These are the impossible expectations of romantic love: It must be unconditional, constant and, of course, invariably passionate. Anything else casts doubt on whether the love is genuine. And this needless doubt can paralyze or kill a relationship.
It hasn’t always been this way. Before dropping hundreds of dollars on a Valentine’s Day date or bemoaning loneliness that night, recall how love was regarded in ancient times — and consider whether some of these older incarnations might be worth reviving.
There is no holiday celebrating friendship, but only since the mid-19th century has romance been elevated above other types of love. For most ancient Greeks, for example, friendship was every bit as passionate and valuable as romantic-sexual love. Aristotle regarded friendship as a lifetime commitment to mutual welfare, in which two people become “second selves” to each other.
In the Bible, King Saul’s son Jonathan loves David, the young warrior who slays Goliath, “as his own soul” and swears eternal friendship with him, while David says their friendship surpasses romantic love. Ruth declares her friendship for her mother-in-law, Naomi, in terms equivalent to a marriage vow: “Where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge. . . . Where you die I will die.”
Today, friendship has been demoted beneath the ideal of romance, but they should be on an equal footing. We tend to regard our friendships as inferior to our romances in passion, intimacy and depth of commitment. Often they’re little more than confessionals in which we seek a sympathetic ear to help us fix — or escape — our romances. When Harry met Sally, they progressed from friends to lovers. And on Facebook we’re all “friends” now, further downgrading the meaning of what should be a selective and multifaceted bond.
The idea of human love being unconditional is also a relatively modern invention. Until the 18th century, love had been seen, variously, as conditional on the other person’s beauty (Plato), her virtues (Aristotle), her goodness (Saint Augustine) or her moral authenticity (the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Even Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of all Christian theologians, said we would have no reason to love God if He weren’t good.
The myth that love is unconditional comes from the decline of religion. Christianity, for example, teaches that only God loves unconditionally and that humans, being sinners, need God’s grace to get anywhere close to unconditional love. After the 18th-century Enlightenment, the divine ability to love unconditionally got attributed to human beings, while the other half of the story — that we need God’s grace for it — was sidelined.