The following is the final of a three-part series about romantic love from Frank Tallis’ book Love Sick. In this part Tallis looks at the division between Asian and Western approaches to love. -Ed.
In the early 1990’s, a group of social scientists undertook a large cross-cultural study, in which they interviewed students from the USA, Italy, and the People’s Republic of China about a variety of emotional experiences, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and love. When the study was completed, it was found that there was remarkable agreement concerning all of the emotions, but with one exception – love. American and European subjects rated love very positively, and equated it with other positive experiences like joy and happiness. The Chinese subjects, however, were much more doubtful. In the Chinese language there are very few ideographs that correspond with the more positive love-related related words found in English and Italian. Instead, love tends to be associated with more negative emotional states. For example, the Chinese subjects linked passionate love with ideographs which translate as ‘infatuation’, ‘unrequited love’, ‘nostalgia’ and ‘sorrow’. When told of Western ideas about love, the Chinese subjects thought they were inaccurate and unrealistic.
These findings raise some interesting questions. Has the Western romantic tradition made us blind to love’s madness? China has no equivalent tradition. In fact, during the Cultural Revolution, ‘romantic love’ was outlawed – considered by the communist elite to be a ‘bourgeois’ indulgence. Given this context, is it possible that the Chinese are better equipped to evaluate the pitfalls of passionate love? It would seem that for many Chinese students, they would as much want to fall in love as develop a psychiatric illness.
The ancient Greeks were troubled by passion – seeing it as a force that could easily overthrow reason and disturb the mind’s equilibrium. In many respects, this view has been preserved in several Asian and Oriental cultures. To be romantic is to play with fire – the volatile, inner fire of Hippocratic and Islamic medicine. Although passion can be exciting, it is extremely unreliable – so unreliable, that Asian and Oriental cultures have rejected passion as the basis of marriage, subscribing instead to the more rational processes of ‘arrangement’. The formation of a new family unit is considered to be of such great importance – not only to the bride, groom, their progeny and immediate family, but to the entire local community and wider society – that it cannot be based on love alone. There must be a deeper level of compatibility, embracing factors such as background, education and temperament, to ensure that the relationship will last.
The Chinese anthropologist Francis Hsu has suggested that Western and Eastern cultures differ with respect to social awareness and obligation. In the West, the individual – his or her personal identity – is considered to be much more important than his or her social role. In the East, however, this is entirely reversed. The individual’s personal identity is considered less important than their ability to be a good son, daughter, husband or mother. Therefore, a successful marriage is more likely to arise from a pairing that takes the full social and cultural credentials of both parties into account.
The romantic tradition represents the antithesis of this kind of thinking – and reaches its most extreme expression in elopement. From a Western perspective, the instinctive response to elopement is positive. Yet, the eloping couple are usually in the throes of love’s madness, and remove themselves entirely from their social context. In doing so, they immediately lose the benefits of an existing support network (friends and family) and incur the costs of geographical displacement. They become disconnected, two mutually absorbed individuals who have relinquished social obligations and can no longer properly occupy a defined social role. Needless to say, a relationship that takes place in a social vacuum has fewer external forces holding it together.
It is interesting that this disregard for social context was always a feature of romantic writing. For example, the figure of the Majnun, being mad, is by necessity a social outcast, but in the romantic tradition, losing or risking everything for love, including one’s mind, is almost expected. In the Lais of Marie de France (a collection of courtly tales written in the late twelfth century) the disconnection of lovers from their social context is even more conspicuous. French literature scholars Glynn Burgess and Keith Busby point out that:
Marie concentrates on the individuality of her characters and is not very concerned with their integration into society. If society does not appreciate the lovers, then the lovers die or abandon society, and society is the poorer for it.
Perhaps as a consequence of this disenfranchisement, Marie’s images of love are almost always painful. Again, Burgess and Busby write:
If we take the Lais as a whole work, compared with other works of medieval literature, the characteristic of Marie’s view of love seems to be an almost inevitable association with suffering.
The theme of the lover – or lovers – standing outside society, re-emerges intermittently throughout the entire history of romantic writing, and ultimately we find ourselves in the frozen wastes of Romantic poetry, where young men set off on winter journeys, meaning either never to return or to die. This represents yet another paradox. One of the main aims of the courtly tradition was to socialise love, to make it genteel and polite. Yet ultimately, romance is an anti-social phenomenon. It weakens social cohesion.
The Asian and Eastern belief that all of society has a stake in the success of love was curiously echoed by Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving. Fromm insisted that the principal problem of Western society is alienation. When we love, however, we should feel connected – and this sense of connection extends beyond the family to the social whole. Socially aware love – love that acknowledges its social context – is essential to the well-being of everyone.
For most people raised in the West, the concept of an arranged marriage – or policing love – seems distasteful, even repugnant. Yet, arranged marriage is practised by 60 per cent of the world’s population – and approximately half of these couples claim that they stay together because of love (not romantic love, maybe, but something far more durable). In Britain and the US, where people still uphold the romantic ideal, nearly half of first marriages end in divorce, while those marriages that survive are often characterised by deep levels of dissatisfaction – particularly among women. The divorce rate for second and third marriages is even higher.
