Why We Should Rethink Our Understanding of Love
Romeo and Juliet represent a romance from the past.
Posted Sep 17, 2019
My most recent book, On the Evolution of Intimacy: A Brief Exploration of the Past, Present, and Future of Gender and Love, begins with a topic that could not be more radical and significant in its implications. Our times are requiring us to engage a fundamentally new chapter in the experience we call love.
What I describe in the book is most obviously significant because of its implications for what fulfilling relationships in times ahead will require of us. But arguably it is even more significant because of the hard-to-refute evidence it provides for the broader needed cultural “growing up” that Creative Systems Theory refers to as Cultural Maturity.
We tend to regard love as we have known it in modern times, love of the Romeo and Juliet sort, as an ideal and endpoint. It turns out that not only has love as we have known it not been some last word, it has not even been what we thought it was about. Understanding just how this is so—and also what more is becoming possible—has major implications for understanding what our times are asking of us more generally.
I first wrote about loves changes over three decades ago in an article I titled “A New Meaning for Love.” No piece I’ve written since has been more often cited. In it, I observed that throughout our most recent chapter in culture’s story, intimate bonds have involved two people, each functioning as parts, coming together to create a whole. Our job with love has been to find our “better half.” I also observed how such two-halves-make-a-whole bonds draw on the mechanism psychologists call projection. Men project more feminine parts of themselves onto women, and women do the reverse. The result has been a reliable kind of magnetism.
In its time, this two-halves-make-a-whole dynamic has provided a rich and effective kind of connecting. But something different is being asked of us today. Increasingly we are being challenged to connect not as two halves, but as separate whole beings. Bonding as two halves is a difficult security to surrender, but increasingly we are finding that there is really no choice. When one part of us tries to make someone else our solution, another part quickly acts to undermine it. We find ourselves creating struggle, doing something to put the other off, anything to regain our embryonic yet critical connection with a new sort of completeness in ourselves. Increasingly it is possible to love only to the degree to which we can find ways to relate to another person while remaining fully ourselves.
On the Evolution of Intimacy addresses these changes in more depth. A brief excerpt from the book:
"For these changes to make complete sense, we need to step back for some big-picture historical perspective. The whole notion that love is something that changes can be hard for people to get their minds around. We tend to assume that love is an eternal notion—that love is love. And if we do recognize that our ideas about love have evolved, we are likely to assume that love, as we have known it in our time, represents a culminating ideal. But in fact, love as we have tended to think of it—romantic love—is a relatively recent cultural “invention”—a product of our Modern Age (We idealized romantic love in the Middle Ages, but that was unrequited love—love held at a safe, abstract distance)—and, by all evidence, not an endpoint. Romantic love is appropriately celebrated. It has provided a powerful step forward in love’s evolution—toward, among other things, greater authority in our lives. Previously, love’s determinations were made by families or by a matchmaker. But there is no reason to expect romantic love to be the end of love’s story.”
"An easily startling recognition implied in what I have described supports the importance of something more. The modern-age Romeo and Juliet ideal represents something quite different from what we have assumed it to be about. We’ve tended to think of romantic love as love based on individual choice. But while choice set against the constraints of family expectations is without question much of what makes Romeo and Juliet a compelling tale, the modern age romantic ideal is not yet about individual choice in the sense of choosing as separate whole people."
An additional recognition makes the need for something further even more clear and inescapably important. Love as we have known it necessarily involves distortion. With romantic love, the bond is created through the projection of parts of ourselves. And as always happens with projection, we also mythologize the other, in this case making that person the magic answer to our lives (or, at less pleasant moments, the great cause of our suffering). Not only is romantic love not yet love between whole people, but it also is not yet love that reflects who the two people involved actually are.
The fact that love, as we have witnessed it to this point, has been based on projection becomes obvious with reflection. Projection is what makes it possible to fall quickly in love with no real knowledge of the other person. It is also what makes it possible for the sound of wedding bells at a movie’s conclusion to assure us that the protagonists will live “happily ever after” when, in fact, love’s journey has barely begun.
The common result when we fall out of love provides even more inescapable evidence. People tend to assume that we will then have distaste, even antipathy for the other person—which, with high frequency, is what we in fact feel. Notice that this outcome makes no sense if love had been between two whole people; if we had loved each other simply for who we are. The ending of such a relationship can bring significant sadness, but only in very unusual circumstances would antipathy be warranted. Why do we assume antipathy? When love involves projection, antipathy is needed in order to extract the projected part and regain our full sense of ourselves.
It is important to appreciate that up until very recently romantic love’s projective mechanisms have served us. Much of the "glue" of relationship—the magnetism of love and the basis of commitment—has come from this giving away of key dimensions of ourselves to the other. Not only have these mechanisms benefited us, but they have also made love possible. Making the other our answer has shielded us from uncertainties and complexities that we could not before have tolerated. But, like it or not, two-halves-make-a-whole relating is ceasing to work. In my work as a therapist, I increasingly find people seeking more complete kinds of connecting. I don’t see more Whole-Person love as some luxury. I think the future of intimacy depends on our ability to realize this new and fuller kind of connecting.
Understanding how fundamentally love is changing has been most obviously important in my work as a therapist. It is very difficult to help people find rewarding love in our time without some sense of how love before has worked and what necessarily becomes different if love is to continue to work going forward. But, as I’ve suggested, there is ultimately a more fundamental and consequential kind of significance. Love’s changes provide some of the best evidence for Cultural Maturity’s more encompassing changes. We are most immediately alerted to this more fundamental kind of significance with the observation that such changes are not limited to love relationships. In previous books, I’ve documented how we see related changes reordering friendships, parenting, leadership, and even relationships between nations.
Love’s changes also provide one of the most easily-grasped ways of appreciating just what Cultural Maturity’s changes more generally ask of us. The recognition with the most immediate and dramatic implications is imbedded in my observation that modern age romantic love has not been about individual choice in the sense that we have assumed. Creative Systems Theory calls it “The Myth of the Individual.” It turns out that our times are requiring us to fundamentally rethink what it means to be a human being. Creative Systems Theory describes how Cultural Maturity’s changes are products of an essential kind of cognitive reordering. The result, what it calls Integrative Meta-perspective, makes it possible to step back and more deeply engage the whole of our cognitive complexity. In the process, we are able to bring a new completeness to how we understand systems of all sorts, including ourselves.
In my various writings, I argue that if the notion of Cultural Maturity is not essentially correct, we may be in deep trouble. I describe how addressing—or even just making sense of—any of the most consequential challenges ahead for the species will require culturally mature capacities. The consequences if we fail to bring the needed greater maturity to bear with love may not be so immediately cataclysmic. But changes reshaping love provide one of the best ways I know to understand the broader changes needed if we are to successfully advance as a species.