There are several, even within what we lump together as "Western culture," and that multiplicity is a good first thing to recognize, not least so that we can see when authors are talking past each other, or counterpointing one tradition with another. What are some of these various traditions?
In the introduction to my first book, What Is It Then Between Us? Traditions of Love in American Poetry, I wrote the following:
Poets such as Sappho and Archilochos first defined the three-part structure of eros: "lover, beloved, and that which comes between them" (Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, 16). Such love is essentially a mode of desire, in which the actual beloved is the occasion for and object of the lover's imagination. For all that it may dream of perfect union--a thought we find in Plato, though not in the poets before him--this version of love demands a certain distance, dodging reciprocity. It flowers in the fine, frustrated romances of Petrarchism, where the Lady and her poet never squander their attraction in the duties of domestic life or the brief commotion of actual sex. And, as Freud understood, such love lives under the "law of ambivalence," in which "loved ones are on the one hand an inner possession, an ingredient of our personal ego, but on the other hand are partly strangers, even enemies," simply because of their continued exteriority.
The poets I have chosen for this book are, by and large, uneasy with this first tradition of love. They may still invoke it. (Few traditions have a finer pedigree.) But they are often drawn to a contrasting, companionate ideal. This second ideal may date back to ancient times as well, as Jean Hagstrum argues in Esteem Enlivened by Desire: the Couple from Homer to Shakespeare. It has flourished, however, both as theory and as art, mostly since the English Renaissance. English Protestant preachers mocked the Petrarchan structure of idealizing, ever-unacted desire. In its place they offered the delights and cares of marriage, where the lover joins "in conjugal fellowship a fit conversing soul." So did English poets such as Spenser, Jonson, Shakespeare, and above all Milton, whose "Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce" I quoted a moment ago. According to Anthony Low, Milton's hymns to wedded love in Paradise Lost have shaped "a substitute Petrarchism for our time"; and, indeed, modern writers on love often insist that it is, properly speaking, a mode of relationship between two people, married or otherwise, rather than a state of the lover's or poet's mind. In this tradition of love, the free play of the erotic imagination must answer to the actual beloved in his or her fullest particularity. The "Other than self / O inconceivable" must become an "O believeable" at last, and the lovers respond to each other with what Ortega y Gasset calls "warm corroboration."
The split between these two traditions runs deep, and may be irreconcilable. Proponents of the second form of love, from Milton to Simone de Beauvoir, see the first as idolatrous and inauthentic, a mask for narcissism. The partisans of Eros, for their part, often see companionate love as a muted, mundane thing, hardly worthy of love's name. "I'm talking about love, and you're talking about marriage," a colleague once sniffed. And they say courtly love is dead.There's a lot that I've read and learned since then about traditions of love--erotic, companionate, and otherwise--and I'll post about it here. There's also a whole second set of terms in the book that talks about "idealist" and "realist" traditions, which is actually a rather awkward structure, looking back. I'll post about those, too. But this distinction between Eros and Companionate traditions is useful, I think, especially since popular romance fiction tends to draw on both of them. It will serve to start things off.