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The Essence of Love and Identity in Romantic Relationships

What is love? What are its essential characteristics? What roles do romantic relationships play in the formation and transformation of our own identities? Such are critical questions for understanding the human experience, for love is quite possibly the most essential and fundamental experience we may have. It is no wonder, then, that philosophers and thinkers have grappled with these questions for ages, coming up with a wide range of answers which seek to explain and legitimize the love experience. Yet, to answer these questions, it is equally important to ask how our context defines our relationships, and how our relationships are structured in such a way to give meaning to the emotions we feel and describe as “love.” Through an exploration of the writings of Piazzesi, Solomon, and Kollontai, I seek in this paper to describe love and its essential characteristics while exploring the role romantic relationships play in the formation of our identities. By exploring relationships of different forms and definitions of love coming from different contexts, an approach suggested by Piazzesi, I attempt to find the characteristics of love, if there are any, which are transcendental of context. Ultimately, I arrive at the conclusion that love, outside of context of relationship and explanation given to legitimize it in a given context, involves the “fulfillment” of the individual through identity-construction and role-identification and the “transformation” of the individual through personal betterment. Love itself, we may conclude, is hard to define as an all-encompassing concept, for it exists in many forms and different contexts; nonetheless, love is the emotional experience which includes these crucial characteristics which we use to legitimize and justify the form of relationship in which those emotions are manifest.

Prior to further inquiry into the concept of love, however, an important caveat must be recognized – the form of a romantic relationship, in which love is manifest, is very much the product of our cultural and social context. As perhaps the most “important psychological and social factor” in the human experience, love has “always instinctively [been] organized in [society’s] interest,” whether for reasons of economy, spirituality, or social cohesion (Kollontai 285). According to the different needs of different societies, then, what constitutes a “loving” experience may alter as the result of disparate discourses on the matter. As Kollontai and Piazzesi would point out, these discourses are the products of historical, cultural, and economic variation, and are therefore subject to change over time and space. Indeed, as demonstrated through Kollontai’s historical perspectives on love, the epitomical form of a loving relationship, as culturally perceived and desired, has evolved considerably over the course of Western civilization – beginning with a love for one’s blood relatives in kinship communities, evolving into a love for friendship in the ancient world, a chivalrous love in the feudal era, and, finally, into the private, intimate relationships of contemporary times. Piazzesi rightfully argues that the discourses, social norms, and understandings which shape and sustain these relationships provide “individuals, couples, and groups with frameworks for the definition (‘for making sense’) of their experience;” that is, they give meaning and legitimacy to the contextual “how and with whom” by which people love (Piazzesi 5). Accordingly, by “defining” love, attributing to it certain characteristics and elements, we are legitimizing an experience shaped around our context. This variable nature of the experience of love, influenced by culture and history, poses difficulties for the development of a singular “concept of love.” Like Piazzesi argues, a general definition of love, which is removed from an immersion in contextual experience, misses the “historical diversity, the social character, and the semantic richness of ordinary experience,” and therefore fails to acknowledge that cultural nuances influence the manner by which love is manifest in and connected to a relationship (Piazzesi 3). Nor does providing a “minimal definition” to love, which seeks to find a universal” essence” to love by reducing it to its simplest and most basic elements, do justice in meaningfully describing what love is, for it detaches the concept of love from the variety of experiences and social expectations which we associate with and define it by. Rather, to establish a more personal, more pertinent, and therefore more “meaningful” concept of love, we should take Piazzesi’s suggested approach, which is to explore how we arrange our relationships so as to feel like we are experiencing love; to, as Piazzesi’s analogy puts it, see how we “get the feeling of being in a romantic living room” (Piazzesi 7). Such is the approach I will take, exploring how Solomon’s and Kollenti’s writings on relationships, defined by their contextual circumstances, show the connection between love and a relationship, along with its implications on identity. Comparing the similar motivations of love laid out by these authors will hopefully provide closer a closer understanding of the transcendental romantic love experience, unaffected by the form of a relationship.

