A Better Way to Talk about Love

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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.

 

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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."

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.

...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. 

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.

...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.

- Mandy Len Catron