What does a romantic relationship entail

How love came into the world

Today, most people long to share their life with a loved one. But this ideal of freely chosen love is only 250 years old.

For many scientists, love is nothing more than the result of biochemical processes. The researchers dissect lust and desire, manipulate instincts, and measure the development, quality and duration of partnerships. In their laboratories, they look for the laws that make people fall in love with each other.

They found hormones that control our libido. Genes that make us loyal or lead us to fling. Brain circuits that guide our deepest emotions. But there is one thing that scientists often neglect: what love means for the individual.

Personal feelings cannot be grasped with numbers, made tangible with formulas and statistics. When you're in love, you don't think about biochemistry or about spreading your genes. Love is something magical. It is unfathomable and yet so powerful that it can determine our entire life: We are looking for a person who accepts us for who we are. We long for someone who accompanies and supports us. We wish to merge mentally and physically with a partner.

Most of the romances in literary history end tragically

It's the desire for romantic love. An ideal that is deeply anchored in our consciousness.

It has inspired writers for centuries. The love stories of Lancelot and Guinevere, of Héloïse and Abelard, of Romeo and Juliet combine sexual desire and spiritual devotion. But the great romances usually end tragically. Your heroes live in a time when they are not allowed to love as they want. They are rebels, fight against their origins, against constraints and traditions.

Their love fails because of the respective culture. Because their contemporaries treat the lovers like lepers, anxiously look at their passion and ruthlessly try to prevent them from finding each other. The happiness of true, romantic love has not been as natural for people for very long as it is today: It was only around 250 years ago that the idea spread in Europe that love based on partnership fills life with meaning.

It was a long way to get there. Of course: Even in the Stone Age, people got together in pairs and founded families. But, as some researchers suggest, they entered into relationships for practical reasons, not love. The more members a clan had, the more workers could provide for food and the more warriors would fight against enemies. The family took out survival insurance.

The daily struggle for existence required strength and skill. Women, the physically somewhat weaker sex, needed protection - especially during pregnancy. They bore children, probably did simple fieldwork, and submitted to men.

In the Middle Ages, true love could only apply to God

From the 5th century BC at the latest, people in ancient Greece began to praise love. But her idea of ​​it had nothing to do with passionate closeness between a man and a woman. Rather, the philosophers of Athens understood a deeply felt bond and affection between men as love and spiritual ideal.

Usually an intimate relationship developed between a grown man and a boy. The experienced elder instructed the inquisitive younger man in the virtuous life. In generosity, loyalty and strength of spirit. Devotional love between the sexes, on the other hand, was considered madness. As an obsession that shatters inner peace and harmony.

That two people married out of love was just as foreign to the Greeks as it was to all the tribal societies in the millennia before. Wives were a burden, a costly evil. Great thinkers like Plato and Aristotle taught that women are inferior - both physically and mentally. Yet marriages were inevitable. Because the men felt obliged to the state to start families and to provide for offspring.

"Marriage," wrote the Greek poet Pallatas, "gives a man two happy days: the one when he puts his bride to bed - and the one when he bears her to her grave."

The Romans did not marry for love either. At least, however, the relationship between men and women was gaining in importance: families specifically arranged partnerships in order to forge alliances and increase their property.

So marriage became a political tool.

Romans naturally satisfied their sexual desire in affairs. Adultery was considered a sport to alleviate boredom and weariness. For the Romans, the relationship between man and woman was a struggle for desire, a game of affection and rejection, a short-lived enjoyment of the senses. But when the Roman Empire began to disintegrate from 300 AD, the image of love changed radically. The Christian faith spread across Europe. And with him the idea that love can only apply to God. Earthly joys, on the other hand, were despised by believers as diabolical vices.

In her opinion, erotic intimacy and physical passion tainted the mind and jeopardized the relationship with God. Love and sex contradicted each other - one was divine grace, the other diabolical urge. At the same time, Christians also had to accept cohabitation in order to father offspring. But he was not allowed to be pleasurable.

The feminine charms alone were scary to men of deep faith. They even argued about whether women even had a soul - after all, their ancestor Eva was responsible for the expulsion from paradise and thus for the suffering on earth.

