Romantic love in Western societies is often portrayed in a stereotypical way: two yearning halves, who search for each other to find their complete, original state. Few find this bliss because it’s a myth, dating back to Plato. In Greek mythology, the perfect lovers were joined together and sliced in two. Love, then, is the desire of each part to find the missing other.
This myth lingers on in popular culture, love stories, and romantic comedies. It affects our social identity, which for many is formed by stereotypical, scripted portrayals of relationships. Often, less consciously, we keep on searching for our “missing half”—the ideal—but divorce rates attest to why this ideal doesn’t exist.
Nowadays, many people escape into the virtual world in their search for the ideal relationship. Online dating, flirtatious messaging, and “sexting” are often used as an antidote to loneliness, lack of intimacy, and the painful experience of loss. In cyberspace, we can be whoever and whatever we desire to be. This gives us pleasure, but it seduces and lures us into the imaginary: the world of the unconscious where desires we didn’t even know we had are immediately satisfied in the virtual world.
It’s easy to become addicted to this virtual world because real-life love can’t compete with it. For some, a return to reality is difficult, or even impossible, as rising internet addictions and online infidelity show. This can result in various emotional (stress, hopelessness, anger, pain) and behavioral reactions (fights, revenge porn, divorce, substance abuse, binge eating, or not eating). The link between stress, a broken heart (love sickness), mental health (depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, insomnia), and physical health (exhaustion) is well documented.
The long-term consequences are less well known, but we can guess. We know that the quality of our social relationships and circumstances can have profound influences on our brain.
Recent advances in epigenetics—a set of modifications to our genetic material that changes the ways our genes are switched on and off without altering the genes themselves—suggest a link between social experiences, gene expression, neurobiological changes, and behavioral variation. A growing body of evidence explains how the social environment gets into our mind through epigenetic mechanisms and how these affect our offspring. In other words, physical effects caused by our social experiences could be passed on.
If emotions, conscious thoughts, and unconscious beliefs are indeed part of our social environment and influence our genes through epigenetic mechanisms, what are the possible long-term consequences of the romantic love myth? If epigenetic processes play an important role in psychiatric disorders and love sickness (broken hearts) can result in mental health problems, can both be linked? In the absence of longitudinal cohort studies, where the same group of people are observed over long periods of time, we simply don’t know yet.
But we do know that socially constructed notions of romantic love, and of marriage, constitute our selves. They start in early childhood and continue throughout adolescence and adulthood. Google “romantic love” and see what comes up. We develop expectations, consciously and unconsciously, about our love relationships and attempt to realize these. When these notions are unattainable, stress is inevitable. And the impact of stress on our immune system, heart and mental health is well documented.
It’s high time we stopped chasing after fictional love. Acts of love are as diverse as the people who exchange them between each other. They are often mundane but caring. If we break the myth of romantic love, we can start having more realistic expectations of relationships and in turn lead happier and healthier lives.
This post originally appeared at The Conversation.