How Do You Know When It’s Love?

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A recent letter from one of my readers was a potent reminder of what I was like when I was in my teens.

It wasn’t pretty.

I was a classic otaku; I was going through the stage where the only things I wanted to talk about were anime, manga and the fact that I wanted to find The One in the worst way. To paraphrase the ever relevant 500 Days of Summer, I could blame this on an early exposure to sad British pop music and completely misunderstanding St. Elmo’s Fire1. And in fairness, my experiences at the time validated everything I was feeling. Love was everywhere. I didn’t just have a crush on a girl in high-school or college, I had a mad, all-consuming fire in my heart for her that meant I couldn’t eat or sleep.

Well… sleep, anyway. Eating somehow managed to take care of itself, actually.

Every time I was into a girl, I was in love with her with my entire heart and soul. When we broke up (and we always broke up… usually within a few months of getting together) it was a hideous tragedy that would break my heart into pieces, set them on fire and then piss in the ashes, just for good measure.

Maybe you’re shaking your head in familiar dismay. It’s something that everybody goes through… and the we all usually have the same realisation.

It took my first serious relationship to make me realize that I had absolutely no idea what love really was… and I needed a better handle on this whole “love” business if I didn’t want all of my relationships to end in tragedy.

Why Do We Keep Getting Confused?

Well… you can kinda blame the French for this one. The Western concept of romantic love comes from the concepts of courtly love and chivalry2, where knights had elaborate and – critically – platonic relationships with the ladies of the court to which they served. Marriage at the time, especially amongst royalty wasn’t about love but about property exchange, which meant that many noblewomen were in loveless marriages, often to husbands much older than they were. Bring someone in closer to their age as part of the court, often keeping in close proximity, and you’re going to end up with a lot of people with crushes and infatuations on one another that couldn’t be consummated because of a very strict sense of etiquette (and rather harsh punishments for adultery)… something that was actively encouraged in part by the culture at the time. Troubadours took the idea – lovers restrained by circumstance and law, unrequited love and the purity of love vs. the coarseness of sex – and ran with it. One of the most famous love stories in history – the story of Lancelot and Gueneviere – is based out of the Chivalric tradition and inserted into the legend of King Arthur by  Chrétien de Troyes in what would later become the basis of fanfic writers redefining the canon.

Give it another hundred years and this will be official.

The idea of “true love” being eternal, that love conquers all obstacles, that love is inherently monogamous, that lovers always think about the ones they love, that someone in love can’t eat or sleep for being “love-sick” over their crushes… all arise of the concept of courtly love, passed down through pop-culture for centuries.

The problem of course, is that this concept of “true love” tends to want to ignore things like biology and psychology and often doesn’t match up to reality.

So What’s The Problem?

When you’re young, you think you know everything there is to know about… well, everything. You’re the first generation to ever feel this way and nobody else can really understaaaaand, man.

It usually takes getting your heart stomped on a few times before you start to wise up and realize that you’ve been going about it all wrong.

On the left: your hopes and dreams. On the right: life.

The problem, y’see, is that while love may be all around us, it usually ends up hiding behind it’s various cousins that look an awful lot like love… and it’s incredibly easy to mistake them for the real thing. When your idea of what love is – and what to expect – is based on 80s New Wave albums and John Hughes movies, you end up with wildly unrealistic expectations, leading to a great deal of unhappiness for both you and your erstwhile romantic partner. It’s one thing to think that love is supposed to be a Bonnie Tyler video full of over-the-top choruses and heartfelt powerchords about how explosive and overwhelming love is, but it’s another entirely to try to base an entire relationship around it.

Also: Murderous psychic children.

Unfortunately, love is one of those things that you can’t describe directly. At best you can talk around it, about how it feels and how it affects us, even the physical effects like the generation of oxytocin… which is great for poetry and sappy top-40 ballads, but really bad for trying to sort out how you feel when you don’t have much of a basis for comparison. If you are trying to base a relationship on what you assume is love but is really one of it’s look-alike cousins, then you run the risk of needless heartbreak and disappointment when you realize that what you had was actually something much more fleeting.

  1. and a whole host of other romantic comedies []
  2. from chevalier – French knights. Told you: blame the French. []

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