In the Renaissance, men did not see women as equals

For a good 800 years, these Christian ideas dominated the image of love - until the longing for romance awoke in the 11th century at French royal courts. At that time troubadours went from court to court and sang about love, love they chose themselves. For the first time in history, people extolled the freedom to follow their true desires - always outside of marriage, which continued to be a rational community of convenience.

“No one should be deprived of his own love without a valid reason,” wrote the Countess of Champagne in 1174 in her “Rules of Minne”. Even if the loved one was unreachable, the lover should try to win her heart for himself through heroic deeds and tests of courage - and thus also gain social prestige.

In many ways, this so-called Hohe Minne already resembled our present-day idea of ​​romantic love. But mostly it found its expression more in poetry and singing. It was probably seldom lived. That gradually changed as trade, culture, and science began to flourish in the Renaissance. A new middle class, the bourgeoisie, emerged; Merchants increasingly turned to worldly life, striving for material happiness - and refrained from purely religious fulfillment.

Men flattered women, complimented them, and let themselves be seduced by their charms.

But still very few saw the female sex as equal. English politician Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son that women are nothing more than big children. Sometimes their chatter is entertaining, sometimes even witty. But he never met a woman to be taken seriously in his life. Gender equality - and thus the basis for everything that we in western countries understand by romantic love today - only slowly began to develop with the industrial revolution in the 18th century.

It was capitalism that laid the foundation for today's women's rights: for the first time in human history, both sexes were able to use their intellect and their ideas to secure their livelihoods. The market economy, i.e. the free play of supply and demand, made it possible for men and women to earn a living with ambition and on their own. Instead of working together in the fields, the spouses, sons and daughters each pursued their own occupation - and determined their own lives. Gradually the extended family broke up.

More and more machines are replacing human muscle power. So the physical and more mental abilities came to the fore. The new living environment was the city: urban centers like Oberhausen or Ludwigshafen emerged from nowhere. Formerly smaller settlements grew into towns of unprecedented size.

In these industrial cities in particular, women emancipated themselves, gained more and more economic independence and tried to shed the millennia-old yoke of oppression.

At the end of the 19th century, love marriage became the norm

In this time of upheaval and rapid developments, nobody was able to foresee what the increasingly technological world would look like in a few years. People were looking for security, for stability - and found it in the ideal of free, true love. From this a deeply experienced bond between man and woman might develop, which offered stability and brought a little order into turbulent world affairs.

People now raved about the uniqueness, naturalness and individual strength of each passion. Finding a soul mate and marrying: That was the highest goal in life.

The idea of ​​romantic love was tantamount to a "tremendous cultural success," as the German sociologist Hartmann Tyrell notes. Enlightened citizens understood marriage based on free love as an indispensable prerequisite for an intensive, harmonious family life - for "domestic bliss".

In his work “About dealing with people” from 1788, the civil servant and writer Adolph Freiherr von Knigge strongly recommends choosing one's spouse out of affection. And the Brockhaus, in its four editions between 1817 and 1827, defined marriage as “a lifelong union of two people of different sex, whose perfection is based on love”.

The idea of ​​love marriage spread throughout society within a few decades. From the second half of the 19th century, it became the general norm. Even a marriage deliberately planned without children was now valued as a “true marriage”. Procreation, according to the “German State Dictionary” of 1858, is only “a fruit of marriage, but marriage exists before the fruit and apart from the fruit”.

This completely reversed the old traditions: marriage without love was now considered immoral. As a degradation to something external and meaningless. Who is the other? Asked lovers. What is hidden behind the surface? Men and women tried to fathom and understand the nature of the loved one in all its diversity. When the Hamburg architect Otto Beneke fell in love with Marietta Banks, the daughter of a lawyer, in autumn 1841, he was fascinated by her “deeper soul and soul”. For months he recorded every gesture he loved, her facial features, her reactions to his letters and gifts in a relationship diary. He asked her to "introduce him to the halls of her mind."

"Love is knowledge", enthused Bettina von Arnim in "Goethe's correspondence with a child". Love is like "looking at individuality", noted the philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher. Love is a feeling, wrote Goethe in a letter to Auguste Countess zu Stolberg, which we feel when we see “our simile, ourselves doubled” and at the same time see a “picture of the infinite”.

For romantics, love not only reflects their own individuality, but also the whole world. This idea lives on to this day. Love is more than just biochemistry. The search for the other is always a search for the meaning of life.

A search for ourselves.

More on the subject of sexuality