What is Romantic Love?

I find it frustrating, sometimes, talking to people about love. The first roadblock I usually run into is getting people to define their personal meaning of love, the second mountain to climb is dealing with what romantic love means.

Whenever there is more than one person discussing this topic,  there is argument about what romanic love is. Does it require erotic/sexual feelings? Is romantic love a verb, or an adjective and a noun? Is Romantic just a name for the time when love is like a drug?

Romantic Love is a Triangle

As a concept many people that I have talked to see romantic love very similar to the triangular theory of love. This concept is fleshed out by Richard Sternberg. These people see romantic as being a sufficient level of intimacy on several scales.

  1. Intimacy – Which encompasses feelings of attachment, closeness, connection, and bonding.
  2. Passion – Which encompasses drives connected to both limerence and sexual attraction.
  3. Commitment – Which encompasses, in the short term, the decision to remain with another, and in the long term, plans made with that other.

So, if you have sufficient connection on these three points your love is romantic.

Romantic Love is a Chemical Cocktail

The next largest group I have spoken with feel that romantic love is only the chemical infatuation described by limerence. It is the fairytale that is the beginning of a relationship.

It is a potent cocktail of chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Adrenaline, Cortisol, Oxytocin and Vasopressin that impair judgement, create feeling of euphoria, suppress appetite and foster feelings of connection and attachment with another.

This group usually argues that after this fades romantic love transitions to something else: friends, family, etc. For this group romance is lie, or a chemical trick.

Romantic Love is an Action

The connection that the last group that shares in common is people that see Romantic Love as love that is enacted. Most of them describe it as being actions with an intent for emotional connection. Perhaps this is the most traditionalist view, because it revolves around cause and effect. You take an action to influence emotional connection. This is what is presented in romance novels.

Does Romance Require Sexual Intimacy?

I have not seen any agreement on whether sexual interest is required for romantic love. A significant group of the people I have discussed this with see romance as a precursor to sexual feelings, a smaller group sees romance and sex as totally separate, and many people have very long lists of caveats on when and how the two interact.

Personally, I am still unsure what people mean when they say they are looking for a romantic relationship. I don’t think I have every heard a definition that describes the behaviors that I see in people that describe themselves as romantic.

What do you think makes a love romantic? Do you think it is any different than other kinds of love?

The Matrix of Romance and Sexuality

What is the difference between romance and sexuality?

While talking with people about love there begins to be a separation between the physical side of attraction and the mental side of attraction. Even though we can use the same language to discuss them, they are (for the most part) separate drives.

The Sexual Romantic Matrix

The Matrix of Romance and Sexuality includes a variety of orientations that people exhibit in romantic and sexual attraction. The matrix includes aromantic and asexual for clarity, but those two have an implication about intensity that shouldn’t be applied to the other positions. I have listed the orientations on a scale of hetero/homo (different/same) instead of a femininity/masculinity scale so it can apply to more than just biological sex and social gender. For example: you may be sexually oriented toward people of a different race, or romantically attracted to people of the same religion. My hope is to make this chart versatile for you.

One of the very interesting zones of the matrix are the ones that are colored in peach. Those are variegated orientations where your sexual orientation and your romantic orientation have very little overlap. This happens with surprising frequency, people that form emotional romantic bonds with people that are different from their sexual interests.

Types of Attraction & Other Factors

There are some factors to consider other than just orientation. Orientation answers a question about who you are attracted to, but not really the how. So, lets set the groundwork for applying attraction types.

  • Primary Attraction – You experience attraction immediately, based mostly on exterior qualities. This is love at first sight or immediate sexual attraction. Primary sexual attraction comes into play when you are attracted to a celebrity or entirely unknown individual.
  • Secondary Attraction – You experience attraction after a dependency is met. For example some people only feel sexual attraction after they form a romantic bond.
  • Tertiary Attraction – You experience attraction reactively. As a result of someone else’s attraction to you attraction begins in you.

For most people all of these types of attraction can occur, but there are some people that do not experience primary attraction. In the arena of sexuality people who do not experience sexual attraction without first experiencing romantic connection often label themselves Demisexuals, and people that only experience sexual attraction to intelligence call themselves Sapiosexual. Both are examples of people that only experience secondary attraction. People that only experience tertiary attraction use the prefix litho- (lithoromantic, lithosexual, etc.). People that very rarely experience attraction often describe themselves as Gray-A.

Hopefully the matrix will help you understand yourself, or someone you love, a little better.

Matrix of Sexuality and Romance

Fear of Loneliness

Love is, perhaps, just our natural reaction to an intense fear of feeling lonely.

One of the first books that ever touched me was The Bluest Eye, it is about intense loneliness. A kind of lonely tundra filled with many other people running away from each other. It is the first book that Toni Morrison wrote. The Bluest Eye exposes many ways that people feel alone, and misplaced attempts to right one’s self. Recently I learned from her interview with Stephen Colbert that Toni feels she did not do justice to one of the characters.

