How many romantic movies exist out there in the world? You have a movie about an unmet love, beautiful love story, multiple obstacles that the lovers have to overcome to be together, family drama, unconditional and selfless love and countless variation of the above.
Time and again, however, we are being brainwashed to believe love transforms our sense of self and makes us cleaner, better, more empathetic and more caring. And while the object of our love might well challenge and inspire us to be a better version of ourselves, the supposedly altruistic nature of our love is a major misleading nonsense.
Truth is: love has nothing to do with charity.
Would you ever love a good person because he deserves this? Would you ever pick an object of your love like a nonprofit that picks the right cause? Would you ever strive to make another person happy at the depletion of your own happiness?
Unless you are an exquisite example of masochism you would never do any of the above. In fact, you would choose a desired partner based on the sole criteria:
Does he or she make me feel good about myself?
Whether proving your value as a member of a society, validating your sexuality, intellectual dexterity or simply making you feel like you matter, – an object of your desire is there only for as long as they make you feel special.
Do it any other way and you are risking becoming a disfigured victim of emotional toxicity and unfulfilled life potential.
Anybody telling you that love is selfless is either a desperate optimist or a confused romantic.
In many ways our innate need for validation and comfort makes finding a life partner so extremely challenging and time-consuming. Oftentimes, in order to understand how you feel you have to devote years to studying yourself. Sometimes, to appreciate love you have to go through several relationships. Sometimes, you appreciate what you have had only when it’s gone.
Moreover, in our day and time there are so many ways of deriving validation and pleasure, that people rightfully opt to sacrifice a once essential search for a partner for a career fulfillment or a call of one’s choosing.
How can you even equate love to such a selfish concept as self-validation, – one would ask?
Fair point. And here I’d like to give my own definition of love:
I remember my first time in New York. At that moment I was absolutely shocked to realize there is no other place on Earth I’d rather be. There must have been better, cleaner or more exciting places on Earth or some other Planet, but this did not matter to me in slightest. I would forego the exploration of all of those places for the privilege of enjoying the one I’ve been in.
The same is true about love. There might be millions of people who are better and more suitable than your partner in an incalculable number of ways. But if you find yourself in New York it’s more than enough.
Now, what makes me say that love is selfish? Because it is not about your love for the territory of Manhattan; it is about the way “Manhattan” makes you feel.
The person of our interest might well be too short, too tall, too skinny, too fat, too smart, too stupid, ignorant, arrogant, lazy, narcissistic or shy, but if for some reason they make you feel like you are exceptional, – you are on a good track.
Dwelling into psychology we can observe an apparent discrepancy of the above statement when we are observing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, self-actualization and esteem, combination of which I equate with validation of oneself, is placed in a completely different category than love.
If you get deeper into the discussion you can also observe that our understanding of love can be equally placed into the most basic category of physiological needs, if we follow a traditional discourse of love leading to family and then reproduction.
It is easy to conflate the concepts and thus keep clinging to the romantic definition of love.
However, do you need to love somebody to have children with them? Of course you do, -traditionalists would say. Absolutely not, – pragmatic minds would say.
In reality, you can have children from someone whose genes you consider superior but who shares absolutely none of your interests and passions. You can pay someone to bear your child. You can go to a sperm bank, or pay a surrogate mother.
So no, reproduction is a desirable byproduct, but not a synonym of love.
What about the cross-pollination of concepts of self-actualization and love and belonging? Here the distinction is much more blurred. You can definitely find belonging with an object of your romantic love. It is, however, up to you who you bestow with the privilege. You are selfishly choosing a partner based on your needs and wants. Then you can choose to make them happy in return. Still, you are the one choosing someone else based on how they make you feel. It is all about you!
Is there a selfless love then? Yes, there is. The love for your parents and your children is selfless, unconditional and undisputed. You can try to persuade yourself you love them because of what they have done for you or how they behave. Truth is, you love them because they are a part of you. Will you love your children more if they took more extra curriculum classes and did not call other kids names? Would you love your parents more if they had money for your MBA program or splashed you with golden Rolexes? Truth is, – none of that really matters. For you they are the best that could be. Otherwise it wouldn’t be you who answers that question.
So what about all those movies and stories of love? Where is all this selflessness and devotion coming from?
Time to move from psychology right into the domain of economics. Some people are mistakenly embracing “love” on the premise on behavioral economics and sunk costs, not realizing the dire consequences of such. The place we ought to be looking for selfless love lies right between the crossroads of economics and personal finance.
Right. In order to move from the superficial and selfish stage of “personal validation” love to the stage of “belonging and caring” love, we have to go through the investment stage.
Purchasing a flat you ought to establish what your walk away price would be. The exact same principle works in romance. What sacrifices and compromise are you ready to go through to make this work? See, the trick for anything lasting is, – it is not enough for someone to make you feel good; you have to make them feel good in return.
Question is, – what is the right balance between your self-validation and emotional investment?
Imbalance tilted to the left – you are left alone with your pride, imbalance to the right – you risk to be emotionally or financially drained.
Balancing between the two it is always worth asking yourself: do I feel like I am in New York right now?
