“Individuals who want to believe that there is no fulfillment in love, that true love does not exist, cling to these assumptions because this despair is actually easier to face than the reality that love is a real fact of life but is absent from their lives.” -bell hooks
These words from bell hooks’s All About Love pierced my throat and took my breath away before sinking like a hot arrow through my heart and to the pit of my stomach. I remember wincing as I read them, immediately searching my mental catalogue for instances in which I’d exhibited the behavior she describes. As a hopeless romantic, I could never renounce my belief in love, romantic or otherwise. I’ve experienced the unconditional love that characterizes familial and companionate relationships so I’m convinced of its existence and already too deeply infatuated with the concept of romantic love to accept that I’ll never truly experience it. Though I’ve never gone as far as to say love doesn’t exist, I have-in my struggle to make sense of my own experiences with love-begun to make assumptions and generalizations, both cynical and defensive, about the way love actually manifests and its ability to live up to the expectations most of us enter the realm of emotional exchange with. bel hooks’ assertion forced me to this realization.
But that isn’t all her words inspire me to consider. As her ideas spilled off the pages in All About Love, I had to ask myself more questions about this quote. Once we do accept the idea that there is, indeed, fulfillment in love, we have to ask ourselves what that fulfillment looks like. In other words, how do we seek fulfillment from love in a way that is healthy for everyone involved while also ensuring that what we're seeking is an actual characteristic of love and not something we've mistaken for it? It occurred to me that those of us who decide that there is no fulfillment in love may simply be inaccurately and destructively defining fulfillment.
So many of our ideas about this phonetically insignificant four letter word that has befuddled, fascinated, and incited the world for ages were planted in environments or by institutions that were spaces that perpetuated materialism, patriarchy, misogyny, and unhealthy codependence. How many times have we been exposed to subliminal messaging that implies that to experience true love, we must be involved with someone who can afford tangible symbols of the phenomenon? Just think back to the first time you saw a Kay Jeweler's commercial. "Every Kiss Begins With Kay."
How often have we listened to songs or seen films that portrayed women as passive participants in the act of love, possessing no power in terms of the trajectory or parameters of a relationship, simply at the mercy of the object of their affections? Ashanti's Foolish and Mary J's I'm Going Down are both songs I love and also perfect examples of depictions of women as powerless in experiences characterized by "love."
Isn't it possible that those cultural influences warped our visions of what romantic fulfillment would look like, and thus negatively impacted our ability to pursue romantic love in a healthy way? Isn't it possible that we've been disappointed in our relationships because we approached them looking for the wrong things?
How do we avoid being walking manifestations of problematic constructs and palpable representations of oppressive and restrictive ideals while in pursuit of an experience that we've been conditioned to associate, strongly, with those very things?
And then came the real doozy. Isn't it perfectly reasonable to come to the conclusion that "true love" in the way that we continue to frame it, in fact, doesn't exist and that instead of throwing our hands up in defeat and declaring ourselves doomed to dredge through lives of loveless dispassion, we might just change our framing? The thought seems simple enough, but as I thought through what that might look like, I realized that I was experiencing a physiological response to what I imagined that I can only describe as withdrawal....
It seems that the toxic ideas and behaviors that we've inherited from systems and constructs that, at their core, are the antithesis of what love really is are addicting. Maybe, the truth is that too many of us would rather continue to dysfunctionally engage unattainable ideals than ever experience real love. Maybe, that which could actually make us whole is not as instantaneously rewarding as the poison disguised as honey that sensationalized ideas of romantic love represent in our hearts and minds.