Friday, May 10, 2013

Romantic Love, Conversation, Biology, and Culture

Note: This post grew out of reflection on older earlier post on bundling.
When I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins I took a course in Medieval literature and was thoroughly gobsmacked when I learned that romantic love had been invented in 12th century France. Until then I’d believed it to be a human universal – one and only, forever and ever, that was just how it was, no? Well, not quite.

What arose in Medieval Europe is something called Courtly Love, a set of conventions used by high-born men in wooing their lovers. And these lovers were not their wives, nor wives to be. For aristocratic marriage had little to do with personal preference; it was politics. Powerful families would forge alliances by arranging marriages among their young.

In time, over the course of centuries, so the story went, romantic love was transformed from an aristocratic game into a set of conventions used to define the necessary, or at least the ideal, precondition for any marriage. This set of conventions was in place, at least among the middle class, by the time Jane Austen wrote her novels in the early 19th Century. Those conventions have remained more or less in place up to the present, though they’ve become a bit tattered in the last decade or three as a soaring divorce rate has made it abundantly clear that true love does not last forever. That, of course, is not exactly news – why, for example, did Flaubert write Madame Bovary? – but the myth is so attractive that it dies hard.

That was the state of things during my undergraduate years – which coincided with the emergence of feminist activism in the late 1960s. Whatever their personal experience, everyone gave lip service to one and only forever and ever and believed that it was human nature. In that context, then, the revelations of the learned scholars shook my world.


Learned scholars, however, do not constitute a single tribe. Their tribes are many, and often contentious. Even as the literati were blissfully proclaiming the recent and Western origin of romantic love, other scholars set out to prove them wrong. In 1992, for example, W. R. Jankowiak and E. F. Fischer published “A cross-cultural perspective on romantic love” (Ethnology 31: 149-155). They defined romantic love as “any intense attraction that involves the idealization of the other, within an erotic context, with the expectation of enduring for some time into the future” and they contrasted this with “the companionship phase of love . . . which is characterized by the growth of a more peaceful, comfortable, and fulfilling relationship.” They examined ethnographic data on 166 societies from around the world and discovered romantic love in 88.5 percent of them, suggesting “that romantic love constitutes a human universal, or at the least a near-universal.”

More recently Jonathan Gottschall and Marcus Nordland published Romantic Love: A Literary Universal? (Philosophy and Literature 30: 450-470, 2006). They conducted a cross-cultural study of folktales from 79 cultures and found at least one reference to romantic love in 55 of those collections and multiple references in 39 collections. They assert that their study “offers staunch support to the existing evidence that romantic love is a statistical cultural universal. It would also seem to increase the probability that romantic love may be an absolute cultural universal offers staunch support to the existing evidence that romantic love is a statistical cultural universal.” “Statistical universal” is a term of art meaning that something is in a lot of places, but not everywhere, yet. It seems clear that if Gottschall and Nordland were to place a bet, they'd bet that further research would find that romantic love is a true cultural universal, present in every culture for which we have reliable records.

Still more recently, just yesterday in the time-scale of academic publishing, Brian Boyd has asserted, with the calm assurance of a senior scholar in command of wide learning, that “cross-cultural, neurological, and cross-species studies have demonstrated the workings of romantic love across societies and even species” (The Origin of Stories, Harvard 2009, p. 341). To this, Michael Bérubé has replied, with the calm assurance of a senior scholar in command of wide learning, but learning leavened with a dash of school-boy wit:
This just won’t wash. Other species might court and mate for life, but they do not engage in romantic love in the sense that humanists employ the term, save perhaps for the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew. “Romantic love” does not mean “mammals doing it like mammals”; it refers to the conventions of courtly love, which were indeed invented in the European middle ages and cannot be found in ancient literatures or cultures. Those conventions are culturally and historically specific variations on our underlying (and polymorphous) biological imperatives, just as the institution of the Bridezilla and the $25,000 wedding is specific to our own addled time and place.
What’s going on here? Who’s right?

Back to the Drawing Board: There's that pesky elephant

I don’t know. We don’t know. Not any more.

