from a situation of freedom and a certain physical and emotional distance. Otherwise, forgiveness becomes just an excuse to perpetuate the abuse.
7. Love will make you change
Yet another myth is to consider love as a magical force capable of miraculously make a person change. One of the most common tropes in romantic novels is that of the innocent, pure woman who is capable of healing a warrior man who has been wounded.
The reality is quite different: one partner strives to change the other, who resists. This leads to a power struggle that damages the relationship.
Of course, personal transformation is always possible, but it must start from within, not be imposed from the outside. Even in the name of love.
A particularly nasty variant of this myth is when we hear “when you find the woman (or man) of your life, you will stop being homosexual, bisexual, polyamorous, etc.”
8. Sex is better with someone you love
And its mirror image: sex without love is empty.
While it is true that love can bring empathy and complicity to sex, it is also true that desire and love can happen independently of each other. For many people, having sex with a new person increases their sexual arousal. Conversely, making love with the same person year after year becomes boring and dampens sexual desire.
One-night stands can be wonderful adventures in which we discover the body and mind of an unknown person. Knowing that we will never see them again gives us a strange freedom.
People who practice non-monogamy know from experience that when their lover has sex with another person, they return to their bed with renewed desire and sexual charge.
Some people do experience sex without love as empty and unfulfilling. There are, indeed, people who are monogamous by nature, possibly by having an increase expression of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in their brains, as it happens in prairie voles. However, it is also possible that this feeling of emptiness is due to unprocessed sexual guilt and shame.
9. True love will make you feel completely fulfilled
And its mirror image: a life without love is an empty life.
Love is just one facet of life. Wanting another person to make us feel completely fulfilled creates unrealistic expectations that lead to frustration. And to blame our partner for our disappointment. Many people sacrifice their career, friends or hobbies for love, only to regret it later on.
On the other hand, there are people who never find their true love but still live a wonderful life.
This myth also causes a lot of misery in people who, for whatever reason, are not able to find their true love. It makes them believe that they will never be happy. It also makes them feel ashamed of their situation, as in the nasty stereotype of the old maid. We need to combat these myths with evidence that it is possible to live a happy life being single.
Yes, we all have needs for sex and companionship, but they can be met by having casual sex and developing strong friendships.
10. I want a lover who treats me like a queen / king
Love should not consist of someone putting themselves at our service and solving our financial problems.
Men have a strong drive to be financially independent, but may develop emotional dependence and expect women to take care of household chores and raising the children. This is not love but exploitation.
Women may wish for a man who provides for them and frees them from work. However, a fundamental tenet of feminism is that women should be autonomous and independent. Waiting for prince charming to show up to solve our problems is eminently sexist.
11. If you truly loved me, you’d know what I want
Another magical quality attributed to romantic love is that of mind reading. The idea is that our bond is so strong that you should immediately detect what I want. If you are unable to do so, it’s because you are not paying attention. Which means that you don’t love me enough.
A milder form of this disease is passive communication: relying on facial expressions, hints, sarcasm, silence or passive aggression to convey a message. Instead, we should use active communication: expressing our thoughts, feelings and wants as clearly and unambiguously as we can.
The myth of mind reading serves as an excuse for not working properly on communication, which is essential for the success of the relationship.
Nobody, no matter how much they love you, is capable of knowing what you think and what you feel. Especially in the middle of a fight, when anger clouds our thinking and our perceptions.
It is true that, in some relationships, people come to have a special empathy, an ability to know how the other person feels. However, this is usually the result of years of successful communication and intimate conversations.
12. All you need is love
Too bad for the Beatles, who wrote the song All You Need Is Love. The song is beautiful, but the lyrics are complete bullshit.
During the 1960s, hippy culture developed the strong belief that love was the key to solving all our problems. War, violence, racism, sexism, pollution… you name it, love was the solution for it.
Of course, it didn't work. Life is too complex to try to solve it based on an emotion, even one as beautiful and important as love. To solve the problems of our society, we need many other things, like knowledge, honesty, wisdom and hard work.
The same applies to our relationships.