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 being, evolution.
At the dawn of life on this planet, the method of replicating organisms which 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 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 our 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 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 variety 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 halves 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 therefore more certain. This could be achieved by the senses being attracted to the colour, smell, shape or sound of the other sex. If we find the opposite gender irresistible our genes have more chance of surviving, and our evolution is very much about the survival of our genes.
If the attraction could be connected to traits which meant 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 which 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 model successful behaviours for them. Keeping children around is not necessarily in the parents best interests, children can be a burden, consuming resources which the parent could use. Parents who felt a compulsion to look after their children, would raise more children to adulthood, so their genes will have more chance of survival.
This compulsion towards each other, not dissimilar to hunger or thirst, 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 these other compulsions. Due to it's 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" 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 as part of our wish to feel special without actually having to do anything to warrant it.
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. I offer this consolation to the lonely that the isolation they feel is just their genes trying to control them and has no deep spiritual meaning, and to the heartbroken that those who may have hurt us are probably following instincts they don't fully choose or control.
Is this all there is to us though, are we just automon 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 most piercingly, the isolation of consciousness.
I can communicate my thoughts to others in many ways, I can paint them, play them on an instrument, I can write a treatise on love, but they are only the reflections of my thoughts, not my actual thoughts themselves. I feel in streams of emotion which I then have to translate into segmented words. Our thoughts are often communicated imperfectly and then are put through the filters of other peoples expectations and conceptions of how they believe people are. We are all full of assumptions, many incorrect, but it is much simpler to deal with the people in our lives that way. In life my intentions being misunderstood is something that happens with such regularity I almost take it for granted, so I expect others have the same experiences even with those closest to them.
Our thoughts and senses all being hidden within us makes this inevitable to some degree, we don't feel each others emotions. There is some comfort in this private, unintrudable place within ourselves, but there is also an inherent loneliness in it. With time and reflection I can see how all things in the universe are one form with the illusion of seperateness 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, the seem somehow irrevocably seperate from it.
The only way I can see to really overcome this is in doing our best to bring others in to our private world through open communication. Through time, we hope they can begin to see the real us, to move us out of the generalised boxes we use to deal with the many people we meet, 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.
Of course which of our selves is it that we want them to see when they look at us, who we are or who we would like to be? 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 which 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 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 we can feel. This can be the closest we get to bringing the other into ourselves, of finding that union we lost so long ago when we spilt from one being into two sexes. 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.
Like most things in life though romantic love has many sides to it. It can encompass both pain and pleasure, possession and freedom, selfishness and selflessness. It is often felt more like compulsion, a deep emotional and physical need. In capturing us so fully, wounds from relationships are sometimes the hardest to heal. We have let another into the most private and personal part of ourselves, and any negativity they do to us is amplified. We can try to find healing in an understanding that evolution is making it so, though often rationality in such moments is of little solace. We should be aware too when we enter into close personal relationships with others, we are entering into the story of their life they will reflect upon, and try not to contribute to making their reflections regretful ones.
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 others 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. We can and will have moments of it though, and they are no less beautiful if they are fleeting, after all, all things must pass but that does not rob the world of beauty.
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 love of a person resigned to never having the partner they really wanted but settling for someone anyway, 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. To me these things are the expression of evolutionary love, following the same unconscious drives which sends the salmon battling up stream, which lures the insect to be its mates 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 love, perhaps I speak of something beyond it.
The evolutionary aspects of love are instinctive, unspoken, emotionally intense, and I desire it in it's fulness but as an intellectual being I feel driven to also find something more. 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 seperateness 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 and healing, and experience the reflected joy in returning those things. In the reflection of anothers 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 percieve everything in existence as being seperate, 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.