Beyond Romeo and Juliet—The future of love

With this year’a marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton it washard not to be caught up in the romance. Numerous commentators have expressed gratitude that we finally have something positive in the news. But it also provided a moment to reflect on love itself.

Love today is changing in ways that require that we reexamine the romantic dream. I don’t mean this to dash water on all the great fun, though we can grieve the loss. Loves changes do not make closeness easier, but in potential they make our connections deeper and more vital. Just how love is changing provides fascinating insight in Cultural Maturity’s changes more generally.

Love does not stand still. This is true of the everyday experience of love. But it is true, too, of love itself—of the various ways we’ve understood love through the course of human history, and the differences over time in just what love has asked of us. Love has evolved, and in specific ways. Today it is evolving further, and in ways that present some of our time’s most fascinating challenges and, in potential, some of its greatest rewards.

In my work as a therapist, I often work with couples. I find nothing more striking in this work than the evidence of how love is changing, and few things more gratifying than supporting these changes.

We tend to think of love as timeless—love is love. In fact, romantic love as we think of it is actually a relatively recent cultural “invention”—a product of the Modern Age. (While we idealized romantic love in the European Middle Ages, it was unrequited love we put on a pedestal, not our modern version.) Or if we do recognize that changes have taken place, we assume love as we know it represents a kind of culmination. But it doesn’t take too close a look to realize that our modern definition too has limitations.

The Modern Age Romeo and Juliet ideal is not only not some final ideal, in fact it represents something quite difference than what we most often assume it is about. We tend to think of romantic love as love between individuals. Modern romantic love did take us an important step toward individual choice beyond the more traditional practice of having mates chosen by families or matchmakers. But in the sense of love between two whole people, romantic love is not about loving as individuals. It is two-halves-make-a-whole love. The bond is created through the projection of parts of ourselves. With romantic love we mythologize the other, making that person our answer, our brave knight or fair lady, our completion (or, at less pleasant moments, the great cause of our suffering).

Such two-halves-make-a-whole mechanisms have served us well. Making the other our completion has protected us from uncertainties and complexities that we could not before have tolerated. Much of the “glue” of relationship, the magnetism of love and the basis of commitment, has come from this giving of dimensions of ourselves to the other for safe-keeping. I ascribe feminine aspects of myself to you; you ascribe masculine aspects of yourself to me. The illusion created is illusion only in the sense that from our present perspective we can now often glimpse fuller options. The two-halves-of-a-puzzle reality created by such projecting has not only served us, in times past it has allowed love to be possible. But what we get from modern age romantic love remains short of the kind of greater completeness—of both identity and love—Cultural Maturity predicts.

Appreciating love as something that evolves, and continues to evolve, provides particular interesting perspective for appreciating developmental (developmental/evolutionary) perspective. And recognizing today’s particular changes provides important support for Cultural Maturity’s conclusions. We see in these changes the broader evolution toward more mature and systemically complete (Whole Person/Whole System) understandings of human identity and human relationship. Noticing how rapidly those changes are becoming real also provides hope—for the future of love, and for the realization of Cultural Maturity’s broader changes.

Today we witness the beginnings of an important growing up in our relationship to love. The most ready place to see this is today’s challenging of traditional gender roles. We glimpse not just greater freedom in our options, but also the possibility of loving in more complete ways. As with mature relations between nations (that leave behind our past need for “chosen people” and “evil empires”) or between leaders and followers (a relationship that has always before been based on a “parent and child” mythologizing of authority), this is a pursuit that is at once more humble and more rich (and profound) in its possibilities.

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. Love increasingly requires that we better recognize how, as Lily Tomlin put it, “we are all in this alone.” And, simultaneously, it requires that we recognize the possibility of deeper and more complete ways of being together.

In some ways this new maturity makes love more difficult. The needed more complete kind of love requires that we know both ourselves and the person we are with more deeply. But there are ways too 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.

Success in love today has to do not just with what we bring to love—the whole of ourselves—but 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 of the new understandings successful love in the future will require: 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. In the end, success will require a deeper and more complete appreciation for what makes love love. 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 understand it.

We gain added perspective—not just on love, but on culturally mature perspective more generally—by noting what culturally mature love is not. Culturally mature love is not simply some final expression of individualism. Individualism provides needed separateness, but by itself teaches us nothing about the needed new depth of connection. It is also fundamentally different from more humanistic notions of wholeness in relationship. A close look at such descriptions reveals that they are most often less about loving as whole people than identification with the emotional side of experience. Neither is it about some postmodern, anything-goes moral relativism. Culturally mature love is about bringing to bear greater moral discernment, not less.

As yet we see few examples of mature love in media—romantic titillation and soap opera melodrama more often prevail—though this should not be a surprise. It is no different than what we see with commercial media more generally. The important recognition is that these culturally mature changes in love are very much happening. Twenty years ago in my work with couples, it was relatively rare for the Whole Person changes of culturally mature love to play a major role. Now it is extremely rare if they do not. This makes working with couples today particularly enjoyable. It also supports hope that Cultural Maturity’s changes are more in the cards then we might assume. These are changes “whose time has come.”


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