Our new era of heartbreak

Changing cultural norms have exacerbated the pain and stress of romance. An expert discusses

Published June 24, 2012 6:15PM (EDT)

  (<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-599662p1.html">Wongstock</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Wongstock via Shutterstock)

As the lovelorn heroine of "Bridget Jones’s Diary" once observed, “As women glide from their 20s to their 30s … the balance of power subtly shifts. Even the most outrageous minxes lose their nerve, wrestling with the first twinges of existential angst: fear of dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian.” Almost every woman can relate to Bridget’s agonies in love, which is probably what made the novels and movies such a hit. Yet the scenario she describes is a relatively new one in human history, claims Eva Illouz, author of the new book “Why Love Hurts.” Illouz points out that in 19th-century England it was usually the men who chased the object of their affection while women held the power to decide if and when to marry. Furthermore, she says, “sexiness” was not No. 1 on men’s wish lists, and men wanted to marry just as much as women did (and at an earlier age).

So what changed? Suffering for love may be part of the human condition, but is there something different about romance today that causes a new and distinct kind of pain? Illouz, full professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, argues that the modern intimate relationship is plagued by a unique and complicated set of problems. The book points the finger at a number of sociological shifts in our society such as new standards of masculinity, the sexualization of women’s bodies in consumer culture, and an increasingly large dating pool. She claims that these and other factors make modern relationships more difficult than in the past, especially for women.

Salon spoke to Illouz over the phone about our evolving courtship traditions, the perils of Internet dating and what "The Bachelor" says about our current culture.

You say in the introduction that the book is geared mostly toward females; are today’s women finding more pain in love than generations before us?

The claim here is not that love is more unattainable than it was in the past; it is to say that it is attainable in a way that is different from the past. So in the same way that historians and anthropologists talk about the history of pain, even physical pain, and say that things feel different -- pain can feel different -- here psychic pain feels different. Many women today are struggling with themselves and blaming their faulty psyche and their faulty childhood for not having been able to have a satisfying relationship. I would say that if I had a political mission when writing this book, it would be to tell women — some men, too, but I think mostly women — that there are powerful social forces which make it extremely difficult today.

In the book you talk a lot about men’s fear of commitment in contemporary culture. 

That is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. Women are complaining over and over that men just won’t commit to them. I think it has to do with the fact that men now have a different relationship to the family [than they once had], and this transformation has to do with capitalism. In the pre-modern era, both men and women were interested in marriage and the family because through the family you would ensure your economic survival and increase your fortune. In pre-modern patriarchy, a man propagates his name and is a patriarch because he commands over women, servants and children, and that’s what it means to be a man.

In the capitalist economy, men don’t need that anymore to be a man. On the contrary, what defines manhood is to work outside the home and to control all the people in an organization and to have money. What becomes a sign of their masculinity is their social power, which has increasingly become the amount of sexual power they can display with women; having lots of women becomes a sign of masculinity. If before men and women were pressed early on to have children and to have a family, you now create a situation in which the family is superfluous for masculinity, so the pre-modern creature in this social formula is the woman.

What do you mean when you call the woman a “pre-modern” creature?

Why pre-modern? Because in modernity women are less successful economically and are still in charge, culturally, of the children. Women are defining themselves as being mothers or wanting to be mothers. The woman keeps a mental record of her biological age because it is her biological age that will enable her to have or to not have children. It means that she wants a commitment earlier than the man; it means that in this interaction she is the disadvantaged one because she wants it earlier. Two: Men have much bigger pools to choose from. They can choose very young women. The age difference is one of the most outrageous qualities, I think, between men and women; culturally we allow men to go down 20 years, 30 years (see: Woody Allen) to find a woman, whereas women have to choose from their own age group, more or less, or older. And three: Because a woman often depends on the man in the family economically, they choose men who are equal or superior to them. So again it reduces the sample.

How does this affect the ways men and women view their search for a mate?

