Valentine’s Day isn’t the only time we’re bombarded with pink hearts and heteronormative expectations. Those societal prompts are everywhere. Pop songs, rom-coms, and awkward dinner table conversations around the world convey the expectation that, once you reach a certain age, you’ll find your “other half,” fall madly in love, and settle down to a life of commitment and monogamy and children.
But as Carrie Jenkins, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, points out in her recently published book, What Love Is, that concept of love is actually the product of a very narrow social script.
Jenkins’ critique of romance is shaped by her own polyamorous relationships, but she argues that the flaws in contemporary society’s version of romantic love are relevant to everyone. “It’s harming people,” she says—not just those who, like herself, do not fit the conventional script of monogamy and marriage.
Though the social script of romantic love today has recently expanded to allow for same-sex romance, it still expects everlasting couples who stay together till death do you part. Such expectations are damaging for those who don’t wish to follow such a narrative, argues Jenkins. This applies to those in polyamorous relationships but also single people, and those who don’t want children. There’s so much pressure that some couples have kids because it’s seen as the inevitable right thing to do, she says, which is harmful for both the kids and parents.
Love is a hugely messy concept, and Jenkins argues that it incorporates both a biological side and a socially constructed side. The biological element refers to the physical behavior (the fluctuating hormones and shifts in brain activity) of those who are in love, and is a reflection of our evolutionary need for such ties. But it’s the social script that shapes our norms and expectations of romance, such as the contemporary belief that true love will be permanent and monogamous.
Though this social construct can shift over time, Jenkins says, that doesn’t happen easily. “Some people think it’s made up like fiction is made up, but I’m trying to say it’s made up like the law is made up,” says Jenkins. “We made it, but now it’s real.”
Ultimately, this means that Jenkins cannot truly consider her polyamorous relationships to be an example of romantic love. Though she may feel love—and has the hormones and brain activity associated with that feeling—Jenkins’ relationships simply do not fit the social definition of romance.
Our notion of romantic love is also harmful for those in heterosexual monogamous marriages, says Jenkins, as the contemporary concept of love itself is very sexist. For example, the “Cinderella story,” in which a woman is rescued by a more wealthy, powerful, high-status man, is still a prevalent tale of what’s considered romantic.
“This idea that it’s very romantic to be swept off your feet by a Prince Charming figure and rescued from a life of poverty or whatever by a wealthy man, is feeding into these gendered stereotypes,” she says. “This is built into our ideas of who we find attractive, what it is to have a romantic story attached to your love life.”
It remains very rare for women to earn more than their husbands and, even when they do, women still tend to do a greater share of the household chores (it’s hypothesized that high female earners take on more housework in a bid to compensate for the threat their salary poses to the gender roles.) Jenkins believes that this disparity is a reflection of our Cinderella tales of romance.
It’s impossible to predict exactly how the social script around love will change in the coming decades, says Jenkins. There are early signs that the importance of permanence in romantic love is starting to fade, with talk of short-term renewable marriage contracts. More people seem to believe that a romantic relationship can be successful even if it ends by choice, rather than one partner dying.
Jenkins believes that opening up the social construct of romantic love will ultimately be positive for everyone, even those who end up following the traditional script.
“If you give people more choices and they choose to be monogamous, then that’s great. It means they’ve looked at all the possibilities and made a conscious choice to be in that kind of relationship,” she says. “I think it’s better to do things with awareness rather than because it’s the only option available.”
In other words, Jenkins argues, true romance needn’t look anything like Cinderella’s love story. But if you do want to get married until death do you part, it’s much more romantic to do so out of choice—rather than because it’s the only acceptable option.