Cynics may be onto something. Romantic love, I suspect, is different now than it used to be, and I mean that in a chemical way. Not that romantic love is such a big deal - even in antiquity, people distinguished between the love we feel for our friends, our children and parents, our sense of home, and this other thing that seems to get all the fuss. Part of that is cultural; how quickly we forget that fictional representations of romantic love helped to destroy the age-old practice of arranged marriage in which women were legally regarded as property. Even the most skeptical and snarky amongst us could give a little nod to that. Love as a choice, love as an option, love even as an imaginary figment: surely that’s better than the alternatives?
What if it is chemical? So what about that? Aren’t ideas only electrical impulses? Isn’t speech just muscular contractions and sonic vibrations? Aren’t all emotions just chemicals, when it comes right down to it? Find consciousness, locate it in the body. Find heroism, find music. Somewhere in that jumble, love is probably in there, too.
This is what I think is different about love. I think that culturally we’ve been trained to seek out dopamine, in the same way that we would if we were gambling or shopping or eating chocolate. Swirly eyes. This thing about dating apps, where you swipe left or right depending on whether you think someone is cute, it’s really just catalogue shopping. It’s inconceivable that anyone could detect a spark or even a mental connection in the few seconds it takes to glance at a photo. How much of modern romance consists of objectifying someone you almost never see face-to-face, and then talking about it with other people who aren’t involved?
He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.
It all looks different from the perspective of a middle-aged married person. When you look up one day and realize that you’re working on your second decade with someone, yet it still feels like you just met yesterday. Wait, what year is this? We’ve been together how long? Wait, didn’t our hair used to be dark?
Old love is about oxytocin. I’m convinced. I also think that old-fashioned romance had a better grasp of this.
Not to say that I’d trade today for yesterday. Any yesterday at all. There were too many weird rules in the past about who wasn’t allowed to love whom. Too much public shaming, too many secrets. Shut the door on all of that, and good riddance. Here’s to today and tomorrow, to a world with more love in it, more love of every kind.
We can still appreciate a few relics here and there, in context. Love songs, for example. So many love songs are a bit warped, with messages like “I can’t live without you.” Whatever emotion brought that on, I don’t want it. What I have in mind are the slow dance songs, like “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” I think it’s this type of music, combined with the slow dancing, that was designed to induce oxytocin, the cuddle hormone.
This is objectively testable.
You can feel it, though. With focus, it’s possible to recognize the physical and emotional feelings that come with the different chemicals. Cortisol for stress, adrenalin for excitement, dopamine for cupcakes, oxytocin for snuggling. That last one is probably what drives our cultural production of cute animal memes. In the recent past, I think ordinary people got more of it from dopey stuff like holding hands, slow dancing, and leaning against each other.
This stuff works across species, by the way. I have a dog and a parrot, and the bird is obsessed with trying to snuggle with the dog. He’ll only let her do it if he’s under a blanket, when she’s allowed to stand on him and warm her scaly toes. One day, he fell asleep with about three inches between his back and the sofa cushions. She ventured into that temporary gap, chose a spot... and POOFED until her feathers were touching his fur. Possibly one of the best days of her fluffy life.
There was probably more social touching in the past. People shared physical labor and folk dancing. Communities were smaller, while households were bigger. Almost nobody slept alone; it was simply too cold. There were a lot of strange rules about ‘courting’ - the reason that young people spent so much time holding hands and, eventually, slow dancing - but casual, platonic physical contact was probably more common between everyone else.
Times have changed. I’m listening to my neighbors right now, walking a few feet over my head. Not only do I not know their names, I don’t even know what they look like yet. Proximity without connection. How much of that we have now. How often we look around and see strangers lined up, looking at their phones, barely noticing that there are other humans next to them in line or at a table a few inches away. How much more time we spend stroking glass than holding another human hand.
A lot of people hate Valentine’s Day because they associate it with unrealistic expectations of romantic love, plus crass commercialism. I don’t like those things, either. What if we just replaced them? Not to tear down 1/366 of a year with its associated candy, and replace it with yet another dull, ordinary day, but to rewrite it entirely; I think we can do that. Let’s just make it about every kind of love. Including the snuggly kind, wherever we might find it.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.