News & Politics

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.

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.

Why Love Hurts would have to be far longer to account for the way love and courtship play out in varying combinations of class, race and sexual orientation in Western societies. But it’s disappointing that there is little discussion of the ways  relationships, love, childrearing, and gender relations play out among anyone who isn’t of the privileged professional class our culture seems to spend most of its time analyzing, emulating and imagining.

The book itself seems geared towards this class in other ways, specifically the academic-ese Illouz seems to prefer (which is generally more accessible to those who have experienced academia). While Illouz never comes close to the incomprehensible garble of, say, Judith Butler, the audience will always be limited for a book that makes such liberal use of words like “ontological” and “endogamic.” To really challenge the reign of books like The Rules, Illouz would need to write a more accessible book.

And it’s a shame she hasn’t written one. Why Love Hurts has its disappointments, but the essential takeaway is an important one: Stop internalizing your romantic failures. Maybe it isn’t some tragic inner failing that causes your relationships to end. Maybe you aren’t subconsciously sabotaging yourself. Maybe that’s just what happens to most relationships: They end. Mourn, don’t self-flagellate. After all, Stargazer88 is pretty cute.

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Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.