What Love Is and What It Could Be

Ah love. So hotly debated. So questioned, lamented, pondered, considered.

Why shouldn’t there be another run at defining what love is? Vancouver philosopher Carrie Jenkins takes another stab at defining romantic love (specifically) in What Love Is and What it Could Be.

She delves into what it is. Is it biological? Is it a social construct? A cultural structure? A figment of our imagination entirely? (Okay, I added that last point). Jenkins examines what romantic love has been defined as previously. Man, woman, meet, get married (either to increase wealth or some sort of social standing, only later was it a choice based on some proximation of love), have baby/babies, die. She points out our modern concepts of romantic love are changing—people are open to both interracial relationships, and same sex ones. She points out that polyamorous relationships are still struggling to achieve mainstream acceptance.

Jenkins also points out (a lot) that women have been marginalized in many historical portrayals of romantic love. They’ve been used as property, been given love as a form of rescue, been shown mercy by those who love them when they couldn’t bare children, been exchanged from one man to another etc.

She makes some good points, kills some bad arguments, offers some new ideas, quoted, in no particular order as follows:

“…love and sex are not in any kind of opposition. They are not the same thing, but they’re not competitors either.”

“…love is far too powerful to cede to any one political ideology. In reality, there is nothing conservative about love per se: it has been a site of radical social change, just as it has been a site of stability and tradition.”

“The idea of partners as resources or property is a cultural hangover: a remnant of monogamy’s origins in the possession and control of women as a route to assure paternity and the inheritance of a man’s wealth by his biological children.”

“I have no patience with the equation of people as property.” (Strongly agree).

“This default expectation that biological kids are on the horizon as soon as love becomes serious—and especially once a couple is married—can cause harm, both to adults and to children. It can lead people to have kids simply because it’s expected …”

“Wealth may or may not be a commodity suitable for state redistruction, but women definitely are not.” (Yep). Jenkins uses this point to cut down arguments that polyamorous love will impact the ability of men to have access to their fair share of women. Gross, on so many levels.

“Getting a proper grip on the biology of love may help us unravel the idea that there is one biologically superior way to love.”

The author makes the point that we should understand what love is because it is better for us and will help us create new perspectives on love. Ultimately, love is not one thing. “I propose a new theory of romantic love. At its core is the idea that romantic love has a dual nature: it is ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role.”

I think it’s important to understand what love is for ourselves. Ultimately, how can we define what it is for other people? I’m not even sure we should.

I think love is, or should be, inherently expansive. Culturally, we should all be a lot less worried about who other people love and how they love. Let people be. Be open to other people’s versions of love. Then, we’d have more room for kindness, empathy, acceptance and compassion. And those qualities may prove to be more important than romantic love anyway.

Carrie Jenkins was at Event 12 (That Thing Called Love)  at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.

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