OK, so today I want to talk about how we talk about love. And specifically, I want to talk about what's wrong with how we talk about love.
Most of us will probably fall in love a few times over the course of our lives, and in the English language, this metaphor, falling, is really the main way that we talk about that experience. I don't know about you, but when I conceptualize this metaphor, what I picture is straight out of a cartoon — like there's a man, he's walking down the sidewalk, without realizing it, he crosses over an open manhole, and he just plummets into the sewer below. And I picture it this way because falling is not jumping. Falling is accidental, it's uncontrollable. It's something that happens to us without our consent. And this — this is the main way we talk about starting a new relationship.
I am a writer and I'm also an English teacher, which means I think about words for a living. You could say that I get paid to argue that the language we use matters, and I would like to argue that many of the metaphors we use to talk about love — maybe even most of them — are a problem.
So, in love, we fall. We're struck. We are crushed. We swoon. We burn with passion. Love makes us crazy, and it makes us sick. Our hearts ache, and then they break. So our metaphors equate the experience of loving someone to extreme violence or illness.
They do. And they position us as the victims of unforeseen and totally unavoidable circumstances. My favorite one of these is "smitten," which is the past participle of the word "smite." And if you look this word up in the dictionary —
you will see that it can be defined as both "grievous affliction," and, "to be very much in love." I tend to associate the word "smite" with a very particular context, which is the Old Testament. In the Book of Exodus alone, there are 16 references to smiting, which is the word that the Bible uses for the vengeance of an angry God.
Here we are using the same word to talk about love that we use to explain a plague of locusts.
So, how did this happen? How have we come to associate love with great pain and suffering? And why do we talk about this ostensibly good experience as if we are victims? These are difficult questions, but I have some theories. And to think this through, I want to focus on one metaphor in particular, which is the idea of love as madness.
When I first started researching romantic love, I found these madness metaphors everywhere. The history of Western culture is full of language that equates love to mental illness. These are just a few examples. William Shakespeare: "Love is merely a madness," from "As You Like It." Friedrich Nietzsche: "There is always some madness in love." "Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love — "
from the great philosopher, Beyoncé Knowles.
I fell in love for the first time when I was 20, and it was a pretty turbulent relationship right from the start. And it was long distance for the first couple of years, so for me that meant very high highs and very low lows. I can remember one moment in particular. I was sitting on a bed in a hostel in South America, and I was watching the person I love walk out the door. And it was late, it was nearly midnight, we'd gotten into an argument over dinner, and when we got back to our room, he threw his things in the bag and stormed out. While I can no longer remember what that argument was about, I very clearly remember how I felt watching him leave.
I was 22, it was my first time in the developing world, and I was totally alone. I had another week until my flight home, and I knew the name of the town that I was in, and the name of the city that I needed to get to to fly out, but I had no idea how to get around. I had no guidebook and very little money, and I spoke no Spanish.
Someone more adventurous than me might have seen this as a moment of opportunity, but I just froze. I just sat there. And then I burst into tears. But despite my panic, some small voice in my head thought, "Wow. That was dramatic. I must really be doing this love thing right."
Because some part of me wanted to feel miserable in love. And it sounds so strange to me now, but at 22, I longed to have dramatic experiences, and in that moment, I was irrational and furious and devastated, and weirdly enough, I thought that this somehow legitimized the feelings I had for the guy who had just left me.
I think on some level I wanted to feel a little bit crazy, because I thought that that was how love worked. This really should not be surprising, considering that according to Wikipedia, there are eight films, 14 songs, two albums and one novel with the title "Crazy Love."
About half an hour later, he came back to our room. We made up. We spent another mostly happy week traveling together. And then, when I got home, I thought, "That was so terrible and so great. This must be a real romance." I expected my first love to feel like madness, and of course, it met that expectation very well. But loving someone like that — as if my entire well-being depended on him loving me back — was not very good for me or for him.
But I suspect this experience of love is not that unusual. Most of us do feel a bit mad in the early stages of romantic love. In fact, there is research to confirm that this is somewhat normal, because, neurochemically speaking, romantic love and mental illness are not that easily distinguished. This is true.
This study from 1999 used blood tests to confirm that the serotonin levels of the newly in love very closely resembled the serotonin levels of people who had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Yes, and low levels of serotonin are also associated with seasonal affective disorder and depression. So there is some evidence that love is associated with changes to our moods and our behaviors. And there are other studies to confirm that most relationships begin this way.
