I want to say that I was tasked with writing about modern relationships, but in truth, I totally put up my hand for it. A few years back I read Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert and ever since I’ve been fascinated with the idea of how relationships and the concept of love have changed and evolved according to the culture of the times, as well as the broader socio-economic circumstances.
The quote that has stuck with me through most of my twenties also came from this book and has rung true for the last decade; “Sometimes life is too hard to be alone, and sometimes life is too good to be alone.” For me, love came as a decision. I looked at him and could see him looking at me, and I made the decision to keep seeing him for the rest of my life. But, I’m well aware that each love story is completely unique.
When I told my fiancé that I was writing about this topic, he remarked; “but you don’t know anything about love.” It was one of the sweetest things he has ever said to me. And if you know me, that is all I needed to make a deep-dive into the topic of, what we today classify as, love and romance and relationships and dating and hookups and getting married, making out, breaking up, and whatever else is hip on TikTok these days.
A small note on how I approached this article: I listened intently for nearly a month. I listened to the stories of colleagues, family members, strangers, scorned lovers and one-night stands. I read a whole lot, way beyond just Committed yet still trying to avoid the rabbit hole. I investigated myths, old legends, folk tales, Disney princesses, as well as Han and Leia. And the result is this deconstructed narrative on what I found investigating the state of love in 2020.
I wanna know what love is
I fall in love like little kids falling off of their bikes – without using their hands. I bury myself in someone’s existence and rarely come up for air. I need to regularly debrief my relationship to a third party, because I spend long hours dissecting the very fibre of the relationship.
My idea of relationships was very much formed by the pop culture of our time. I always fancied myself a Carrie and wrote pages and pages full of poetry and short essays on the men that walked in and out of my life. But it wasn’t until I started watching Girls that I really found a, let’s call it, ‘philosophy’. I had to have all the experiences I could muster to be able to look back one day and have material to write about. I was looking for my Adam, but at the same time wishing I could have the doctor from the garbage episode.
The implication being that I wanted to be sickened by love, I wanted to crave it, seek it out, avoid it, ignore it, hero it and absorb it all at once.
At this point, you are probably thinking… damn, this girl is high maintenance! But like a true millennial, I chased the experience of love, the high, the instant gratification, but also the pining and the pain which I soon came to worship.
A history of love
It is said that the most basic philosophy of love warns that a definition of love is either futile (love cannot be defined) or self-defeating (to define it is to degrade it). This is quite a modern notion. According to Simon May in the book Love: A History, you could have asked Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and even Schopenhauer in the nineteenth century for a definition and they would have been able to provide it. Knowing exactly what love is, what inspires it, what we seek in it, and more.
So why are we now at such a loss to pin down what we see as love? May argues that we are torn between making traditional expectations of love come true and in that, try and avoid questioning them. Many have noted the similarities between religion and love, and May states rather poignantly that maybe love is now our god; “Human love, now even more than then, is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment.”
The anatomy of loving
Wow, history got real intense real fast there. Back in 2020, my cousin arrives at my apartment at nine o’clock on a Sunday evening. He is heartbroken, he recently broke up with his girlfriend of two years but he desperately wants her back. He knows it is not the right thing to do, but still, he entertains the dialogue. He catches me off-guard; “You think I shouldn’t take her back”. I try to explain my viewpoint (there is a five year age gap between us); “If a relationship didn’t work once, it never will”. Needless to say, that is not what he wanted to hear.
Way back in 2008 a neuroscientist, Dr Helen Fischer, gave her now-famous TED talk on the anatomy of love. One of the first things that she said was that anthropologists all over the world have been studying societies for decades but have never once found one without a form of love.
But what is really interesting is that Dr Fischer and her team registered activity in an area near the base of the brain of people that are in love, and identified this area as the ventral tegmental area. This region produces dopamine and sprays it to the rest of the brain. The region also forms part of the brain’s reward system.
It is the same sensation as a cocaine high.
So, I try to explain to my cousin that his cocaine high is gone. He needs to embrace withdrawal. He didn’t take that well either, but I’m sure he’ll come to understand that with time. I once read that getting married or committing to a relationship is choosing the person you are going to fight with for the rest of your life. Therefore loving that person amidst the highs and lows, and not quitting, is key. And if you cannot find yourself to do that once, odds are you are going to feel that way again.
