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How do you define romantic love?

Romantic love, despite being a universal human experience, still holds much mystery. If you search for a dictionary definition, you’ll find vague one-liners. Collins Dictionary describes it as: ‘love characterised by romance and involving sexual attraction.’ Dr Sarah Pinto, lecturer in Australian Studies at Deakin University, says researchers in a number of fields – from humanities to science – have tried to pin down a concrete explanation of romantic love for the past two decades.

No one can agree on precisely what romantic love is, but most agree that it is a human emotion, Dr Pinto says. But there is also debate about how to define a human emotion. Some will classify it as a biological process while others definite emotions as cognitive behaviours.

Love is a changing cultural concept

Dr Pinto suggests that the reason we struggle to define romantic love is because the concept is fluid. ‘It’s not something that is always the same in different times and places. It’s a cultural phenomenon that changes,’ she explains. Through her research, Dr Pinto found that in 19th century America there was a focus on a spiritual compatibility. After World War II, sex and passion became important. Today, she says there’s a strong belief that real romantic love has to involve friendship, shared interests and a sexual relationship. According to Dr Pinto, the contemporary idea of romantic love might ask too much of couples. ‘The expectation is too onerous,’ she argues.

‘Some people would say romantic love has to involve a sexual or erotic component,’ Dr Pinto suggests. However, she points out that a lot of research is focused on heterosexual relationships and does not account for a range of other possibilities.

Love is romanticisation of the past

Through her research, Dr Pinto has explored romantic representations of the past and how they impact our present. In particular, she cites Australian films focused on World War II, such as Australia, Come in Spinner and Paradise Road, all of which romanticise wartime. ‘The strong focus on our romantic past is a problem. Many women’s lives underwent a significant shift into paid work. It was a time of upheaval,’ she says. But when people consume romantic portrayals of the past, it can have an impact on their own romantic expectations.

'‘It’s not something that is always the same in different times and places. It’s a cultural phenomenon that changes,’'

Dr Sarah Pinto,
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Love is a sense of longing

Michael Novak, author of The Myth of Romantic Love, argues that romantic love is not about another person but the idea of love itself. He suggests that romantic love is not the love found in an established relationship, but the longing that precedes it. ‘For their romantic passion to persist, lovers must be kept away from one another, must never get down to the nitty-gritty of daily life,’ he says.

Love is a pleasure high

But the neuroscience shows that romantic love can definitely last for a spell. Researchers have found that falling in love has a similar impact on the brain as cocaine. In a TED Talk, anthropologist Helen Fisher describes romantic love as, ‘One of the most powerful sensations on earth.’ Fisher has studied the brain function of people in love by putting them through MRI brain scans. She found that a person in love has the characteristics of an addict: they engage in obsessive thinking, participate in risk-taking activities and must work to fend off withdrawals.

The boost in norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine bring energy, confidence and pleasure to a person in love. That’s why some psychologists argue that people can become addicted to the early stages of romantic love, frequently ending relationships after the initial high fades and going off in search of a new hit. That’s too bad for the person who’s unceremoniously dumped – they’re likely to experience the intense withdrawal of going cold turkey.

Love is your unique experience

Dr Pinto says many researchers agree the period of romantic love can last for two to four years before turning into something a little more subdued. But she ultimately believes that it’s so difficult to define romantic love because the experience is unique to each individual. ‘People should do what they want and try to resist being drawn into the ideologies of romantic love,’ she concludes.

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Dr Sarah Pinto
Dr Sarah Pinto

Senior Lecturer in History, Deakin University
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