Magazine article Times Higher Education

Why All the Agony over Ecstasy?

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Why All the Agony over Ecstasy?

Article excerpt

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

Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation

By Eva Illouz

Polity, 300pp, Pounds 20.00

ISBN 9780745661520

Published 11 May 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. …

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