Romantic love: just an illusion?

Saturday 18 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Cinema 3, Barbican Therapy Culture

The past 50 years have seen an acceleration of openness and tolerance about sex. It is now possible to discuss - and even do - almost anything; taboos have been aired and broken. In self-help, popular psychology, lifestyle magazines, websites and endless media discussions, sexual matters are discussed everywhere.

Yet in this seeming sexual free-for-all, romantic love remains at the heart of what is understood to be ‘good’ sex. Traditional morality, at least in the twentieth century, aimed to integrate the unruly quartet of sex, romantic love, marriage and children. The introduction of reliable and accessible contraception was a major part of the sexual revolution, and enabled most people to separate sex from procreation. However, the nature and value of romantic love remain intriguing and confusing matters.

Some people argue that our popular understanding of romantic love leading to marriage was largely an invention of Hollywood. Throughout history and in great works of literature, romantic love had little to do with marriage; love was adulterous or otherwise impossible. For Plato, eros was possible only between men, but without physical sexual expression; it was the first step on the ladder towards knowledge of the eternal Forms. For the medieval troubadours, it was a courtly love directed towards unattainable women. However, the twentieth-century film industry blended with the Puritan culture of America to promote romantic love as the basis of marriage and family. And more recent years have seen apparent breakthroughs in the ‘science’ of love, with neuroscience research underpinning claims that love can be understood as the release of chemicals and the activation of reward paths in the brain – sometimes manifesting itself as ‘love addiction’.

Perhaps love is more difficult to discuss than sex, since it exposes our personal vulnerabilities in more subtle ways. But what is romantic love? Is it on the wane? Do people experience it differently, or mean different things by it? What is, or should be, its role in sex and marriage? Is it always healthy, or is it – at least in extreme forms – an addictive mental disorder requiring ‘treatment’? To what extent are unrealistic expectations of love causing family breakdown? Can neuroscience shed any light on its nature? Why does romantic love normally yearn for reciprocation? What does it really aim at? Why is romantic rejection so painful?

Moreover, we live at a time when personal relationships are often seen as opportunities for various types of abuse. But perhaps such worries about power, abuse and inequality direct our attention away from what is most important and hard to express about us: namely, the subtleties of our feelings. For example, some women who have been badly treated by male partners say they stay with them because they love them. It is easy to re-interpret this ‘love’ as pathological dependence rooted in low self-esteem – and perhaps it is. But is this the whole picture? Is it not possible to love those who dislike us or who treat us badly?
Only humans fall in love, just as only humans laugh or cry -  and our understanding of love can only be expressed in personal, human terms. One important question is whether we lose sight of these subtleties if we are all assumed to have a group sexual ‘identity’, with the same emotions and political concerns. By airing these things politically, and with a veneer of ‘openness’, as in the ‘Equal Love’ movement, do we risk missing something of the individuality and fragility of this pervasive emotion?

This roundtable discussion will try to focus attention again on understanding and evaluating the fragile human feelings underpinning our relationships, and move away from the obsession with ‘sex’ that permeates the dreary and trite psychological and political discussions that tend to dominate in public discussion.

Listen to the debate:

Jennie Bristow
senior lecturer in sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University; author, The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges and Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict; co-author, Parenting Culture Studies

Simon May
visiting professor, King's College London; author, Love: a history

Dr Jane O'Grady
visiting lecturer, City University, London; obituarist, Guardian

Anders Sandberg
research associate, Future of Humanity Institute; Oxford Martin senior fellow; Oxford Martin School, Oxford University

Dr Piers Benn
philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics; visiting lecturer in ethics, Heythrop College, London and Fordham University, New York

Produced by
Dr Piers Benn philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics; visiting lecturer in ethics, Heythrop College, London and Fordham University, New York
Recommended readings
Viewpoint: Down with romantic love

Our idealised notion of romantic love is actually the biggest enemy of long-lasting relationships,

Mark Vernon., BBC, 13 February 2012

Love really is like a drug

Love (or maybe lust) not only blocks pain, it also seems to stimulate the same parts of the brain as cocaine

Ian Sample, Guardian, 13 October 2010

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