I’ve been slowly progressing through this remarkable book over the last couple of years. As an academic work that spans several fields–sociology, economic theory, culture studies, and literary theory (with a smattering of psychoanalysis)–it is fairly dense. So I’ve been picking it up here and there, reading a chapter and then letting it sit for a while. But, despite our casual-seeming relationship, it has certainly been my most recommended book throughout the last couple of years.
I myself am currently living a happily-ever-after type situation, so why would I be reading a book about why love hurts? Well, the first response is that love, while being the subject of this book, is also the incredibly powerful lens through which the author examines social and economic functions. Honestly, I understand more about the free-market economy after having read about how we mate within it. The second response is that most of my friends who are not happily partnered are extremely unhappily participating in various mating rituals that they hate. And they hate them because they are degrading, debasing, unsatisfactory, capitalistic practices that are largely geared toward devaluing women. And that’s a tragedy. And I wanted to know about how that worked, since I also at one time had to go through these bizarre machinations and am left with scars and hauntings of great scope and variety. And the third response is simply that I’m kind of obsessed with love. Always have been, always will be. It comes from reading too much adult fiction in my preteen years but the damage is done and here I am.
So, the book is nominally about love, but it really touches on a range of topics, all related to how humans currently relate to each other in the context of romantic relations.
It is highly pessimistic in tone, as you might expect. Part of Illouz’s “Well, golly, and here we are, stuck in this mire and there’s no going back” attitude may be due to the fact that she is reacting, in large part, to the role of self-help culture and behavioural psychology in getting us into this mire in the first place.
To lend too much of a positive perspective to the situation would be to undercut her argument that a good old-fashioned positive attitude–self-love, self-care, YOLO, you do you–cannot fix social systems designed to torture the humans living within them. So look, it’s glass half empty kind of book. But then I’m a glass half empty kind of gal.
Why Love Hurts is composed of five main chapters, which can also stand alone to a greater or lesser extent, but which all come back to the question of why, in modernity, romantic love has come to be associated with certain specific forms of emotional suffering.
In the first chapter, “The Great Transformation of Love or the Emergence of Marriage Markets” Illouz describes a set of vast changes that romantic love itself has undergone since the 19th century (which, as we all know from our humanities educations, is when all important cultural shifts occurred).
Choice is the driving category here, because to examine marriage as a market, and love as influenced by economic realities, you’d have to look at choice. “To the extent that modern selves are defined by their claim to exercise choice–most glaringly in the two realms of consumption and politics–love can give us important insights into the social basis of choice in modernity.”
She proceeds to set up certain conditions within which romantic choices are made, and claims that the vast changes in these conditions are what have changed the nature of romantic love. First, there is the ecology of choice, defined as the “social environment that compels one to make choices in a certain direction” and secondly is the architecture of choice , which is the set of “mechanisms that are internal to the subject and shaped by culture.”
What’s interesting about that latter category is the move from the external to the internal, in terms of choice and action. Much of the book is concerned with the way that choice is conceived and exercised, but in Illouz’s view, not enough has been said (by psychologists, mainly) about how society, in fact, creates the conditions for our choices, and we then internalize and claim them as our own, as expressions of our unique individual selves. So here, the architecture of choice is a way of saying that we have certain received ways of choosing, and because we have gone through the process itself, these choices feeling empirically personal.
I momentarily bypassed the “this-is-why-sociologists-shouldn’t-do-literary-theory” part of my brain to absorb her reading of Jane Austen (the OG 19th century sociologist), which was pretty interesting. Here, Illouz focuses on how moral character was the grounding context within which to choose a mate, and on the ways in which courtship rituals were socially ingrained. There is a fairly interesting point that she draws out here as well, which is the predication of emotions on actions, that is to say that romantic actions are first performed and then romantic emotions are felt. So here, she claims that Austen’s society is grounded in a regime of emotional performativity whereas we are currently living in a regime of emotional authenticity. The latter concept will come back a lot in the rest of the book, but suffice it to say that it’s problematic because it’s a psychological framework masquerading as a social category.
Ok, and the last point to bring out from this chapter would be the importance placed on desire in modern love (and modern life in general) and the ways in which late capitalism brought about our excessive attention to desire as a categorical good. So, our predilection for desire as a legitimizing factor in romantic relationships does two things. First of all, it puts undue emphasis on physical attraction/attractiveness (which, blah blah, we all know) but secondly, it further reinforces the individual choice. Desire legitimates individual choice in a way that bears no opposition. But desire is unruly and irrational–except insofar as it is rationalized.
This is problematic, because modern sensibilities dictate that freedom of choice is an ultimate good, and that the wider the field of romantic partner the better. (We would not, for example, condone the prohibition of a romantic partner based on gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Or, not outwardly, in those terms. That is good.) But it also means that the freedom of choice we strive toward has been given to us, and is modelled after structures of, (you guessed it) capitalism, which brings economic functions into the romantic sphere. “The triumph of love and sexual freedom marked the penetration of economics into the machine of desire. One of the main transformations of sexual relationships in modernity consists in the tight intertwinement of desire with economics and with the question of value and one’s worth.”
