Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation

Jean Duncombe ponders the interdependency of women’s self-worth and romantic relationships

May 3, 2012

Is this a good time for me to be reading how much love hurts? My husband, who loved me dearly, died almost three years ago. His love gave my life meaning. Not a very feminist statement, I know, and friends tell me I should learn to “love myself” and gain validation from myself. But I miss having love in my life. Eva Illouz’s new book, hailed as an “emotional atlas” for the 21st century, offers words of warning to those who, like me, still hanker after romantic love. Think carefully before you venture along that road. The organised marital relationships of Jane Austen’s day, and the model of love as pure emotionality that followed, are both long gone, she says. Instead, the search for love today, while it looks like free choice, “entails engagement with a complex affective and cognitive market apparatus to evaluate partners”. Yet despite this complexity, we (women) need to understand it more than ever because it is the way we constitute our self-worth.

For those of us with busy working lives, internet dating sites are frequently recommended as the best way to find love. Through words and photos we can reinvent ourselves, and behave like consumers rationally setting out lists of attributes like a buffet table (age, appearance, lifestyle). The subsequent “romantic encounter” is the result of the best possible choice, “perfect” or “good enough”. This modern way of finding a romantic partner may seem straightforward, but there are drawbacks. Rationality and regulation destroy the erotic, and the belief in endless choice inhibits rather than promotes commitment.

Conversations (what Illouz calls “thick talk”) with friends are a key part of the choice process. With friends we spend a great deal of time reflecting on relationships, agonising over mistakes and hoping new relationships will avoid past errors. Partner choices are frequently framed within well-trodden narrative formulas and visual cliches from Hollywood films, novels and women’s magazines. The media promote the view that we will know “the right man” when we see him: we will look across a crowded room and recognise our soulmate, we will “click”. Illouz says it is too simple to call these beliefs false consciousness. She cites Simon Blackburn that love is not blind. You see each other’s faults. But you forgive them and, through forgiveness, the self-esteem of the loved one increases. Through love we become who we imagine ourselves to be. Love validates us and gives us a sense of self-worth.

However, despite our continuing search for Mr Right, today there is an added problem in achieving romantic perfection. Integral to modernity is irony. Illouz cites David Halperin that true sexual passion requires the elimination of irony. This irony, uncertainty and sometimes cynicism about “real love” leads to another new dimension of the choice process, which Illouz calls “emotional interiority”. When seeking a relationship we engage constantly in self-scrutiny. What sort of person am I really? What sort of person do I really desire? When I am in a relationship, how do I really feel? How long will this love last? It is a modern belief, she argues, that such reflexive self-understanding will help us to better understand ourselves and our choices. But again, Illouz draws our attention to the drawbacks of introspection. Choices are harder. Modern introspection creates ambivalence, a sense of dissatisfaction about never fully knowing what our “true” feelings are.

Here Illouz condemns the ease with which today we seek psychological or psychoanalytical explanations about who we are, and about past romantic disasters. We all too easily locate failed love lives in private histories. We too quickly explain our pain (real or imagined) as a product of deficient childhoods, where perhaps we were neglected, abandoned or distanced. Our love preferences are questioned as re-enactments of early parent/child relationships. Alongside talking to friends and ourselves, there is a whole battery of “relationship experts” who offer to come to the rescue with our doubts about relationship formation and/or breakdown. There are psychological counsellors, couple therapists, mediation specialists. All of private life is now to be shared and talked about - more “thick talk” - and these therapies provide, she says, a formidable arsenal of techniques to make us “verbose but inescapable bearers of responsibility for our romantic miseries”.

Illouz comments with surprise that the cultural prominence of love today is associated with the decline in men’s power in families and the rise (she says) of more egalitarian/symmetrical gender relations. But the drawback of such equality, she suggests, is a decline in eroticism. She draws out the contradictions between our endless idealisation of love set alongside irony and ambivalence. There is acknowledgement that relationships, whether marriage, remarriage or cohabitation, frequently break down. Optimistic searches for a new romantic partner therefore carry within them an inbuilt expectation of disappointment.

It is too easy, Illouz suggests, to blame feminism for the “crisis in love”. Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s drew our attention to the ways that marriage benefits men more than women, that love obscures gender inequalities and that struggles for power lie at the core of love and sexuality. Yet while men have become commitment-phobic, self-centred and sex-seeking, and more women have careers, women still seek intimacy and exclusivity in heterosexual romantic relationships. But instead of identifying institutional causes for their romantic misery - namely an acknowledgement that love is shaped and produced by concrete social relations - they seek explanations in psychodynamic theories of masculinity, or neuroscience and evolutionary biologists’ explanations about hormones, brains and chemical processes. She rather drily cites the research finding that men are biologically programmed to stay in love for only two years. Men’s commitment-phobia, and in many cases their reluctance to have children, do not necessarily lead to relationship breakdown. Instead, mirroring many of the findings in our research on couples (Jean Duncombe and Dennis Marsden), Illouz finds that women “engage in performativity”, an ongoing and constant production of sentiments. They perform “detachment”, trying not to appear too needy. But it is self-knowing, and they acknowledge their lack of authenticity. Managing the relationship becomes a complex power game, with all performances carefully self-monitored.

Overall there is much to criticise in this book, including its focus on heterosexual middle-class women at the expense of ethnicity, working-class and gay and lesbian relationships, as well as men; its lack of clarity about “modernity”; and its somewhat ambitious claim to do to love what Marx did to commodities. I also have no doubt that there will still be a sizeable lobby in sociology who would prefer “love” and “romance” to be left to the psychologists, psychoanalysts and neuroscientists. Yet even if you disagree with its claims, this is a bold, thought-provoking book, and I laughed in recognition at some of Illouz’s descriptions of self-scrutiny. It is full of interesting questions. Why is self-worth, for so many women today, not achieved through our economic and social status? Why do women need love as affirmation of self-worth?

The book concludes by asking sociology why it is so good at studying social suffering, yet fails to take more account of how our consumerist capitalist culture causes so much suffering in love relationships today; why love is so easily dismissed as mere ideological underpinning to gender and family but yet not seen, as Illouz explains, as “shaped and produced by concrete social relations, circulating in a marketplace of unequal competing actors, and part of a set of social and cultural contradictions that structure our modern selves and identities”. Indeed, why does sociology not see that love is central to understanding modernity?

The Author

A professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Eva Illouz says she came to the subject aged 21 through an interest in love and its relationship to class, money, literacy and culture.

Her academic interests make her curious about everything, she notes, recalling being puzzled as a student about why going to restaurants with her boyfriend seemed so much more romantic than going to a fast-food place or eating at home: “that kitschy feeling and my question about the source of that kitsch made me write Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1997)”.

Born in Fez, Morocco, Illouz moved with her family to France when she was 10. Her most striking memory of Morocco is “the sense that one was clearly defined by one’s community yet that one moved easily to other communities”. Life there meant “straddling different languages, worlds, religions, without ever having a sense of confusion or of boundary-crossing”, which Illouz says is very different from her life in Israel.

Her favourite pastimes are reading a good book aloud to her sons at the dinner table, reading a good book alone in her bedroom and talking about a good book with friends, again at the dinner table.

Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation

By Eva Illouz

Polity, 300pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780745661520

Published 11 May 2012

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