What does actual love actually mean?

When someone goes through a breakup, it’s common for others to say:

“He probably wasn’t the one for you, anyway.”
“She didn’t really love you.”
“It wasn’t actual love, just infatuation.”

All this doesn’t just come from others. A person’s own mind can do this too.

Sam was in a relationship with Sara for three years. Everything was great. It was an ideal relationship. They were both deeply in love with each other. However, for some reason, things didn’t work out between them and they broke up amicably.

While Sam was trying to move on from the relationship, the following thoughts haunted his mind:

“Did she even love me?”
“Was it true love?”
“Was any of it real?”

Although his relationship with Sara was great, why was Sam questioning it now?

What does actual love look like?

What separates real love from not-so-real love? Let’s dig deeper into this concept of actual love and try to wrap our heads around what people mean when they talk about it.

Turns out, actual love has some distinct features that separate it from fake love or mere infatuation. Specifically, it is rare, lasting, and unconditional.

To understand why our minds attribute these features to real love, we need to go back to the evolutionary roots of love.

When humans started walking upright, our female ancestors couldn’t move around as much as they did when they walked on all fours with infants clinging to them. Their foraging ability was stifled.

This, combined with the fact that human infants are born practically helpless, meant that fathers now had a crucial role to play in taking care of their families.1

Hence, the desire to form long-term pair bonds became an important feature of human psychology. Note that such pair-bonding is rare in other primates. It was indeed a huge and unique step in human evolution.

foraging primate

Now, motivating humans to seek a long-term relationship isn’t easy given that you’re up against millennia-old psychological mechanisms designed for short-term mating.

Therefore, to enable us to over-ride these older, more primitive drives, the mind had to somehow make the idea of true love grand.

The consequence is that people have a psychology to value true love more, even if they don’t find it or even if they engage in short-term, casual relationships.

People often say, “I want to eventually settle with that one special person” and not “I want to engage in casual relationships for the rest of my life”.

If you’ve found actual love, you’re noble and lucky, but if you engage in casual relationships, you’re generally seen as dishonourable.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have a bias to overvalue long-term, romantic relationships. It was probably the only tool in the mind’s toolkit to ensure that long-term pair-bonding had a fighting chance against the more tempting, primitive short-term mating.

All the key features of true love (rare, unconditional, and lasting) are attempts of the human mind to overvalue it. What is perceived to be rare is more valued.

Everyone would like to be loved unconditionally, even though it’s highly doubtful that such a thing even exists. It doesn’t make much economic sense.

The lasting nature of true love is interesting because it directly supports the above evolutionary explanation.

Come to think about it: Why does actual love have to last? There is no logical reason to discredit a relationship or deem it less real just because it didn’t last. Yet, the belief that actual love is lasting love is deeply embedded in society and is hardly questioned.

So much so, that it induces cognitive dissonance in people who experience all the glory and ecstasy of love, but their relationship doesn’t last. Case in point: Sam.

Sam questioned his relationship with Sara because it didn’t last. Like many, he believed that actual love is supposed to be lasting. He couldn’t reconcile the fact that he’d been in a great relationship with the notion that actual love is lasting.

So, to resolve his cognitive dissonance, he questioned whether he had experienced actual love. And that’s much easier to do than challenge the lasting nature of real love.  

From overvaluation to illusion

It’s well-known that love is blind, i.e. when people are in love they focus only on the positives of their partners and ignore the negatives. What’s also true is that lovers also tend to have positive illusions about their romantic partners.2

Over-valuing something valuable is one thing, but bestowing fictitious value on something is self-deception and delusion. This is how far the mind can go to make us believe our partner is perfect and our love is real.

Of course, this can have other consequences. People may continue to stay in relationships despite not really being in love. There’s actually being in love, and then there’s wanting to believe you’re in love.

This might explain why people tend to stay in relationships that turn abusive or take a long time to get out of such relationships. The mind’s desire to make us believe in our perfect partner and real love is just too strong.

From illusion to idealization

Romantic love is idealized, especially true love. Idealization is over-valuation taken to the extreme. There are several reasons why we idealize romantic love.

The simplest one, perhaps, is that it feels good. At the end of the day, love is a chemical reaction, a pleasant and exciting chemical reaction at that. It only makes sense that poets and writers are so obsessed about it. They want to describe their bittersweet experiences and feelings.

But there’s more to the story. There are so many things that make us feel good (food, sex, music, and so on) but they’re not idealized in the manner of romantic love.  

Idealization is common in the initial stages of the relationship when you have partial knowledge of your partner. You’re more likely to idealize your crush of a few months than your partner of a few years.

Because you know little about your crush, your brain fills the gaps as perfectly as possible, overvaluing and idealizing them.3

Another interesting feature of actual love is how it’s perceived as something ‘difficult to get’. It’s yet another attempt to over-value love to make it “true”.

What’s difficult to get must be valuable. If you attained your object of love easily, you’re likely to have doubts regarding your love’s realness.

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”

– Shakespeare

Idealization is tied to identity

When you look at idealization in general, you find that the sole purpose of its existence is to elevate one’s self-identity, thereby also elevating self-esteem. People idealize many things- countries, political parties, music bands, sports teams, leaders, cults, ideologies- not just their romantic partners.

When we identify with something and idealize it, we indirectly idealize ourselves. When we idealize our romantic partner we’re basically saying, “I must be very special because that very special person loves me”.4

Therefore, there’s a strong tendency in people to identify with their romantic partners. They often lose their individuality and boundaries in the process. If the relationship doesn’t work, they then set out to re-discover themselves.

Idealizing your lover is giving yourself a self-esteem boost. It’s a short-cut to be who you’re not. People tend to fall in love with those who have the positive traits they lack so they can identify with them and become more than what they are.

This is one reason people who have a strong sense of self don’t seem to fall in love so easily. When they do, they respect the other person’s individuality because they themselves are individuals.

True love and unrealistic expectations

As soon as the drunkenness of idealization fades, lovers come to terms with the fact that their partner is not an angel. If you strongly identified with your perfect partner and they turned out to be flawed and human, you might get disappointed.

This disappointment may not necessarily be overt. It’s often reflected in how you treat your partner and that constant nagging by your mind, saying, “What if you could’ve done better?”

At this point, some may end the relationship and again set out to find their soul-mate and angel.

What is true love then? Does it even exist?

Yes, there are people out there who’ve formed lifelong relationships and are genuinely happy in them, not deceiving themselves. They’ve found what many would call true love.

When you ask them what makes their love so real, they’ll invariably say that their relationship has honesty, openness, respect and understanding. These are all personality traits. Also, they tend to be free from illusion that their partner has godlike perfection.

Thus, people don’t necessarily find true love by overcoming Shakespearian obstacles, but by becoming better people. Real, lasting love contains a mixture of good and bad, with good outweighing the bad overall.

References

  1. Fisher, H. E. (1992). Anatomy of love: The natural history of monogamy, adultery, and divorce (p. 118). New York: Simon & Schuster.
  2. Murray, S. L., & Holmes, J. G. (1997). A leap of faith? Positive illusions in romantic relationships. Personality and social psychology Bulletin23(6), 586-604.
  3. Kremen, H., & Kremen, B. (1971). Romantic love and idealization. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis31(2), 134-143.
  4. Djikic, M., & Oatley, K. (2004). Love and personal relationships: Navigating on the border between the ideal and the real. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour34(2), 199-209.