Affairs of the Heart


I first saw this ad on the tube last summer. I remember thinking at the time that science has nothing to do with love. That it can’t be predicted or defined by an algorithm. That there’s something indefinable about it – and that’s rather the point. By January this year the UK Advertising Standards Authority were saying something not dissimilar and upheld a complaint that there was insufficient evidence to support the ad in its current wording. (1) As we leave the month of Valentines I’ve been reflecting on this again.


While there may be something indefinable about love itself – its presence in our lives, and our attitude towards it, can define us. Our identity is often constructed in terms of our relationship to others and ‘love’ provides a short-cut to this. We are someone’s wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend, or the less value-laden ‘partner’. Or we are none of those things and may be defined in all or part, by love’s absence. Indeed there are times when the absence of love might influence us more than its presence ever could.


Love also impacts on our identity in another fundamental way. It is tribal. We are the pragmatist, the romantic, the singleton, the serial monogamist, the player etc. This is mostly not about whether or not we have a partner but the truth of what we believe love is. What we think it’s for. The extent to which we believe it is unique. How we believe it arrives, and for that matter, departs. And our hopes and fears for its consequences.


I have at least two contacts who met their partners (in one case husband) through online dating profiles (e-harmony would be delighted I’m sure). By all accounts these individuals have now been very happy together for a number of years, and I too am happy for them. I do however remember being distinctly unnerved when one described in not inconsiderable detail the level of specifics she had listed for her potential partner, and indicated that she had approached the ‘project’ in much the same way as she would a work assignment.

Piglet with loveI’ve somehow never felt entirely comfortable with this idea that you go online, pay your money and take your choice, specifying the age, the weight, the looks – down to a level of specifics one might deploy when ordering a new coat or buying a set of shelves – which of course can be returned if they don’t ‘fit’ (as can these potential partners). However experience has led me to conclude that for many, if not most, the ‘strategic’ approach to love appears to result in happiness. So good for them.


When my friend was describing her online search I privately thought ‘where’s the romance in that?’ To voice my reservations could have exposed me, as a likely member of that (in most circles) unfashionable love identity – ‘a believer’. A true believer in the holy grail of a love that is generally more elusive than an emotional job description of ‘essentials’ and ‘desirables’. Believers also tend to subscribe, in whole or part, to the (now often maligned) ‘soulmate’ theory. That enticing shibboleth that out there somewhere, there is ‘the one’. In the reflection of whose love, you are the best version of yourself.


The lyric is frequently the greatest descriptor of love and its influence. And when reflecting on loves tribes I’m reminded of lines from The Rose – delivered with such authenticity by Bette Midler – “and you think that love is only, for the lucky and the strong”. I have always taken slight issue with the Divine Miss M on this one. For the lucky – yes certainly (though hopefully not only). Only for the strong – not so much. Anyone who has been alone in adult life, will know that it can be loves absence that truly requires strength beyond imagining.


And then there are those who find their (presumably soul) mate early on, manage to actually be with them – and stay with them – all in the same lifetime. It is possible to gaze with something approaching awe at couples who have married their first and (it turns out potentially) only love. What must it be like to believe in ‘happy ever after’ – and actually have it come true? Forever. Surely this confers a level of emotional privilege and security that could make one almost invincible in the face of life’s external challenges?


Of course experience has also taught me that not all of these ‘arrangements’ are as they appear. Behind their outward solidarity, some conceal at least one individual who is unhappy or whose heart is elsewhere, however physically present they may appear to be. And it is ironic that is often members of this elite club who are the greatest advocates of ‘moving on’ – and the wonderfully Californian – ‘achieving closure’ – when relationships struggle or end. Presumably because they have never had to experience either concept themselves… (Part of another sub-tribe creeping in here – the ‘experienced cynic’).


But ultimately, whether we are believers or strategists, or, to quote the late great Amy Winehouse, believe – “love is a losing game”. It remains an alchemy of everything that makes us human. And in honour of this I leave the last words to John Lennon:
“Love is the answer, and you know that for sure”