Sirens, Centaurs & Soulmates: The Myths of Modern Love

Sofia Weiss 20 December 2018
Image Credit: 'Young Love' by Mike Kniec

It’s somewhat ironic that it is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Shakespeare’s Lysander bemoans “the course of true love never did run smooth”; true love, in the form that most modern sources sell it to us, is – to my mind – almost as unrealistic as a man’s head being replaced by that of a donkey. Let me explain. Films, musical lyrics, and – as much as it pains me to admit it – literature are all filled with depictions of a love that is developed immediately, and is paradoxically effortless, yet long-lasting. Unhelpfully, we abet these misconceptions of love by recapitulating them through the ways that we talk, particularly as young adults now beginning to seriously contemplate the nature of relationships; there is a popular rhetoric of phrases such as, but not limited to, ‘love at first sight’ and ‘being struck by Cupid’s arrow’.

If truly used colloquially, this is harmless lexicon. My fear is though, that their repeated spouting in the artistic sources we are exposed to most, particularly from adolescence onwards, means that we’re growing up a generation that wrongly defines love. In our societal conscience we ascribe erroneous validity to ideas such as those of soulmates, and their need to be found early on in life. Particularly, there seems to be a spuriously strong emphasis placed on university as the match-making hotspot; as if somehow, by twenty-one years old we should instinctively know and have found a ‘right’ lifelong companion. For a fortunate few this may be the case, but there is no reason to believe, contrary to modern love’s propaganda, that it is a necessity.

And this is only one example. It seems to me that we are surrounded by a misplaced emphasis on what psychologists have termed ‘limerence’, that is, the state of infatuation that results from a romantic attraction to another person. We confer to this the label of ‘love’, in all its commitment, when in actuality, what we are dealing with is attraction; or, in other words, the state which has the potential to lead to love, but which is distinct from it. This initial connection is a product of complex brain chemistry and – frankly – near industrial quantities of sex hormones flooding our young bodies. I would not only feel it rather ridiculous if these were the measures on which my future life partner was to be decided, but also, I would be thoroughly disappointed that this is the extent of intimacy I should expect.

Therein, our obsession with limerence represents a particular carving up of the semantic domain of love that is at best, unhelpful and at worst, simply wrong. From those I’ve spoken to and experienced in contented, long-term relationships, you’re not overcome by an undeniable sense of knowing on meeting. In fact, it is when the initial euphoria fades and the real work of building lives that run together begins, that the loving truly takes hold. Our massive cultural delusion about the nature of real love means though, that most people interpret this diminished feeling and onset of perceived ‘effort’ as a celestial sign that they’re in the wrong relationship. They then walk away – oftentimes, into a revolving door of repeating this cycle. And, in all honesty, this isn’t exclusively their fault; how can we blame people for buying the saccharine, mass-produced perception of love that we’re so readily allowing to be sold?

Nonetheless, if we are to find lasting, fulfilling relationships, there is work to be done towards a re-evaluation of love. My own favourite definition of it, and one which I believe to what is close to the ‘truth’ of the experience, is one given by Frank Tallis, in his book ‘The Incurable Romantic’. He writes: “the real metric by which we can gauge the authenticity of love is […] by how far we can stand apart and still be together”. If we can begin to recognise that love is an act of will, both an intention and an action, we stand to tolerate the slow eddies of relationships without feeling the need to jump ship. And if we can do this, we may find that – released from the weight of expectation – the most meaningful relationship we are likely to experience in this life can begin to flourish, withstanding much adversity.

So let’s ignore the rom-coms, and remember both that we do not need to rush to find love, and that once we feel we have it, we actually need to work to treasure it.