As previously mentioned, the romantic relationship of two people in a union is considered the quintessential loving relationship in our current context, and shapes our discourses surrounding love. Kollontai argues that this form of relationship is the product of a bourgeois society, which places emphasis on the “married couple, working together to improve their welfare and to increase the wealth of their particular family” (Kollontai 284). Furthermore, the “moral ideal of a love the embraced both the flesh and the soul,” has been propagated by the bourgeoisie as crucial elements in loving relationships (Kollontai 283). The discourses surrounding love in this context, then, naturally point to the union of two people with a physical and emotional connection as the key to experiencing love. But what are the characteristics of love which we experience in this form of relationship, or, better put, how does this structure of romantic relationship shape our definition of a loving experience? To answer this, we can turn to Solomon, who writes that love is the “attempt to create for ourselves a sense of wholeness or completion through a union… with another person” (Solomon 194). A crucial element of this “wholeness” is in the process of forging a mutual identity with another in a relationship. The “identity theory” of love, which Solomon bases his arguments on love around, states that the self is, individually, indeterminate, and is rather “defined with and through others” (Solomon 197). Though we individually attempt to define our “true” selves, giving priority through our actions to some of our features over others, there is no “true” self or set of roles which dominates over others. Rather, who we are and the value of our person, or the worth of our accomplishments, depends a great deal upon the opinions of others, who help establish the “way we ‘fit’ in the world” (Solomon 201). As Solomon puts it, “we are the persons we think ourselves to be and become through the eyes and opinions of the people around us” (Solomon 202); that is, our identity may be self-constructed, but is mutually defined and established. Such is equally the case in our self-esteem and self-worth, for the self is “never assured” (Solomon 200). Rather, it “consists of proving oneself to be what one is,” depending on the value held by others of our person in order to be reinforced. This is why we choose the friends and – more importantly – the lovers that we do, for they are the ones who make us feel “virtuous and worthwhile (Solomon 201). In addition to the role that love and relationships play in the definition of our identity, they, according to Solomon, also play a role in the transformation of the self. Romantic love is “a redefinition of oneself in terms of goodness,” for it embodies a desire for self-improvement. The lover wishes to not only be loved for what they are, but for what they can become, their “ideal self” (Solomon 206). The desire to improve oneself comes from the creation of roles inherent in the establishment of a relationship; we dress and act the roles we would like to play in order to attract a partner, and, once that relationship has been established, we develop and perfect those parts “to the point where they seem as if they were completely natural” (Solomon 207).

Thus, as can be seen through Solomon’s writings, the essential characteristics of love include an establishment of identity through mutual definition and a self-transformation of identity toward “goodness.” We may not “become ourselves” in our romantic relationships, for the self is never assured nor ever “perfectly” defined, but we do narrow and define the set of roles we wish to take on and the characteristics of ourselves which foster and support our relationships. Being in love in a romantic relationship, in effect, helps us find our “place in the world.” While all the networks of people and opinions in our lives help form a sense of ourselves, Solomon rightfully acknowledges that “it is love that often proves to be definitive” (Solomon 207.) Yet he ascribes these essential characteristics of love to only relationships which encompass a union of two people. As our identity and self is, in part, intimate and private, it takes “one and only one other person” to really know and be in contact with it, according to Solomon (207). Accordingly, many of our essential attributes are determined by that single other person, who is “closest” to us. Looking back to Piazzesi, though, a question must be asked – are the characteristics of love put forth by Solomon absolute, or are they simply manifestations of the monogamous form of relationship which he understands in his context? That is, are these characteristics simply legitimizing the love we experience in a relationship, giving us a sense of “being in that romantic living room?” Or, are these characteristics transcendental of context, equally capable of being manifested in a different form of relationship? To answer this question, we may turn to Kollontai, who presents arguments about the characteristics and nature of love which extend beyond the sphere of a monogamous union between two lovers.

