How the Way We Talk About Love Changes How We Love

A couple in love kissing in a wheatfield in a classic love story style.

Love is a strange thing. It finds us early in fairy tales and movies or the stories of our family. It seeps into us from a collective love conscience, through platitudes like “love conquers all” without supplementary proof or explanation about what it really means. We come to accept that love is all powerful and quietly wait for it to happen to us. But maybe that’s not how it has to be.

To tackle the subject, we sat down with Mandy Len Catron, author of the new book “How to Fall in Love With Anyone” and the popular New York Times Modern Love Essay “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” Catron is a professor at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches English and Creative Writing. In her essays and book, she explores how love stories and the language we use to talk about love affect how we love.

While researching her book, Catron discovered the research of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Their work explores metaphors, specifically the power of metaphor to shape how we experience the world. With that in mind, think of the metaphors we use to talk about love: smitten, falling in love, crush. They share a commonality. They’re mostly negative and mostly involve pain.

“They all sort of suggest that love is this sort of thing that happens to us. If you go back a few hundred years, love was often a real inconvenience,” Catron said. “People got married for reasons like family or consolidation of wealth. You were very lucky if, as a woman, the person you chose to marry was going to marry you. If you fell in love with someone else, it was going to be a real inconvenience to your life. In the 19th century, we started thinking that maybe love and marriage should go together. I don’t think our language has quite caught up to that idea, or our thinking hasn’t quite caught up.”

You may notice that this language also implies a lack of agency. Love calls the shots, and we are just, well, the ones it crushes. It’s odd. The language implies that we have almost no control over love, something we supposedly spend all of our lives looking for.

“Monogamous, long-term committed kind of love has a huge impact on the trajectory of our lives, what kind of jobs we do or do not take, or our decisions to create a family. So many fundamental aspects of our identity are influenced by who we love,” Catron said. “We would never say I’m just gonna turn my career over to fate and see what happens. It’s important to us to exert agency and shape our lives and yet when it comes to this one thing, we very often say I’m going to leave it to fate.”

Maybe, we’ll look back in a few years and see our current narrative of love go the way of the flat earth theory, but at least for right now we’re stuck in it. According to Catron, this is in no small part due to the love stories we live and consume. That very conversation is one of the central subjects in her UBC courses.

“Right now, I’m reading my students’ final papers and it’s a class about love stories. We just read literature about romantic love and we unpack it and think about how it influences our experiences. They really shape our assumptions of romantic love and they shape the way we think about gender,” Catron said. “I think ‘The Notebook’ for example is super problematic. It’s what researchers call persistent pursuit. They found that if people watch movies that romanticize stalking behaviors they’re more likely to endorse those behaviors themselves. He [Noah played by Ryan Gosling] mails her a letter every day for 365 days and he never hears back from her. That’s actually a super creepy inappropriate behavior but in the context of this romantic movie we’re sold that the idea that this sweet and that men shouldn’t take no for an answer. I think these things matter.”

According to Catron, these stories bear onto how we view ourselves in love and how we behave. The research says she may be right. These kinds of portrayals of love inform our behavior in relationships and our understanding of traditional gender roles. It’s like we’re stuck in a ratty old pair of pants we’ve outgrown, but still haven’t settled on buying new ones. We’re restricted, but we’re used to it so it doesn’t bother us.

“In heterosexual relationships, gender roles are still very powerful. I think so often we have these very powerful scripts, especially with heterosexual relationships, because of the way our love stories play out, and the way we talk about love and what it means to be a man in love and what it means to be a woman in love,” Catron said. “The problem with these rigid gender roles is that most of us are a lot more nuanced, both men and women.”

You’re probably asking: So what can I do? Well, there’s no clear answer, but being aware of it and thinking about it is a start. You have to say to do—so to do love differently, speak about love differently. That’s the idea anyway.

Alex Bocknek

Alex Bocknek is the senior editor of The Date Mix and works at Zoosk, the online dating service. He’s also a recovering music critic and an aspiring fiction writer (probably lost) on the way to an independent bookstore near you. He can be found occasionally musing about politics, philosophy, and love in the modern world.

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