I am certain that Toni has a different character in mind, but I did feel that there was a missing chapter when I read it. One that I created in my mind, wrote for, and presented to the english class that assigned The Bluest Eye.

I wrote a letter as Cholly.

Cholly is not a good man: he is an alcoholic, he is violent, he is an arsonist, he rapes his daughter, and in all things he is a wild and rootless man. He is the catalyst, but not the cause, of many plot points. And, he disappeared in a way that drew my mind to draw him in greater detail.

Love is never any better than the lover.

As a 15-year-old boy I felt the most in common with Cholly, because he lived his life arrested in his teen years. His life started abandoned in a trash heap. He was a teenager when the woman who raised him died, and a pair of white men interrupted and made spectacle of his first sexual experience.

Extending my mind into this character at 15-years old in many ways helped me cope with my sexual experiences and sense of alienation. It helped me to deal with some of my experiences as narrative, instead of terminal experiences. Needless to say, at 15, I was a better writer than lover.

At least in my writing I could be certain, less confused, and less ambivalent about what my words meant. After years of barely surviving social systems that didn’t want me as a member, and weathering constant implication that I didn’t have value because the system didn’t want me–I was confused. I saw the picture that was painted of romantic love as both a life-raft and a constant threat. It was part of a system that hated me, and it offered the possibility of connection in opposition to that very system.

As a teen love is clumsy and physical. It is holding hands, and kissing, and touching, and sex–it ranges from mystically important to taboo. For many of us as we grow older it gets more complicated. For others it stays the same, but becomes less effective at its goal as life becomes more complicated.

Over the years my understanding of love has grown fed by this line from The Bluest EyeLove is never any better than the lover. Take the challenge to see yourself as the story of what you have done, not what you thought your motives were. Observe yourself from an outside perspective.

It is harder to be lonely if you love someone.

When I think about my darkest points, they are not when I lacked people who loved me. It was when I had no love for others. There wasn’t anyone that I had the necessary openness to consider as beloved. When I admitted someone into that part of my life alone was no longer the same as lonely.

I think that is why so many fear being alone, and long to be loved. Because company and attention of others appear to be the shortest route to avoid loneliness. I think that the shortest route away from, and best protection from, lonely is to give love. Even if it is just one day, make that day about someone else by showing only the parts you like of yourself, and shine light on the parts of them that you like.

Asking For What You Want in a Relationship

As promised in the comments of Who Gets to Choose: the story of the time I said no to a break-up.

Long ago when I was a different man–not entirely, but quite a bit–I was date a enchanting, vivacious woman who told me, “I don’t think we should date anymore.” This was not a huge surprise to me, there had been other hints dropped. During this moment I realized that I had no desire to stop seeing her, and since she used the word think I asked her to walk me through the reasons why.

At core it came down to the fact that I wasn’t the kind of man she saw herself marrying. Since her goal timeframe for marriage was still the better part of a decade away, I made the argument that there was no necessity for us to break-up. In fact I said, “No, I don’t agree to break-up with you. I am going to treat you the same in the future that I treat you now.”

So, how do you think that worked out? I followed through on my promise by inviting her to see a move the next Friday. That dinner and movie ended the way most of our Friday night dates ended. I continued to stop by to see her during the day when I was in the neighborhood (this was during the time that I didn’t have a phone), and continued to send her e-mails when I thought about her, and invite her to do things. For many weeks very little changed. We spent less pre-planned time together, but we still had a very intimate connection.

I don’t think that she liked this period of our relationship as much as I did. In the end she took the step necessary shutdown my behavior. She got a new boyfriend. Honestly, that didn’t stop me, but it did give her a much stronger reasoning for saying no to invitations (only dating one person at a time) and soaked up a lot of the free time that offered me opportunities to interact with her.

I know you may be wondering what this has to do with asking for what you want. Both of us put our cards on the table: “I don’t want to marry you,” and, “I don’t mind, I am going to preserver until this is over.” In the end I think we both got what we wanted: she did eventually marry someone who isn’t me and I got to not change my behavior.

As far as who chose our future I would say that I think she did. She was in a position to decide how much contact and opportunity I was given to win her over to my side. You could point out that I had an opportunity to up my game and win her heart, but I don’t think that was a real possibility, even if I had become a different person it would have fizzed and I would be in same place, and maybe resentful of what happened. You could point out that I could have actively pursued her later on, and maybe I could have, but I don’t think she would have liked it.

Ultimately, I made one really big bet. I bet that if I was open to whatever the future held, things would eventually come around. In many ways I think that they did. I would still consider her a good person, I suspect she would do the same. That reminds me…I need to write some songs for our epic supporters!