Romantic love is an emotion we are evolved to feel. If we seek to understand its nature, we need to first be aware of the majority of its basis, evolution.
At the dawn of life on this planet, the method of replicating organisms that was dominant was cloning, a being replicated itself making an exact copy. Children had only one parent from which to inherit genes so variation was limited. Evolution was slow, relying only on mutations in genes to cause new traits in species.
At some point, there was a change so that it was possible for two organisms to come together to breed. Because of this, evolution had more flexibility, one organism could mate with another, inheriting a mixture of genes from both parents rather than just being cloned from one parent. This increased genetic variation, evolutionary possibility, and therefore the pace of change. The organisms with a greater difference and genetic variation had many advantages. With greater change came more possibilities of variations which would help survival and adapt to new situations. For example, greater genetic variation within a species gave it more chance of surviving a virus than had cloned organisms who had identical strengths and weaknesses as each other.
In some species, distinct genders formed, such as the ancestors of the human species.
This split into genders is the foundational beginning of the story of love. There is a certain poetic beauty to it, we are two forms of a once single entity, split long ago in the mists of time, and then forever seeking union once more.
The roles of male and female were formed when we were much simpler organisms, so simple mechanisms must have been used for us to come together to mate with each other.
Our most distant gendered ancestors probably didn't even come together at first but mated in a random way like pollen carried on the wind. However if we could in someway be compelled to seek mates, impregnation would be more direct and producing offspring more certain. This could be achieved by the senses being attracted to the colour, smell, shape or sound of the other sex. The more an individual finds the opposite gender irresistible, the more chance their genes have of being propagated and surviving. Evolution is after all very much about the survival of genes.
If the attraction could be connected to traits that meant a greater chance of survival, such as health, size, the procurement of food, the ability to fight off rivals and predators, then again those genes are more likely to survive. It is no coincidence that the women considered most beautiful have certain outward characteristics of health and reproductive potency, or that women tend to like tall, successful, powerfully built men.
Being unconsciously compelled to members of the opposite sex who exhibit superior survival traits increases the chances of our genes being passed on. It is for this reason we find each other attractive, beauty does not so much exist as does reproductive fitness, though perhaps thankfully we rarely think about it in such a rational way.
So the unconscious motivation for the male and female of our species pairing together is to produce healthy offspring. Once we have produced these offspring, how do we ensure our genes' survival?
There are many different ways in which a species can be successful raising children. Some produce thousands of offspring in eggs and leave them to chance, others use hosts of another species to inject their children into. One which is common amongst many creatures capable of complex learning is for the parents to keep the child with them, to protect them and to model successful behaviours for them. Keeping children around is not necessarily in the parents best interests, children can be a burden, consuming resources that the parent could use and attracting predators. Parents who felt a compulsion to care for and protect their children would raise more children to adulthood, so their genes will have more chance of survival.
This compulsion humans have towards each other is felt in many of our social settings, mates, friends and members of our family. It has a hold over our mind at moments, not unlike other compulsions like hunger or thirst. This compulsion is due to the absolutely fundamental role in our evolution though we unconsciously assign it a meaning of a higher order. So high indeed that it takes on a magical quality in our society, we speak of the destiny to meet "the one", the incomprehensibility of love and so on, regardless of the facts of the matter. We would never think this about the other animals, for some reason we keep this delusion for ourselves, no doubt as part of our wish to feel special.
A complete description of evolutionary reproductive behaviour in the human being is not my point here. What I wanted to do was show to those who doubt it the very deep evolutionary basis of even these so-called higher emotions. The majority of our emotion love is us going about the same evolutionary mechanisms we have for millions of years, well before we had language, opposable thumbs, florists and chocolates. We have covered it in an intellectual cloud which hides our natural instincts from ourselves. We are an animal exhibiting behaviours from compulsions we do not choose, we lust and love whether we would wish it or not.
A consolation to the lonely is that the isolation they feel is just their genes trying to control them and has no deep spiritual meaning. A consolation for the heartbroken is that those who have hurt us are also probably following instincts they don't fully choose or control. Is this all there is to us though, are we just automaton conforming with the conspiracies of the genes?
Thus I get to the reason I wrote this, to think about what love means beyond this.
I shall start with that which I feel quite piercingly, the isolation of consciousness.
I can communicate my thoughts to others in many ways, I can speak, paint, play an instrument, write a treatise on love, but they are only the reflections of my thoughts, not my actual thoughts themselves. We feel in streams of emotion which are then imperfectly translated into segmented words. Our imperfect communications are then are put through the filters of other peoples expectations and conceptions, a process which by the end sometimes makes our thoughts unrecognisable from that which we thought we were expressing. We are all full of assumptions about others, many incorrect, but it is much simpler to deal with the people in our lives that way. We put others in boxes perhaps because of the so many people we meet in modern cities. This simplifies our decision making and perhaps protects us, but it robs people of their individuality. Personally, my intentions are misunderstood regularly and I expect others have the same experiences even with those closest to them.
