Love in an industrial time

(another in my occasional essay series)

An acquaintance of mine enquired, not very long ago, whether I had ever been in love. I was taken aback, a little from the forthright way it was asked: it is not the sort of question one is normally faced with, particularly over drinks at 1.00 am on a Saturday morning. I was taken aback too, because neither of us was 18 or even 25, and one normally only gets this question in one's teens. But also taken aback because I suddenly realised I would have to quantify what I had felt about all the relationships I had had, whether short-lived and meaningless, or long and fulfilling and all the various combinations thereof. Ex-poste, no less, and be fair about it.

But its a valid question, which few of us resolved when we were teenagers, expecting the answer to come to us in the fullness of time. And I suddenly realised, Iím middle-aged, how much more full is time going to get? So I have for the last few weeks been giving the matter some thought. What does love imply? But more importantly, what does love imply in an age where technology has wrought so much change: Where women are emancipated, expectations altered, men (by and large) more sensitive and accepting of the equality of women, the world so small, and sex, marriage and love are considered by many to be independent events? In other words, what does love in an industrial age imply? (note have I purposely avoided using the world's current favourite clich and not entitled this 'love in a globalised world'. It would be too much like work).

Indeed, dear reader, my interlocutor had placed me in a quandary. I had been asked a point-blank question, and those of you who know me, also know that I am not endowed with an ability to dodge direct questions, no matter what the consequences. To make matters a tad more complicated, the question was being asked by a female of the species, one who has a particularly nasty habit of remembering small details with great precision, and one who has derived much pleasure in the past in highlighting my limited capacity for logic (but always, I should add, with the kindness of one who is used to being right). My capacity to be reasonable and forthright were therefore quite challenged, and I could see my assumptions smashed to smithereens before me, as I mumbled my answer. But this did not happen, for whatever reason, and I decided to do it to myself. But I digress. The causes of this introspection are interesting only as far as understanding why I have picked this topic, nor is the personality profile of the catalyst of any relevance here.

My answer to her clearly was yes, but how many times had I consciously aware of being in such a state? To be precise, the question that arose in my mind was: would either of us have the same definition, given our individual histories? Would my answer mean quite the same thing as the questioner had intended?

Again I have digressed. It is not my answer per se, but an enquiry into the phenomenon, my experience, and what had happened to terminate each relationship that is of import here. Why do some people think they are perennially in love, while others claim never to have been there. It sort of brought to a head something I have spent some part of the last 3 years of catharsis vegetating in front of my TV. It has also led me to accost several strangers in airports with questions on this topic. For those of you who are expecting a trademark flippant essay, prepare to be disappointed. For those of you who are prone to embarrassment, stop now. The topic can only be dealt with an earnestness that would make me puke even at the best of times. I am not, it should be said, trying to be profound- most of you are probably more emotionally evolved than I, and all this may be old hat to you.

It is, sadly, a very imprecise concept, a word that is either used with infinite caution ("the L-word"), or mercilessly abused (listen to any pimple faced boy-band). Poets for generations have tried to define it, none with any degree of precision.

But having pseudo-scientific leanings, I think its reasonable to say its partly a hormonal event. I happened to be reading a Dutch magazine on a flight the other day which coincidentally had an article explaining that love was simply, "... a subtle interaction between hypothalamus and hypofyse...".

So the fuzzy feeling, all those strange symptoms may simply be chemical. So perhaps you can all go home now and sorry for keeping you away from your daily dose of the bold and the beautiful. But sadly, no. Can chemicals really explain it all? Was ol' Tina (Turner) sort of right when she sang, whatís love got to do with it...its just a physical reaction? Can we really simply say that missing people, feeling lonely, somewhat empty, is all there is to love? If that is all, I hear you exclaim, why that is sort of what I have with my dog. Yes, I suppose so, and your friends, and your children and your siblings. Nonetheless, Its an important element, because these feelings are so much more accentuated when you're in love, than any of those cases. The main difference is that this one single person makes more of a gap in their absence, and you feel emptier. But there must be more to it than that.

