On Love: how, who and – most importantly – why?

by Timmin Vooijs
illustration Marieke Groenendijk

I was brought up with quite a magical image of love. My parents met each other when they were 16 and haven’t been apart since. I always saw this as the ‘goal’ of love: to have a story like my parents. Throughout my teens I always felt like I was the only one with these kinds of aspirations for love, which meant that I began to perceive love as something mystical and rare. However, having started sociology at university, I was instantly confronted by my professor’s statement: “Sociologist always ask themselves: why?”

So here I am, still a hopeless romantic, asking exactly that. Why? Love is a fascinating subject and up until a couple of weeks ago I thought that it was something mostly biological that we, as society, have given the more supernatural meaning. I am starting to see more clearly now that love is in fact also very sociological.

I am aware that it may be heartbreaking to confine something as beautiful as love to ‘sociological’. When we think of love we think of kissing in the rain, hugs at the airport, family reunions, and all of the heart-warming memories that each one of us has about it. But there are certain questions we can ask in order to establish to what extent love contains sociological aspects. By answering some of these questions we can maybe understand more about the most important one of them all: Why do we love?

How do we love?

Throughout our lives, the attention we give to our loved ones changes. Take the relationship we have with our parents. Young children often love to smother their parents with love, while teenagers often find it ‘cringey’ or ‘awkward’ to show affection to their parents. As we become older, we become more experienced with these feelings of love. We romanticize our language with phrases like ‘you are my world’ and ‘my other half’. It seems that as we grow older, we want to show more affection. This need to express is further exemplified in our technology use. With the increase in social media activity we can observe what kind of behavior we show when on the web. Everything – from sending a kiss emoji to sexting – shows that we have definitely adapted to this new form of communication in which we can experience and connect with others in ways unseen before in history. How we love has gone beyond the boundaries of traditional romance, and it has allowed for far more people to participate in romantic relationships of any kind, even digital (think in the lines of Tinder or Happn). Boxes of chocolate, a bouquet of roses, a cheesy text message or even a quick glance: we have so many ways of expressing love that it almost feels like knowing ‘how’ to love is like an instinct.

But we must not forget where our knowledge on how to love comes from. You could argue that everything we know about love comes from the agencies in our lives; such as our friends, family, social media, and even from non-dynamic sources like books. We live in these networks, and as with all networks we act according to the context of said networks that shaped us. Talking to your grandparents and friends will quickly highlight how the context of someone’s life created their social ‘love norms and values’.

Who do we love?

We now have an idea on how we love. But who is it that we love? Although we like to think that love defies all boundaries, studies have shown that the majority of people end up getting together with people who behave, think and look like themselves. Concretely, this means ending up with someone who shares our own ethnicity, class, religious affiliation and age. This ‘tendency’ is what is called homophily.

As mentioned above, the rise of social media has allowed us to connect with far more people in a quasi-romantic way. This inevitably leads to an increase in the amount of social ties, while weakening them in terms of intensity: we send hearts and show affection to more and more people. This goes hand in hand with the ease of hiding behind your screen when sending that heart to your crush or expressing to your sibling that you appreciate them. Who we love has expanded and keeps expanding as our social ties increase.

Why do we love?

Now, the reason I wrote this essay and the reason you came to read it: “Why do we love?”.
Love is inherent to pain, but we can generally agree that love makes us feel whole. Is love the purpose of life? Does it give our lives meaning? Or is it just an excuse we taught ourselves to legitimise our inherent sexual desire? To mask our loneliness? Is the only reason why we love, to have children? As of yet, neither science nor philosophy has found a definite answer to this question. The thing to take away from this all is that love is peculiar, and that it works in mysterious ways. Though humans have sought to ‘explain’ love, we find ourselves stuck.

Moreover, even after gaining a greater understanding of love, I will still continue to look for a soulmate. And I think that is the easy answer to “Why do we love?”. We do it because we want to. Most people will not care about the statistics of who we love, or the intricacies of how we do it. All we care about, in the end, is having it.

Whether there is a definite answer as to why we love is in that sense redundant. We often make ‘loving’ our reason to be, to exist. We are in search for it and once we find it, we try to cherish it as long as we can. Loving may be pointless, heartbreaking and a drain of life. Loving may be beautiful, extraordinary and the source of happiness. The question really becomes: What is love to you?

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