I was about a hundred pages into Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts when I started e-mailing my friends, encouraging them to get copies. “It’s revolutionary,” I said.
For decades we, the unmarried and the unlucky in love, the serially monogamous and the unsatisfactorily married, have believed that this is our fault. And why wouldn’t we believe it? We had therapists telling us that we will never find love until we learn to love ourselves, we had self-help telling us we had to fix our daddy issues, we had TV shows telling us we weren’t skinny, alluring, sexy, body hair-free enough to keep a man. The predominant idea about relationships was that if we were miserable and alone, there was something wrong with us. Something we had to fix. Something they would tell us how to fix, if we forked over $14.95 for the paperback now.
Read the last Bookslut on Gillian Flynn's 'Gone Girl.'
But Illouz’s theory is that you do not need fixing. She goes at the problem of widespread relationship misery with a sociological perspective, showing how society shapes—and has always shaped—the form that relationships take. And now in our culture of endless choice, weakened vows, contradictory pressures on men and women, and the reduction of the grand mystery of love to scientific explanations about hormones and psychological complexes, Illouz says that it’s inevitable that we are confused about how to find love and what its true value is.
Given how radical, I think it's fair to say, your theory is from the standard explanations of why there is so much relationship misery, I do have to ask: how did idea start to germinate for you?
I am not sure I know the answer. Let me try this.
A few years after I started living in Israel, I needed therapy to help me cope with the difficulty of living in Israel. I had lived as a newcomer in France and in the U.S.A., and had felt twice quite competent at figuring new codes of conduct in these two countries, but here, in Israel I felt that something persistently eluded me. So I went to the psychologist. Two of them actually.
Psychologists refused to speak about this problem in sociological terms, that is, as a problem of the body collective in which I was living. They kept trying to throw it back on my psyche. The society seemed to me deeply dysfunctional, and yet here I was having to work on my psyche to adapt to a dysfunctional environment.
This created in me two things: One, a realization that psychological modes of understanding, at the end of the day, always blame it on you. You may be living in a violent society with a very fuzzy sense of norms, and yet it will be your problem if you do not find ways to adapt to it and be functional in it. Two, the other effect was to make me irrevocably committed to explaining problems in sociological, rather psychological terms.
Love followed that logic. I reject the premise that relationships are so difficult because of our difficult childhoods and immature psyches. Of course, some people can and do benefit from talking to the psychologist but many of our problems in romantic relationships have to do with the way the two genders have been made to follow different social paths.
Much of your book focuses on the downside for women, who seem to be bearing the brunt psychologically of the current dynamic. But what may be the adverse effects on the men? Most of the men in the interviews and studies you mention seem to be doing pretty well with the buffet of women they have to choose from. It seems that unless this starts not to work for the men, too, it might be really difficult to change course.
I don’t think my book describes men who are having a great time. In fact it describes men whose will—how they want, what they want, how much they want, whether they want what they want—is deeply troublesome to them. Commitment-phobic men, ambivalent men, emotionless men, are men who are troubled by the fact they cannot want relationships in a way that is satisfying to women and to themselves.
The determination and assertiveness of masculinity has been taken away from the realm of relationships and shifted to the workplace. It is true that men have what I call "emotional power" over women, but I am not sure it means they are "doing pretty well with the buffet of women." They may take pleasure in the current situation—the pleasure that derives from power—but in the end of that long day, they come out empty-handed as well, I think.
But you are right. As long as men do not forcefully want to change the current state of things, it is unlikely to move forward.
To me, it seemed the men were doing all right, although maybe my standards are off, given how not OK most of the women were. They really were doing a lot of self-flagellation, blaming themselves for not having fixed the thing that needed to be fixed before they were worthy of love. You at least partially trace this back to Freud, and the emphasis on psychological understandings of relationships, but then why is it so unbalanced between the genders? Did you talk to men who were also blaming their lack of decent relationships on their lack of self-love?
Here you are entirely right. One of the things which surprised me when doing this research is how much "self-blame" seems to be an art of the female psyche. Women connect their self-worth much more closely to the realm of love and relationships and when that realm poses problems and difficulties, they view it as a direct reflection of and threat to their self-worth.
This is what the hackneyed "you've got to love yourself first before someone else can love you" comes to express, without really knowing it—it comes to express the idea that you must make your self-worth independent of others' love of you, because their love cannot be counted on, whereas yours for yourself can.
The problem however, at least for a sociologist, is that you can never be the source of your own self-worth. This is an idea concocted by psychologists, which does not have any sound sociological basis. We can only build self-worth through and with others. This is why building good and nurturing environments, as families, schools, workplaces, is so crucial.
More of a comment than a question: I do have to admit that Why Love Hurts made me feel a little bit trapped. If the problem does not lie with me, then I'm just stuck in a paradigm that I have no control over. At least when I believed the source of the problem resided in my childhood drama then there was something I could do.
I would feel far more trapped to think that the reasons why I am having such a hard time in sexual/romantic relationships is in the realm of my responsibility, than to think that these hardships are shared by many others, that they do not have to do with my dysfunctional psyche. I would feel much more trapped to think that if things are wrong in my life, it is because my personality is not mature enough, not assertive enough or that I love too much, or that I do not love enough.
Changing yourself, or "doing something" as you put it, feels to me like the Red Queen instructing Alice to do all the running she can do, only to remain in place. To move somewhere while running, you need to understand the real causes of what is distressing you.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.