To begin, Kollontai takes an opposition to Solomon’s last point, stating that “love is not in the least a ‘private’ matter concerning only the two loving persons; love posses a uniting element which is valuable to the collective” (Kollontai 279). As had been previously mentioned, Kollontai then lays out the historical development of loving relationships, demonstrating how they have evolved and changed their fundamental character in order to satisfy the needs of society. The modern concept of monogamy, sustained by bourgeois discourses, has developed to support the need to accumulate and concentrate capital within the family unit. The characteristics Solomon ascribes to a monogamous union, then, indeed are simply legitimizing an experience developed for extraneous needs. Yet, as Kollontai argues, love can “not be contained within the limits set down by bourgeois ideologists,” and, with a change in context, can be “set free” to take shape in different forms. For Kollontai, the key among these different forms is polyamory, which allows for a “fulfillment” not possible in a monogamous union. She writes that a “man may feel sympathy and protective tenderness [for one woman], and for another he might find support and understanding for the strivings of his intellect” (Kollontai 288). Why must he choose one of the two, thereby tearing “himself apart and crippling his inner self, if only the possession of both types of inner bond affords the fullness of living” (Kollontai 288)? By having multiple intimate, romantic relationships, then, the individual can find themselves more “satisfied,” more “complete,” in ways which are impossible in Solomon’s context. The multi-sidedness of this emotional experience and fulfillment, Kollontai argues, would assist in the growth of the bonds between people which would benefit the growth of the communist collective, a reflection  of the context in which Kollontai exists. Kollontai further lays out the qualities of love, which would help benefit the “collective” for which she writes. Among them, mirroring the statements of Solomon, is the nature of “transformation” in love, in which the individual betters themselves intellectually, creatively, and emotionally as a response to their lover. Yet, whereas Solomon argued that such betterment is only possible through an intimacy with one other person, whose opinions reign supreme, Kollontai argues that it can exist in both the “private” and “public” sphere (Kollontai 290). In a collectivized society, built “upon the principles of comradeship and solidarity linking all members of the collective,” then, the characteristics of love are such that they help build ties with all of individuals of the society, not just a single other person, and thus manifest themselves in polygamous relationships. Again, as seen through the lens of Piazzesi and in the case of Solomon, contextual circumstances influence the nature of love as seen by Kollontai, and the form of our relationships, in this particular case polygamous ones, legitimize the experience of that love.

Yet we see two distinct characteristics of love which transcend context emerging from these two authors. The first is a broad sense of “fulfillment,” of finding completion and meaning for ourselves. Solomon describes this fulfillment in terms of identity-construction, detailing how our identity is mutually defined through our lovers; the unsure nature of identity, which needs to be defined by another, should be expected in the individualistic society in which he wrote. Developing identity, then, helps “fulfill” and “complete” the individual in that form of society, for it helps establish their place, role, and value in the world. For Kollontai, this “fulfillment” comes in building ties to the broader collective, again a natural reflection of the society in which she wrote. Through the establishment of multiple romantic relationships, which may help develop and grow the individual in different ways, the individual is bound closer to the collective and the collective accordingly grows closer. In a society of solidarity, then, love helps “fulfill” the individual in that it allows them solidify their role and place within the collective as another member working toward the broader, collective good. The second characteristic of love we see emergent is its “transformative” nature, which moves the individual toward bettering themselves. Again, the reason for this “transformation” is different according to context; for Solomon, it is in response to having a lover, for the beloved wishes to be loved for, and therefore wishes to develop, their ideal self. For Kollontai, this transformation need not be “private” but rather should be “public,” as would benefit a collectivized society, and comes about as a desire to help strengthen and develop the collective. Nonetheless, the transformation of identity through personal betterment is a crucial element of love for both these writers, regardless of their context.

Through this exploration of love and romantic relationships as they exist in different contexts, two crucial characteristics emerge: “fulfillment” of the individual and “transformation” of the individual. Love, we can conclude, is thus the experiencing of these two characteristics, plus others dependent upon context, and the legitimization of our relationships by the presence of these characteristics. Ultimately, regardless of the form of romantic relationship in which we experience love, we become ourselves in our relationships, and find and satisfy our place in society in our relationships. Though love took on other characteristics  throughout history, these two characteristics, as laid out by the authors explored herein, are transcendental of context. Piazzesi warns against making a “minimal definition” to love, but, using these characteristics as fundamentals, perhaps with them we are closer to a true and encompassing concept of love.

Reflections on Gender Normativity

Contemporary discourses on gender normativity, which manifest themselves in both the behaviors characteristic of modern male and female relationships and the perceptions males and females have of themselves and each other, revolve around what has been termed “the double bind;” men and women are socialized with contradictory, mutually incompatible instructions on how to behave toward the opposite sex, and are given equally contradictory requirements for how they must portray themselves. The writers Susan Bordo and Jackson Katz, in their works discussing these norms, demonstrate how these contradictions contribute to a social environment in which sexual violence and aggressiveness is, if not explicitly condoned and encouraged, at least implicitly tolerated and enabled. In this brief analysis of their works, I will detail the discourse of the “double bind of masculinity” as described by Susan Bordo along with the contradictory expectations of female sexuality as described by Jackson Katz. From there, I will set out to demonstrate how these norms affect male and female sexual relationships, and will connect these discourses to my own experiences as a modern-day male.

