Since the shattering dissolution of my ten-year relationship, I’ve been preoccupied with what constitutes “love.” What, exactly, is this emotion that has endlessly puzzled philosophers? Is it carnal passion? physical chemistry? Does it burn and blaze through our hearts until it’s extinguished by domesticity? Or is true love as stable as a 30-year mortgage and 2.5 kids? Is it dirty dishes and morning coffee?
Can love take many forms? Can it be romantic and platonic? ruled by the mind, body and heart? Can you have a sexual soul mate and an intellectual one?
After so much misfortune in the romantic arena, I wanted to learn how to distinguish infatuation from idealization, real intimacy from rushed intimacy, commitment from codependence, charm from manipulation, love from love-bombing. I became a lexicographer dedicated to reducing love to an accessible definition and understanding its many meanings. If I possessed the linguistic tools to name love, I would be better able— I hoped— to recognize it.
In many ways, our culture’s definition of love is unhealthy. From a young age, girls are bombarded with toxic messages, usually in the form of damsels-in-distress and Prince Charming bedtime stories. These fairytales teach us we’re Snow White: breathtaking but helpless creatures who require a handsome prince to awaken us from our spell-induced slumber. The result? When we grow up, we believe we need a knight-in-shining armor.
This idea that we need another person originates in the ancient world. According to Greek mythology, human beings were inseparably intwined with their soul mates until Zeus split us in two, dooming us to eternally wander the Earth in search of our other half, our “one.”
Today the belief in soul mates persists in sappy chick flicks and the prepackaged cliches of sentimental Hallmark cards. Though we swoon over the Platonic myth of our “other half,” at its base is the rather unhealthy conviction that we’re fundamentally incomplete and need someone else to make us whole. The uncoupled among us are seen as missing a vital piece of our soul. Women are especially taught to equate their worth to their relationship status. If we reach a certain age and still haven’t walked down the aisle, we’re pitied as lonely spinsters. “Poor Sheila, still single…and after all these years!” our relatives mercilessly gossip over cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner.
In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, a masterpiece of introspection worshipped as the first feminist bible and hailed as a genuine literary event, dedicated diarist and prolific poet Sylvia Plath challenges us to rethink our definition of a healthy relationship. During her 1950s era of shiny chrome appliances and the picture-perfect Beaver to Cleaver white picket fence, women only had one option: housewifery. Finding a husband was the end-all and be-all of her existence; she didn’t have an identity outside her marriage and mothering responsibilities. While her husband commuted on the morning train to his job where he practiced medicine, transacted business, administered justice, and delivered impassioned sermons, she tied an apron around her waist and cooked casseroles in quiet desperation. She might bake brownies for her son’s bake sale or attend the occasional PTA meeting, but her life was in large part circumscribed by his.
Though we’ve come a long way since the conventional gender roles of the 1950s, we still possess many of the same outdated ideas about relationships. “Real” love— we believe— is losing yourself in your partner; a “real” relationship is two lost and lonely “I’s” merging and melding to become a single unit. However, ancient philosophers and contemporary psychologists agree that the healthiest relationships strike a balance between distance and intimacy, independence and togetherness. A marriage should be a union of equals: one partner’s passions and preoccupations should never dominate the other’s. Ideally, a relationship is a reciprocal exchange—not a crusade for control or battle for power. To be satisfied with our significant others, we must have a shared life but also a life outside each other.
In a May 15, 1952 journal entry, Plath fashions the elegant metaphor of a Venn digram to illustrate that the happiest marriages are composed of two people with overlapping but independent identities:
“I plan not to step into a part on marrying— but to go on living as an intelligent mature human being, growing and learning as I always have. No shift, no radical change in life habits. Never will there be a circle, signifying me and my operations, confined solely to home, other womenfolk, and community service, enclosed in the larger worldly circle of my mate, who brings home from his periphery of contact with the world the tales only vicarious to me…No rather there will be two over-lapping circles, with a certain strong riveted center of common ground, but both with separate arcs jutting out in the world. A balanced tension; adaptable to circumstances, in which there is an elasticity of pull, tension, yet firm unity. Two stars, polarized…in moments of communication that is complete…almost fusing into one. But fusion is an undesirable impossibility— and quite non-durable.”
For more illuminating insights about love, read Alain de Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, dating as a form of performative playacting, love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment and how heartbreak hurls us into the depths of despair and dispels our hubris. If you’re feeling hopelessly incomplete without a partner this Valentine’s Day, remember Edna St. Vincent Millay’s consoling assertion that love is not all. Still struggling in the romantic department? Delight in Marcel Proust’s timeless advice on how to sustain a loving, long-lasting relationship.