Look at the quote I found in my Facebook feed: “Having a soulmate is not always about love. You can find your soulmate in a friendship, too.” This sentiment contrasts love with friendship, as if love resides only in romantic relationships.
That’s what Westerners have come to think over the past decades. On weddings and on Valentine’s Day, especially, this narrow vision of love gets sentimentalized and endlessly perpetrated.
Such a small-minded conceptualization is unfair to love, which is a much broader, far-reaching, and more inclusive concept. In a popular version of how history unfolds, we often see ourselves as becoming more and more open-minded over time. But when it comes to love, the reverse is true. We’ve become more closed in our views.
I discovered how odd and restrictive our contemporary views of love are when I was researching Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After:
In medieval through early modern times, to describe the love for a spouse as the greatest love of all would have been sacrilegious. The most special place in anyone’s heart was supposed to be reserved for God. Over the years, many kinds of people and entities have been deemed deserving of love and affection. They have included spiritual figures and ancestors, immediate and extended family, friends and community.
Even when the love for a spouse was compared only to feelings for other mere mortals, it did not always come out ahead of all the rest. As Coontz noted, during the 1800s Westerners believed that “love developed slowly out of admiration, respect, and appreciation,” and therefore “the love one felt for a sweetheart was not seen as qualitatively different from the feeling one might have for a sister, a friend, or even an idea.”
Intense feelings did develop sometimes – often between two men. I’m talking about American men here, including men with wives. Until the turn of the 20th century, many men spent vast amounts of time in men’s clubs and fraternal organizations, and married men often shared closer bonds with their best friends than with their wives. Men with wives and children typically spent more time over the weekends with their male friends than with family, and they even vacationed with other men. None of this was stigmatized.
Women did the same. They traveled and vacationed with other women. The feelings of married women for their sisters and friends, and for their children, were often deeper than their affection for their husbands.
… the way that coupling is envisioned in contemporary American society is not universal, it is not timeless, and it is not human nature. Instead, the reigning American worldview may well represent one of the narrowest construals of intimacy ever imagined. Where once the tendrils of love and affection reached out to family, friends, and community, reached back to ancestors, and reached up to the heavens, now they surround and squeeze just one other person – sometimes to the point of asphyxiation.
The shortchanging of love is sad. But I see some encouraging signs of progress. For example, around Valentine’s Day, it is no longer unusual to find odes to bigger, broader meanings of love. At the Solo-ish column in the Washington Post, Lisa Bonos said, “Single or coupled, I’ve always treated Feb. 14 as a celebration of all kinds of love, not purely romantic. Love for myself, my parents and my friends.”
“When friendships last decades, those ties often bind much stronger than romance. When I attend a close friend’s wedding, I often think about how I’ve known said friend longer than their soon-to-be-spouse has. I can’t claim as much immediate intimacy, but there’s an intimacy of time that is in some ways deeper than the connection newlyweds enjoy.”
At the Secure Single blog, James Bollen reminds us that eros is just one kind of love; philia and agape love are important, too. A recent survey of a representative sample of American adults found that 82 percent of them favor a more expansive definition of Valentine’s Day that celebrates all kinds of love.
I heard similarly expansive sentiments when I interviewed people for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. So many people are sharing deep affection with people who are not romantic partners, sometimes even sharing a home with them – not as a temporary stop-gap but as a long-term way of life. In the subtitle of my book, I said they were redefining home and family, but they were also redefining love.
[A few other things: (1) My latest article in the Washington Post is, “Everything you think you know about single people is wrong.” (2) Just a reminder that you can find collections of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life here. Scroll down after you click the link.]
Friends photo available from Shutterstock