In “Gentleman or Beast: The Double Bind of Masculinity,” a chapter of  Susan Bordo’s broader work on the social norms affecting men, Bordo describes how men are expected to be “an animal and a gentleman;” that is, society celebrates “untamed male aggression” (Bordo 234) yet also expects it to be “nicely, sexily contained at the same time.” As evidenced by the popularity of aggressive sports such as football and boxing, male violence, “primal aggressiveness,” which drives the equally “primal” male sexuality, is digested and rewarded by society, for it breaks from the taboos of civilization, allowing us to act out, or at the least experience vicariously, the inherent aggressiveness within us all. Figures such as boxers or sports stars are given a significant amount of leeway in their reckless behaviors, or are even allowed to get away with rape, creating a perception in men that they should embody the characteristics which define these individuals. The tremendous admiration and respect placed upon male aggressiveness develops an understanding that the societal taboos against violence need not apply to them. Furthermore, as Bordo puts it, the primitive, aggressive, violent male “turns a girl on” (Bordo 236), bringing out her primal urges as well. Accordingly, men develop an understanding that, to be a “real” man (and therefore a real sexual being), the taboos against violence should not apply to them. Men who do not fit the characteristics of the aggressive male, who display elements of compassion or tenderness, are meanwhile dubbed as “gay” (Bordo 240). From this comes the allowance for the aggressive, primal man to commit acts of violence, and thus sexual violence, with a degree of tolerance, the “boys will be boys” phenomena. Meanwhile, the men who are least likely to commit violence toward women, the ones who are compassionate and nonviolent, find themselves “paralyzed, caught between [their] desire to ‘act like a man’ and fear of giving offense” (Bordo 240). The “double bind” which they experience as a result of contradictory expectations keeps them from actively redefining sexual discourses and norms through action.

Jackson Katz, in “It Takes a Village to Rape a Woman,” a chapter of his book “The Macho Paradox,” discusses the idea of “rape culture,” in which pervasive social norms create an environment conducive to sexual assault. Katz focuses on the norms involving female sexuality, detailing how girls “link their feminine identity with men’s use of their bodies” because of society’s portrayal of a woman’s femininity as being intertwined with her sexuality (Katz 152). Furthermore, women experience a “double bind” in the pressures they feel to present themselves as both sexual beings while also maintaining an air of chastity, forced to be, as Katz puts it, “both a virgin and a whore” (Katz 152). Yet because of elements of victim-blaming in our society, and because of the pressures to present themselves in a chaste manner, women who are sexually aggressive are despised, and are considered not the victim of sexual assault but as the catalyst for it. Because of these two pressures, women find themselves believing that “men have a right” to their body, thereby making them susceptible to accepting unwanted advances, and, when assaulted, often fail to consider themselves as the victims of rape… for society derides the sexualized, sexually active female as a “whore” rather than as a potential victim (Katz 152).

These, then, are two prominent discourses which comprise the cultural norms surrounding male and female sexuality and sexual relationships, from which arises an environment which incubates sexual assault. Because of the discourses surrounding manliness, men feel as though they must be sexually aggressive, violent individuals in order to to portray themselves as “men;” a sexually aggressive, violent man is not one to readily accept “no” for an answer from a woman rejecting his sexual advances. Women, meanwhile, feel that they must act sexual in order to exhibit and embody their femininity, and thus are more susceptible to accepting undesired sexual advances by men lest they appear “prude.” Yet, because women fear being labeled a “whore” due to the contradictory expectations society has placed on them, they are much less likely to consider themselves victims of sexual violence or assault when placed into circumstances that resemble it; if they dressed provocatively (as society expected) and acted sexualized (as society expected), then it must be their fault that they were raped. This, then, is a culture in which men feel that they must be aggressive toward women sexually in order to embody their manliness, and women feel as though they must let men have their bodies yet cannot consider any advances toward them as illegitimate or as assault. Such is a context in which rape can occur, and indeed, such is the context in which rape often occurs without any reporting and with women being put into the position of not even considering the action rape.

