Love is often heralded as the highest virtue or even considered ‘The Answer’ to the trials and tribulations of life. But are we overselling it? Here, I take a look at what it is to love people, but also to love ideas and ideology.
Firstly, I think it is crucial to distinguish between loving and being in love.
To love is to cherish. To love is to recognize the value of someone or something, but to also have the capacity to do so at a distance. In other words, we can be smarter about the people or things that we love. To love is to feel secure in and understand what we love. We are not necessarily slaves to what we love, and we can determine the frequency of our exposure to the things we love and find the right balance.
However, lurking in love’s shadow, is being in love.
Unlike the controlled appreciated and respect of the things we love, being in love lacks control and regulation. It is the vacuum or the placeholder for someone or something; a space that is occupied by obsession and fantasy until it can be filled. If the in-love-ness is focused on a person, the fantasy could even be so wild that if this magical person ever did reciprocate, it could cause extreme dissolution and unhappiness for the person who got their wish.
The temporal nature of the state of ‘being in love’ clearly varies from person to person; some people seem to be in love for longer periods of time than others. It would be interesting to see if people with a particular genotype were more susceptible to this feeling, or if there are certain life experiences that end up shackling a person with these heavy feelings. Falling out of love also varies by time taken; it could be sudden with a powerfully aversive event or happen over time. Falling out of love might simply means that the person has necessitated the need for a different fantasy, or simply, the need the fantasy addresses is no longer present.
There is the expectation with in-love-ness that at some point the bridge will be made to reality, resulting in the immediate addressing of one’s need to be in a loving relationship. Once the bridge has been crossed, the in-love-ness has served its purpose and will start to dissipate. If the in-love-ness has been reciprocated, the rose-tinted goggles typically come off (after the honeymoon), and what is left (ideally) is a good and well-reasoned chance of a sustaining, and loving relationship.
Perhaps, the meaning of “In love” changes from short term relationships to long term, when obsession gives way to familiarity and habit. This isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds, as I’m convinced an active relationship can trigger falling in love with the same partner again, and again, and again, and I think it is folly to underrate familiarity and habit.
If the in-love-ness has not been reciprocated for a long period of time, I think most of us would argue that this is not healthy. Not that this person should be ridiculed, but we would certainly hope that this person can learn to move on, constructively, and in a way that benefits their life.
The reason that extended periods of in-love-ness are not healthy is because of the presence of obsession and fantasy. A desperate desire to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality might lead to unhealthy behaviors such as stalking or worse. Fantasies are generated from imagination, and even if the desired person is known, personally, the person in love still only has a limited perspective of the desired person’s personality and life. This means that the desired person, in all likelihood, has been heavily objectified – they are an object to gratify a fantasy under the script of its author.
Prolonged periods of fantasizing and obsessing could therefore lead to a complete inability to respect the desired person as themselves, which could certainly never be healthy grounds for a relationship, but could also lead to criminal behavior. It is also possible that sustained obsession, coupled with heavy fantasization, could also motivate one not to bridge the gap from fantasy to reality, but actually enact the fantasy, which will also likely lead to criminal behavior.
There is a subservient quality to in-love-ness, a willingness to make unquestioning sacrifices for the wellbeing of the desired person. This can be a double whammy, because there have been studies that show people who are physically attractive (popular targets of in-love-ness), are considered trustworthy. It doesn’t take much of a leap here to see how easy it could be for the desired person to take advantage of somebody (maybe not even intentionally).
In-love-ness turns people into obliging, indeed willing, slaves. They become vulnerable and easy to wound, borne of their desire for reciprocity and recognition. People usually strive to make themselves less vulnerable, which tells you just how powerful our need for love really is.
Would people want to willingly remain in a perpetual state of in-love-ness?
Being in love provides hope (through fantasy), which is further reinforced by the pain and longing for something real. The pain and longing become currency that is invested towards a big future pay off, therefore sustained periods of pain and longing could make the person feel like they are owed something huge and rewarding. This is not dissimilar from The Gambler’s Fallacy: The idea that the more resource you direct towards achieving a reward, the more chance owes you something.
But of course, chance owes you nothing, and if your desired partner has no wish to reciprocate, they owe you nothing, too.
There are also those who seem to acknowledge that the target of their in-love-ness is unattainable. The person might be married or simply not interested. As in-love-ness provides hope, this could be a preferred state to feeling the despair of loneliness, and in a weird way it also provides focus for thoughts, inoculating one against chaos and thoughts of an uncertain future. Simply put, in-love-ness helps one to move through time in a lesser state of anguish. An unattainable person could also be preferred because while they remain as an object in a fantasy they cannot hurt the person in love. Based upon a person’s previous experiences, this might be important to them.
To be in love with an idea, or a body of ideas, does seem a little absurd or even funny on the surface. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense to fall in love with people, because it helps to promote intimacy, which is (should be) rewarding, and helps the species survive. This is not always the case, as sometimes desires are not reciprocated, but as with all evolution it only has to work enough of the time. To fall in love with ideas seems a bit silly, as ideas cannot themselves reward us with intimacy and a reciprocal loving relationship. However, ideas are great for fantasizing, which we have seen to be an important part of in-love-ness. Perhaps ideas are a proxy for in-love-ness of our perfect world, with our perfect and desired partner(s)?
Being in love with a body of ideas or an ideology can only ever be a fantasy, and maintaining the ideology perpetuates the fantasy, sometimes for the duration of a person’s entire life – or to state conversely, until their death. Ideology cannot reciprocate in an immediate way, which is perhaps why some ideologies promote life after death ideas (it will reciprocate/pay off in the end). Can you imagine if you were in love with a person until the end of your life, somebody who never reciprocated, solely because you believed they were your gateway to a good afterlife? You might have been motivated to find somebody else, or accept the sacrifice of a miserable and unrewarding life for the benefits of a rewarding afterlife (sound familiar?).
It is impossible to talk about in-love-ness without talking about religion. The relationship that truly religious people have with their religion or their god is an intimate one, which perhaps explains the often frustrated or even violent responses to those who criticize or attempt to cast doubt on the core concepts. Religious events, such as services, mass, or even rallies tend to move the attendees in deep emotional ways. The promises of unconditional love, peace, and a serene afterlife are accepted with the same rose-tinted goggles that come with being in love.
There is no mistaking the look of intense longing and suffering that comes with in-love-ness on the faces of the deeply religious.
Religion has also conflated people with ideology. A god is nothing but a person with big ideas attributed to them. And the offspring of gods, when they copulated (or immaculately conceived) with mortals, such as Heracles and Jesus, have further combined flesh with ideas and symbology. Jesus, who is certainly unattainable, at least in the traditional sense of marriage, nonetheless sees marriages to him to many women in the Catholic Church, and in a similar sense, nuns have also become Brides of Christ.
Understanding the mindset of in-love-ness can therefore be used to understand the mechanics behind worship. Longing and suffering in the hopes of an eventual pay off, fantasizing, the complete will to sacrifice for the desired, and the need to pass through life with minimal but familiar pain. Islam even translates as submission, just as we do for anything we are in love with. Faith, the unquestioning and blind acceptance of an idea or ideas, is also facilitated behind rose-tinted goggles.
The merits of in-love-ness in religion can be disputed, however, its presence cannot.
Love can certainly be virtuous, but there are many demons in its shadow.