In data science there are concepts of exploitation and exploration, which is very relevant to the world of romance. Looking back, I realize that while I could have started relationship due to intellectual compatibility, similar sense of humor or sexual drive, ultimately very rarely did I feel like I can settle with the exploitation scenario. And even then, the emotional attachment was overcome by the realization of long-term incompatibility.
So how exactly do we move from the domain of romantic love to what people call life-long partnership, if this is even a thing? From my limited observation of human psychology, creating a strong bond has very little to do with whether you initially perceive your partner to be the most desirable candidate there is out there. In fact, it does not have to do with them much at all.
The subconscious decision to establish long-term engagement is, again, a selfish metrics of your own investment, – time investment for some, emotional for others and financial for another.
Let’s go down into each of these possibilities:
Time Investment – by choosing to spend time with someone you are making them an important part of your life; if you choose to do activities you normally do by yourself or with friends clearly you are showing a preference for spending time with this other person. Equally if you spend your time to do something that the other person would appreciate – this can be considered a very important token of attention. As they say, time is money.
Emotional Investment – you become emotionally attached to another person when you start thinking what he or she is doing, whether they would enjoy seeing what you are seeing or reading the book you are reading. Imagine yourself visiting an amazing foreign city. How often do you catch yourself thinking:
Oh I wish my Mom could see this. I have to bring her here and show it to her.
You care because you want your mother to experience the same thing you do. And you want to share beautiful moments with people that “count”.
How often do you think the same about a person you are seeing?
Never, – you are wasting each other’s time.
Often, – you are on your way to the middle of Maslow’s pyramid.
Financial Investment – money is a byproduct of intelligence, dedicated time and hard work.
Oftentimes in order to get a partner you want you have to be smart, persuasive, attractive, devote time and prove you are better than other candidates. Now there are many ways to do this, like caring about others’ feelings, spending time together, making surprises or providing sexual satisfaction.
Since money is the derivative of time, if you are not willing to financially invest in each other it usually means you are engaged in a friendship rather than relationship, with the only difference of this friendship rapidly approaching a bitter ending when the other person realizes you are very far on their list of priorities. As materialistic as it may sound – in love, as in finance, putting money where your mouth is speaking louder than words.
In current times of improving gender equality, financial investment does not have to go one way.
For men and women alike, the financial investment part is strongly interconnected with the biggest and most significant commitment there is in any relationship – deciding on bearing children.
Here, the materialistic aspect of women outlook on a potential partner go back millions of years and the question to be answered prior to engaging in any kind of exclusive relationship is biologically simple:
Can he take care of me when I am pregnant and vulnerable?
If a man is unwilling or unable to provide for a woman when needed, the prospects of her children having successful life are significantly diminished than if she chose a more generous partner.
Moreover, if a man is unwilling to provide for a particular woman, there will be plenty of other women he will be more than happy to take care of. Words of wisdom for the former one: do not waste your time on this man.
Now let’s get back to the biggest possible commitment: once both partners choose to forsake all other potential sexual and life partners and dedicate their resources to the creation of a “joint enterprise”; only then they can truly hope to move to a more selfless and altruistic deeper connection.
Suddenly, the need to care for each other moves from the domain of caprice to the survival imperative. And it is not the case that people do not generally care for others or need nuclear families for such a commitment. As Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha meticulously prove in their brilliant book Sex at Dawn, – humans are not a monogamous species and we were not created for pair-bonding, exclusivity and jealousy. Nevertheless, the established societal norms and economic reality do make a nuclear family the most successful way of survival and ensuring best prospects for one’s offspring.
Authors of Sex at Dawn give examples of numerous tribes and “non-developed” societies where sexuality runs wild and people are shamed for not sharing their body with the needful. In those societies people do not even know who is the father of a particular child, thus they opt to take care of all children collectively. This might sound like a horrifying communism of promiscuity or like a summary of Brave New World, for that matter, however, it is worth noting that those communities have a very low level of inequality and inter-gender material dependence, allowing them to freely mate and decide on their sexual freedom.
The meaning of love in our understanding has been cultivated in much larger agricultural and industrial societies where the groups of people living in the same area are simply too big to allow for intimate knowledge of all community members. Resources in large societies and mega polices are also far from being equally distributed, usually requiring people to have specific roles allocated for the rationing of those resources. Often people dedicate years of studying and employ numerous personal connections, religious, family and other affiliations to obtain this or that position in a society. Sometimes it takes generations to reach a desired societal-economic place.
In such a scenario, it is not surprising people tend to pair with those whose position in the society is akin or higher to theirs. No one wants to trade down but everyone wants to get higher up. The amount of resources and efforts people put into their “becoming” can easily explain why they tend to marry people from their own circle and class.
Romantic? Hardly so. Pragmatic and long-sighted? Positively.
Relations are not as prescriptive as it sounds from the above, however. What changed with time is the focus of selfishness in our love relationships. If previously families used to decide who their children should be coupled with for the selfish interests of the family, currently the interest is often limited to an individual feeling and decision-making.
The question of “how would my family feel if I choose this person?” are now much less pronounced than the question of “how does this person make me feel?”. Such a shift in romance decision-making clearly indicates that material factor is giving way to the importance of an individual worldview and values.
And if your worldview is built upon creating the most beautiful love story the world is yet to see, – well, you might be just standing atop Empire State Building!