Now, to understand the latter part of that statement, I can dip back a few pages to reinforce the point that Illouz makes about the problem of attractiveness as part of the architecture of choice. Sexiness as a category of mate selection, and as an individual human value, does a couple of things. On the positive side, it actually opens up interesting pathways of social mobility. On the negative side: “Erotic attractiveness and sexual performance mark the rise of new ways of bestowing social value in marriage markets. Sexuality thus becomes closely intertwined with social value.”
To sum it up quickly, there has been a stark reversal in the relationship between social value and romantic value, from the days of the Jane Austen novel to the Carrie Bradshaw column. Formerly, romantic value was determined by preexisting factors: mainly family and money, and to a lesser extent, moral character and general demeanour. One’s social status gave way to romantic status. Currently, romantic worth is what paves the way for social status. IE: you have value in society to the extent that you are marriageable or the extent to which you will one day be marriageable. (And by the way, the factors that determine one’s marriageability are largely controlled by men, leaving women to fit within these categories as best they can. This comes up more strongly in other chapters, particularly those focused on Internet dating.)
In essence, one’s lovability is the determining factor for one’s value within the world. Which is why to feel unloved, even momentarily, is to be unmoored. To be unloveable is not simply to lack certain pieces of the social sphere (ie: marriage, progeny, etc.) but to potentially lose one’s value to society more comprehensively. (And again, this is a problem women suffer from more than men.)
These are notes, so I’m passing through a lot of important steps. The writing is so brilliantly compact that it’s hard to summarize without simply restating. So, really, I would advise you to read the book. But the main takeaway that I’d love for you to get, if you’re with me so far, is that the phenomenon of romantic love has undergone cultural shifts that leave many people deeply troubled, precisely because it has been excised in certain key ways from the overarching social sphere and yet continues to constitute the conditions of one’s entire life within a community. Furthermore, to be romantically involved is to possess social worth, without which one does not necessarily have value. This is not historically different, but what is unique to our time is that social worth is gained from romantic partnership–or the potential for romantic partnership, ie: sexiness–rather than romantic partnership accompanying social worth that rests upon one’s family, community, friendships, and professional relationships.
Now, of course, most of us would not want to be defined by our families, or made romantically viable based on our communities. But the important point here is that our current way of doing romantic love places so much emphasis on individual attributes and almost none on the network surrounding us. That’s perhaps all fine and well, but what has been forgotten–and this is why Illouz claims that an exploration of love’s modern pain proves the importance of sociology as a discipline–is that we are beings in large part created by our surroundings. Failing to see this means failing to see the powerful role that communities–given or chosen–could be playing in our lives.
The rest of the book examines a variety of romantic phenomena in somewhat the same terms. “Commitment Phobia” takes on our favourite cultural cliché, in terms of the free market love that created it. The main point of this chapter is to flip the problem from pathologizing this typically male “problem” to questioning what are the “social conditions men express and perform when they resist commitment?” Mainly it is the social condition of having too much choice. “The Demand for Recognition” is a interesting take on the culture of therapy and self-help, and the ways in which our current state of constant self-examination has actually worked to destabilize the ontological grounding of the self for women–mainly because it is usually women who bear the burden of constantly examining their authentic self. “Love, Reason, Irony” I did not read super closely, but it largely dealt with the rationalization of love–the ticking off of all manner of boxes–as a key feature of love in a free market economy. My favourite chapter was certainly “From Romantic Fantasy to Disappointment” which tackled the problem of the imagination quite well, and dealt with the ways in which our fantasy of love is always socially coded, and given to us ahead of time, such that our lived experience is only ever a replica of that original emotion generated through various media. And here, of course, there were many literary examples.
One final point to make is that Illouz has perhaps a tricky relationship to feminism, or at least, probably has a tricky relationship to whatever the current wave of feminism is. Unfortunately, to prove a lot of her arguments, she must compare the past to the present, and the past often ends up looking quite a bit nicer than the present in terms of how we do love, simply because the present is so particularly problematic. However, she often doesn’t go quite far enough in showing how pre-modern love was really not a great situation for women either. So it’s easy to think that she’s, say, advocating for a return to 19th century courtship rituals. But I think it’s important to point out that at every turn, she is showing how our current romantic rituals and the emotions that accompany them are tailored to…screw women over, putting it bluntly. And I think she does a particularly brilliant job of showing that it isn’t even men precisely that screw women over, in turns of romantic and emotional inequality, but rather the forces put into place through late capitalism, which is infused with patriarchical fervour. Make no mistake, women are suffering the most for the current social and emotional realities that guide partnership, but men aren’t doing so hot either.
Long story short, I give it five and a half stars out of five. Illouz is a beautiful writer, and though it’s certainly an academic study, this book is incredibly readable, full of pop culture references, and a clear, if somewhat pessimistic view, of the current state of love.