The title I’ve used for this piece might seem overly dramatic. But I will argue that it is not. I will also argue that changes happening in the world of love can help us understanding equally dramatic changes taking place in relationships of all sorts. They can help us too to more fully understand the broader “growing up” as a species—what I call Cultural Maturity—that will be more and more essential if we are to have a healthy and vital human future.
Thirty years ago, I wrote an article I titled “Beyond Romeo and Juliet: A New meaning for Love.” It described how love, in our time, is changing in fundamental ways. While I’ve written numerous books and articles since, no piece has been more often cited. The changes I then described have only become more pronounced. We see love–related changes most readily in today’s rapidly evolving assumptions about gender roles and expectations. But ultimately they go deeper. They concern just how love works—what makes love love.
For love’s new picture to make sense, we need first to recognize that love does indeed 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 Romeo and Juliet–style romantic love only the most recent chapter. In fact romantic love as we think of it is a relatively recent cultural “invention”—a product of Modern Age understanding. People in the European Middle Ages often idealized romantic love, but it was unrequited love they put on a pedestal.
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 most recently known it represents a kind of culmination. But this assumption, too, fails to hold up. If indeed love evolves, then there is no reason to believe that it should now stand still. And there is a deeper reason to question this assumption. 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 what we have thought it to be about.
We tend to think of—and idealize—modern romantic love as 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, it does reflect greater freedom of choice. But this is not yet individual choice in any fully realized sense—in the sense of choosing as whole people. The Modern Age romantic ideal reflects what we could call “two-halves-make-a- whole” love. My grandparents make a wonderful example. They met when they were five and were inseparable throughout their lives. When my grandfather died, my grandmother died soon there after. We speak of spouses being our “better half” to reflect the beauty of this kind of connecting.
But relationships that work today are beginning to require more of us. Two- halves-makes-a-whole connecting 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 the person we care about—a masculine or feminine aspect that we have yet to fully incorporate into our own identities. In its time, this mechanism provided a very reliable sort of bond. We related like two opposite poles of a magnet. But our times are asking more. Two-halves-makes-a-whole love is not yet about loving another just for who they are—fully as another person.
Whole-Person love—love that sets aside the ready magnetisms of projection —represents a fundamentally different kind of connecting. With it, love 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 fuller ways of being together. These changes are only beginning, and certainly only beginning to be recognized. But when I work as a psychiatrist with couples, it is rare that the challenges and rewards of loving more as whole people does not become a point of discussion.
The fact that love as we have witnessed it to this point has been 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. People tend to 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 had 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.
I need to emphasize that I am not at all being critical of love as we have known it. It was right for its time. We would not have had love that worked without the reliable magnetisms that these mechanisms provided. My point is simply that our times are challenging us to turn first pages in an important —and ultimately exciting—further chapter in love’s story.
We may not at first celebrate the changes that come with love’s new picture —indeed quite the opposite. Leaving behind the romantic dream’s promise that there is another person who can be our completion and answer may look only like loss. 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 start 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 to work, today has become an obstacle. We also see how, because love of the more Whole-Person sort 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.
What Makes This Possible
We don’t need to invent this new capacity for Whole-Person love—at least not in any whole-cloth sense—and thankfully. Otherwise it would certainly be too much of a stretch. Whole-Person relating follows directly from the cognitive changes that produce Cultural Maturity’s more encompassing new chapter in our human story. These are the same changes that in other posts I’ve described reshaping the moral landscape and making it newly possible to get beyond the “Chosen-People/Evil-Other” beliefs that before have been the basis for war.
Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes make it possible to more consciously hold all the diverse parts that make us who we are. With them, we come to engage experiences of all sorts in more systemic—we could say in more “complete”—ways (see Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Reordering) .
Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reordering means that understanding and purpose increasingly derive from engaging the world with whole of who we are. It is similar with love. I’ve described how the idealized imagery of two- halves-makes-a-whole relationships (or demonized imagery if things are not going well) involves projecting parts of ourselves onto the other. When such relationship is historically right, we experience finding an appropriate home for our projections as completing us. With Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes, we gradually we come to experience projective dynamics as diminishing us—as making us feel less rather than more.
Whole-Person love requires holding reality more generously than before. When we are ready for it, rather than anything exotic, it feels like “common sense.” As with the eventually obvious-seeming nature of most cultural mature perceptions, this is a sophistication of “common sense” that we are only just now beginning to appreciate (see Common Sense 2.0). But when timely, it feels like what love that matters is obviously about.
