To Love or Not to Love?

Love is a polarized emotion, both revered and loathed due to its intensity.

Posted Feb 14, 2020

“Love is a smoke raised with the fumes of sighs,” Romeo says in the very beginning of Romeo and Juliet, expressing his misery that Rosaline does not love him back. 

Shakespeare’s words written four centuries and change ago resonate today and speak to the emotional rollercoaster on which love can take one. Rather than be perceived as a simple joy of life, as one might expect, romantic love has been considered a problem and nuisance in America over the past century, we repeatedly hear upon tracing its history. Much like its emotional sibling, happiness, love has proved to be a challenging and frustrating pursuit, filled with complexities and contradictions.

Many, perhaps most, Americans have struggled to find and preserve love, while others have rejected the emotion wholesale, not wanting or willing to take on the commitment it requires. The heartache that comes with losing love is just as or even more powerful as that comes with having it, research shows, reason enough for a fair number of people to think of it in negative terms or decide to opt out.

Alongside this widespread dismissal of romantic love has been, paradoxically, the recognition that it is the deepest and richest experience of which we are capable. Much of the stuff of life pales in comparison to being in love, as many of us who have taken the plunge can attest. Love is a polarized emotion, it is clear, both revered and loathed because of its intensity.

Collectively, we both seek love out and avoid it, fully aware of its rewards and risks. What we choose to do as individuals has as much to do with what is going in our lives at a particular moment in time. Timing is everything in life, one can say, especially when it comes to love. Love means different things at different points in one’s life, part of the ephemeralness and evanescence of the emotion. The tendency of love to come and go as it likes is one of its most confounding aspects, and evidence that we are not in full control of the emotion.

The idea that we are not in charge of love, that we “fall” into it or out of it as circumstances dictate- reflects our inclination to view it as a mysterious, almost supernatural force that can never be truly understood. Although we are a more religious people than many others around the world (a majority in our society believe in God), we are also a largely rational people, drawn to logic, practicality, and common sense.

Falling in love is not at all a rational act, yet most of us are willing to fully invest ourselves in what some have called a mental pathology or temporary state of insanity. We often fight the feeling (“I wish I wasn’t so in love with you” is a refrain heard often in fiction and I believe real life), but still, ultimately give in or succumb to the emotion. Love is thus a leap of faith that we had not intended on taking, and a concession of sorts to a higher power that dictates how we will spend much of the rest of our lives.

This willingness to enter into a kind of altered state of consciousness is largely a result of the training in love we receive in our youth. Americans learn the narrative of romantic love at an early age, something that will serve as a central part of one’s personal identity over the course of a lifetime. (At age six, my daughter announced her intention to marry a certain classmate when she became an adult. It is not unusual for kindergarteners to pair off as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” and consider themselves "engaged.") This announcement of love is a direct result of children both mirroring their parents and embracing the live-happily-ever-after endings embedded in books, movies, and television shows. 

The oft-mentioned observation that romantic love is a fairy tale thus has much truth to it. Marketers of entertainment aimed at kids have taken the trope of romantic love and ran with it, reinforcing the idea that meeting and settling down with a special person is the key to a happy, fulfilling life. The notion that there is one and only one person who is truly capable of serving as a life partner has helped to locate love within the realm of destiny and fate and to define the experience as one that is somehow divinely ordained.