“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.
Interesting ideas. Though I haven’t quite felt that they apply to me. I’ve been of the mind that there are plenty of people I’m compatible with at any time (not perfectly so, and I needn’t be perfectly matched), I can appreciate pretty much anyone, I don’t place very much value in sexual experience at all (I’m actually a virgin, but there’s no moral reasoning for it; I don’t consider it an accomplishment or a negative, it’s just a fact), I’m not commitment phobic.
Not sure. Since I can’t personally relate to it, I’m not sure if the ideas in the article are right. I wouldn’t even really know. I see lots of problems in modern relationships, but I don’t have a particular cause or cure. So the article at least gives me some things to think about more.