Friday, June 4, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Women in their 20s often talk about dating as the process of “finding Mr. Right.”

Men fall victim to this delusion too: in fact, over the past few weeks, we’ve had countless conversations with our otherwise rational friends (of both genders) who are convinced that “love” is something more than compatibility, that it’s a feeling that can’t be described or controlled.

And that got us thinking: maybe Raymond Carver was on to something.

The single biggest flaw in most people’s approach to dating, may, in fact, be the language they use to describe it.

When we use the word “love,” are we talking about that heart-pounding, all-consuming sensation that we feel when our hot neighbor says, “What’s up?” Or are we talking about the way we feel about our friends and (sometimes) our families, a duller sense of gratitude towards and happiness about this person’s presence in our lives that accepts imperfections and grounds expectations in reality?

We use the same word to describe both (“I’m in love with the UPS guy” and “I love you, Mom”).

But they mean two very different things. And the problem is, we’ve been using the same word to describe two very different ideas for our entire (English-speaking) lives.

So when we say we’re looking for love, we chase the thrilling romantic sensations that tend to be more fleeting than the durable, platonic variety.

This, in and of itself, isn’t an issue (especially when we’re young), but if you look at successful long-term relationships, they don’t look anything like a typical second date for Katherine Hiegel.

It’s a scientific fact: those intense emotions and feelings fade after a few years, and once they’re gone, something else has to sustain the relationship. And because we’re using the same word to describe two things, and because we desperately want both of these things, we tend to assume that one leads to the other. Desire must breed companionship, because that’s the only thing that makes sense.

But no matter which meaning of the word “love” we’re after (romantic or platonic), we’re still talking about something we feel. Not something that someone does to us, but something that we, essentially, impose on ourselves.

A certain bone structure may have a tendency to make your stomach flutter, but when it comes down to it, your cute coworker isn’t the one firing neurons in your brain. You might not have any conscious control over that process either, but, in the end, your amorous feelings say a lot more about you than they do about the person on the receiving end.

You love that funny, blue-eyed banker because you (for lack of a better word) value blue eyes and a good sense of humor and a healthy bank account, not because the combination of these three characteristics casts an irresistible spell over all who encounter it. If men were able to cast spells, the concept of taste wouldn’t exist. You wouldn’t look at your best friend’s boyfriend and go, “What does she see in him?”, because if he’s casting a spell, you’re under it too.

If we look at “love” as something that’s about us, not them, it becomes clear that dating isn’t about finding the right person, it’s about figuring out what that person looks like. You’re not browsing OkCupid to find a person who inexplicably makes you feel a certain way; you’re doing some serious soul-searching to figure what qualities trigger those feelings.

Yes, our (otherwise) rational friends say, we get that infatuation isn’t love. You see a guy and your heart starts pounding but that feeling goes away as soon as he opens his mouth. But how do you explain the overweight drummer you fantasize about even though you know that you’re looking for a guy with a regular paycheck and a workout regiment?

Mostly with biology. We all watched that pheromones video in Bio 101, with the women smelling men’s t-shirts and being most attracted to the scents of men whose DNA was the most different from their own.

Because we can’t control fluttery-stomach feelings, they’re probably as hard-wired as our instincts to inhale and exhale. And it’s just like feeling like you’re going to explode when you hold your breath for too long. Your brain is making your body feel a certain way because it wants you to react—sexually.

When you fantasize about that drummer, you’re not picturing the white house with the picket fence and 2.8 offspring. You’re picturing him giving it to you hard and fast on the desk in your boss’ office. You’re using the word “love” when you really mean “sexual desire.”

And when that “spark” isn’t oozing sexuality, it’s probably worth listening to. Maybe the drummer really listens to you when you talk, and maybe that’s more important to you than you thought it was. Maybe you have a hard time admitting to yourself that, for you, a BMW isn’t worth to you as a well-written poem, even though all your friends tell you that it is.

But again, it’s about you. Not him.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are really over-thinking everything. I'm attracted to you. You are attracted to me...Let's make babies.