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More Than a Feeling?

Some of you may know that I am currently in a doctoral program at UVM. I am thoroughly enjoying myself being a student once again, even though it is a bit odd being a professor at the same time. What I most enjoy about being a student again is the conversation that ensues with well considered colleagues after we have all read the same articles from our widely divergent perspectives. This week’s readings are largely on socio-economic class (capitalism, for those of you that are daring enough to say the word), with a focus on it as one of many social constructions. While pondering the merits of the reality of capitalism as a non-natural way of life, my thoughts gravitated towards other un-natural ways of living that we have been socialized to engage in certain ways, like not recognizing social constructions themselves as constructions. Marriage was the most obvious one that came to mind. It is obvious because so many of us have been associated with marriage on an intimate level. Either we are the product of marriage, are or have been in one ourselves, or have been socialized to see our ultimate worth in life somehow linked to marriage, the penultimate posture for procreation. But we don’t necessarily logically engage it as a social construct, as something we have been primed and prepared to experience since birth. Maybe it is because we don’t even know what a social construct is. Concisely speaking, a social construct is something created by society that we respond to, or conform to, often without thinking about it. While many social constructs are problematic for an array of reasons (homophobia, racism, sexism, etc. get a lot more visibility than other social constructs), marriage escapes this scrutiny. Well, while I was thinking of marriage as a social construct, I somehow floated to thoughts of one of the strong underpinnings of marriage, love! Is love a social construction? Well, is it?

Before you dismiss this question and say to yourself, “society didn’t teach me how to feel about someone,” be careful. Think about the way you feel/felt about someone very different from you at first, and the way you feel/felt about that person after you spent time with her/him. People’s reactions to your spending time with that person influenced your relationship with that person, either in a good way or a bad way. Similar images or stories (many garnered from film, novels, are watching other people live) that reflected some aspect of your loved one's reality led you to be more/less curious or concerned about knowing her/him. So, before you dismiss love as a social construct you must ask yourself if the love you feel for this person/possession unaffected by society’s spin on it? If not, then what are some of the factors that affect the way we love? What are some of the ways love is spun that makes it more attractive to us? Is it possible that our entire notion of love is, while not a consistently framed/media driven concept that we have completely and fully digested, never the less is a concept that is difficult for us to separate from its marketing in our society?

Do you love him because he is himself, or because he is the ideal of what society has encouraged you to love? Are the things you love about her important to you because society has manipulated you into seeing those things as significant as opposed to them being significant for some other reasons? While I know that socialization can be attributed to almost anything for good and bad reasons, does that negate the problematic issues that might accompany love as a social construct? Is the concept of love more than a feeling? In the final analysis, what's love got to do with it?


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First, I want to state that I'm coming from the place where I believe that familiies and our best emotions (love, faith, hope, charity) are divine in their design, purpose and nature. I also need to say that the reason why society constructs things is because people have seen the natural consequences of certain actions in certain circumstances and the laws and views we have are really warnings to protect us. I believe that our Creator wants each of us to be born into a family with a mother and father who will protect, feed, teach and provide for us. Some think this is unrealistic, but you have to aim high, or you'll miss the target altogether. From that point, society took that and ran with it and we do see variations of this theme throughout the world.
You cover a lot of turf, but I want to address love and marriage, if I may. I wish marriage was taught as more the practical, economic and social union that it is rather than just as a sexual union. Sex may be the glue that holds a relationship together, but money will tear it apart faster than anything. Getting by has always been a struggle for most folks and it really is cheaper for two to live together than one alone. Marriage gives a person status in the community and among their peers, but companionship in marriage is one of he most important features. As we age, we have less and less opportunity to meet people with which we can become true friends. The cost of lonliness is staggering- suicide, alcoholism, drug use, depression, length of recovery from illness,etc- making marriage more attractive from this medical/social view. Unfortunately, marriage gets a lot of bad press when it goes wrong and none at all when it goes right, leaving a lot of people thinking it's not for them.
You ask, Is love a social construct? It does meet the guidelines for it- every society "constructs" what love means differently. However, love is driven by a basic human need and a natural emotion: we must be loved or we wither on the vine. Infants in hospitals and orphanages who are not touched and held just plain die. We are obviously programmed to love and to seek out love. So, I think we must say love and relationships are like eating. Eating is not a social construct- it's a basic need. However, what is eaten and how and when varies across the world depending on the society and the event.
Here's a question for you: If marriage is a social construct, what is common-law marriage?

