Understanding Today’s Radical New Chapter in the Story of Love (short version)

Thirty years ago, psychiatrist and futurist Charles M. Johnston wrote an article titled, “A New Meaning for Love.” It described how love, in our time, is changing in fundamental ways. Although Dr. Johnston has written numerous books and articles since, no piece he has written has been more often cited.

The changes he described at that time have only become more significant. We see them most readily in today’s rapidly evolving assumptions about gender roles and expectations. But ultimately these changes go deeper. They concern love’s mechanisms—what makes love love.

In his most recent book, Hope and the Future, Dr. Johnston emphasizes how understanding these changes will be increasingly essential if we are to make love work in times ahead. He also describes how such understanding helps us make sense of more encompassing changes that are reordering all parts of our lives. Dr. Johnston proposes that they represent important aspects of a kind of cultural “growing up”—what he calls Cultural Maturity—gradually reordering the times we live in. The book describes how Cultural Maturity’s changes will be more and more essential if we are to have a healthy and vital human future.

For love’s new picture to make sense, we need first to recognize that love does change. Commonly we regard love to be timeless—we assume that love is love. But, in fact, love has evolved over the course of history, with our modern notion of romantic love only the most recent chapter. The Romeo and Juliet picture is actually a relatively recent cultural “invention”—a product of the Modern Age. We idealized romantic love in the European Middle Ages, but it was unrequited love we put on a pedestal, not our modern version.

Even if we do recognize that changes, even fundamental changes, have taken place over time, we still tend to assume that love as we have known it represents a kind of culmination. But this, too, is a conclusion we need to question. There is no reason to believe that love should now stand still. Dr. Johnston argues that relationships that work today are requiring us to turn important first pages in an essential further chapter in love’s story.

It turns out that the Modern Age ideal is not only not some final manifestation of love, in fact it represents something quite different from how we commonly think of it. We tend to assume that Romeo and Juliet­­­–style romantic love represents love based on individual choice. In the sense that romantic love has taken us beyond the historical practice of having partners chosen by families or matchmakers, certainly it does provide greater freedom of choice. But this is not yet individual choice in the sense of choosing as whole, complete people.

The Modern Age romantic ideal reflects what we could call “two-halves-make-a-whole” love. We relate like two opposite poles of a magnet. This is not a bad thing—the result has been a reliable kind of bond. But that bond depends on the mechanism that psychologists speak of as projection. With romantic love we put the other on a pedestal—make them our white knight or fair maiden. What we see on that pedestal is, in the end, as much a part of ourselves as another person—a masculine or feminine aspect that we have yet to fully incorporate into our own identities.

Whole-Person love—love that sets aside the ready magnetisms of projection —represents a wholly different kind of connecting. Bit by bit it is coming to define successful love. Love increasingly requires that we better recognize how, as Lily Tomlin put it, that “we are all in this alone.” And, simultaneously, it requires that we recognize the possibility of deeper and more complete ways of being together. Dr. Johnston describes how it is extremely rare today, in working with couples, that the challenges and rewards of loving more as whole people does not play a significant role.

The fact that love as we have witnessed it to this point is love of a two-halves-makes-a-whole sort becomes obvious with reflection. Projection is what makes it possible to fall quickly in love with no real knowledge of the other person. It is also what makes it possible for the sound of wedding bells at a movie’s conclusion to assure us that the protagonists will live “happily ever after” (when, in fact, love’s journey has barely begun).

The common result when we fall out of love provides even more inescapable evidence for this two-halves-make-a-whole mechanism. We can assume that we will then have distaste, even antipathy for the other person—which with high frequency proves to be what we in fact feel. Notice that this outcome makes no sense if love has been between two whole people, when we have loved each other simply for who we are. The ending of such a relationship can bring sadness that something special has run its course. It can also bring regret that mistakes were made. But only in very unusual circumstances would antipathy be warranted. Why do we assume antipathy? When love involves projection, antipathy is needed in order to extract the projected part and regain our full sense of ourselves. The more common sentiment when the feelings of Whole-Person love begin to fade is gratitude for what the other person has added to our lives.

At least initially, we may not celebrate the gift that Whole-Person love represents. Leaving behind the romantic dream’s promise that there is another person who can be our completion and answer may look only like loss. We can grieve that something precious has been taken away. It is also the case that as yet we have little to guide us in engaging the changes this more mature kind of love requires of us. Imagery in the media today rarely gets much beyond the old romantic ideal—indeed it rarely goes beyond absurd caricatures of it.

But when we begin to engage love’s new picture, we readily begin to recognize the power of these changes. We see that that which has been taken away was ultimately illusion (an illusion that, while once necessary for love, today has become an obstacle to authentically finding it). We also see how, because such love better reflects two people’s unique lives, it can be much more significant—and thus more romantic in the deepest sense. And because the two people are no longer two halves of a predictable story, possible ways of being together increase dramatically.

In the end, such Whole-Person connecting is not some luxury. The future of intimacy depends increasingly on our ability to realize this new, fuller relationship with ourselves and with those we love.

Bringing greater maturity to love makes love more challenging—certainly it requires that we know both ourselves and the person we are with more deeply—but there are ways in which it makes love simpler. We can leave much of love’s drama behind us. Love becomes more simply about loving another person for who they are. Whichever most stands out—the complexity or the simplicity—it is these changes that will allow love to remain something powerful in our lives. In the end, this greater maturity offers not just new options in love, but the potential for ultimately more fulfilling bonds.

It is important to appreciate that success in love today has to do not just with what we bring to love—the whole of ourselves—but also with how we understand it. Love that surrenders traditional projections requires more subtle understandings of love’s workings. We aren’t used to thinking this much about love. In fact, thinking and love have often been viewed almost as opposites. But as cultural dictates stop doing much of our thinking for us, we will need to bring to our experience of love new levels of awareness and discernment.

Some examples of the new understandings successful love in the future will require of us include: better appreciation of how love can be different for different people; deeper recognition of how love changes and evolves, both through the course of a relationship and more broadly; and a more encompassing grasp of how love creatively interplays with other parts of our lives. Our times invite, indeed demand—and begin to make possible—a new maturity not just in our experience of love, but also in the sophistication with which we make sense of it.

Dr Johnston emphasizes that these changes that are reshaping love are not happening in isolation. He describes how a related evolution is taking place in relationships of all sorts—from those between friends; to new, more mature approaches to leadership; and ultimately to how we think about and structure our institutions. Each of these changes follows from what the concept of Cultural Maturity predicts. Because love presents a particular personal example of Cultural Maturity’s changes, it makes one of the most ready places to recognize them. And because love’s changes are well underway, they support hope that Cultural Maturity’s broader changes are more in the cards then we might assume. They help us appreciate that these are changes “whose time has come.”

You can learn more about the concept of Cultural Maturity and the changes it predicts in Dr Johnston’s numerous books and on the Cultural Maturity blog (www.culturalMaturityBlog.net). Cultural Maturity is a central concept in Creative Systems Theory, a comprehensive framework for understanding purpose, change, and interrelationship in human systems.