Bigger, Broader Meanings of Love and Romance

Soulmates? Love and romance come in so many more varieties

Posted May 11, 2008

A few weeks ago, Ted Sorensen - husband, father, and renowned speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy - was interviewed by the New York Times. Consider this excerpt: 

NY Times: "Was your working relationship with J.F.K. the great love affair of your life?"
Sorensen: "Yes, of course."

A public figure, a married man, says to the paper of record that the great love affair of his life was not with his wife but with his boss, the President.

Ted Sorensen is not listening to the music. Lyrics such as "You're my everything;" "I just want to be your everything;" and "How do I live without you?...You're my world, my heart, my soul" express the myth of modern marriage: Find "The One" and your whole life falls into place. No pursuit, no passion, no love could be any greater than the love you feel when you finally embrace your soulmate - not music, not scientific discovery, and surely not speechwriting.

To many Americans, the soulmate interpretation of love is not an interpretation, it is not a myth, and it is not modern. Rather, it is The Way It Is, and the way it always has been. I think I believed something like that myself, before I started doing the research for Singled Out. It didn't make any sense for me to believe in the soulmate mythology, since I have always been single, I've always loved my single life (well, except for the singlism and the matrimania), and I have never had any desire to become unsingle. Still, I figured I was the exception.

In my high school, history was taught by the athletic coaches, so we learned mostly about the history of the scoring that took place in the game the night before. I realized how woefully unprepared I was to take a real history course when I got to college, so I didn't. Those were the days when there were hardly any requirements. I took 19 psychology courses.

Once I started reading social history, all these years later, I was amazed at what I had missed. From Francesca Cancian's Love in America, I learned that less than a century before the married couple and their feelings for each other had become so glorified, "intimacy and sexual relations between spouses were NOT central and both spouses had important ties with relatives and friends of their own sex."

In Marriage, A History, Stephanie Coontz noted that during the 1800s, Westerners believed that "love developed slowly out of admiration, respect, and appreciation;" therefore, "the love one felt for a sweetheart was not seen as qualitatively different from the feeling one might have for a sister, a friend, or even an idea."

I don't think Americans have lost the bigger, broader senses of love and romance and passion and meaning that have probably been part of the human experience through the ages. Rather, I think that contemporary American society has been slow to give those experiences their due. It is ordinary, nowadays, to express one's love and devotion to a life partner. It is far from ordinary to do as Sorensen did and proclaim his life's work to be the great love affair of his life.

I've taken to gathering unabashed expressions of dedication to something or someone other than a soulmate. Here's a sampling from my collection.

In 2004, singer and songwriter John Mayer told Newsweek: "I really might just be the guy who loves playing music so much that [even] if I'm on a date with somebody, I can't wait to go home and play guitar. If I even seal the deal, I can't wait for them to leave so I can play the guitar."

Sometimes book titles say it all. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, for instance, is about the brilliant mathematician Paul Erdos, who spend decades "crisscrossing four continents, chasing mathematical problems in pursuit of lasting beauty and ultimate truth."

The title Liberty, A Better Husband comes from the diary of Louisa May Alcott. The author was writing about the single woman of antebellum America, who "envisioned her liberty as both autonomy and affiliation...Her freedom enabled her to commit her life and her capacities to the betterment of her sex, her community, or her kin."

For generations of women and men devoted to the cause of social justice, the meanings of love and passion have always transcended diamond rings and limestone altars.

Of course, Ted Sorensen, John Mayer, Paul Erdos, and Louisa May Alcott are in the stratospheres of their fields. That's not a requirement. Love and romance and meaning can be found in everyday life. In her book, The New Single Woman, Kay Trimberger described one woman's passion for flamenco dancing. A whole book full of tributes to big, broad meanings of love is what you will find in Isn't It Romantic? Finding the Magic in Everyday Life. Examples range from the love of nature and architecture to the "the romance of perfect solitude" and the weaving and cherishing of a "web of silver strings" between a Juilliard teacher of song and her vulnerable students.

There's a special place in my collection for the pairs of people who have said the following about one another: "We fell in love." "We are planning a future together." "We use the exact same expressions, sighs, and body language without realizing it, often at the same time." We are "memory banks for each other." All are quotes from friends, not lovers.

Here's one last example. This one comes from a woman writing about the appeal of working alone in her office at home:

"There I am drawn to the warm southern exposure, the familiarity of my papers strewn everywhere, piles on the bed, the floor, the desk. Mostly, I'm drawn to the stillness. The only sound is the muted hum of the computer. I've dreamed of a room like this for years but never imagined how comforting it would feel to walk in every day."

The person who wrote this was married, but was craving a sabbatical from her marriage. What she really wanted, at least for a while, was to be single. Now THAT's romantic!