The creator wants us to live together, form the marriage union. Which creator are we talking about? I have a book filled with mythological tales, many of which morphed into religious movements, so I need to know which one includes the creator that is such a proponent of marriage?!
It's interesting, and a little scary, how possible tall tales are able to maintain such a firm, seemingly unbreakable grip on society.

Of course it's cheaper to live together than alone. The system, as it is set up currently, benefits the FAT/GREEDY minority at the stake of the oppressed majority, so why not keep that supression fueled?

I would agree the cost of loneliness is "staggering," but I believe it's the human species' inability to embrace and love its aloneness that keeps it shackled and prevents it from truly appreciating and basking in the abundance of love in the world waiting to be tapped into.
So I also agree that we must be loved or we will "wither on the vine," but must we be loved in the way one writer suggested? Doesn't every human being have the ability to love, in one form or another, nearly every other human being inhabiting the planet? Yet we restrict ourselves to an often small, select group of people, such as parents, siblings and spouse, plus a friend or two.
The popularized way of loving IS a social construct. Science has proven humans benefit from the physiological effects of love. The health benefits are well documented. Yet we largely love in a narrow way, and even go so far as to prevent others from loving. I think people in homosexual relationships, those who are bisexual and swingers can attest to this. Many of us look down on them for choosing a lifestyle that wasn't dictated by the historic social construct of love.

But that's physical love, which is in and of itself a narrow category among love's list.

Why can't we as humans simply choose to love as we please? Why can't we navigate life and love the people we meet and interact with in whichever way is mutually beneficial to those involved, whether that be as friends, lovers, or whatever other term one uses to describe loving relationships.
But it's still all a form of love, isn't it? And shouldn't love be selfless? Shouldn't we experience it, and not possess it by exerting control over those we love, at times to keep them loving us, either as friends, lovers or both? I guess we can choose to do this, but sadly, the majority bullies many into going with the flow and not rocking the boat.

Yes, love is beautiful, in whatever form we participate in; it makes us smile, it keeps us healthy and it takes the place of loneliness when we are momentarily bored with our aloneness. Love, including in the way society has popularized it, is worth embracing, but humans should at least be provided the freedom to choose how they will love.

Well, the minority maintaining the power of social constructs has no incentive to change the game, and strangely, humans are often afraid of freedom.

I think that both Kathy B. and Steve had interesting takes on love in response to the question that J.W. posted concerning whether or not it is a social construct. I agree with some of their points, and therefore will attempt not to loop or reiterate that which has already been stated, but I also have a few different thoughts to drop on those willing to read further.

First is to draw a line, albeit one that may blur at times, between the various forms of love that abound within our society and how they differ from the others. There is the love of humanity (which could be stated as a love of life or the world), there is the love of self, there is the love that a parent has for their child, there is the love that a child has for their parents, there is the love that two friends share, there is the love that a person has for their pet, and the love that one may have for, lets say, pizza or driving or cashmere. All of these have different levels of seriousness and attachment to each individual. This is by no means all of the ways in which love is spoken of or felt within our society, but the list would be too long and the day is too short. The reason that I start by making this abbreviated list is because, while it is true that a child will wither without human love and touch, this is not the same type of love that is being addressed in the blog, partially because it is of a completely different nature due to the fact that it's missing what Kathy B. refers to as the "glue that holds a relationship together". Since the blog was focusing on the love shared between two partners as a social construct and marriage as the byproduct, it would serve us better to focus on that one specific concept.

This leads me to the point at which I answer J.W.'s question. In my opinion, love between two partners is definitely a social construct that we have been socialized into believing since birth, if not before. I tend to sit in the same camp as John Armstrong who proclaims love as a social construct in his book Conditions of Love. He articulates love in today’s society as a response to a basic human “need” experienced by our ancestors at the dawn of civilization. This “need” was not the same as needing food or water or shelter. It was the need for protection. In the time of hunters and gatherers it created a sense of togetherness that insured the species survival. So, Kathy B. was somewhat on point when she stated that it is a human need, only she is off by quite a few thousand years. Today, we don’t need love as a means of protection because our civilization has evolved to the point where we have regulations and laws to protect us. Love, when shared by two partners, is merely a response to our own genetic coding and instincts, but not a necessity.

I should actually backtrack and recant part of that last statement because in my opinion, it's true that this type of love satisfies a need, but it's important to look at the nature of this need, which to me is rooted in selfishness. If you really look at what gives one pleasure from love it is the fact that it is reciprocated, not the fact that you give it. No one is overjoyed with unreciprocated love and, in fact, are often distressed, distraught, and heartbroken. So, if the joy of love is knowing someone else is returning the same feeling then isn’t love selfish in nature?

