To most Americans – and probably most Westerners – romantic love is the greatest love of all. In fact, romantic love is sometimes considered the very definition of love. We often use “love” as a shorthand for romantic love, just as we use the word “relationship” without even thinking that we need to specify that we mean “romantic relationship.”
Before I started studying single life, I had no idea that contemporary American views of love and intimacy were so narrow. Then I spent a long time reading.
When I wrote Singled Out, I summarized some of what I learned this way:
“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 with feelings for other mere mortals, it did not always come out ahead of the rest. As [Stephanie] Coontz notes, during the 1800s, Westerners believed that ‘love developed slowly out of admiration, respect, and appreciation’; 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.’
“…the way 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 construal 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.”
Is any of this changing? Maybe. More and more people are living single. Those people who do marry are, on the average, getting around to it later in life than ever before. Americans spend more years of their adult lives not married than married. One potential implication of these big changes is that we will start recognizing how much other kinds of people and pursuits matter to us. We may realize, for example, that a life filled with close friendships is a life filled with love. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have engaging and fulfilling jobs may feel freer to proclaim that we love our work. And if we are single, maybe we will be able to do so with less risk of being dismissed as using our work as compensation for not having a spouse.
There are so many ways that our lives can be filled with love. We should take a clue from the wiser people who preceded us, and embrace a multitude of meanings and experiences of intimacy and love.