Researchers believe that the low levels of serotonin is correlated with obsessive thinking about the object of love, which is like this feeling that someone has set up camp in your brain. And most of us feel this way when we first fall in love. But the good news is, it doesn't always last that long — usually from a few months to a couple of years.
When I got back from my trip to South America, I spent a lot of time alone in my room, checking my email, desperate to hear from the guy I loved. I decided that if my friends could not understand my grievous affliction, then I did not need their friendship. So I stopped hanging out with most of them. And it was probably the most unhappy year of my life. But I think I felt like it was my job to be miserable, because if I could be miserable, then I would prove how much I loved him. And if I could prove it, then we would have to end up together eventually.
This is the real madness, because there is no cosmic rule that says that great suffering equals great reward, but we talk about love as if this is true.
Our experiences of love are both biological and cultural. Our biology tells us that love is good by activating these reward circuits in our brain, and it tells us that love is painful when, after a fight or a breakup, that neurochemical reward is withdrawn. And in fact — and maybe you've heard this — neurochemically speaking, going through a breakup is a lot like going through cocaine withdrawal, which I find reassuring.
And then our culture uses language to shape and reinforce these ideas about love. In this case, we're talking about metaphors about pain and addiction and madness. It's kind of an interesting feedback loop. Love is powerful and at times painful, and we express this in our words and stories, but then our words and stories prime us to expect love to be powerful and painful.
What's interesting to me is that all of this happens in a culture that values lifelong monogamy. It seems like we want it both ways: we want love to feel like madness, and we want it to last an entire lifetime. That sounds terrible.
To reconcile this, we need to either change our culture or change our expectations. So, imagine if we were all less passive in love. If we were more assertive, more open-minded, more generous and instead of falling in love, we stepped into love. I know that this is asking a lot, but I'm not actually the first person to suggest this. In their book, "Metaphors We Live By," linguists Mark Johnson and George Lakoff suggest a really interesting solution to this dilemma, which is to change our metaphors. They argue that metaphors really do shape the way we experience the world, and that they can even act as a guide for future actions, like self-fulfilling prophecies.
Johnson and Lakoff suggest a new metaphor for love: love as a collaborative work of art. I really like this way of thinking about love. Linguists talk about metaphors as having entailments, which is essentially a way of considering all the implications of, or ideas contained within, a given metaphor. And Johnson and Lakoff talk about everything that collaborating on a work of art entails: effort, compromise, patience, shared goals. These ideas align nicely with our cultural investment in long-term romantic commitment, but they also work well for other kinds of relationships — short-term, casual, polyamorous, non-monogamous, asexual — because this metaphor brings much more complex ideas to the experience of loving someone.
So if love is a collaborative work of art, then love is an aesthetic experience. Love is unpredictable, love is creative, love requires communication and discipline, it is frustrating and emotionally demanding. And love involves both joy and pain. Ultimately, each experience of love is different.
When I was younger, it never occurred to me that I was allowed to demand more from love, that I didn't have to just accept whatever love offered. When 14-year-old Juliet first meets — or, when 14-year-old Juliet cannot be with Romeo, whom she has met four days ago, she does not feel disappointed or angsty. Where is she? She wants to die. Right? And just as a refresher, at this point in the play, act three of five, Romeo is not dead. He's alive, he's healthy, he's just been banished from the city. I understand that 16th-century Verona is unlike contemporary North America, and yet when I first read this play, also at age 14, Juliet's suffering made sense to me.
Reframing love as something I get to create with someone I admire, rather than something that just happens to me without my control or consent, is empowering. It's still hard. Love still feels totally maddening and crushing some days, and when I feel really frustrated, I have to remind myself: my job in this relationship is to talk to my partner about what I want to make together. This isn't easy, either. But it's just so much better than the alternative, which is that thing that feels like madness.
This version of love is not about winning or losing someone's affection. Instead, it requires that you trust your partner and talk about things when trusting feels difficult, which sounds so simple, but is actually a kind of revolutionary, radical act. This is because you get to stop thinking about yourself and what you're gaining or losing in your relationship, and you get to start thinking about what you have to offer. This version of love allows us to say things like, "Hey, we're not very good collaborators. Maybe this isn't for us." Or, "That relationship was shorter than I had planned, but it was still kind of beautiful."
The beautiful thing about the collaborative work of art is that it will not paint or draw or sculpt itself. This version of love allows us to decide what it looks like.