My own personal experiences as a contemporary male in this society has reflected, to a degree, these different discourses on sexuality and relationships. I find particularly pertinent to my experiences Bordo’s concept of the “double bind of masculinity,” in that I would consider myself the compassionate, non-violent man who does not embody the traditional characteristics of “manliness” and who therefore does not portray himself as a sexual being. This has left me rather frustrated in the realm of my sexual relationships, where I have not found overwhelming levels of success; after all, it is the aggressive, primal male who “turns women on,” not the intellectual, compassionate male. From this is emergent a degree of disappointment toward women and a degree of tolerance for the aggressive actions “primal” men display, actions which often contribute themselves to rape. If they can “get some” by acting violent and brutish, at least they’re “getting some,” which is more than could be said for me. This degree of tolerance, borne from envy, does not and cannot allow for the changing of broader discourses about sexuality nor does it do much to help end the crisis of rape characteristic of our society.

I also find myself timid, “paralyzed” even, when dealing with sexual situations, for I find myself recognizing the “double bind” that women are placed in; I often worry whether women I am sexually engaged with are accepting my advances lest they appear they had led me on, or if their “indicators of interest” (flirting, etc.) were simply appearances made to satisfy the requirements of society rather them demonstrators of real interest. Of course, my timidity is likely borne from other reasons as well, yet these discourses about sexuality still serve as a basis in shaping the way I think.

The discourses surrounding male and female sexuality, as demonstrated by Jackson Katz and Susan Bordo in their works about these norms, create an environment which, if not explicitly tolerates, at the least makes possible, sexual violence and rape. Expectations on men to act aggressively and violent makes them more susceptible to committing sexual violence, while expectations on women to act sexualized puts them in the position to be assaulted. These discourses are pervasive, and, as evidenced by the continuing crisis of rape, run deep in our society. Furthermore, in my own experiences as a contemporary male, I’ve found my behaviors and perceptions influenced and shaped by my understanding of these norms.

Simon de Beauvoir on “the Other” and Women

The philosophical concept of the “Other” has served as a foundational basis for self-identity and social identity throughout the breadth of human thought and consciousness; “Otherness” refers to those and that which are separate and distinct from the “Real” or “Absolute.” Recognition and acknowledgment of another’s “Otherness” allows one to define themselves through a duality of qualities; for whatever qualities or characteristics they possess, the “Other” is set up to possess the distinct opposite. The subject can only posit itself through an opposition, asserting itself as an essential while setting up the “Other” as an inessential; an “object,” as Hegel puts it. In this introduction, Simon de Beauvoir explored the concept of the “Other,” extending it beyond conventional examples and applying it to the position and status of women in relation to their male counterparts.

To define the concept of the “Other,” Beauvoir utilizes a number of examples which demonstrate this duality of qualities. Alterity is a fundamental character of human thought, she says, as demonstrated by the conceptualization of Day-Night, Good-Evil, Sun-Moon, and God-Devil. Anti-Semites find an “Other” in the Jews, who likewise find an “Other” in the Gentiles. Poor whites can find solace in their otherwise destitute conditions by creating an “Other” out of, as Beauvoir puts it, “filthy niggers.” The bourgeoisie feel threatened by the rising status of the “Other” that is the proletariat. Then there is the case of women, who are made into an “Other” by men without reciprocity. The man, as conceptualized in philosophical thought tracing back to the foundations of the West, is “Absolute;” the man represents the positive and neutral of innate humanity, the man is right by virtue of being a man. The woman, however, is a negative, a “peculiarity” as Beauvoir describes it; a female is, like Aristotle argued, a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities. Beauvoir points out this conceptual trend throughout works of Western thought: in the Genesis story, Eve the woman is not innately human, but rather created out of the bone of the man. Michelet writes of woman as the “relative being.” Saint Thomas decreed that woman was an “incomplete man, an ‘incidental’ being.”

What is particularly striking about this exploration of female “Otherness” is how it details its distinct nature from the “Otherness” of other groups. The Jew or the Black understand their groups to be “we,” and create an “Other” out of the Gentile or White; they are in position to, Beauvoir posits, turn all of Humanity Jewish or Black, thereby eliminating any “Otherness.” Women, however, do not think of themselves as “we;” rather, they think of themselves as “women.” From the biological necessity to cohabitate and cooperate with men in a world developed by men, women have not only been subjected to “Otherness,” they have been co-opted into believing they are indeed an “Other.” A man, Beauvoir points out, may think himself without woman, yet the woman does and cannot think herself without man. Such is, perhaps, why the woman, despite constituting half the human population, despite being intricately interconnected with the man, despite the man relying upon her for livelihood and reproduction, is still, as Beauvoir puts it, a “vassal,” who, in all things being equal, will still receive less pay, less respect, and less opportunities.

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