I tell you all the time, heaven is a place on earth with you
– Video Games, Lana Del Rey, 2011
It’s a chilly and uneventful Thursday night. My friend and I walk down a busy street shimmering with lights and drenched in the smell of cigarettes and citrus. The hues of the setting winter sun dance on my friend’s long, textured hair, braided and battered. I should probably go home, I think, but instead, I glance down at the lettered tattoos on the back of his hand. I could have gestured for it, but somehow, intentionally asking for his hand felt more sincere.
“Can I have your hand?” I ask. My tone is casual, but my mind races. He slows his pace, and his features soften momentarily. He takes my hands, and our rings dig into each other’s skin. My body hums with a sense of safety. We walk hand in hand, traversing countless blocks and running into old friends as the night carries on. The day concludes with him walking me back to the subway station, a hasty goodbye, and a glowing emotion nestled deep in my chest.
It’s midnight by the time I get home. I plop myself on my mattress, the feelings of anticipation and other unnamed emotions making me forget about the ache in my legs from walking all day. Soon, the events of the day make my mind wander to a conversation I eavesdropped on the week prior: one girl seemed to be reciting a particularly romantic experience with her boyfriend, her expression excited and bubbly.
After hearing her story, the girl opposite her says: “You’ve only been dating him for three months, just wait a few more and he’s going to turn up like all the other guys in this generation.” She lent her opinion so casually and without hesitation that it almost seemed like she was reciting a scientific fact.
There is a growing discourse both online and in-person spaces regarding the “loveless” culture of the 21st century. Different generations experienced interpersonal relationships, especially romantic ones, differently based on the social and cultural conditions that shaped their times, but, as Valentine’s Day approaches, many Gen Zers and millennials tend to resort to claims like “love is not how it used to be,” or “it’s a loveless generation,” or put simply, “love is dead.” This demoralizing rhetoric either reflects their negative personal experiences with relationships or is a symptom of how defectively love is understood and talked about in our current culture.
Why is our generation cynical about love and relationships?
Love is treated, and therefore consumed, as a commodity. A world that obfuscates the sacredness of love by commodifying it ends up not having a concrete definition of what love is. Our muddied definitions of love prevent us from discerning it from impressions of love. I believe this may be why our culture has such a complex relationship with love and loving. So, how exactly is love commodified?
Though I fail to share a frenzied love of rom-com films like my aunt, every time I do sit down to watch one, I’m bombarded with archetypes, tropes, and dialogue that portray love as mere limerence or obsession, as if love is a type of disease everyone wants to suffer from. Most widely consumed romantic films fail to depict the slow and authentic connection that underpins love, and instead, must recourse to the flimsy building blocks of “romance” to give audiences the impression that the two characters are meant to be lovers.
Our cultural landscape is riddled with examples of love’s commodification. The emergence of dating apps to manufacture and sell relationships endangers the beauty of spontaneously meeting someone new. We also often feel the need to label our interpersonal relationships as either romantic, platonic, or something more nonchalant (e.g., hookups and “situationships”). Why? To make love more digestible? Why is it so hard to surrender to the awkwardness of living in the in-betweens of life?
Labels and quantification are important since it is an evolutionary tendency of the human mind to categorize; but in the context of loving others, this cultural impulse to do so translates to quantifying love based on the grandness of gestures or how much money is being spent. I hear often, especially in heteronormative relationships, that women expect their boyfriends to show interest and commitment based on how much money they spend on them.
Part of the growing subconscious cynicism about love might also relate to the policing of love. Categorizing love based on type is dangerous, for it creates a cultural script for what is considered legitimate love. In conservative discourse, for example, the highest expression of romantic love is the union of a man and a woman that eventually produces a nuclear family. Any other type of love, such as queer love, is instantly demonized and shamed. In this case, the aesthetic and utility of a relationship are closely tied to the morality and legitimacy of love.
Through separating love into different categories, we, as a culture, begin to unintentionally write a script for what types of love should be prioritized and what types of behaviour are appropriate. I never understood why romantic and familial love is more important than friendship! Why should physical intimacy only be reserved for our romantic affairs? Love is also commodified through affirmation culture, weddings, and entertainment. My point in saying all of this is that the cultural narratives that we are fed confuse our ideas of love. In this confusion, we fall into toxic and unsustainable patterns, we pick the wrong partners, and we end up getting hurt. We become cynical about love.
My definition of love
It is ambitious to demand a coherent definition of love that stands as a cultural constant. Culture will change and we as people will change. But asserting a definition of love is important in making sure we can move past the accusation of being a loveless generation. Everyone will probably have a different understanding of love, a unique combination of their life experiences, what cultural scripts they consume, and their maturity level. My definition of love is active. To me, love is any process that nurtures the spiritual and humanistic journeys of those involved in it.
To nourish another’s humanistic journey is fundamentally non-transactional; it means creating a safe space for the other to be the fullest version of themselves possible. In the experience of love, both partners acknowledge each other’s agency and individuality but ultimately understand that evolving as a pair is better. We are strong as individuals, but we are even stronger as partners. Love is the mutual recognition that we can both give each other something that the other cannot give themselves. This definition is the one I’m most comfortable with since it’s vague enough to not label or categorize love, but still astute enough to constructively guide us.
The cultural currencies we use to define love today are why many individuals remain cynical about relationships. Within these restrictions and notions of appropriateness, we diminish love to a set of practices and emotions that take away its power, and instead, replace it with confusion, shallowness, and hurt. We need to fight back against notions of what love should look and feel like. Once we take off the cultural lens of what love should be, we can finally begin to see that love, indeed, is everywhere.
At first, it was weird to hold my friend’s hand; from the outside looking in, I am sure many people assumed we were romantically involved. However, it’s unexpectedly tender and spontaneous moments like these that begin to remedy our tarnished notions of love. I love my friend, and at that moment, I needed to show him that. Remedying love’s cynicism is going to be a long and arduous process for some, a process in which they must vomit up all the cultural narratives they have been fed. But it’s reassuring knowing that this healing process starts with small changes. Small actions of defiance and courage that, over time and through the beauty of love, can heal a generation.
Associate Opinion Editor (Volume 50) — Mashiyat (”Mash”) is a second-year student completing a specialist in Neuroscience and a double minor in Biology and Professional Writing and Communications (PWC). As an associate opinion editor, she hopes to use her voice to encourage others to write freely and unabashedly about the things that mean most to them. In her free time, Mash can be found striking up conversations with strangers in the city, cooking for her family, and being anxious about her nebulous career plans!