The idea of romantic love as the basis for marriage, and the basis for personal happiness, is so deeply entrenched that it is easy to imagine that it is both universal and eternal. It is neither. It’s a purely western idea and it didn’t get off the ground until around about the twelfth century. That was when the European upper classes discovered courtly love.
Courtly love seems to have been to a considerable extent a literary invention (this proving once again that writers are in general a foolish and empty-headed lot) although the increasing feminisation of the Church and the rise and rise of the cult of Mary may have played a part. In any case courtly love spread like wildfire through the upper classes. Or to be more precise, it spread like wildfire among the women of the upper classes.
At the time it was perhaps not entirely a bad idea, or it didn’t seem like such a terrible idea. Life was still somewhat brutal and the upper classes were still to a large degree a warrior aristocracy and they were a little unpolished (although it needs to be emphasised that the Middle Ages were never as barbarous or uncivilised as hostile propaganda has led us to believe). Still, life wasn’t as much fun for the ladies as they would have liked. Courtly love sounded wonderfully exciting to them.
Marriage at the time was basically an economic contract. Your parents selected a prospective spouse for you (and this applied to young men as much as to young women) on the basis of the degree of advantage it would bring to the family. As long as you didn’t find the person repulsive the marriage would go ahead (actual forced marriages were always forbidden by the Church). It was a sensible system that worked but it was also a system that put the interests of family and society ahead of the interests of the individual. Marriage was about responsibility and duty. That’s not to say that marriages were loveless. If both parties accepted the situation and made the most of it strong bonds of affection could and did develop. And if those bonds of affection failed to develop and either party decided to seek emotional or sexual solace outside the marriage it was not considered to be the end of the world as long as it was done discreetly.
The new concept of love changed all this. Now the idea was that you would fall in love with someone before you married them. There was also a very strong emphasis on sex, and especially on women’s sexual pleasure. There was a simple way to know if you had found True Love or not. If your emotions were not coupled with sexual lust it wan’t True Love.
The writers of romances who promoted courtly love, writers like Chretien de Troyes, were not unaware of the dangers and Chretien certainly seems to have nourished the fond hope that couples would satisfy their emotional and sexual appetites within the safety and sanctity of the marriage bed. Of course in the real world that was never going to happen, and it didn’t always happen in the romances either (adultery makes for more exciting literature than faithful marriage).
For a long time the old and the new concepts of marriage co-existed and balanced each other out. The quest for True Love was important but responsibility and duty still mattered. You could choose your spouse, but you were expected to choose sensibly and to consider family and economic interests.
It all started to go wrong after the First World War. Responsibility and duty were now very old-fashioned notions. They were positively Victorian. And in the 1920s everything Victorian was of course assumed to be hopelessly bad, stupid, oppressive and worst of all old-fashioned.
And at around this time Hollywood came along. Romantic love was made to order for Hollywood. It provided exciting plots that women loved and it proved to be an ideal weapon with which to undermine marriage (Hollywood was fanatically devoted to sabotaging our civilisation right from the start). Romantic love was soon to reign supreme.
There are several major problems with the romantic love ideal. The biggest problem is that it implies that marriage is only really valid as long as True Love still flourishes. If True Love starts to fade, or if the sexual passion that is the unfailing indicator of True Love starts to falter, then marriage becomes oppressive. And surely it’s wicked to expect people to stay married if there’s no True Love any more? Romantic love therefore, in practice, implies that marriage is temporary and that it should be approached from a purely selfish perspective. It’s all about feelings. It’s all about me!
Romantic love is also quite useful from the point of view of social control. Our lives might be empty and meaningless and we might be just nameless faceless consumers but that’s OK because one day True Love will come along and then everything will be hunky dory. We won’t even notice the atomisation and alienation of modern society, or the crassness of our culture, or the way we’re lied to and manipulated. Because Love Conquers All.