It means that men have much more time and much more to choose from. In pre-modern marriages people wanted to marry earlier, and they chose each other from very similar social groups. But today, because these groups have widened, a man can have sex before marriage and is much less willing to enter into a committed relationship. He has much more time, is much less defined by the family and children, and in fact views the family not as an asset but as an economic burden. That is one of the reasons why men are commitment phobic. You see that in the realm of consumer choice. If you give people lots of information and lots of things to choose from, they are actually less likely to buy something than if you give them much fewer objects to choose from. So if we make a very crude analogy between the realm of consumer choice and the realm of romantic choice, the party that has more choice has more difficulty making up its mind in choosing an object.

You’ve also observed that 19th-century men were very forthcoming about their feelings, professing their love while their beloved held her feelings close to her chest. Does that mean men are not naturally uncommunicative and aloof, as popular culture would lead us to believe?

Exactly, exactly. In fact, one of the interesting findings or claims I make is that masculinity in 19th-century America in the gentile classes was reserved in many aspects, but in matters of love there was an intensity of emotion and in the speech of emotion that we have lost. It is much more spectacular and rare in many ways today, where it takes much more time and where [your personality and identity] is viewed as something that must be carefully exposed and revealed — as if people are defending something. They are taking much more time to make their sentiments known. In other words, people used to have many more rituals, but the feelings were much more intense. Today we do not have real rituals of courtship, but the expression of emotion is much more careful, monitored, regulated and less intense.

One of the contrasts I have been able to find is that it used to be very proper for women to hold back their emotions; the game was that the woman was reserved, and the man would have to conquer that reserve by making himself worthy of her trust. Today, if you look at many self-help books, the main challenge is to catch the heart of the man who is assumed to not want to get caught. The woman has to deploy intelligence and emotional maturity to bring into her net the man, who is basically viewed as reluctant, whereas in the past the man was basically viewed as being eager, unless proven otherwise, to find a woman.

You said that people are more guarded when navigating the early stages of a relationship than in the past. What has caused this change?

Yeah, one of the themes of the book is that self-worth is much more crucial to the experience of love than in the past. In the past, your social status was very clear to you and to others and established your worth. That worth is not something that was negotiated. In modernity, self-worth is actually not clear at all. In some ways it is connected to your social status, but in many ways it is not. That’s why you have this obsession in the 20th century with self-esteem. The reason we’re collectively obsessed with it is because we don’t really know anymore what we are worth. In societies where classes and groups are clearly marked, there is much less anxiety about worth because this worth is known.

Now I think that worth is one of the reasons why romantic love has become so crucial; it’s become one of the places where you can affirm your worth. Why? Because you have been selected out. When you are loved you have, in a way, won the competition over all others in a society which is based in constant competition, a society in which many, many of us just don’t manage to outdo that competition. The one realm where we will be able to outdo others is in the realm of love, and because you are busy affirming your worth in romantic relationships, now you are negotiating your own autonomy and independence with this other person.

You argue that there is a push and pull going on — an inner struggle in the minds of women — which is why “love hurts.”

Yes, modern relationships are caught in a bind. On one hand we are dependent; I am dependent on you to tell me you love me, and without that I would not be able to have that sense of self-worth. On the other hand, you need to perceive me as a kind of autonomous human being. If I was this highly dependent, needy creature, you would not respect me or even want me. So in many ways it makes this game of being accepted and validated much more complicated because we need each other more than in the past, but we have to be at the same time more independent than in the past. You see, we have these two pulls working at the same time.

You know, one of the things I say is that when women were left in the past and abandoned, it was not their sense of self-worth that was threatened. They could cry or feel great pain, but you did not feel that their whole sense of self was crushed. When Marianne was left by Willoughby (in "Sense and Sensibility"), she’s extremely sad, but she doesn’t think of herself as less worthy or as an unworthy person, which is an experience you encounter very frequently today in people being abandoned by their lovers.

In your book you bring up the “The Rules,” which was a bestseller in 1996. You call the book “misguided and demeaning” but you also say it was incredibly successful. Given what you say about the way men respond to women, it kind of seems like it would work. What’s wrong with its approach?