The first missing element seems to be passion, the want for physical intimacy. More hormones at work. Perhaps it is easier to think in terms of evolution- a sudden need to simulate procreation when you have found 'the one', a overwhelming desire to enter a monogamous relationship. OK, so things have changed somewhat. First, the need to procreate has subsided somewhat, as mind has triumphed over body. Second, we seem to have entered into serially monogamous relationships rather than just the one, but the fundamental remains the same. we desire privileged possession and privileged access to physical intimacy. And its not just sex we're talking here. You miss good sex, but lets face it, there ainít that much to say afterwards, and thatís important as a distinction. In my case I just feel plain guilty, because I realise I would rather be alone. In other people it also raises their psychological crises to another high, but in different ways. I have a friend (a good friend) who cant stand it if I hug his partner, or go shopping with her. Its not that he doesnít trust me, or his partner, its his privileged access that I'm contravening. And this isn't just a male thing, but it may have something to do with individual people's insecurity. But the difference is a matter of degrees, rather than the concept.

So whatís this serial monogamy thing, focusing here on the tendency for seriality. Why does one hear so often, 'I thought I loved her but I didnít ' and repeatedly from the same people. Is this a case of misfiring hormones? Or that the signals of lust are the same? Or that we wanted to believe something so badly that we read the signals wrongly? The last two cases are rife with options associated with various psychoses and neuroses. Some people have a commitment problem. My friend Jacob (an alias) suffers from it. All he has to do is meet a woman he's attracted to, sleep with her, and he mumbles, 'she was pushing me'. Is this what Bono croons about when he laments, I just haven't found what Iím looking for?

Here we come to an industrial age phenomenon. We evolve, because the world around us evolves, and we evolve independently from our partners, because we all have complicated, but independent lives. And we do so much more rapidly, because we have so much more rapidly evolving ecologies in a rapidly evolving society, and because we spend more of our lives stuck in having a fulfilling professional lives, and less quality time with our partners, and have less time to catch up with the other's changes. We're looking for one constant to rely on in an age where nothing stays the same. This is also why we lose friends over time, but the difference is that being in a relationship requires you to be vulnerable, but you expect to be understood no matter how crappy your life, no matter how out of touch they are. So when the understanding doesnít come, it hurts more than if you had built walls. Breaking up has so much to do with the lack of time we all suffer from. We work too hard, we donít invest time (you have no idea how often I have heard this from people at airports in my mini-survey), and we react to the breakdown in communication by replacing bridges with walls.

But to backtrack -how different is love from lust? Do we need to sleep with the object of our desires to separate lust from love, I hear the more lecherous among you mutter with delight. This is certainly an option that we have had in our industrial age. But does that allow us to resolve anything? Women too are now allowed to play the sexual experimentation game too, and I suppose on an intellectual level this is good. But we come back to serial monogamy again. He (or she) who has loved and lost more than the next, should obviously be more disposed to being in love, and thus, more capable of loving, and therefore be more desirable? Our breeding suggests not. How many of us become irrationally jealous when we think of an ex-lover of our lover, but not of a lust-partner? Why do want to be 'the one' or 'the only one'? Why do we not go around speaking of how many romances our main squeeze has, or has had? Surely this should make us feel better. 'He's such a successful slut, he's so experienced, yet he picked me to join his menageí? Not an argument that will win you the admiration of your friends, I dare say. So one of the things that is still constant is that love (as opposed to lust) has to involve a serially monogamous existence, preferably permanently monogamous. No matter who else throws themselves at you when you are in love, it doesnít make any difference, because one of the characteristics of being in love is a need for fidelity, and by extension, you hope, in the other person. This doesnít matter particularly where lust is concerned.

So what else does an industrial age imply in matters of love?

First, there has been a redefinition of roles. Women can (and actually do) realise just the same intellectual, professional, academic and spiritual achievement. Except for issues affected by physical limitations, women have proven to be better than men. Women are, for instance, better leaders then men - no overpowering testosterone that reveals itself through unnecessary aggressiveness and territorial behaviour, not to mention selfishness. Ok, so fewer women actually are able to achieve the same status as men in a society which is male dominated, but you have to admit that for a 100 years of emancipation versus several thousand years of suppression, this ainít so bad.

