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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.

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Why Love Hurts doesn’t argue for the superiority or restoration of bygone social mores. Few people openly hanker for the bad ol’ days of racial and social exclusivity. Outside of the fundamentalist Christian circles (which are generally no fun anyway), the decline of strict gender norms that restrict sexual freedom isn’t considered a tragedy. But Illouz isn’t making a their-way-bad/our-way-good dichotomy. She wants us to be aware of the profound disadvantages of our social realties too.

Today, romantic love exists as a wholly individual responsibility, and is considered an essential life achievement. We can be left feeling terribly vulnerable if we haven’t settled on a partner yet, and Illouz argues that the vast array of choices now available can be numbing. The tendency to rationalize romantic experience, by explaining love in chemical, evolutionary, or psychological terms, contributes to the demystification of romance. This trend is accelerated by the rise of Internet dating, which presents us with even more choices that we can dispassionately, safely scrutinize before approaching.

“The rational evaluation of a given object (or person) tends to moderate or dampen positive appreciation of it,” Illouz writes. “Too many options diminishes the capacity to make quick decisions on intuition.” (Internet dating facilitates both.) This leads to a pervasive commitment-phobia which is, in turn, both lauded (sexual accumulation is often understood as an indication of self-worth) and pathologized (“why don’t my relationships last? what’s wrong with me?”).

But commitment-phobes and OK Cupid users are not the villains here. In many ways Why Love Hurts is a broadside against psychology itself. While the condemnation can be too sweeping, Illouz makes many piercingly accurate observations. “[P]sychological modes of understanding, at the end of the day, always blame it on you,” Illouz said in an interview with Kirkus Reviews. In this way romantic suffering becomes pathologized, “an unacceptable and unjustifiable symptom, emanating from insufficiently mature psyches.”

Illouz argues that men have a structural advantage in this social arrangement. Reproductive time constraints, age discrimination against older women, and the long-standing “female pairing strategy [of] choos[ing] a man with a similar or higher educational status” (a shrinking pool), are all factors that give men an edge. This generates a greater reluctance to commit. Men are more likely to feel that they can remain in the sexual market, Illouz claims, while women may want to edge toward a marriage market as they age, but are restrained from doing so by their limited selection. This leads women to emulate the sexual patterns of men, even if they don’t really want to.

This contention highlights one of Why Love Hurts’ weaknesses. In the beginning of the book, Illouz explains her methodological biases: Due to the “uncanny fascination which heterosexuality still exerts on men and women,” same-sex desire and “homosexual love” are largely left aside. Heterosexuals “who opt for marriage, reproduction, and middle class lifestyles” are the primary focus. While she repeatedly mentions many of her other unifying themes, Illouz rarely reminds us of her limited scope. This leaves many of her claims feeling unrealistically universal within our society, which is odd for a book that is at such pains to highlight the differences between societies. Presumably her contentions don’t hold true for women who genuinely don’t want to have children or get married. Or those who are underemployed and broke, for that matter.

It is also never clear if the emotional inequality outlined above holds true outside the cloistered social sanctums of the upper-middle-class professional (all of the interviewees Illouz talked with, Americans, Europeans and Israelis, are from this slice of the population). Does this same dynamic hold for, say, men and women without high school diplomas? Illouz does not say.

 
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