“I am as ever in bewildered awe of anyone who makes the kind of commitment that Angus and Laura have made today. I know I couldn’t do it. And I think it’s wonderful that they can.’’
So says Hugh Grant during his best man speech in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Laura Mucha felt the same way.
“I was both attracted and appalled by the idea of long-term commitment,” she said. “I wanted it and I was scared of it.”
As a young woman, she’d inevitably break up with everyone she dated, thinking that maybe the perfect person hadn’t come along yet.
This fear of commitment was rooted in her childhood (producing what she later learned was called avoidant attachment). Without a father in her life, she was brought up by her mother and grandparents. Her grandad died when she was 11, and she lost the only committed romantic relationship she’d been able to observe.
As a result, she struggled to understand romantic love and finally came to the conclusion that if she was ever going to have a chance of a successful relationship herself, she had to know more. So she turned her natural curiosity into a research project and talked to people about love.
Laura Mucha doesn’t do things by halves. For a decade she buttonholed hundreds of people, ranging from aged 8 to 95, in over 40 countries, interviewing them in four different languages about their relationships. The more she heard from her interviewees, the more questions it raised. So she ‘buried herself’ in academic studies across a range of subjects and then contacted the researchers whose work she’d been devouring and interviewed many of them.
Mucha’s book, We Need to Talk About Love, offers a unique insight into the mysteries of love as it moves seamlessly to and fro between the narratives she’d gathered from her interviewees, philosophical and literary interpretations, and behavioural and clinical evidence from psychology and neuroscience.
She doesn’t just look at falling in love, but also, and perhaps more importantly, at what Eric Fromm calls ‘standing in love’: how love can continue after the addictive, dopamine-driven, can’t stop thinking about you, madness of falling in love has waned, as it inevitably does.
For instance, one of the themes of the book Extravagant Expectations of Love looks at how we tend to make falling, and staying, in love harder for ourselves by clinging to some of the crazier mythologies of love.
I’m looking for my other half
The Greek philosopher, Plato, devised a character called Aristophanes who went round telling a comic myth that humans were at one time two people cojoined. But when they started getting above themselves and threatening the gods, Zeus cut each of them in two, condemning them to wander the earth in search of their other half to make them whole again. Plato didn’t intend it to be taken seriously. But today, it seems, it is!
Mucha cites a US survey which found that 88% of single 20-somethings believed there was a soul mate waiting for them.
“Apart from the mathematical absurdity of this,” says Mucha, “it also misrepresents the sort of love that makes long-term relationships last. Long lasting love isn’t something that happens to you in a flash if you’re lucky, it’s something you chose and have to work on.”
If it’s right, you’ll just know.
Another related myth, that cropped up in number of Mucha’s interviews, is that you’ll just know when you meet your soulmate or other half. Dani, who ran a small business in the south of France, ‘just knew’ she’d met her ‘soulmate’, only to find out later that everything he’d told her, including his age, was a lie.
“What does that say about me, that I fell in love with this mirage?” she asked.
In fact, falling in love with an illusionary being is quite a common characteristic of romantic love in its early stages. Ironically, it’s not knowing someone that allows the beholder to believe they see perfection in front of them. This is something Mucha illustrates with Stendhal’s description of crystallisation.
“The idea of ‘just knowing’ can lead to disastrous decisions,” says Mucha. And maybe, even dangerous decisions. Sophie, who sat next to Mucha on a flight to Spain, ‘just knew’ she’d met her soul mate; only to find she’d got herself involved with a stalker.
They kiss and love each other forever
Another myth, found in fairy tales and sponsored by the romantic love industry, tells us that once you’ve found your true love and overcome the obstacles put in your way, you’ll kiss and live happily ever after.
Many of Mucha’s interviewees blamed romantic Hollywood movies for creating unrealistic dreams and expectations that then made them dissatisfied with what they did have.
Terri, a student in her 20s, who Mucha met in Denver airport, told her: “I love movies… and I notice that I will compare my life to them sometimes. I will go to my boyfriend and say, ’Why aren’t you more romantic with me? Why don’t you do this?”
These unrealistic expectations make relationships more fragile. Mucha cites the study by Epstein & Eidelson which found people with unrealistic expectations of romantic love are more likely to want to end their relationship rather than working at it, and also had experienced fewer satisfying relationships.
“Part of the appeal of these unrealistic expectations,” says Mucha, “is the hope of a saviour and the absolution of personal responsibility.”
The logic of this is that we have to be more realistic about what love can, and can’t do for us, and recognise that we are a participant in a relationship and not just a beneficiary when things are good (‘You make me so happy’) or a victim when they’re not (You make me so miserable).
“Love is not an all-powerful solution to the problem of finding meaning, security and happiness in life. There is no one person out there for you or anyone else. Relationships are built, not found. They are made up of fallible people, and to expect anything else is to set yourself and your relationship up for inevitable and inescapable failure.”
This is just one example. Other themes the book covers, include attachment and love; commitment; adultery & monogamy; abusive relationships and when love ends. Like love itself, it’s funny, it’s intriguing and sometimes it’s just very sad.
Mucha is not a therapist and doesn’t pretend to be one. Rather, as the title makes clear, the book is talking about love; raising issues, looking at real life examples and research evidence. You can take away as much or as little as you want.
What Mucha says she has learned from her research is that love, and certainly long-lasting companionate love, is “a skill that requires knowledge, effort and learning.”
And if you’re thinking something like, “Doesn’t this makes love seem like a bit like a chore?” Then Mucha has a question for you. She asks:
Now there’s a question.
This is a love story, or at least a story about love, so did it have a happy ending?
Well, yes, for Laura Mucha, it did. She’s now happily married, to one of the men she split up with years earlier in her ‘couldn’t commit’ days and they have a baby boy.
But what about the Hugh Grant character in Four Weddings and A Funeral? Well, in a lovely scene in the rain at the end of the film, he finally seems to be getting it together with Andie McDowell. But then, sadly, he tells her:
“The truth is, I loved you from the first second I met you.”
Oh dear! From what we know now, there could still be problems ahead.
Laura Mucha (2020) We Need to Talk About Love, Bloomsbury Sigma