I’m inclined to invoke that hoary old story of the blind men who, upon examining a large beast, are unable to decided what beast it is, or even whether or not it is a beast at all. We, of course, know that they’re examining an elephant, but such different parts of the elephant – tusks, years, legs, tail – that they reach vastly different conclusions about the object under scrutiny.

In the case of romantic love, I believe we’re in much the same position as those blind men. But, in our case, there is no transcendent story-teller who actually knows what creature is under scrutiny. Rather, it is up to us to approximate that story-teller by making more and more sophisticated observations and examining them through richer concepts and models about human culture and behavior.

There is no point in continuing to argue using existing observations, methods, and theories. In light of the existing contretemps we would do well to consider such arguments to be ideological in nature and thus pointless, except, of course, to all-knowing ideologues. Meanwhile, let’s take a look around and see what else is there to be explained.

Companionship, Conversation, and the Novel

Let’s return to Jankowiak and Fischer, and their contrast between the romantic phase and the companionship phase of love, a distinction, I believe, that is common, and which I accept. This companionship, is it too universal?

Take those Medieval aristocrats who were playing courtship games on the side: Did they have a companionate relationship with their spouses? I’m guessing that in some cases, yes, and in other cases no. These marriages, after all, were arranged by parents for political ends. If companionship developed in the marriage, fine; if not, no big deal. For companionship was not the point, it was not part of the ideology.

And then we have my standard passage from John Milton's Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Preface to Book 1:
God in the first ordaining of marriage taught us to what end he did it, in words expressly implying the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity, though not in necessity: yet now, if any two be but once handed in the church, and have tasted in any sort the nuptial bed, let them find themselves never so mistaken in their dispositions through any error, concealment, or misadventure, that through their different tempers, thoughts and constitutions, they can neither be to one another a remedy against loneliness nor live in any union or contentment all their days…
That strikes me as an assertion of the need for companionship between spouses – cheerful conversation – and a rather emphatic assertion at that. Would Milton have made such an assertion if it had, in fact, been the common understanding of the day? That seems unlikely to me, though I could be wrong, as I am not a scholar of 17th century English family practices.

But the late Lawrence Stone was, and in 1977 he published a ground-breaking study, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (Harper & Row) in which he argued that, over a period of three centuries, family organization underwent a transition that started with the Open Lineage Family – permeable by outside influences, with strong “loyalty to ancestors and to living kind” (p. 4). It was succeeded by the Restricted Patriarchal Nuclear Family P. 7):
which saw the decline of loyalties to lineage, kin, patron, and local community as they were increasingly replaced by more universalistic loyalties to the nation state and its head and to a particular sect or Church. As a result, ‘boundary awareness’ became more exclusively confined to the nuclear family, which consequently became more closed off from external influences, either or the kin or of the community.
Finally, during the last half of the 19th Century, the Closed Domesticated Nuclear Family emerges among “the upper bourgeoisie and squirarchy” (pp. 7-8):
This was the decisive shift, for this new type of family was the product of the rise of Affective Individualism. It was a family organized around the principle of personal autonomy, and bound together by strong affective ties. Husbands and wives personally selected each other rather than obeying parental wishes, and their prime motives were now long-term personal affection rather than economic or status advantage for the lineage as a whole … Patriarchical attitudes within the home markedly declined, and greater autonomy was granted not only to children, but also to wives.
This was a family in which companionship between husband and wife was important, for that companionship was now the foundation of family organization. And this is the family structure that is at the heart of the British novel in the late 18th century and into the 19th century. The novel and the family structure had a reciprocal relationship (dialectical?) in which the demands of this family structure created an audience for the novel and the novel, in turn articulated the inner-workings and hidden designs of the family.

Out of what biological equipment did the novel help people construct their familial relations? Let us speculate, and freely – for what else can we do? If we’re to search for evidence, we’ve got to make a guess about what we’re looking for before there’s any point to setting out. However, we do want our speculation to be biologically plausible. So, calling on chess as a metaphor, let’s select our pieces from biology while our speculation will be the game play.