Our thoughts and senses being hidden within us makes this inevitable to some degree, we don't feel each other's emotions and only get an imperfect reflection of their true self. There is some comfort in this private, un-intrudable place within ourselves, but there is also an inherent loneliness in it. With time and introspection, I can see how all things in the universe are one form with the illusion of separateness like waves on the ocean. I can see this about my body, but I cannot integrate my thoughts, the centre of my conscious self, into that totality, they seem somehow irrevocably separate from it.
The only way I can see to really overcome this is by doing our best not to take our assumptions about others too seriously and to bring others into our private world through open communication. We shouldn't expect people to be able to consistently communicate themselves perfectly, ignoring our snap judgements for a deeper patiently built picture of each other. Through time, we hope they can begin to move us out of their generalised boxes into our own personal space in their mind. Over time they can build a more complete picture of the true self within us, and see a part of the unique individual we have the potential to be inside us, even seeing us in positive or constructive ways we don't see ourselves.
Which of our selves is it that we want them to see when they look at us though? Who we are or who we would like them to think we are? Perhaps both, and others who know us well have a unique position in helping us to move from one to the other. To learn and grow in life, along with reflection, experience and learning, deep relationships can be one of our greatest tools.
None of these benefits is particularly unique to a romantic liaison, but in my experience, they can reach their deepest expression within it. I think in a romantic relationship, the physical closeness can be conducive to an intensity that opens the possibility of greater emotional union. We enjoy sharing similar positive emotions between ourselves, going through the same emotions together assuages our isolation, and becomes even more intense when mixed with the evolutionary drives and pleasures of sexuality. The privacy of this relationship, the intimacy and the intensity of the time spent together is often greater than the other relationships in our lives. For reasons based on an evolutionary drive to find a mate and bond with them as I discussed earlier, we feel a connection with each other which can be the most intense of any relationship. This can be the closest we get to bringing the other into ourselves, of finding that other half we lost so long ago in evolutionary time. We can become so caught up in our interactions, so intent on each other and ourselves in one moment, that the line between us is blurred and we find our long lost union.
We pretend romantic love is pure and perfect but like most things in life it has many sides to it. It can encompass both pain and pleasure, possession and freedom, selfishness and selflessness, protection and vulnerability. It is often felt more like a compulsion, a chain, a deep emotional and physical need rather than something positive and uplifting. In capturing us so wholely and deeply sometimes despite our best interests, wounds that stem from relationships are often the longest we endure and the hardest to heal. We have let another into the most private and personal part of ourselves, we have bared our soul and any negativity they do to us is amplified as a rejection of our whole self. We can try to find healing in the knowledge that millions of years of evolution is the reason for our sadness and longing, though often rationality in such moments is of little solace. When we enter into close personal relationships with others, we are writing part of the story of each other's lives we may always reflect upon whether we wish it or not. This place of importance places a heavy burden on us.
Love should improve our experience of existence. If we seek to fill our lives with as much happiness as possible, deep romantic liaisons between people who have each other's best interests at heart offer opportunities for physical and psychological pleasure. I don't think it is necessary for these relationships to be infinite. True eternal love is a romantic notion of course, an ideal most of us seek, but in reality we can never offer each other that guarantee. Though people sometimes are compelled by their minds to confess love immediately, the reality is that it takes years to even begin to get a conception of another human being. We can and will have glimpses of eternity though, and they are no less beautiful for being fleeting. The fact that all things must pass does not rob the world of beauty, it makes them rarer and more precious.
So that is part of what love is about to me, but I don't pretend to speak for all. If we were to define romantic love for others, we would need to encompass all of that which we see around us which masquerades under that term. The love of teenagers who assume their first love will be forever, the love of the spouse who suffers at the hands of an abuser, the abuser usually speaks words of love and perhaps feels it, the uncertain love of a person resigned to never having the partner they really wanted but settling, the love of a person who buys the cliched gifts on the cliched days whilst expressing cliches, the love of a those who will at the end of their life realise that they never really knew love. These are expressions of evolutionary love, following the same unconscious drives which send the salmon battling upstream, which lures the insect to be its mate's dinner, which brings the flocks, schools, dancers and herds to the same places every year to display and hopefully find a partner with which to mate. If these things are what we call love, perhaps I speak of something beyond it.
The evolutionary aspects of love are instinctive, unspoken, emotionally intense, and I desire it in its fulness but as an intellectual being I feel driven to push at the edge of the envelope of what it can be. Something that fulfils the needs of a thinking ape, descended from a single-celled organism, who has evolved this almost magical and complex consciousness which knows its separateness from the universe around it, its place as an individual, meaningful, creative being, yet does not always know how to fully deal with that knowledge.
Sharing deep emotional and physical experiences with others can help us to explore our consciousness, to expand our consciousness and sometimes be a shield from that consciousness. Love is a way to seek pleasure, solace, companionship, beauty, truth, stimulation, healing and experience the reflected joy in returning those things. In the reflection of another's love, we can see ourselves not unshielded and alone in our journey through time.
The deepest expression of love is a moment as close to union as we can be. Although we feel and perceive everything in existence as being separate, in a turn of mind we can also come to realise that all is one. As the deepest expression of that realisation, maybe love can save us.