Love in the time of the coronavirus
Whoa, girl! Enough preaching. Back to the matter at hand. Modern love. Love in a time of Tinder and Bumble. Love in the age of FaceTime, Facebook, Instagram, and even LinkedIn. Love in a time where connectedness is at both an all-time low and high.
Taking one small nostalgic step back, I think back to the time of MXit and Blueberry Messaging. It is a pre-privacy world and we had no idea what exactly the internet could do. We joined chatrooms and fed our music to our statuses while posting our every thought to our Facebook wall.
Here we are now, post-truth. The chickens have come home to roost for Facebook, we are very familiar with public floggings (thanks #meToo) and the term ‘catfish’ exists. Taking all of this into account, I often stand astounded by the ways in which people still find love. Exhibit A, this adorable story I found on the New York Times’ Tiny Love Stories section of a couple that slid into each other’s DMs:
“The Flamingo Connection
Peyton posted a picture with his flamingo, Lisa, wearing a Santa hat. Lisa had an Instagram account, so I followed it. He texted: “I see you following my lawn flamingo on Instagram.” I replied: “You tagged it in a photo. What other option did I have?” The texts got longer. Christmas slid to New Year’s and eventually to an evening watching the stars. I asked him why he texted me; he asked why I responded. We both knew. I’m thankful for that flamingo. “She’s the only girl I’ll ever love,” he once said. But that’s not true anymore. — Kate Bellows”
This, to me, is still not the most interesting thing about modern relationships in the digital sphere. There is an interesting book, Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz on the truths we can find in Google searches, pornhub searches, Facebook profile preferences and more.
In an example of one of these research pieces, they took a data set of people that have marked themselves as ‘in a relationship’ on Facebook at some point. Of course, over time some of these couples stayed in a relationship while others reverted to ‘single’. Looking for a correlation in the data they found that “…having a common core group of friends is a strong predictor that a relationship will not last.” This all according to Big Data.
But let’s admit it, while we are willing to Google (almost) anything, we are way less likely to share anything relating to taboo subjects on our Facebook (or Instagram feed). We keep up a front of Instagram-worthy moments and perfectly curated quotes, never really accurately describing reality.
But still, we fall in love online, it is truly amazing.
The we in me, not the me in we
Something Diane said in the latest season of Bojack Horseman kind of stuck with me. She said that for the longest time, she has never felt like a ‘we’ in a relationship. Rather a ‘me’ in a ‘we’. I realised that for strong, independent women it can be a challenge to commit to becoming a ‘we’ for fear of losing the ‘me’.
I am extremely blessed to have a group of young, independent women as colleagues. I recently found myself listening to their fears and expectations of love. The bulk of them are in their early twenties. They resonated this thought exactly: how do I marry the fact that I am young and independent, still wanting to be single, and not end up old and alone?
My brother and his girlfriend have been together for ten years and both of them turned 25 last year. They grew up together. They faced it all together. But they had to fight twice as hard to retain the ‘me’ in the ‘we’. For us that have paired up in our late twenties, the ‘me’ is already established.
The hard work is finding that ‘we’ within the ‘me’ that you have spent years carefully putting together.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single person in possession of a sound mind should be seeking a partner
So, if you are in your early twenties reading this maybe give yourself a break. If I could tell my twenty-year-old self anything it is that you are never as lonely as you think you are. You always have more time than you think you do. Experiment, be selfish with your time and be a Yes Man.
If you are in your late twenties and you feel like time is running out, remember your twenty-year-old self and appreciate how far you’ve come. Hangovers are worse after 25 and so are heartbreaks, you need to find that perfect balance between a Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and Michael Buble song.
To end this exploration of modern love, I want to tell a last story. My mom and dad met at a braai in the late 1980s in Bloemfontein. She wanted nothing to do with him because he seemed arrogant, but he got her number from a friend and he wouldn’t give up. He called her his diamond.
They were married for 23 years before she passed away – their relationship was far from perfect but they loved each other in the flawed, imperfect way that you only love the one you have specifically chosen to love unconditionally. They found commonplace in the positivity that they wanted to approach life with, and gave that as a gift to their two children.
And that’s modern love, the same love they could describe in the time of Plato. Just more complicated and more inclusive and, I think, to a large extent more tolerable and forgiving while, at the same time, facing more hurdles and disconnect than ever before.