At first glance, the question of ‘love’ and its existence appears to be a fairly simple one, worthy of an equally simple yes or no answer. Who hasn’t pondered the question of ‘Does True Love Exist?‘ over the years; discussed it with friends, wondered what love actually means and finally, whether it really exists? To answer this question fully we have to consider what true love means to different people, ages and genders; how our ideas about it have formed and what our expectations of it within our own lives are.
We tend to think of anything to do with the question of romantic love to be firmly within the sphere of women, but as we shall see, this isn’t necessarily true – they just tend to talk about it more. Many a wine-fuelled get-together with girlfriends after work or at the weekend inevitably sees the conversation turning to this subject, especially amongst single friends. To give an example, one friend who is recently divorced with a child and in her forties brought up the very same question. Sighing despairingly over her large Chardonnay, the words ‘will my prince ever come?’ had me staring in horrified disbelief. I’m almost ashamed to say that my initial thoughts were that she needed to get a grip and stop believing that life will be perfect with the appearance of some ideal man that will probably never exist in reality for her while she still believes in stupid fairy stories and magical, happy endings. But it did make me question where our ideas about love – especially true love – actually come from.
So, let’s start with what love means to different people. Some translated it to mean love at first sight – something which can only ever mean instant physical attraction, or some inexplicable quality that you’re drawn to. To many, the idea itself means finding one single person that’s absolutely right for you: a kind of soulmate. Although around eighty five percent of the people I know believe wholeheartedly in soulmates, and it’s little wonder, since we constantly hear that most soothing of phrases ‘the right one is out there!’ But what constitutes this ‘right one?’ Can there ever really be a partner waiting somewhere out there that’s perfect in every way, that will accept you for who you are – strange, irrational, human foibles and all – and love you unconditionally no matter what? The logical answer to that has to be no, simply because we are all human and therefore fallible. Not to mention that the impossible expectations that come with such a belief are likely to sentence any relationship to the big, fat pile of doom eventually. At the beginning of any new relationship, both parties are on their best behaviour and keen to impress, and to some degree, most people want to believe that they may have found ‘the one’. Science says that the cosy, fluffy bubble and rose tinted goggles of this honeymoon period lasts approximately two years before it begins to wear off. So, what happens after that, if the existence of love in the form of a soulmate is possible? Will you still feel the same after three years of ‘the one’ leaving crumbs in the bed, ignoring your resigned tedium in favour of watching the football or spending endless hours, ad-infinitum, on the X-Box, or even worse – seeing them on the toilet? It’s kind of hard to maintain a belief in something as unrealistically pure as a soulmate when you’ve had to pass them a loo roll around the door in a rather stinky emergency.
I think we all know someone to whom the above applies. One friend has gone through two brief marriages in the last ten years and is currently on the third because she refuses to give up the idea that once reality kicks in and the partner that was oh-so-perfect and ideal turns out to just be a normal person with habits that irritate her and hobbies that she doesn’t share, it just doesn’t seem to be worth it any more, so they can’t possibly be her true love. Another example that we can all identify with is that of young love. Haven’t we all had a first love that we thought would last forever? When I think back to my first love, initially I remember heady days where I thought that nothing else mattered as long as we had each other and the world was transformed from the place where I got the bus to school or work every day into a magical, colour-filled wonderland where anything could happen. And happen it did, not so much in spades as mammoth sized shovels of manure. Not only was I cheated on multiple times with my own friends, but I was also stupid enough to think that things would go back to being perfect and wonderful if I could just be thinner/blonder/throw some money at him when he wanted it. Eventually, my idiot blinkers fell off into the gutter for the last time, but my belief in finding one pure love didn’t, and I spent the rest of my teenage and early adult years convinced that each new relationship could be ‘the one’. In short, I was in love with the idea of being in love. So, the honeymoon period first flushes of ideal love definitely do not equal true love.
