What love is — and what it could be

James Goldcrown

“Everyone is biased.” — Carrie Jenkins



We all frame the question of “What is love?” by our own most pressing concerns. For some of us, this question is a matter of whether or not love is “real.” For others, whether or not they’ll find it, or whether or not there’s only “the one.” My own biggest question is a matter of “legitimacy” and “agency.”

In What Love Is: And What It Could Be, Carrie Jenkins approaches the question as framed by her own biggest concern: monogamy.

Love as monogamy

“On the mornings when I walk from my boyfriend’s apartment to the home I share with my husband, I sometimes find myself reflecting on the disconnects between my own experiences with romantic love and the way romantic love is normally understood.”

The question she faces is whether the love she has for both her husband and boyfriend can be considered “love.”

She has the biological experience — the release of chemicals — but because her experience doesn’t fit neatly into the monogamous nuclear family model, she’s not sure if she can call it romantic — or “love.”

Sometimes “someone’s asked me a perfectly innocent question — ‘So how do you two know each other?’ — and unwittingly forced me to choose between giving a deceptive answer and providing what I know will be too much information… If I tell the truth — ‘he’s my boyfriend’ — to people who know me and my husband, it’s inevitably going to cause embarrassment… it turns out, it’s alarmingly easy to be dishonest while saying true things.”

Love as biology

Celebrity anthropologist Helen Fisher — famous for her fMRI brain scans of lovers, TED talks with millions of views, and books such as Anatomy of Love — suggests that:

“The dopamine-fueled intense rush of the early stages of romantic love defines it exclusively.”

But Jenkins argues that oxytocin, though normally associated with the calm phase of attachment and affection, should be just as valid an indicator for romantic love:

“It seems possible for romantic love to be calm and stable from the outset; why not?”

Helen Fisher also argues that monogamous romantic love was an evolutionary solution to “female neediness.”

“Once women became bipeds and, arms full, could no longer carry babies on their backs, we needed males for protection. Because men couldn’t protect whole harems of women, heterosexual monogamous nuclear families emerged as the norm.”

Jenkins counters this, pointing out that:

“If over 1 million years passed between the arrival of bipedalism and the evolution of love, then there must have been other solutions to the problem of having one’s hands full of babies that worked well enough to keep hominid evolution going.”

One possible solution being, perhaps, a network of partners — contested only by social constraints.

Love as society.

Theorists such as Anne Beall and Robert Sternberg describe romantic love as a social construct.

Romantic love in Victorian England was based on “respect and admiration for the beloved, rather than sexual desire.”

In our contemporary society, the script of “love” tells us that we are expected to fall in love, marry, have children, and be monogamous for life. We get tax breaks for doing this, and are punished for choosing otherwise, which is why divorce is such a messy business, and why anyone who deviates from the norm is ridiculed, if not shamed.

“Love” is more readily defined as our progress down this path — and our feelings regarding the person with whom we want to travel it — and less about the human:human emotional investment.

Love is subjective

Jenkins tells us right away that: “everyone is biased.”

She comes at the question of what love is “as a philosopher” only because she happens to be one, and for the most part uses philosophy as little more than a writing framework — bumpers on her bowling lane — as she proceeds down the path she was otherwise already going to take.

“The heart wants what it wants.”

This book isn’t so much about “love” — in the way anyone else might define it — as it is about the question of monogamy.

But for Jenkins, those are one and the same.

But at the same time, she encourages the reader to:

“Think about love for yourself.”

If we need to get rid of the “romantic mystique” in order to understand what romantic love is, declaring that it’s whatever we want it to be — and does whatever we want it to do — risks creating even more confusion and mystery.

Jenkins points to this as one of the most alarming problems in our society; that is, we don’t know what love is, we treat it as something too mysterious to question, and we’re afraid that if we do question it, we’ll destroy it.

Yet, since many people make major life decisions based on their romantic feelings, not to try to better understand is perplexing if not downright dangerous, since, as Jenkins suggests, we might end up in relationships and with families that we did not actively choose.

And so, Jenkins suggests our best answer to “what love is” might be:

Whatever you choose. But always something worth deliberately thinking about.


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