Wed. May 2
The Love Myth in Pop Culture
Over at Elle magazine, reader “Caught in a Love Spell” asks advice columnist E. Jean about whether she should leave her fiancee to be with a man that she is having a passionate affair with.
At my father’s funeral, I ran into an old friend. We grew up together, his was the shoulder I cried on, and we ended up having sex. We’ve been doing so ever since—a year and a half. The problem is that during this whole time, he’s had a girlfriend, and I’ve been engaged to be married to another man.
“Caught” explains that the two of them “just can’t stop having sex with” each other. She writes, in anguish, “We’ve fought a hundred times over stopping and not seeing each other, but we always end up back together, no matter how bad the previous fight was. Why can’t we walk away? Why is this so hard to stop?”
E. Jean steps in with some advice:
Miss Caught, My Cauliflower: Halt! You’re marrying the wrong man. Marry the man with whom you fight “a hundred times” because you can’t cease seeing each other. Marry the man with whom you “can’t stop having sex.” Marry the man with whom you “always end up back together.” Marry the man your DNA is shouting for you to marry, and your chances for happiness are damn good. To quote the captivating Martin Amis, “Marry your sexual obsession: …the one you never quite got to the end of.”
Yes, it’s advice. But is it good advice?
In his fabulous book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychology professor Jonathan Haidt thinks that E. Jean’s type of reasoning about love is seriously flawed–and that acting on it will cause people to lead less happy lives. The culprit of such bad advice is not any one person, like E. Jean, but a deeply embedded belief in our pop culture that the experience of being in love must meet a very specific set of criteria. This is the “love myth.”
As I see it, the modern myth of true love involves these beliefs: True love is passionate love that never fades; if you are in true love, you should marry that person; if love ends, you should leave that person because it was not true love; and if you can find the right person, you will have true love forever. You might not believe this myth yourself, particularly if you are older than thirty; but many young people in Western nations are raised on it, and it acts as an ideal that they unconsciously carry with them even if they scoff at it. (It’s not just Hollywood that perpetrates the myth; Bollywood, the Indian film industry, is even more romanticized.)
Because so many of us were raised on the myth–there’s a Facebook group called “Disney Movies Gave Me Unrealistic Expectations About Love“– and because so many of us will decide to (or not to) marry someone based off of it, we are shutting ourselves off from real romantic love:
But if true love is defined as eternal passion, it is biologically impossible. To see this, and to save the dignity of love, you have to understand the difference between two kinds of love: passionate and companionate.
Passionate love is the kind that “Caught” from Elle is experiencing. It is a “wildly emotional state in which tender and sexual feelings, elation and pain, anxiety and relief, altruism and jealousy coexist in a confusion of feelings.”
Companionate love is less exciting, but more lasting: “the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined.”
The problem with passionate love is that it eventually fades. And that creates major problems for the person who decides to marry someone based on the expectation that passionate love will last forever–the most major of the problems being, of course, divorce.
Passionate love is a drug. Its symptoms overlap with those of heroin (euphoric well-being, sometimes described in sexual terms) and cocaine (euphoria combined with giddiness and energy). It’s no wonder: Passionate love alters the activity of several parts of the brain, including parts that are involved in the release of dopamine. Any experience that feels intensely good releases dopamine, and the dopamine link is crucial here because drugs that artificially raise dopamine levels, as do heroin and cocaine, put you at risk of addiction. If you take cocaine once a month, you won’t become addicted, but if you take it every day, you will. No drug can keep you continuously high. The brain reacts to a chronic surplus of dopamine, develops neurochemical reactions that oppose it, and restores its own equilibrium. At that point, tolerance has set in, and when the drug is withdrawn, the brain is unbalanced in the opposite direction: pain, lethargy, and despair follow withdrawal from cocaine or from passionate love.
So if passionate love is a drug—literally a drug—it has to wear off eventually. Nobody can stay high forever (although if you find passionate love in a long-distance relationship, it’s like taking cocaine once a month; the drug can retain its potency because of your suffering between doses). If passionate love is allowed to run its joyous course, there must come a day when it weakens. One of the lovers usually feels the change first. It’s like waking up from a shared dream to see your sleeping partner drooling. In those moments of returning sanity, the lover may see flaws and defects to which she was blind before. The beloved falls off the pedestal, and then, because our minds are so sensitive to changes, her change in feeling can take on exaggerated importance. “Oh, my God,” she thinks, “the magic has worn off–I’m not in love with him anymore.” If she subscribes to the myth of true love, she might even consider breaking up with him. After all, if the magic ended, it can’t be true love. But if she does end the relationship, she might be making a mistake.
So does true love exist? Haidt thinks that it does:
True love exists, I believe, but it is not—cannot be—passion that lasts forever. True love, the love that undergirds strong marriages, is simply strong companionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other. Companionate love looks weak in the graph above because it can never attain the intensity of passionate love. But if we change the time scale from six months to sixty years, as in the next figure, it is passionate love that seems trivial—a flash in the pan—while companionate love can last a lifetime [You can see the graph here on page 127 and 128]. When we admire a couple still in love on their fiftieth anniversary, it is this blend of loves—mostly companionate—that we are admiring.
There’s a great article over at The Atlantic that addresses a lot of these themes (and, in doing so, shows us that couples in old-fashioned arranged marriages may be wiser about love than those in the West who get married for love). I would quote the whole piece if I could, but here is the key part:
Hollywood–and all of the “happily ever after” stories it cooks up—deserves a lot of the blame for our distorted ideas about what marriage should be, according to [research psychologist Robert] Epstein. “There are literally millions of Americans in therapy because of violated expectations around those ideas,” Epstein claims, referring to the discrepancy between our idealized notion of love and reality. (Indeed, even Amina–who isn’t exactly thrilled with George—likes romantic comedies; “her favorites were Sleepless in Seattle, Mystic Pizza, and Pretty Woman,” as Freudenberger writes.)
But don’t romantic happy endings significantly pre-date Disney, going back at least as far as Shakespeare? Sure, in Western culture, Epstein says. But folk tales and love stories from Asian cultures have, traditionally, ended differently from ours, he says, with more ambiguous endings—ones that we would find unsatisfying—even if the Westernization of the world is starting to change that.
The historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, agrees that Westerners would have more success with marriage if they thought of it more as a “working partnership,” as she puts it. Love ” doesn’t have to hit you like a storm and then move on.”
Companionate love may not be as romantic or fiery as passionate love, but scholars seem to agree that it ultimately makes couples happier and keeps them together longer. So maybe “Caught” should think twice before leaving her fiancé for the thrill and excitement of her childhood friend.