We tend to assume that it’s only women who think along these lines, but that’s not necessarily true. One guy I knew at college was so utterly convinced that his girlfriend was ‘the one’ that he was happy to ignore, camel-like, with his head firmly in the sand, all the signs that she wasn’t quite as committed as he was. Subsequently, the poor lad spent a long time nursing his broken heart and had to retake a whole academic year because it affected him so badly. Recent research also shows that men, whilst they don’t fall in love so easily, actually fall much more deeply and quickly when they do. In a recently published book called The Normal Bar by Chrisanna Northrupp and Professors P. and J. Schwartz, 10,000 people were questioned on their attitudes to relationships and in particular, love. Interestingly, the findings concluded that men are more romantic with 48% falling in love at first sight compared to 28% of women, and tellingly, 66% believe that their partner is their soulmate. If we can assume that the idea of true love is for the most part tied up alongside that of the soulmate, or one true love, then where have our ideas and expectations about its existence come from?
Historically, there are arguments for and against such a concept existing. Renowned social historians such as Merry Weisner-Hanks and Cissy Fairbanks discuss Early Modern attitudes to love and marriage within their work, summing up that the main consideration when choosing a partner ultimately had to be of a convenient, practical nature. For the upper and middling sorts of people (the idea of class didn’t exist yet) factors included whether the person you were to marry would benefit you and your family socially, economically and sometimes politically. Actually getting on with that person was something you were expected to work at, and if it happened to grow into a union of love, then all the better. If it didn’t, then it wasn’t the end of the world. Wives were for running the household, helping with the practicalities of business and providing heirs, whereas mistresses were for romance and pleasure. By the same token, husbands provided social standing, reputation and financial stability for wives, and whilst lovers were not permitted – although many women had them – admirers were a perfectly acceptable form of romance and excitement. At first glance, it may appear that our forefathers were a cynical bunch, but there is much evidence in the form of diaries and journals to suggest that this type of practicality did indeed foster a deep and meaningful understanding between couples. For instance, Sir Ralph Verney and his wife Mary left numerous letters from the 18th century in which a mutual respect and admiration is seen to grow between them over the years. Early correspondence from their marriage tells a tale of Verney chiding his wife for not running his estate the way he would wish it, with Mary’s responses designed to placate him by saying that she ‘aims to be a good a worthy wife’. At Mary’s death at the age of 74, Verney mourned her loss deeply and indeed died himself only two months later.
Going a little further back through time, we also have the idea of courtly love running alongside practicality and necessity. Courtly love is often mistaken for the idea of chivalry (a completely different thing which has more to do with war and fighting and very little to do with love). It was to be found in abundance in the renaissance courts of Europe, and even that of our own Henry VIII. To write poetry or songs idealising a particular lady, or dedicate a play to her was not however, an expression of sickly, undying love, but rather a playing out of flirty fantasy in which the participants did not confuse the two. A few decades later, one of our most famous poets and playwrights – Shakespeare – was highlighting the difference in his works. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia runs away with Lysander to avoid her arranged marriage to Demetrius, whilst her companion Helena is smitten with the former. Unfortunately, however much Helena runs after Demetrius proclaiming undying love, it’s not until mischievous fairies drop potions into his eyes that he is able to see her worthy qualities. The underlying message here is that your ‘true love’ can be overlooked while you’re searching for your idea of perfection. By the same token, the famous Sonnet 130 speaks of a lover who is less than perfect, saying that ‘my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ and ‘the breath that from my mistress reeks’. Hardly flattering, yet the ending couplet finishes with ‘and yet by heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare.’ Clearly, in a time where courtly love was still very much a part of life, writing such as this shows that most people had no illusions about any type of perfect ideal. If anything, I think Shakespeare aimed to demonstrate that real love can be wholly imperfect, but that needn’t make it less than true.
Interestingly, the same themes can be seen running through modern life today in the form of rom-coms, musicals, and to go full circle back to the start of this piece – fairytales. The basic message is the same. If we’re patient and good, our soul mate will appear and all will be perfect and shiny in our lovely fantasy world. In reality, most of us know through experience that love, if it exists, has nothing to do with notions such as these. If anything, I believe the question of does true love exist can be answered with a yes it does but not in the form of love at first sight, or soulmates or some perfect person who will be ‘the one’. Much like Shakespeare and our somewhat cynical but sensible forefathers, we hope that it has an existence and some of us even find it, but through a deep understanding and respect which is nurtured over time, rather than the flighty first pangs of passion. It means knowing another person so completely that peace and serenity are found when you’re with them, the knowledge – and desire – to make them smile and above all, the knowledge of imperfections and acceptance of them anyway, because without them, they wouldn’t be your true love.