In conclusion, love is an aid. It gives us a false reason to feel better about ourselves. Knowing that someone who doesn’t necessarily have to care about you, in fact, does, allows us to feel more confident, but I argue it is a false sense of confidence because it depends upon another person’s sentiment. It acts in the same way religion does. It offers a false sense of security to those who cannot stand to think that we are merely what we are and no more. But now I’m trailing off into topics of blogs yet to come. Get at me.

I believe love is an amazing gift which we, as humans, are inately bestowed. How we unwrap it and nurture it becomes the question.

We all know the amazing feeling we get when we fall in love. The intense attraction that comes naturally along with the physiological sensations. The commitment to the well being of the loved person and the notion that this feeling will last, this all consuming fulfillment is something desired by us as humans and I believe, a force independent of a social construct. That doesn't mean that society can't affect the way we foster (or fail to foster) our loving relationships. Our relationships are heavily affected by cultural images and experiences we encounter throughout our lives. Especially important and influential to us are the ways in which we were nurtured by our parents. Songs, movie images and observation of our peers and how they interact all affect the ways in which we react to and treat our lovers.

Potentially, our relationships can be affected by both the positive and negative influences which exist in our society. But I still have a hard time giving society the credit for constructing love, because true love is unadulterated.

-- EDR


Did you write this with me in mind? Because I have been trying to answer your questions for a few weeks now! No seriously.... in my humble opion love is affected by society's spin, however we as individuals mold it into our OWN concept. I like to think that society doesn't have a firm grip on me but the truth is it does. I know I have been socialized to think/act certain ways. As far as marraige goes I tried my own thing and it didn't work out. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why. After all, both of my parents have been married three times and have given me a lot of advice on love and marriage! We are all so different and our concept of love is different so until I have mastered the concept of love I will refrain from giving "advice"!

I don't think that love is un-natural. I do believe we all have our own idea of what love is. Spending time with people certainly influences my relationship with them. I have never fallen in love "at first sight." I fell in love after spending time with the person. I was in love when I realized I had found a partner not just in "love," but in all areas of life. I loved him because he was himself and actually different from what society would have encouraged me to love. That was part of his appeal.

The concept of love is more than a feeling but it doesn't need to be. I love many people. What made my love for my spouse different was my concept of marriage. My love for him was different because we were on a different level from all the other people I love. Don't ask me to was just different.....probably because society told me so.

"What's love got to do with it?" you ask? Well I can't answer that, but I do know that when you love it feels good and when you are loved in return it feels even better.

*** Shay, it it helped you get this all encompassing, very problematic, oh so passionate, very painful thing called "love" in some type of positive perspective, then yes, this blog was for you. *** -- J.W.

It seems to me that this discussion rests more on semantics than on what love is.

It's easy to claim love as a societal construct if you frame the definition of love in that way. I would argue that there is no distinction between the love of a brother, of a parent, of a neighbor, or even love of a pizza (if one really could love a pizza). The difference really lies in how that individual defines the word.

Some people marry for convenience, and say they love their spouse. But really, it may be more accurate to say they are "devoted" to their spouse. Another person might go to Arnie's each Friday night because they love Pizza, but what they really mean is that they have a "strong desire" for the taste of pizza.

I don't believe I'm articulate enough to define what love truly is. I can tell you when I experience it, but it's hard to transfer it through my keyboard to you. I think the ways in which we express our love are constructs of society, but love itself is genuine.

Glad I found your blog. The evidence of evolution and human history suggest that marriage is not a social construct, nor is love. All cultures have some sort of ritualized marriage, and that has been the case for all of recorded history. Like much of our behavior, marriage and love serve a purpose in facilitating successful reproduction. Sounds cold, I know. And of course, human institutions such as churches and governments have bent and subverted things like marriage to serve their purposes. Steven Pinker theorizes that forming permanent couples and ritualizing that behavior serve the evolutionary purpose of offsetting our baser instincts to engage in behaviors like adultery. From a reproductive standpoint, a man can maximize the spread of his genes by impregnating as many women as possible. Marriage puts a damper on that instinct, and compels the man to stay closer to home and ensure that the kids make it to adulthood. Pinker's How The Mind Works is a masterpiece that convincingly turns much of the Standard Social Science Model on its head.
Peace, Rick

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