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How Our Popular Notion of Romance Keeps Failing Us

Eva Illouz's new book, "Why Love Hurts" is an in-depth analysis of the reasons our contemporary understanding of romance fails to satisfy us.

The 2005 film  Pride and Prejudice ends with Mr. Darcy striding across the dewy morning marshes, shirt unbuttoned to strategically expose chest hair, and taking his lady love (played by Keira Knightley) in his muscled arms. Such a florid ending is not to be found in Jane Austen’s novel. The characters of her books experience romance in a structured relationship within familiar bounds, “experienced not as a rupture or a break in one’s everyday life,” a far cry from the dime-novel romance that many modern fans look for in her work. Necking in the mist wasn’t in the playbook.

The rigidities and dignities of Austen’s world are a favorite example in Eva Illouz’s new book Why Love Hurts , as a reminder that our contemporary experience and understanding of courtship is very much embedded in our historical moment. Why Love Hurts is an in-depth analysis of the reasons our contemporary understanding of romance fails to satisfy so many of us. The book attempts to properly contextualize our unique experience of love, presenting a counter-narrative to simplistic psychological (“what’s wrong with me?”) and socio-biological (“men are just naturally like that”) explanations that dominate our modern understanding of romance.

Illouz argues that, today, love hurts in unique and unprecedented ways, which are shaped by larger social conditions. The book is also a critique of the self-help ideology, which tends to relentlessly shift the blame for love’s trials entirely onto the dysfunctional self.

As one particularly execrable source, The Rules , puts it, “Love is not actually something we get from outside ourselves.” That this understanding of human relationships is complete crap —humans cannot be severed from the values and judgments of their social settings—hasn’t prevented The Rules from selling 2 million copies. Illouz argues that this dominant love narrative is an indication of our society’s tendency to force every aspect of human experience into the straitjacket of individual responsibility. Self-help guides and pablum of the “love yourself before you can love others” variety burden you with the entire responsibility for a happy love life. Social context and the fact that we rely on others for recognition and validation are blissfully ignored.

“At the end of the 19th century, it was radical to claim that poverty was not the result of dubious morality or weak character, but of systemic economic exploitation,” Illouz writes. “[I]t is now urgent to claim that the failures of our private lives are not only the result of weak psyches but rather that the vagaries and miseries of our emotional life are shaped by institutional arrangements.” The fact that your OK Cupid account, for example, supplies endless access to potential partners both facilitates new encounters and relationships and changes the way you look at romance more generally. What does the virtual smorgasbord of foxy singles do to your ability to settle for a particular individual? This boy you are dating is pretty cute, but Stargazer88 is pretty cute AND likes Joy Division. Why not try him out instead?

Questions of choices, and the social forces that structure them, lie at the heart of Illouz’s analysis. The characters of Austen’s novels, say, are hyperaware of social standing and marrying outside one’s class is rare, and usually a sign of foolishness or villainy. A romantic partner should live up to moral codes and be thoroughly vetted by one’s family and close friends. Choosing a partner against the judgment of your circle is usually portrayed as a terrible mistake and the result is often profound social isolation.

By contrast, today’s sexual and romantic landscape has been flattened by democratic values, feminism, consumer culture, and the conquering value of sexiness, which reaches beyond race, class or moral codes. The individual is the only arbiter of romantic choice. Sure, we want our friends and family to like our significant others. But I’d guess that most people have friends whose partners are tolerated, at best; or siblings whose boyfriends are met with arched eyebrows and pitying smiles at the dinner table.

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