I suspect that something has become skewed in the way we think about love. You feel it keenly on Valentine's Day. It is not the sentimentality, though it can be sugar-sweet. It is not the commercialization, though it is annoying when roses double in price overnight. It is more to do with the hopes and longings we have for love displayed on that day. On Valentine's Day there is a sense that they have become inflated, misdirected, fancifully flawless.
I've come to think of it as the romantic myth. It actually goes back a long way. Plato tells a story about how we human beings were originally round wholes, with four arms, four legs, two heads. In his dialogue the Symposium, one of the west's greatest works on love, he describes how we used to spin across the surface of the earth like ballistic cartwheels. And the gods became scared of us, of our power.
So Zeus decided that human beings needed cutting in two. He arranged for us to be sliced down the middle. Now, we only have two arms, two legs, one head and we spend our lives looking for our lost half. Only then, we feel, will we be complete, whole, rounded. And life feels very precarious until we meet our lost half, as if it will all have gone wrong if we become old before we have met our perfect mate, have known love.
It's a myth, of course. But it powerfully captures the pressure that the notion of romantic love holds for us, and which Valentine's Day so shamelessly exploits. Will I meet the one who is out there for me? Is the person I am with the one with whom I can feel fulfilled?
My sense is that these deep, private anxieties are a sign that we have become skewed in the way we think about love. Plato actually agrees.
He goes on to suggest that his myth locates our hopes for love in the past. It is as if something has gone wrong and romantic love will put it right. The modern version of this story comes from the work of Freud. He wondered whether our adult desire to feel romantically at one with someone is really a desire to recapture the time we felt at one with our devoted parent, probably our mother. Like the originally whole human beings, the very young infant does, in a sense, have four arms, four legs and two heads - its own and its mother's.
But says Plato, love is not found in the past. It comes from the future. Lovers must learn not to constantly gaze into each other's eyes. Sooner or later, that becomes claustrophobic. Rather, they must gaze together into the future that lies ahead. Holding hands, they must step forward into life. That is the real joy of love. Not that life is completed by another, but that with the companionship of another, life can be embraced, braved, loved.
This is why commitment is such an important feature of relationships. To commit to someone is to say, let us step into the unknown future together. We don't know what it holds, but with you, I sense something beautiful that allows me to be drawn more deeply into life. Let us risk it, together.
The metaphor that Plato prefers for love is, therefore, not one of wholeness, but is like a ladder. He describes how romantic love is not the completion of love but is just a first step up. We fall in love and that awakens us to a new dimension of delight in life. That delight does not begin and end with one person. Instead, we can develop a capacity to love more and more of life, to climb another step, and then another, up the ladder.
In this sense, love is promiscuous. It wants more and more from life. Fired by falling in love, we are prepared to throw ourselves into the future. We call it having a passion for living, a zest for existence. Rightly directed, romantic love does not lead us to throw ourselves madly into someone else's arms time and time again. It leads more to a kind of overflowing of desire that spreads out around us, making for creativity, curiosity, self-sacrifice, commitment.
So when Valentine's Day comes around, don't thank your beloved or spend the day longing for a lover. Instead, turn towards life. That is where love is truly to be found.
Mark Vernon is a founding faculty member of The School of Life. He will be leading 'Romantic Love: Busting the Myth' on Monday 11 February 2013.
His new book is Love: All That Matters (Hodder Education)