What’s “love” got to do with it?

On May 6, 2010, Savage Love featured a letter from “Transitions and Crossroads.” The writer asked about her prospects with a guy who wanted to reevaluate the relationship. “I can’t say that I’m sure I’m in love with him”, she wrote, “but I do know that we thoroughly enjoy each other’s company and miss each other immensely when we are not together.”

Savage responded

You enjoy spending time together, you miss each other when you’re apart, you want similar things (commitment, kids)—that sure sounds like love to me. And if it’s not quite love, TAC, it’s close enough to round up to love.

…The way many people in long-term relationships talk about their relationships…can do a real disservice to the single and/or dating. …no one in a successful LTR knew for sure that it was true and lasting love until it lasted. And after the passage of time proves that we bet on the right person, we stuff those early doubts, insecurities, and issues down the ol’ memory hole and start telling people how “sure” we were right from the start.

…And that would be fine if single people within earshot weren’t forced to listen to our smug bullshit, some of whom go home thinking, “Well, this person I’m seeing—this person I enjoy spending time with, this person I miss terribly when we’re apart—she must not be ‘the one’ because…I’m not sure.

It seems the word “love” no longer has actual meaning. The words “democracy” or “fascism”, as Orwell points out in Politics and the English Language, lack any agreed definition and exist simply to communicate either approval or disapproval respectively of any form of government. Perhaps “love” is the same: while the word has no “agreed definition”, we can loosely understand that it describes how we feel about avocado on toast and how we don’t feel about Abbott’s use of taxpayer funds to promote his book Battlelines.

a picture of a delicious meal inccluding avocado

Avocado: a lovable alternative to parliamentary misconduct.

The situation Orwell describes arose as “democracy” and “fascism” became weasel words detached from any objective criteria. Not linked to any concrete meaning, the words could then be used without fear of contradiction by defenders of any kind of regime. Similarly, “love” is no longer taken to mean a specific feeling (“I thoroughly enjoy your company”) and instead is a symbol with various and inconsistent interpretations.

This is concerning. If we continue to use “love”, particularly in the solemn company of “I” and “you”, we risk misunderstanding. Curiously, there is still a tendency to assume that we all understand “love” to mean the same thing. Thus, a person who uses “I love you” to mean “I thoroughly enjoy your company and miss you when we’re apart” risks being understood to mean “I want you to stop seeing other people and move in with me and cook me eggs on the weekends”. (Particularly troubling as eggs are best cooked on stoves, not weekends). We might also fail to recognise love when it is present, thinking that our doubts or the peccadilloes of our partner preclude the use of “love”, thinking that it is something for other, better, more successful relationships.

The letter with which I opened illustrates the problem. The writer seems to love her partner but doesn’t feel comfortable using the word, perhaps because of what it would suggest, perhaps because of her own uncertainties about the relationship. Yet Savage reminds her and us that “love” doesn’t mean “forever”, “love” doesn’t mean “certainty”, and “love” definitely doesn’t mean never having to say “I’m sorry”. Implicitly, Savage reframes love as basically delight in one another’s company, and reassures the writer that her doubts about the relationship aren’t inconsistent with that. By emphasising the component parts of love – enjoying shared company, missing one another – Savage tries to establish a mutually-understood definition which allows him to write “love” confident that his audience will understand what he means by the word. He attempts, too, to empower “Transitions and Crossroads” to use the word more confidently herself.

John Fowles, in The Magus, observes that “in our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love.” We are no longer puritans: we are happy to refer to chicken breast as such, instead of as ‘white meat’. Sex, we can safely say, is on the menu. Yet if you want to order love you better be on good terms with the waiters. Thankfully, we continue to find joy with one another, to experience the bittersweetness of missing a loved one, to know the riches of shared existence. Sadly, though, we now deny ourselves the right to call this what it is.

In an earlier time, homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name”, a taboo that could not be broached. We’ve come far since then. But there’s a way to go.


One Response to “What’s “love” got to do with it?”

  1. Ayn Rand said in The Fountainhead that: “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I’.”

    The analysis she surrounded it with is a little suspect, but the sentence itself rings true for me. The people who are able to give most generously are the ones who are self-possessed.

    I think Transitions and Crossroad’s crisis of confidence tells us more about herself than it does about her relationship.

    Anyway, not quite on topic but thought I’d respond.

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