Love is elemental. It can claim most of the music we make, subplots in every movie (if it isn’t busy being the defining characteristic of the genre), and the most popular religion in the world insists it is identical with their god. It’s mysterious, inexplicable, powerful; it overcomes anything and it’s one of the two circumstances with proverbial approval to do whatever you like. The other one is the violent conquest of nations, which I feel ought to raise more flags than it does. The proverb, not the nations. I’m not advocating the violent conquest of nations that don’t raise as many flags as they — look, I’ll come in again.
Love is elemental and has the best press of any abstract concept in the world, which makes it a very, very good MacGuffin. I mean, if you’re going to go questing for the Holy Grail, or even worse, for the Star Chalice of Ausa Vale, readers might demand to know why this thing is so important and exactly what it can do and whether going for a nature walk through the Steel Deserts and the Swamp of Inconvenience is really the best solution to the problem at hand. Someone who’s out for love needs no explanation. They are looking for an instantly-accepted good and valuable thing. Everyone is on board with this.*
People tend not to hike through the Steel Desert in search of love, mind you. More often they’ve already found a focus for their loving feelings of loving love, and the story is about reciprocation. This doesn’t change the assumption that we should be on their side – more love in the world is an axiomatic good thing, and Person A (who loves Person B) getting Person B to return their love is an increase; the only other accepted resolution would be for Person A to stop loving Person B, which would be a decrease in total world love reserves, which would be a bad thing.
We end up in a place where a character failing to return another character’s spontaneously professed love is automatically unfortunate and bad, possibly even presented as a failing of the non-lovey person. At this point, I think it should be obvious that we are on thin ice, because if Aidan springs a confession of love on Kelly, and Kelly says ‘Sorry, but nope’, and the audience’s reaction is to dislike Kelly for this, nothing bodes well for the valuation of consent in this culture. But this post is not directly about consent. This is about exactly what kind of MacGuffin we’re chasing.
So: there are limits to the extent to which I think it is or should be possible to surprise someone with a profession of love.
Love is generally considered an emotion, a feeling, and I don’t disagree that it is, but I don’t think that’s all it is, either. I think that if the emotion is real, it has implications for behaviour as well. Start from the extreme: if a person says they love someone else, and then demonstrates that they can cheerfully harm or torment the supposed object of their love, I’d hope everyone would be deeply suspicious of the truth and purity of their love. For that matter, if someone claims to love another person and then shows indifference to their suffering, I’m not buying it either. If you want me to believe that your love is the greatest and truest love evers, then I’m going to expect that it’s shown in the way you seek to improve your love’s life: to support them when they are low, cheer for them when they are strong, go with them when they need companions and part when they must be alone. And I’m going to need to see all of this regardless of whether they feel the same for you or not. If I love someone, then seeing them happy and triumphant is the payoff for my efforts. It’s a feeling, not a contract.
So I was reading Ana Mardoll’s post about Friends last week and the premise came up that one character had been ‘secretly’ in love with another for a full decade. (I don’t know Friends at all; this is not a commentary on Friends specifically unless I have some kind of prophetic power that makes my rant here perfectly applicable to that series.) This doesn’t feel like an unfamiliar premise to me, but it does feel deeply implausible. Not that someone would claim to have secretly been ‘in love’ with someone else for ten years, but that this person’s actions would actually be something that is recognisable to outsiders as real and meaningful love.
If Kelly truly loves Aidan, this should be noticeable. Unless Aidan is shockingly unobservant, they may notice that Kelly goes out of their way to make life better for Aidan, rejoices in their presence, and et cetera et cetera we’ve been over this. And while it’s true that all of these things might be justified by a good friendship, this is where we get back to what I said before: assuming orientations are known in advance, there’s only so much surprise to be had if your best friend, who plainly loves you platonically, reveals that they’re also interested in you nonplatonically. But this the less-common plot, in my experience (it may be relegated to a subplot, running gag, or ‘character trait’ in severe cases).
What gets me is the idea that someone could secretly be in love with someone who barely knows they exist. Possibly they occasionally hang out as part of a larger group, or maybe they just both work/study/shop/sculpt/scan for extraterrestrial signals at the same place. The point is, these people’s interactions are primarily electromagnetic, in that they see** each other (although it is often not necessary to the plot that the Object of the Secret Love have seen/noticed the Secret Love Bearer). There is no connection, no interaction, no history – love does not exist. Yet. It could, obviously; I’m not challenging that. But if I can summarise the whole issue in a single sentence, it might be: I really wish we would stop acting like ‘love’ and ‘the stuff that comes before love’ are all the same stuff.
Lots of things can come before love: friendship, respect, curiosity, kindness, or simply a marrow-deep desire to engage in Naked Fun Times. And all of these things can be meaningful – even the last, the simple base physical attraction, has a kind of significance. But none of them are love, and treating them as the same thing – dismissing any differences between ‘Aidan and Kelly are best friends and Kelly also wants to make out’ and ‘Aidan and Kelly have never exchanged two words but Kelly thinks Aidan is sooo hot’ is dismissing all of the things that gave love its significance in the first place.
The stuff that comes before love—the feelings—are easy to hide, relatively speaking. We resist the urge to touch pretty things, we play it cool when The Most Bestest Person Ever walks into the room, we avoid looking too deeply distraught when we find out they’re not going to be around, or that they are unavailable. Love itself in action: not so much. Exactly how does one hide the way they crossed the city in the middle of the night to provide support for someone they love during a crisis? The love is bleedin’ obvious. The only thing that can be hidden at that point is the pantsfeelings that might accompany it.***
So: if a character is going to claim to be secretly in love, I want to see their metaphorical resumé. I want to know what this love has inspired them to do. And if the answer is restricted to the range of longing looks and ogling, I’m not sure exactly why I should particularly care if they get their desires reciprocated or not. And I’m not going to buy it if anyone suggests that the person rebuffing them is at fault. Give me a case of one’s True Love that the other simply can’t accept, and maybe I’ll see the tragedy in it. But in most of these cases of ‘secret love’ it seems like the tragedy is that the character is not being facilitated in their desire to experience Feelings at a closer proximity to their object than they have been up to now, which is a seriously underwhelming atrocity, as atrocities go.
*Presumably not everyone is actually on-board with this, because they think that societal focus on romantic love is detrimental, or because they don’t believe love is real, or et cetera. I don’t plan to address any of these counterpoints, because this is a blog post and not a dissertation, but I thought I could at least acknowledge that there is always a dissenting view to everything. English could use some more terminology to concisely state ‘in a very substantial number of cases, with few exceptions that are neither challenged nor intentionally dismissed by this statement’. Instead we’ve just got things like ‘always’ and ‘everyone’, and so much trouble results.
**Is there a visually-impaired culture in the same way that there’s a Deaf culture? Do they still have some kind of analogue to ‘Love At First Sight’? These are the questions that keep me from successfully engaging in casual conversation with strangers. You can’t just open with that kind of thing. Regardless of the stranger’s sightedness.
***Or there’s the reverse case of pretending to be in love in the service of satisfying the pantsfeelings, but then we get back to the sixth paragraph, re: it’s not love if you’re only doing it to get something in return.