Post-Romantic Love: the secret history of love potion.
Updated: Feb 4
There are many secret ingredients of love potion, gradually added over the centuries to create a potent cocktail influencing ideas of what love is for and what it means. These ideas change with shifting societies and cultures, which mould the expectations, purpose and embodiment of it.
Many myths and tales attempt to teach the perils of indulging in love potion, lest we go blind on a midsummer’s night, and wary may we be, but the desire to swig on the good stuff is deeply embedded in our brains.
Regardless of the kind of relationships we might think we want, and the qualities we therefore seek in a partner, once spiked with love potion we can quickly find ourselves feeling differently. We may not even notice ourselves spiralling into old ideas of love and emotional patterns, created by stories and experiences that aren't really happening, and catalysed by powerful drugs that are designed to conquer our rational selves in one fell swoop.
So, where are we in the history of love and how did we get here?
Before the agricultural revolution, in hunter-gatherer communities, non-monogamous relationships improved the chances of producing strong offspring with many parents to look out for them. With the advent of ownership, personal property came to include sexual partners and children (1) - needed to maintain that property.
The idea of ‘courtly love’ originated in the Middle Ages from the Cathars - a Franco Christian sect that rebelliously worshipped the divine feminine in the face of a patriarchal church. The notion of ‘a woman who is more than a woman, the symbol of something so perfect and divine that she inspires a passion that goes beyond physical attraction, beyond love, to a sense of worship’(2) was, initially, an unattainable projection of religious ideals.
Tales of Guinevere and Lancelot, Tristan and Iseult, and, of course, Romeo and Juliet, told of the world turning upside-down when the divine order was interrupted by the physical manifestation of courtly love. Intended as warnings and symbolic initiations, these notions of spiritual soul love, were, however, absorbed by fairytales and presented as a realistic aspiration by mainstream culture.
Romantic love wasn't expected to be involved in marriage until this idea began to be challenged in the 19th century; Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' promoted a balance between management and affection as a basis for marriage - 'to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love”. Since then though, the balance seems to have tipped. Belgium reached a 71% divorce rate by 2015, due to 'expectations being unmet' (3).
The traditional love story holds 'an unattainable ideal before our eyes that blinds us perpetually to the delight and beauty of the here-and-now’, as ‘inherited ideals cause us to seek passion and intensity for their own sake’, whilst they ‘plant a perpetual discontent that can never find the perfection it seeks’ (2).
Perhaps a compass for different types of love might be useful when navigating the rocky terrains of romance. ‘Lust’, for example, has become a dirty word, but can be mutual and worthy, though easily mistaken for romantic love - both tending to idolise their subjects; vessels for pouring our unmet hopes, dreams and longings into.
The feelings associated with romantic love are largely down to dopamine: an addictive drug that causes OCD-like behaviour, designed to ensure the reproduction of our species (4). Dopamine induces cortisol and noradrenaline - the stress hormones which also enable the flight-or-flight response; hence the association between anxiety and danger, with new found love and sexual excitement.
A ‘Misattribution of Arousal’ experiment in 1974 involved a woman giving her number to men first on a wobbly string bridge over a canyon, and then on a safe and sturdy bridge; they were far more likely to feel aroused and call her if having met her in a state of peril (5).
‘Companionate love’, however, provides an antidote with its cocktail of calming hormones. Trusted commitment based on understanding and accepting of who one another is encourages the release of oxytocin (the 'bonding' hormone) and vasopressin (the 'cuddle' hormone) (4). Cultivating this combination requires time and intimacy - a willingness to be your honest self, which means being vulnerable and braving potential rejection or loss (6).
When the dopamine wears off, a terrible hangover can leave you craving more, or, a replacement therapy can be provided by a relaxing concoction of companionate connection. Maybe then, love is made, not found, and requires some conscious thought, rather than purely subconscious impulse. Feelings, fickle as they are, will come and go, and letting ourselves be driven by them risks a fleeting moment running away with a lifetime's love.
‘I thought love would adapt itself
to my needs.
But needs grow too fast;
they come up like weeds.
Through cracks in the conversation.
Through silences in the dark.
Through everything you thought was concrete.’ Alice Walker, 1979 (7)
Our needs aren't always clear or understood to us. This can be attributed to ‘attachment styles’, formed in the first few years of life or by traumatic adult experiences and informing how we relate to others, and ourselves.
Whether we're 'anxious’ or ‘avoidant’ (‘insecure attached’), or ‘secure’ attached, affects and is affected by our ability to regulate our emotions. To ensure our survival, the brain's limbic system uses the amygdala to store emotional memories, and refers to these when assessing immediate danger, so that it can react quickly, often before we're even aware of a 'threat'.
The hippocampus, which regulates the amygdala, is also affected by our early emotional experiences. If our needs aren't met by our primary care givers, the hippocampus doesn't fully develop and this causes an overactive amygdala, which is associated with insecure attachment styles and difficulty creating committed, trusting relationships (4).
Attachment style isn't one of the many useful things we might want to know that are missing from dating app profiles. The International Mate Selection Project asked 10 000 people across 37 countries to rank qualities in order of importance; kindness came first, followed by understanding, intelligence, exciting, easy going, creative, attractive, wants children, and wealth (- less important to women in countries with more gender equality) (4).
Concepts of ‘compatibility’ can be easily confused amidst millions of profiles, stories and conflicting emotions. When combined with drugs, an overactive amygdala and a menstrual cycle for good measure, it can be hard to keep hold of the rational mind.
In Ancient Greek there are six definitions of love: passionate love, compassionate love, playful love, committed love, friendship love and self-love. Yet, in English - the universal language - we have one word and expect everything of it. This lack of nuance can risk neglecting other types of relationships which might fulfil some of the needs that a partner cannot, and maybe shouldn’t be expected to. One person can’t be everyone.
The role of love will continue change with time, but love is a means, not an end, and, perhaps, by understanding some of these eternal battles at play under the surface, we might more easily spot ourselves when we're being ‘completely possessed and dominated by a set of beliefs we never chose’ (2); so that we can keep a clear view of the values likely to determine our life choices, along with a reasonable expectation of our species, and a compassionate view of our lovers.
1 ‘Monogomy’, Explained Season 1 (2018), Netflix
2 Johnson, R. (1983), ‘We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love’, Harper One.
3 The School of Life (2015), History of Ideas – Love, YouTube
4 Mucha, L. (2019), ‘Love Factually: The Science of Who, How and Why We Love’, Bloomsbury
5 Misattribution of arousal, Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron, Wikipedia
6 Brene Brown (2019), The Call to Courage, Netflix
7 ‘Did this Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot?’, from ‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning’, The Women’s Press