"Soulmates," "the nuclear family" and "the American Dream" are concepts most of us are taught to strive for from the very beginning of our lives. We're told that if we can just find "the one" to make a life with, the road to happiness and fulfillment will simply unfold before us.
But one dad on TikTok thinks that's nonsense, and that our focus on romantic love and all its trappings is wrongheaded — and the precise origin of the epidemic of loneliness so many of us are facing.
Nathan Reo believes romantic love will never cure our loneliness because what we actually need is community.
That's a bold statement of course — and to be clear, Reo isn't suggesting romantic love, children and family aren't important or meaningful. But he says they can't fully fulfill us because they're not the core desire embedded in our human brains and DNA. And he's speaking from experience, despite his stereotypically perfect life.
"I'm currently living in a nuclear family. In fact, I'm living the American Dream," Reo said in his TikTok of his life as a successful homeowner, dad and husband to "a beautiful wife" and "four perfect children."
But he says it's simply not enough — and he thinks most people in his position feel the same way, they're just unwilling to admit it because of the way we're all culturally "programmed" to think about romantic love.
"We're programmed to believe that this is like the zenith of human existence, to get married and experience romance," he went on to say. "And yet when you actually arrive here—and I don't think very many people will admit this—but this is not nearly enough and there is a deep longing and loneliness still."
Reo believes that ultimately capitalism is at the root of this erroneous notion that finding a "soulmate" will conquer all. "I believe that it is pushed by capitalism to partition us down into the smallest money-making unit," which is the nuclear family "separated in a tiny house... selling their time for money and having most of the value of their labor stripped away from them."
Reo says this needlessly sets people up to feel devastated and worthless if they haven't found romantic love by their 30s or 40s.
"I've heard about a term called [hitting the wall] lately," Reo says, "and the wall is where you're trying to date when you're 35 or 40 or after and you just can't find love, it's like pretty much impossible."
Anyone who's tried will tell you that it's anecdotally true that dating gets hard the older you get. But the notion of "hitting the wall" in dating has been co-opted by many far-right commentators to make explicitly sexist and misogynistic claims that feminism and independence in women set them up to be alone forever because their looks will fade before they can find a mate.
But as Reo points out, there's far more than just sexism making this notion nonsensical. "People go their whole lives longing to find the perfect [person]... who's going to meet their needs and that's just a myth," he said. "We are not longing for romance guys. We are longing for intimate community."
Reo got plenty of blowback for his take on romantic love and community, but the science says he's absolutely right.
Reo's video got many people really angry, accusing him of being privilege-blind or ungrateful for the admittedly jackpot life he's ended up living.
But the science says he's not wrong, whether he's privilege-blind or not. In his book "Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect," UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says that a need for community is indeed wired into us. "[B]ecoming more socially connected is essential to our survival," he writes. "In a sense, evolution has made bets at each step that the best way to make us more successful is to make us more social."
We are so hard-wired for communal connection in fact, that neuroscientific research has found that the function of the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that constitutes what we refer to as the "self" —our independent, unique nature — is so susceptible to other people's input that we can't even fully understand ourselves without it.
It really is the case that "no man is an island," and our brains leading us to strive for cooperation and commonality is how we've been able to live alongside each other in the relative harmony that has been key to our species' survival.
It's not falling in love and creating a family with one person that has let our species thrive this long, it's relying on each other communally.
But as many studies have shown, our social connectedness has eroded, with memberships in everything from civic organizations to sports leagues that used to knit our social fabric together having steeply declined in recent decades. Studies have also shown that most Americans have at most one close friend.
We've instead replaced these with social media, which for all its benefits has served to silo us into polarized factions, making us more isolated and deepening our social and political turmoil. No amount of romance can fix that. As Lieberman puts it in his book, "Someday, we will look back and wonder how we ever had lives, work and schools that weren't guided by the principles of the social brain."
Romantic love is important of course, but reproduction aside it's neither the lifeblood that keeps us going nor the glue that holds us together. "What we need to do as a species right now is stop focusing on romantic love...and start recreating the village," Reo said in closing his video. "This is in our DNA... The longing is for...communities." The sooner we realize that, the better off we'll all be — as individuals and as a society.
John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.
This article originally appeared on YourTango