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Changing Minds, Transforming Lives - Life Can Work When You Get The Right Support


Friday, January 13, 2012


Dr. Neal Houston
Sociologist - PhD
 "Love and marriage," an old popular song tells us, "goes together like a horse and carriage." A compelling assumption in American society is that everyone will fall in love, will marry, have children, and will have an emotionally satisfying lifetime relationship with the chosen partner. It is probably true that most of us fall in love at some point; it is certainly true that nearly all of us marry and have children; but it is likely that a great many of us - perhaps the majority - find that married life falls below our expectations.


The American family is supposed to be founded on the romantic love of the marital partners. Traces of a more pragmatic attitude persist in the American upper class, where daughters are expected to marry well - that is, to a male who is eligible by reasons of family background and earning potential. Most Americans, however, tend to look with disapproval or distrust at anyone who marries for money or some other practical reason and which love plays no part.

Happily enough, romantic love defies a clinical definition. It is a different kind of love, through, from the love you have for your parents or your dog. It involves physical symptoms, such as pounding heart and sexual desire, and psychological symptoms, such as obsessive focus on one person and a discard for any resulting social or economical risk. Our culture encourages us to look for this love - to find that "one and only," perhaps even through "love at first sight." The phenomenon of romantic love occurs when two people meet and find one another personally and physically attractive. They become mutually absorbed, start to behave in what may appear to be flighty, even irrational manner, decide that they are right for one another, and they may enter a marriage whose success is expected to be guaranteed by their enduring passion. Behavior of this kind is portrayed and warmly endorsed throughout American popular culture, by books, magazines, comics, records, popular songs, movies, and TV.

Romantic love is a noble idea, and he can certainly help provide a basis for the spouses to "live happily ever after." But since marriage can equally be founded on much more practical considerations, why is romantic love such an importance in the modern world? The reason seems to be that it has the following basic functions in maintaining the institution of the nuclear family.

1. Transfer of loyalties. Romantic love helps the young partners to loosen their bonds with their family of orientation, a step that is essential if a new neo-local nuclear family is to be created. Their total absorption in one another facilitates a transfer of commitment from existing family and relatives to a new family of procreation, something that would be unlikely to happen under the extended family system.

2. Emotional support. Romantic love provides the couple with emotional support in the difficulties that they face in establishing a new life on their own. This love would not be so necessary in an extended family, where the relatives are able to confront problems cooperatively. In an extended family, in fact, romantic love might even be dysfunctional, for it could distract the couple from their wider obligations to other relatives.

3. Incentive to marriage. Romantic love serves as bait to lure people into marriage. In the extended family system of traditional societies, it is automatically assumed that people will marry, but in the modern world, people have considerable choice over whether they get married or not. A contract to form a lifelong commitment to another person is not necessarily a very tempting proposition, however: to some, the prospect may look more like a noose than like a bed of roses. Without feelings of romantic love, many people might have no incentive to marry.

To most of us, particularly of those who are in love, romantic love seems to be the most natural thing in the world, but sociological analysis shows that it is a purely cultural product, arising in certain societies for specific reasons. A different time or in a different society, you might never fall in love, nor would you expect to.