What is love?

It can’t just be a '90s pop single.

By Lubna bin Zayyad

“Let me tell you something: one thing Cuban men are good at is loving our women with passion. We might not be faithful but we’re passionate. Me entiendes, you understand?” Jose, the resort’s massage therapist, told me as we both sat on the beach chatting. I nodded my head, “Si, yes I understand.” But I wondered whether or not passion was more important in love than faithfulness. At the time, I was recently single and did not really want to talk about love, but it seemed that love or rather passion (I am not sure whether Jose saw them as synonymous or distinctly separate), would be at the forefront of most of our discussions during that Cuban holiday.

But what is love anyway? Aside from being Haddaway’s classic 90’s hit, love has been an enigma throughout human history. Love has fueled the thoughts of great philosophers, brought down powerful kings, spurred the construction of the Taj Mahal and inspired many of Shakespeare’s plays. If it is so central to these feats, how come I can’t stay in love long enough to find a man who, as Beyoncé says, “shoulda put a ring on it”? Just when I think I have found my happily ever after, my love story turns into some clichéd tragedy – “it’s not you it’s me!” – and off I go in search of my next love story.

This led me to do some reading on love. Not in hopes of finding love, but more to determine why I have felt this compelling need to be in love. What purpose does love serve? Growing up watching romantic comedies, reading chick-lit novels and singing (off-key) to every love ballad out there led me to believe that love was the center of human existence. What was our purpose if we were not hopelessly pursuing and tending to the burning embers of love?

“Love has fueled the thoughts of great philosophers, brought down powerful kings, spurred the construction of the Taj Mahal and inspired many of Shakespeare’s plays.”

In 1997, in hopes of deconstructing love, a group of psychologists developed a set of 36 questions designed to make two strangers fall in love. The method behind the questionnaires meant that each question become more intimate, encouraging feelings of trust, security and emotional intimacy. A decade later these questions sparked Mandy Len Catron to write an entire book titled How to Fall in Love With Anyone. Her series of essays explore ideas of love from bio-anthropological to psychological to anecdotal perspectives. Spoiler alert, in the end she doesn’t actually reveal the secret to falling in love with anyone. However, Catron does provide some interesting data and research both from science and her own personal life that make both herself and readers reexamine the way they perceive love. But that still doesn’t explain what love is.

“Love has been an enigma throughout human history.”

To rationalise the famous “honeymoon period”, some bio-anthropologists argue that love is present for a certain amount of time to ensure that a couple will stay together long enough to rear their offspring into toddlerhood before they are biologically driven to produce more children. So what we perceive as the honeymoon period –that time when partners are madly in love, excited to spend all their time together and appear to be in perfect unison– is really just a biological mechanism to ensure humans successfully reproduce and rear children. The idea of love being the elixir to baby making and rearing certainly strips it of all the glamour and  attraction.

For some reason, love stories never touch on this bit of information. Imagine if someone had sat Romeo and Juliet down and said, “Listen guys, this ‘love’ thing between you two is for baby making. So let’s get started shall we?” I imagine the ending of that tragedy would have been different. It would have still been a tragedy, only Romeo would have to pay child support and Juliet would be a disgruntled divorcee. Seeing as how I am in my mid-20s, the window for prime reproduction will be closing before long. But ideally I want to distance myself from this pragmatic, biological explanation of love. I mean love has to be more than just my ovaries, right?

“Today, love is between two people and their Instagram followers. One must constantly display their love in the theater of life.”

I am currently surrounded by friends who are getting engaged or are married. While everyone is sending save the date cards, I have only just realised that fabric softener is not the same as laundry detergent. It seems adulthood is not evenly paced. Shouldn’t there be some standard for emotional maturity and a whole other checklist of requirements one must complete before “jumping the broom”?

But the question remains: what are the requirements? I have my own checklist when it comes to love and romance (i.e. tall, dark, handsome and rich – I only kid!). However, aside from personal requirements, society as a whole is inundated with expectations of love. Things like Valentine’s Day, elaborate public proposals and #RelationshipGoals, make it seem like the requirement for love is to be extravagant and perfect. Today, love is between two people and their Instagram followers. One must constantly display their love in the theater of life. I may be dramatic but the idea of acting perfectly in love sounds unrewarding, especially if I won’t even receive an Oscar nomination for my performance.

But as demanding as it may be, the idea of #InstaLove (the love we see on social media and believe we must aspire to) is unrealistic. I am guilty of falling for this trope. Growing up watching Bollywood dramas and JLo movies (Maid in Manhattan anyone?), sets up this perception of easy love. And if you haven’t experienced it for yourself, I am here to tell you that love isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean love is hard either.

So coming back to the original question “what is love?”, how do we achieve our fairy tale happily ever after? I can’t say I am an expert on love (remember I thought fabric softener and detergent were the same), but I like to think that I can at least impart some modest advice: love is multi-faceted and fluid. Love as a notion isn’t concrete, but it does manifest itself in tangible and intangible ways. Like humans, love is evolutionary. As we grow and change so does our love (and our perceptions of love). But love might not necessarily be the Rosetta Stone to a healthy and successful relationship. If you want the answer to that  you might have to look elsewhere, like Cuba.

“Growing up watching Bollywood dramas and JLo movies…sets up this perception of easy love.”

Following his comments about passion, Jose begins to pack his items up for the day. “Look around you, all these red people and they are still happy!” he says to me incredulously, as he refers to the sunburnt tourists lying on the beach. “Even though they look like lobsters, they are still happy. Tranquila – relax, be happy as you are.”

And he was right. For so long I had felt the need to seek happiness elsewhere, but Jose had the answer all along.  Maybe the key to a successful relationship first starts with being passionate and happy with yourself. And perhaps lying on the beach with a sweet beverage in your hand is the step in the right direction.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Lubna bin Zayyad is a food and travel writer. She is currently doing her MA in Islamic History.