As Valentine’s Day looms, I can’t help but think about how we commodify love.
On Valentine’s Day, love languages are called upon and gift-giving popularly symbolises expressions of love. Although the origins of Valentine’s Day are unclear, its estimated that spending for this holiday will average around 27.4 billion U.S. dollars this year. Romantic love is perched on a pedestal in a capitalist sphere. You will no doubt see phrases like, “lucky in love,” “one in a million,” and red heart-shaped objects everywhere—there’s a strong message that love is “lucky.”
I’ve made the active decision not to celebrate Valentine’s Day in my relationship this year. Partly because of how forced it feels and also because it doesn’t really celebrate love as I see it: an ongoing process, something that we see as more important than a single day of celebration.
In an individualist world, romantic love is revered and treated as scarce. It’s analogous to how we think about love itself. There’s competition, jealousy, envy, anxiety, and insecurity when love appears to be in short supply. It’s as if a deity of love has sprinkled Earth with love in rationed amounts, something to be struck upon by only the fortunate. This type of romantic love focuses on status and overlooks the processes of love.
Shifting focus away from seeing romantic love as scarce helps us focus on what really matters. More important is seeing romantic relationships (and actually all relationships) as a constant work in process which requires ongoing effort. The quality of the relationship matters much more than its status. When we focus on quality, we are paying attention to what really matters. As a therapist, when working with clients’ relationship difficulties, I’m curious about qualities like communication and how differences and difficulties are navigated. Sometimes people are so fixated on the status of love itself, that they ignore glaring problems.
Love is a process that requires ongoing work.
In relationships, we bring unique differences into our connection. We are individuals coming together with distinct values, needs, experiences, and identities. Love requires working out ways of relating to one another amidst our differences. Disagreements, and what’s described in therapy as ruptures, are an inevitable part of relationships.
To navigate them, making space to relate to and understand one another is key. Relating to one another is an ongoing process where we are constantly learning about each other. It requires work: communication, honesty, kindness, managing boundaries, and respect are some of its key ingredients. It can include working out how to communicate difficult things alongside learning how to actively listen, for instance.
Instead of “falling in love,” I like to think of relationships as “growing in love.”
Growing in love acknowledges that you are your own person within the relationship, you can make separate choices, and so can your partner. Idealised “falling in love,” in comparison, treats love as a process beyond the individual’s control, something that you are at the mercy of.
To think of love in this way is limiting and can be erroneous. I often see how clients cling to relationships that aren’t working or are harmful and detrimental because of feeling that they have hopelessly fallen in love. In abusive and unhealthy relationships, individuals often struggle to hold a solid sense of themselves, their boundaries are breached, and they sacrifice their needs for the other person. It is not unusual to hear the words, “how could I possibly leave when I have fallen in love?” or “I will never fall in love again” as justifications for staying in and remaining passive in toxic relationships.
Growing in love encourages an outlook of curiosity rather than judgment.
In relationships, there can be a tendency to make assumptions and judge, even before your partner has uttered a single word. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it “love is about seeing the other person.” She writes, “I am very interested in relationships and, when I watch couples, sometimes I can sense a blindness has set in. They have stopped seeing each other.”
We do not know every single detail about one another, even if it feels like we do. We aren’t fixed entities, there are so many facets to another person. Rather than assume we know everything there is to know, explore and unravel the depth.
Growing in love helps distinguish enduring love from more fleeting forms of love.
Dr. Helen Fisher, a scientific adviser who has written extensively on relationships, highlights how love can be distilled into three categories: “lust, attraction, and attachment. Though there are overlaps and subtleties in them, they are each characterised by their own set of unique hormones. Testosterone and estrogen drive lust; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin create attraction; and oxytocin and vasopressin mediate attachment.” Enduring love tends to be more stable, whereas fleeting feelings of love can mimic processes found in addictions.
Treating love as scarce limits us, it frames love as something that either happens out of sheer luck or takes boundless time and energy to find. Instead, it helps to see love as a process. As we learn to understand and accept ourselves, we are better able to see love more clearly.
When we shift away from seeing love as a commodity, which is scarce, we can make space for seeing love as a process that requires ongoing skill and effort.
I place focus on romantic relationships in this article, but feel that many of the skills highlighted apply to the other connections we have: our friendships, family members, and other connections for which love exists.