Photo: A Four Letter Word from Sharon Harris Flickr photostream

This Valentine’s Day, as with every year, the shops are full of hearts and flowers, and the internet is bombarding us with adverts for romantic getaways, meal deals, and ideas for ever more expensive ways to demonstrate our love for each other.  And yet the statistics seem to suggest that we are failing at ‘love’.  For the first time in a decade divorce rates went up in 2017, and loneliness has risen to near epidemic proportions.

Does this matter?  Is love just a ‘four letter word’?

Research suggests that love and relationships are good for our health at an individual level.  Relate and the think tank NPC reviewed evidence on the links between health and relationships and concluded that good relationships are linked to quicker recovery from illness, and may even prevent or slow deterioration of health conditions.  A team of anaesthetists in the US found that even just looking at a photo of a loved one could reduce feelings of pain.   Taking a slightly different slant, the NHS website suggests that sexual intercourse, as with any form of exercise, is good for your heart.  They do however add the caveat that, as with any form of exercise, it is only beneficial if sufficiently vigorous.  It is recommended that adults engage in at least 150 mins exercise a week, so the advice from the NHS is: “Unless you’re having 150 minutes of orgasms a week, try cycling, brisk walking or dancing.” They further suggest sex can reduce stress levels, may make you more able to fight off illness, and can make you feel healthier, whilst hugs can lower blood pressure and having a good friendship network is linked to longevity.

In this vein, Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her research team carried out a review of 218 studies and concluded that the risk of an early death increased by 50% for lonely people when compared with those with good social connections.  This statistic means that loneliness is actually worse for our health than obesity.  This comes on top of recent figures from the Office of National Statistics which characterise Britain as the loneliest country in Europe, and repeated evidence that loneliness and social isolation are particular problems for older people.  In a previous blog post, I looked at the problem of loneliness in terms of the relationship between individuals and society, and saw it as a consequence of the move towards an ever more detached, individualistic approach to those around us.   This suggests that love, seen in its broadest sense – as a sense of connection with other human beings – is important both at an individual and at a societal level.

So where has it all gone wrong?

In her book ‘Why Love hurts’, the sociologist Eva Illouz argues that the reason that we appear to be failing at love and relationships is not a personal psychological failure as is widely assumed, but rather it is a symptom of the ways that the institutions and social relations which govern modern society have shaped our expectations about love.

“In the same way that at the end of the nineteenth century it was radical to claim that poverty was the result not of dubious morality or weak character, but of systematic economic exploitation, it is now urgent to claim not that the failures of our private lives are the result of weak psyches, but rather that the vagaries and miseries of our emotional life are shaped by institutional arrangements… What is wrong are not dysfunctional childhoods or insufficiently self-aware psyches, but the set of social and cultural tensions and contradictions that have come to structure modern selves and identities.”

Similarly, Bauman, in his book ‘liquid Love’ suggests that human relationships have become vulnerable to our irreconcilable need for ‘security and freedom’.  This colonisation (and commodification) of an idealised form of ‘love’ encompasses physical and psychological parameters, such as intimacy and independence, which most people and relationships cannot measure up to.  And so a failure in ‘love’ defined in this way, becomes a personal failure to live up to unrealistic ideals set by others.  Love then, in Illouz’ words is: “shaped and produced by concrete social relations [and] circulates in a marketplace of unequal competing actors.”  This is encapsulated in the simultaneous portrayal of both an idealised form of love and the ramifications of instances of love that do not meet this ideal, on TV, in films, in the media and of course, in our real lives.  We are thus bombarded with images of love characterised in terms of what we would like but are unlikely to find, and that which we should avoid at all costs. Against this backdrop relationships evolve.

The philosopher Hobbes argued that if we live as individuals our essential nature as human beings would make our lives ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.  A shared community of rights and responsibilities is needed to counter this pessimistic vision and there seems little doubt that this kind of shared community needs to founded upon relationships between individuals, as a form of social contract.  Here, I would argue, at least some of these relationships need to be, and indeed are, built on expressions of love in its many different guises.

So shower your partner with rose petals, head out for a romantic meal, take a walk along the beach with your children or dog, meet friends for a pint or curl up with a cup of tea and a Mills and Boon from the local library, safe in the knowledge that you are improving your health and wellbeing and making your contribution to a healthier, happier society.