Love’s madness usually strikes with the onset of adolescence. Subsequently, there is a high risk of pregnancy, impetuous marriage, or both. Statistics show that teenage marriages are very fragile, and a high percentage break down within only a few years. Teenage pregnancy (compared with pregnancy in early adulthood) is associated with premature birth, low birth weight, and death during childbirth. Teenage pregnancy also has social consequences. It will interrupt, or even terminate, a young woman’s education, and the children of most teenage families are financially disadvantaged. The idea of risking everything for love is portrayed in the West as a noble undertaking, but subscribing to this doctrine frequently results in loneliness, hardship and poverty.
In stark contrast, the tradition of arranged marriage has a number of pragmatic advantages, rarely appreciated by dyed-in-the-wool romantics. The arranged marriage system is strongly associated with the idea of coercion, yet, in reality, Asian and Oriental cultures almost always allow the prospective bride and groom to exercise some choice, albeit limited. In India, the ‘girl-seeing’ ceremony has evolved specifically for this purpose. Typically, the young man’s family will visit the young woman’s family, and the young man is given a special seat. The young woman then enters the room, kneels, bows and leaves. Both are then in a position to decide whether they find each other attractive and wish to proceed further.
Although arranged marriages are treated with suspicion in the West, they represent a preference for many who have been raised in Asian and Eastern cultures. It is assumed that a ‘good marriage’ can only be achieved if couples are carefully matched, and then supported by their families. To base a marriage on passion is simply irresponsible, and likely to result in unhappiness. Surprisingly – for incurable romantics at least – contemporary research does not contradict this view.
Psychologists Paul Yelsma and Kuriakose Athappilly have studied relationship satisfaction levels of couples who married for love and those who married by arrangement. Those whose marriages were arranged show much higher levels of satisfaction than those who married for love. Other studies have produced a similar pattern of results.
Almost instinctively, the Occidental sensibility finds such results difficult to believe, but why shouldn’t arranged marriages be superior to those that are based on a temporary madness? A long-term relationship – if it is to be happy – must be based on more than the tortured logic and inflated expectations of romantic idealism.
The Dalai Lama, examining romantic love from the cool, rational vantage of Buddhism, does not hesitate to identify it as a form of madness:
When a couple has just met, seen each other on just a few occasions, they may be madly in love and very happy, but any decision about marriage made at that instant would be very shaky. Just as one can become, in some sense, insane from the power of intense anger or hatred, it is also possible for an individual to become in some sense insane by the power of passion and lust.
Romantic love springs from absurdities such as ‘love at first sight’. It is preoccupied with superficial (and transient) characteristics such as physical beauty, and usually ends in confusion and frustration.
… sometimes you might even find situations where an individual could feel, `Oh, my boyfriend or girlfriend is not really a good person, not a kind person, but still I feel attracted to him or her.’
According to the Dalai Lama, meaningful, satisfying and lasting relationships are not based on romantic idealism, but on mutual understanding, respect and compassion. True love is not instant. Love that strikes like a bolt of lightning is almost certainly suspect, as are the whirlwind romances that are the staple of romantic fiction. In essence, the Dalai Lama suggests that a commitment based on deep friendship is more likely to outlast a commitment based on desire. In contrast to the storm-tossed seas of romanticism, he offers an attractive alternative of still waters and lotus flowers – the relationship as sanctuary, a retreat from madness, rather than a manifestation of madness.
Perhaps, after more than a thousand years of disappointment, we can see the first signs of disaffection in the West – cultural trends that tacitly acknowledge the commonsense sense virtues of Asian and Oriental attitudes to love and marriage. Over the last fifty years, dating agencies have become increasingly popular, operating on similar principles to those that govern arranged marriages. The only fundamental difference is that the initial matching takes place in a computer, rather than a group of human brains. Even seemingly esoteric rituals, like the ‘girl-seeing’ ceremony, have equivalents – for instance, the provision of a photograph or video.
Dating agencies are distinctly unromantic. They militate against all the basic assumptions of romantic love. Yet, they are responsible for bringing a large number of people together in relationships that seem to be very successful.
The idea of arrangement does not preclude falling in love. Indeed, in Asian and other Eastern societies, it is assumed that a couple will fall in love and become passionate – but after the marriage has taken place. Thus, couples can experience love’s madness safely, but know that when it passes, they will still have a robust and healthy relationship. Dating agencies seem to offer the same kind of security; couples can engage in the dangerous high-wire act of falling in love, comfortable in the knowledge that there is a safety net in place.
Disaffection with the failure of romantic love was dramatically demonstrated recently by American psychologist Robert Epstein, who, in addition to holding several academic posts, is also the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. Having considered the merits of arranged marriages, Epstein wondered whether it would be possible to rehabilitate the concept for Western consumption. Consequently, in the June 2002 issue, he argued against romantic assumptions, and suggested that it might be possible to learn to love any suitable partner. He proposed a programme to test his hypothesis: the signing of a six-month exclusivity contract (to obviate the problem of parallel dating); commitment to intensive joint-counselling sessions; frequent ‘getaways’; and participation in exercises designed to foster mutual love. Epstein suggested that such a programme – credible to Westerners – might achieve the same result as the arranged marriage system: reliable, meaningful and enduring love. More daringly, Epstein volunteered to be the first subject in his own experiment.
He expected the article to have little impact; however, the subsequent response was overwhelming. It aroused enormous media interest, and Epstein received hundreds of letters, e-mails and telephone calls from women eager to sign his contract.
It would seem that romantic love – which promises heaven on earth – has ultimately delivered something closer to despair.