But the problem is that male domination and aggressiveness is not entirely a learnt response, but also biological. And this is where the problems arise. No matter how enlightened the man, his brain still suffers from the onslaught of testosterone. How do you cede the hunter-gatherer-provider instinct to your partner, even though you know on an intellectual level she does it so much better than you? After all, a knowledge based society puts so little value on the ability to kill a reindeer with a single blow to the head, and then drag it home to the little (and meek) woman? The woman of the industrial age has a level playing field in our technology-driven era: being able to debug a C++ program is gender-independent, and supermarkets deliver. Women in the new millennium are actually superior to men. But men find it so difficult not to be territorial, not to be aggressive, not to be the nominal boss, not to wear the pants in the house, because it is instinct and its having watched our parents operate in such an environment.

But its worse, much worse. Women, always regarded as the illogical ones, are now stopping to question the common sense and the logic of the men around them, and I can tell you, its pretty damn uncomfortable. And here is the problem - men require a well-stoked ego to feel satisfied with their existence, and this affects their libido, and when such questions are asked, all that hard work in believing in yourself (plus the heftier paycheque she brings home) eats away at our pride. Some more than others, but its true to some extent in any case. Men begin to feel like purposeless, useless appendages. How the tables have turned, and all for the good in my view, but we havenít yet evolved hormonally to handle this. The sad part is that some women have begun to see the marginality of men in all but matters physical, and women donít help by assuming if you canít (for instance) move heavy furniture and baby-sit you really have no purpose. Have pity on us, we're pathetic and second-rate, and we already know it, so humour us, will you?

But communications between men and women, already tenuous at the best of times, has become more fraught with complications. I am speaking, of course, of information and communications technologies: things like faxes, computers, e-mail and plain old phones. Letter-writing has seen a reincarnation with the advent of e-mail, without having to wait weeks for a reply. But it also trivialises the letter-writing process. Remember the time when a letter implied effort, when words were chosen with care? People falling in love over the web? whatís so strange about this? People used to fall in love over a year's worth of hand-written notes, so this is no great change. What has changed is that it takes so much less time to fall out of love, thanks to e-mail and GSM technology. Because your brain barely gets used to the other persons better qualities (no one starts off with their worst characteristics), when the less great stuff floats in over the net (or air), killing the initial rush. Bad news is best received slowly, rather than suddenly, then it doesnít seem so bad that way. It allows the receiver to rationalise, and minimise these negatives. The mind needs time to adjust. So the electronic word itself is not so bad, its the speed with which it is delivered and replied that has long-term effects. Its changed our ecology, but once again, our natural abilities have not kept pace.

OK so falling in love is feasible across the net, but what about extended relationships? What about the need for closeness, for physical intimacy? Hard work, lots of travelling, exhausting commuting, tele-working, is what I hear from that growing tribe called the Euro-nomads. Thank goodness for jet aircraft, melatonin, mobile phones, laptops and frequent flyer programmes, I hear them mumble, as they do their Christmas shopping in the duty-free area of some airport.

And this brings us to the most important element of love: belief. There are several aspects to this. First, you have to believe you are in love. Second, you have to believe there is something called love. Third, you have to believe its worth being in a potentially emotionally scary place ad infinitum. Fourth, you need to believe in the concept of infinity. Fifth, you need to believe that all the work required to keep the chemistry going is worth it. Itís a little like religion. I take that back. It is exactly what religion is all about, except that the potential benefits are much more immediate in a relationship (although a cost-benefit analysis would indicate that there are probably no benefits in either case). The similarities are striking: Both require a suspension of logic, an aversion to scepticism, an acceptance of other peopleís actions as being in your best interest.

I donít think there is that much more that my analysis has added in the way of making this phenomenon clearer, or more scientifically precise, except that its clearly as much a psychological event as a physiological one. And love in an industrial time has meant that new technologies has made it easier to cook dinner, deliver babies, make money, and arrange for electro-shock therapy. But we (our bodies, our cultures) simply havenít been able to adapt our social abilities in response to our changing environments. Less, may, in fact, be more, but it sure as hell isnít boring. Take that, Neils Bohr.