What We Should Talk About When We Talk About Love


What We Should Talk About When We Talk About Love

Maybe love doesn't mean what society has tried to convince us it does.

“Ugh, I need someone to cuff me.” 

At the end of first semester, cuffing season was in full swing. There were couples sipping hot chocolate at the Rittenhouse winter market, countless rounds of champagne and shackles, and numerous complaints from my friends as they dreamed about kissing someone under the mistletoe by Christmas. Being in a relationship during the holiday season is cute and romantic, yet we consistently use words that fail to convey such affection. Society seems to have lost its penchant for the traditional; no longer does the phrase “I’m dating someone” suffice as a relationship status. Instead, one must equate dedicating time to a significant other to serving a sentence in jail.

Let’s talk about the way we talk about love.

In 1981, Raymond Carver published a short story, titled, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The narrative follows two couples as they debate the meaning of love and whether or not they possess it. Everyone, of course, wants to believe that they have it; the first couple, Nick and Laura, share gentle touches and longing gazes to physically demonstrate how much they care for each other. The other couple finds themselves in disagreement. To Mel’s disgust, Terri believes that her ex-husband abused her because of his overwhelming love for her—a love whose intensity was true and pure.

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

But, what is love? Does it depend on the number of compliments you give someone? The way you hold them? The way you hurt them? The couples were never truly able to describe love in words, and it seems like as a society, neither are we. We have the tendency to use metaphors to convey what we don’t understand, but this is a habit that may harm us in more ways than we realize.

Mandy Len Catron, an author and professor, explains in a fascinating TED Talk how all of the words that society uses to describe love essentially liken the experience to mental illness. In movies, music, and daily conversations, phrases like “love-struck” and “crazy in love” are constantly thrown around. These words have been embedded into the English language; they have become so common and cliché that most people do not realize that they are associating love and affection with madness and pain. 

Mandy Len Catron explains in her TED Talk how our words shape the way we experience love.
Video Courtesy of TED

We say we have a “crush” when we like someone, implying that it feels suffocating and constricting to be next to that person. While it is true that the beginning of a relationship can be nerve-wracking, and love certainly has the ability to be powerful and heart-wrenching, it is due in part to the expectations that we set up by using these metaphors. If we think that a crush should feel crushing, then it will be, and we will describe it that way. Such is the nature of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Thus, after years of associating feelings of affection with feelings of pain, the first time I exchanged “I love you”s with my boyfriend was right before we broke up to go our separate ways to college. It must be love, we thought. Nothing else could possibly hurt this much. I had quite literally “fallen in love,” head-first, with no chance to look back.

"This is the real madness, because there is no cosmic rule that says that great suffering equals great reward." Mandy Len Catron

It’s the all-too-common logical fallacy that the more you suffer, the more you will get out of an opportunity. TV and media show us that relationships with the lowest lows must have the highest highs—but there’s no real evidence to show that this is true.

Whether we associate love with pain or the loss of individuality, we are subconsciously priming ourselves for drama and unhealthy relationships. When people actively search for problematic people to fall in love with, they will only turn up with broken hearts, teary eyes, and an overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction.

As cuffing season comes to an end, let’s take this opportunity to redefine the concept of love, for it should not be all-consuming, nor “crushing”. Love should not make you feel like you are giving up your free will. Relationships, ideally, are beautiful and collaborative. They need to make you feel comfortable and supported. Think about the words you use to describe your relationship. Think about the type of people you are interested in. As Canton suggests, perhaps you should consider gently stepping, rather than falling into love.