These days, few people think of marrying without having feelings of love for their partner. Love is what brings us together, and the lack of it drives us apart. But it hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when the question of love was not an issue.
Beginning in ancient Greece, the consent of marriage was given by the father of the bride, who wasn’t allowed an opinion of her own. So it was the father who had to be convinced of the interest the union of his daughter with a rich and prestigious, or at least worthy family, would bring. The ability to seduce and convince the young girl that she was loved could nevertheless make her more accepting of this situation between simple physical attraction and pure calculation of interest.
In the middle Ages, the Catholic Church instituted the sacrament of marriage. The blessing given to the spouses was supposed to transmute physical love into a more spiritual one. So, since true love was supposed to be a consequence
of the religious wedding, it may have been unnecessary to have true feelings for the person whom one was about to marry. Love was supposed to arise in marriage and from marriage, so that the feelings felt before marriage were of little consequence.
By the end of the 11th, and throughout the 12th centuries, when the poets of southern France invented ‘l’amour courtois’ (courtly love), love emerged as an essential theme in the relationships between men and women. Courtly love was a brand new, even revolutionary idea, that was opposed to marriage and its sacrament. With this conception, true love only existed in a chaste form and was not linked to marriage, because marriage was only the glorification and sanctification of a physical and ordinary love. In his famous thesis dedicated to the myth of love, Denis de Rougemont (1939) showed that chivalrous love towards a noble lady is mainly symbolic. This Lady in thoughts represents the spiritual and angelic part of the human being, the true self. In this way, the stories and characters in early novels such as Tristan and Iseult merely reflect man’s adventure in the conquest of his own soul.
This spiritual heresy was hidden under the appearance of gallantry and romantic love. The deep meaning of these early novels progressively faded and the myth of love generalized so as to become a requirement that should be fulfilled at all times. The statistics of divorce nowadays are the consequence of this omnipresent myth that has become a veritable tyranny of feelings: love is owed to everyone and is expected at all times. Everyone claims the right to a love similar to that seen in movies and novels, yet this is only a pale reflection of the initial myth whose meaning has now been lost. Everyone lives with the nostalgia of the perfect love, the wonderful ‘happy ever after’ love that continually eludes us because we have forgotten that true love is primarily found within ourselves.