Last night I was listening to an audio book that mentioned the relationship between Dante and Beatrice, celebrated as an example of romantic love at its finest. Dante, of course, wrote The Inferno. Beatrice was his cousin. He fell in love with her the first time he saw her, when he was nine. They didn't speak to each other until a few years later, and they never had what we would today call any kind of relationship at all. Instead, his love for her was in the mode of "courtly love" possibly "invented" during the Middle Ages.
I've written several times about the problem of mistaking romantic love, which may be evolution's way of making sure a couple stayed focused enough on their relationship to have sex and get pregnant, then keep the baby alive for the first couple of years, with committed love. Romance is fired by dopamine and lowered levels of serotonin, while committed love is fueled by oxytocin. (The theory goes.) Oxytocin produces a more "social" love; the oxytocin bond activates the same brain systems as trust and generosity.
This story from The Independent in the UK, Aspects of Love, illustrates the conflicting definitions we have of love. (Some of the interviewees also state as fact some of the neurochemical bases of emotion that haven't been completely proven yet, as I'm often guilty of doing, such as in the previous paragraph.)
I like what Alain de Bottom says:
One of the things that happened in the modern age was that suddenly people decided that romantic love could be put together with marriage, so the sort of feeling people always had around a lover, an intense romantic passion they thought might last a few months, you could stick that together with what people had always followed which was to get married.
And marriage used to be about "handing on the farm" to the next generation and suddenly it was thought you could have the farm and this great intense romantic relationship. You no longer needed what the aristocracy had suggested you always needed, which was a wife and a mistress, or the other way around if you were a woman. This idea that you can have romantic passion and the practical benefits of keeping a household together – modern society has fallen for this idea and it's making us miserable.
De Bottom is author of Essays in Love, which sounds pretty interesting.
In the Middle Ages and into Dante's time, marriages were arranged, and based on social and economic benefits. People might have had lovers and/or asexual romantic relationships like that of Dante and Beatrice. I don't think we can -- or should -- go back to that, but I wish our culture would learn to celebrate committed love the way we do romance.
The adorable embroidered heart is by Minha lojinha, a wonderful artist.