Biology: Attachment and Caring

In a parenthetical remark which I elided from my quotation, Jankowiak and Fischer glossed the companionship phase as attachment, which has been a term of art since John Bowlby published a book of that title (Attachment, Basic Books 1969). Bowlby was interested in the relationship between and infant and its mother and used the term “attachment” to name that relationship. The mother is the center of the infant’s (psychological) world; as such, she is the infant’s primary point of attachment to the human world. Subsequent to Bowlby, other thinkers have used his idea of attachment in thinking about adult love relationships (e.g. Shaver, Hazan, and Bradshaw, 1988).

What is particularly interesting about the model developed by Shaver et al, is that it involves three independent behavioral systems, attachment, care giving, and sexuality. Attachment is the relationship the infant has to the mother. No matter how strong the attachment, however, it would not be biologically efficacious if it were not reliably answered by the mother’s care giving behavior. As for sexuality, I take it as given that it is independent of the other two. But let’s set it aside for the moment.

The assertion about attachment is that this system that originally bound the infant to its mother is now, in adolescence and adulthood, being repurposed to bind the lover to his (or her) beloved. The sense of the beloved’s supreme perfection, often in contrast with one’s own unworthiness, was a staple of courtly love and seems characteristic of romantic love. Here’s Romeo about Juliet:
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
And Cleopatra on Antony:
His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.
That’s not the description of a man. It’s a description of a transcendent being.

But one cannot build an on-going relationship on such (abject) adoration. Indeed, such adoration doesn’t even require interaction with one’s beloved. After all, Dante only met Beatrice twice, yet he wrote a book about his love for her, La Vita Nuova, and had her be his guide in the Divine Comedy. No doubt it takes a peculiar, and gifted, temperament to find fulfillment in such intense love at a distance, but the mere possibility of doing so underlines the peculiar nature of adult attachment.

And so, attachment is, in fact, complemented both by care giving and sexuality. Thus Shaver et al. suggest (p. 89):
Sexual attraction can increase very quickly and pull people into a relationship. Attachment and care giving, both perhaps aspects of what Sternberg calls intimacy, develop more slowly. In a secure relationship, attachment and care giving probably develop in tandem, each person providing responsive kindness and support which the other person comfortably relies upon.
But what is it that “determines” how these different behavioral systems are recruited into the ongoing relationship? It might be biology, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Rather, I suspect it is a combination of the individual preferences of those involved in the relationship and the cultural models available. Many of the models are provided in expressive works of literature and other narrative media, such as movies, opera, and so forth.

Attachment, sexuality, and care-giving, those are game pieces provided by human biology. They are universal. People in every social group in every culture experience each of these during their lives. But how they are combined into a single relationship, that is not at all dictated by biology. Cultures have great leeway in telling stories that combine these systems in various ways. Individuals within those cultures, they too have some room to move. Their biology doesn’t dictate their lives. But it places constraints on them, as does their culture.

It is not easy to live a life that differs from those laid out in the dominant narratives of one’s society. But it is possible, especially in the large and diverse societies that exist in much of the modern world. The very openness of biological possibility, of one’s human nature, thus provides the possibility of escaping the strictures of an oppressive social regime.


Phillip Shaver, Cindy Hazan, and Donna Bradshaw, Love as Attachment: the Integration of Three Behavioral Systems, in Robert Sternberg and Michael Barnes, eds. The Psychology of Love. Yale, 1988, pp. 68-99.

* * * * *

couple of days ago I quoted Dan Dennett as asking whether or not "any of these candidates for Darwinian replicator actually fulfill the three requirements in ways that permit evolutionary theory to explain phenomena not already explicable by the methods and theories of the traditional social sciences?" The emergence of romantic love is a good example. It's not at all clear that any version of memetics has anything interesting to say about this, and I say that as someone who wants some version of cultural evolution to work out. That might change if and when we go text-mining through a large stash of scanned texts from the 12th Century on forward.

Also, this was cross-posted at The Valve, now closed for renovation.


  1. you don't make it easy to share this post on twitter dude ;-)

  2. ok, i saw the share option way above. had to hunt... :-)