As should be clear from this description, Whole-Person love is as much about a new kind of relationship with ourselves as it is about being able to relate more fully with another person. I’ve observed that describing Romeo- and-Juliet–style romantic love as love based on individual choice refers at best to individuality of a limited sort. Whole-Person love reflects a wholly new, more complete understanding of—and way of embodying—what it means to be an individual. Arguably, we are only just learning what being an individual—in any complete sense—is about (see The Myth of the Individual.)
Needed New Capacities
I’ve described how we can think of Cultural Maturity in terms of a common set of capacities new to us as a species. We can think of what Whole-Person love demands in terms of a handful of such new capacities. Each requires holding reality in the fuller way that Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes make possible.
A New and Greater Ability to Tolerate Limits, Uncertainty, and the Fact that Relationship is a Process. With romantic love, the other is experienced as an answer—our completion. Whole-Person relationship requires that we accept limits to what another person can be for us and, in turn, what we can be for them. It also requires that we accept fundamental limits to what we can know. In therapy, I will often respond to a person’s implied expectation that their partner should understand them completely with the observation that they are lucky if they understand five percent of themselves. In addition, it requires that we recognize that getting to know another person deeply takes time. Relationship done well becomes experienced as a creative process—with all the necessary uncertainties and unexpected twists and turns.
Learning to Re-own Projections and to “Measure” Love in More Encompassing Ways. With two-halves-makes-a-whole love, love becomes an expression of whether we can find completion in the other person. Psychologically that translates into whether parts of us can find completion in connecting with an idealized version of some complementary part in another person. We know it is love because we feel the requisite “chemistry” and by the experience of “falling in love.” While with Whole-Person love the connection can be ultimately much deeper, our “measure” is more basic —more “ordinary” if you will. Our attention turns to the depth of connection and complementarity we feel with one another. We know love is love not by one part of us being excited at being made complete, but by the whole of ourselves appreciating the ways life becomes more in the presence of this other person.
Comfort with Making More Nuanced Distinctions. 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 need to bring to our experience of love new levels of awareness and discernment.
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. Some examples of 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.
I find one example of this need to make more nuanced distinctions particularly intriguing. I write a lot about personality differences—how profoundly differently various people can see the world as a product of temperament. Fifty years ago it was rare for people with different personality styles to form romantic bonds (when we said opposites attract, that was opposites within the same general slice in temperament). Today, relationships between people with very different temperaments are increasingly common (as we see with other kinds of diversity such as racial differences). Because such relationships bring together this richness of difference, they can be particularly fulfilling. But they can work only to the degree people appreciate how deeply they are different and approach relationship with the needed understanding.
We gain additional insight into the changes reshaping love with the recognition that related changes are 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 new sort of relating is a product of the same kind of cognitive reordering. With each, we see the need for related new capacities. We also see the possibility of relationship that is at once more “ordinary,” and more profound.
That said, love provides an especially striking and useful example. Because love represents a particularly personal illustration of these 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.”
Love’s Complexity/Love’s Simplicity
Bringing greater maturity to love makes love more challenging and complex. Certainly it requires that we know both ourselves and the person we are with more deeply. There is also how new capacities require that we bring greater sophistication to our choices and greater nuance to how we connect. And while getting beyond two-halves-makes-a-whole assumptions can open the door to a greater variety of options in the forms love can take, more options doesn’t necessarily make love easier.
But there are important ways too in which Whole-Person connecting can make love simpler. Love becomes more about just being oneself and loving another person for who they are. It is about love simply as love. With this recognition, we can leave much of love’s past trappings and expectations behind us if we so wish—shape love in the ways that best fit who we are together. It also becomes much easier to recognize and step beyond soap opera and drama that in the end only gets in the way of real relationship.
Whichever most stands out—the complexity or the simplicity—it is these changes that will allow love to remain something powerful in the future. Whole-Person connecting is not some luxury. In the long term, this next chapter in love’s story will be essential to love that works —and essential also to ways of understanding identity and purpose that work. The future of intimacy depends increasingly on this ability to realize a fuller kind of relationship with ourselves and with those we care about.
Where are we in this evolution? Love’s next more mature chapter remains a stretch for most people. Certainly, popular depictions of love in the media still rarely get beyond fairytale romance and soap opera drama. It may be many decades before this is how a major portion of people begin to think about love. But the changes are already well in motion.