Love is one of the guiding principles of the human condition. Things have been done in the name of love – both great things and evil things – that defy explanation, or rationalization. Love is what love is, and when it comes down like a ton of bricks there is nothing you can do except be buried in it.
Come on, admit it – what is the first thing that comes into your head when the issue of “romantic love” is invoked? The deathless (if you can call it that) Romeo and Juliet, isn’t it? But yet, remember the envoi from that play –
For never was there a tale of more woe
Than that of Juliet, and her Romeo.
It isn’t a love story, except in the shallowest of ways. It’s a story of two unformed teenagers and their infatuation and obsession with one another. This is something that ends badly for literally everybody, starting with the two young lovers themselves – and yet this is the ultimate romantic thing, something that is as firmly attached to the idea of romance as are red roses and chocolates and Valentine’s day (yes, I know. They’re just as shallowly symbolic…)
But there are many kinds of love out there.
There is the bolt from the blue – the love at first sight, the instant attraction, the laying of eyes upon another person and – you know – just KNOWING that that person is The One, there will be nobody else ever ever ever, and then you just march down a well-trodden road, into wedlock, into bed, not necessarily in that order (depending on whether you’re doing Classic Fairy Tale or Urban Contemporary). The attraction that perpetuates the species – and it’s the fairy tale love where the destined prince meets the destined princess and their eyes meet across a story and that’s that, game over, they they are on the Jumbotron camera kissing and oblivious to everything else around them.
There’s a concept coined back in 1979 by a psychologist by the name of Dorothy Tennov who wrote a book called “Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being In Love”. She uses the word to describe the being-in-love state of mind, a romantic attraction, all the way into obsession, into fantasies which may have little to do with the true state of affairs, into a desire to form and maintain a relationship with the object of that love (and have that love returned).
Other writers have chimed in with definitions, one being “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves intrusive, obsessive, and compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation from the object of interest” (Albert Wakin and Duyen Vo, in a scientific paper, no less – look up “limerence” on Wikipedia and you’ll find the link to the PDF) or “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object (LO) involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation” (Lynn Wilmott, in her 2012 book Love and Limerence: Harness the Limbic Brain.
Limerence, in other words, is that heady act of falling in love and waiting for the person you love to return your affections. Limerence is when you are rushing about giving or receiving flowers, and cards, and soppy poetry, and gazing into each other’s eyes over candlelit dinners – the falling in love with love scenario. And it’s good, it’s great, it’s what people gasp for, that’s why romance as a genre is such a global phenomenon, that’s why rom coms work, that’s why people like fairy tales with their happily-ever-after endings.
But much of this first-burst, heady, obsessive love is left behind as a relationship deepens, left at the beginning. Many stories never go beyond the two people who are destined to be together falling in love. That’s enough, that’s sufficient, the rest – as a professor of mine at University was fond of saying, annoyingly, because it was never true – follows. You’re supposed to assume that this is at once the end of a story (they met they fell in love what else do you need) and the beginning of another, which you aren’t telling because life goes on.
And it’s that “life goes on” part that rarely gets addressed in stories, ones that sell, anyway. The part that doesn’t deal with the hearts-and-flowers limerent obsessions, but the part where “being in love” settles into just “loving”. Into a context where you see past the façade of your loved one, past the perfect camouflage and then beyond, deeper, into their flaws and the things they do that annoy you…and you still love them. The kind of love that made my mother’s earnest offering of “We’ve been married for 52 years” to my father’s hospice nurse so heartbreaking – because that was a love that had lasted half a century, cracks and stains and everything else included, two people who had shared a lifetime and who might not have been remotely “in love” with one another at the end but who nevertheless loved each other, understood each other, held a place in their lives for one another which was shaped so that THAT PERSON would fit in it. The kind of love I remember from the context of the two old people who lived next to my grandparents when I was a child – the wife died first, an old woman in her late eighties, and her last words to her ninety-some-year old husband were, “Don’t let me wait for you too long.” He died three days after she did. They had been married for almost three quarters of a century; existence without one another – without the solid bedrock of having that other person there, of sharing a life and a lifelong love – was incomprehensible, and impossible. And in some ways that is a far more intense statement than ever has been made by a young lover’s impassioned declaration that it will last “forever”. The young lover doesn’t know that. These people, the people who were still holding onto the sentiment at the end of their lives, they lived it.
And all this, that’s just the romantic aspects of love, the coupling part, where you find a partner and you live life with someone beside you – which is a basic human instinct. What shall we say about other kinds of love? About the love between two friends, with nothing romantic in it but with all the devotion you can possibly think of? About the love between a parent and a child (and how it is possibly the greatest of all griefs to bury a child of your body before you can die first as you’re supposed to according to the natural way of things; there are people who never recover from something like that)? About the way that a beloved dog or cat can shred your heart into confetti when their too-short lives blaze and fall into ashes within the brackets of our own existence, about how you can still tear up at the memory of something cute or silly or brave or simply unique that some pet you once knew had done, years after those pets have left you?
About the love of country? About the love of faith? About the love of a tree, or a house, or a book, or an idea?
One of the most incredibly powerful things about any human being – and therefore about any character you might create in a story – is their capacity to love. Find a reason for a character to love, and you give your reader a unique way of understanding that character from the inside. What that character loves, and how they love it, is a formative thing, a fundamental thing, and it is a window into that character’s soul. This is a great and powerful thing. Love well, and use it wisely.