I don’t want to come down too hard on the authors, but the problem is that we live in a culture that makes women constantly responsible for making relationships work or not, and I think that is something that is making women feel deeply guilty and inadequate at heart. Do you know Christian Carter? You should check him out on the Internet; he writes a newsletter, and it’s something I followed very carefully for the book. It’s a very popular newsletter, and actually he is a very smart man, but the whole assumption of the videos and books he is selling is that it is only a matter of women being sufficiently intelligent to figure out men. Men’s psyche has become this big terror incognita, which he claims he can help you figure out. It makes money, but the net cultural result is to make women over-responsible for the business of having a relationship and making them feel entirely inadequate for having failed to produce these relationships. "The Rules" was, in fact, telling women, “it’s [a] problem if you expose who you are.” I mean, we never ask ourselves collectively what it means to tell a woman to talk to him on the phone by using a stopwatch and make sure to hang up before the time is up.

Is that a rule in the book?

I think it was one of them, or like one of them. The idea is to make yourself as scarce as possible. You have to make yourself a scarce commodity. If you are a scarce commodity then you are more valuable; I think it’s missing the point of love. Instead of opposing the rationales or the cultural logics behind this thinking, this is completely endorsing it. We have created a massive industry telling women it is your responsibility to outsmart these models and find psychological strategies to make yourself lovable. It is overburdening the psyches of women.

You use the television show "Sex and the City" as an example in your book; what do you make of Carrie and Mr. Big’s relationship?

Well, the point is that Mr. Big is commitment phobic; he has to be convinced of marrying or committing to Carrie. The fact that Carrie is making money and has made a glamorous career should not hide the fact that she is, even in the realm of work, actually consumed by relationships. Even though she’s gorgeous, smart and successful, she is emotionally dominated by him because she is the one who is constantly putting all her attention and intelligence into relationships and thinking about them, whereas he is the one who has to decide. So that prototype is very typical of what I call the emotional inequality between men and women, in which men very much have the power — a power they didn’t want before — which is the power to decide if they want to commit or not commit. 

So Carrie and Mr. Big’s relationship is a classic example of the issues you say are plaguing modern relationships.

Yes, but I think that’s one of the reasons why it was so incredibly successful.

What do you think the popularity of dating shows like "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" says about our society? Why do people watch them?

Because it stages exactly what I talked about, which — I’m sorry to put it this way — is the question of choice and how you choose. It stages this situation of people being competitive in a market. That’s why I think those shows are so popular; it’s because they address the question of how he is going to make up his mind and why.

Does that influence the way people think about dating, and if so do you think it further perpetuates the problems you’ve outlined?

I don’t think so. Anthropologists think that a lot of our culture is about working out a problem collectively, symbolically. I think it’s a way of working out this perplexing question of choice, and the fact that choice creates such ambivalence and uncertainly. The show provides you with a sense of certainty and closure. They help you work out the question of how to choose and according to what criteria, and they look at how it feels to be in competition with others, and how it feels to be the one left out, the one who is not chosen.

How do you think Internet dating sites have changed the way people meet new potential partners?

I think in many ways it has cut people off from the sense of surprise, because the kind of criteria you are producing to meet someone are the criteria that you are generating from your own self. What you want is to meet someone like you, and I would imagine it actually increases a kind of narcissism in the encounter. But love is also about meeting someone completely different, who challenges your own self and really surprises you. So, for example, if you look at 50- or 60-year-olds, you would find that men consistently want to find a woman who is much younger than themselves, while they could and probably would, in other circles, be equally charmed by an older woman or a woman of their age. So in a way the Internet makes you much more conformist because you’re using criteria for who you think you should meet, when in fact you might enjoy meeting someone very eccentric.

Is there any real solution?

I think there can be solutions. Women could organize themselves with other women and men to raise children in communities and dissociate that from the search for a man. Having children has indeed become the Holy Grail, and there could possibly be a shift in relationships if men felt that the power was shifting because women were not necessarily looking for that one single monogamous relationship and one man to have children with. It could be that this could shift relationships and the balance of power between men and women. It’s just one example of a different way of thinking and of doing things that could make some change. I’m not advocating this; I don’t know if it would work. I’m just saying that things are not as stuck as we present them, and if the search for a monogamous family has become difficult then maybe we should disentangle the different [components] that we have in building families.

By Jaime Cone

Jaime Cone is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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