[Polity, 2012]

Why Love Hurts  is a modern answer to a timeless question. This new book by Eva Illouz, Professor of Sociology at Hebrew University, sets out to do for emotional suffering and romantic love what Marx did for commodities, exposing the socio-economic underbelly of what we once took to be the natural features of a happy and fulfilling life. For those in her target audience, namely heterosexual Western women, Illouz hopes to offer a compelling account of how suffering in love has come to be internalized as personal failure. The successes and failures of Why Love Hurts aside, her efforts should be commended for giving a full academic treatment to amorous relationships in neo-liberal times, heeding Frederic Jameson’s call to “always historicize.”

This book is a sociological exploration at heart, though it is less reliant on observations (survey data, interviews) than an abundance of literary and philosophical references used as if they were source material.  Illouz’s literary range spans Jane Austen’s repertoire (which serves to depict pre-modern courtship rituals), to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (used to highlight the exploitation of power in gendered relationships). All this is interspersed with cursory interruptions from the heavy hitters in sociology, critical theory, gender studies and psychoanalysis: from Durkheim and Marx to Firestone and Freud. One can also expect to find transcripts from personal interviews and interactions on Internet dating sites within the text. While the eclectic range of her supporting material certainly makes Illouz’s work more accessible to a wider audience, it also ends up diluting the potency of her argument at times.

Much of Illouz’s analysis is structured around a comparative study between pre-modern (pre-twentieth century) and modern relationship dynamics. She claims that in Jane Austen’s time, choosing a mate was a prescriptive social activity that did not reflect an individual’s inner worth, but was rather about reinforcing socioeconomic status (and in a pretty unambiguous way). Pre-modern courtship was a venue to uphold social mores and thus build one’s moral character through the performance of certain social and domestic rituals. Illouz juxtaposes this with a modern culture of commodification that has rendered sexuality the currency of mate selection (while sexual product pushers like the cosmetics industry laugh their way to bank). Why Love Hurts gives pause to those who hailed the sexual revolution as the great social equalizer of modernity by forcing us to consider how we’ve been acting as good capitalists, unwittingly allowing consumerism (freedom of choice from commodities to partners) to act as our organizing principle.

Thanks to the sexual revolution’s weakening of the input from one’s family or social milieu in the realm of courtship, we moderns are left with the notion that the self is wholly responsible in relationships. Rejection in amorous affairs is thus internalized and interpreted as a reflective indicator of one’s inadequate self-worth and social value. For Illouz, it is this sociological understanding of why modern relationships are the way they are that can serve us in these times of emotional relationship distress, not psychology.

Illouz blames the influence of Freudian thought on modernity for why we’ve come to interpret suffering in love as inevitable and self-inflicted/reflexive. This way of thinking has led us to replace love for self-love. In other words – we are socialized to blame ourselves when things go wrong in love because that is what is available to refashion when you are in a psychiatrists office. Why Love Hurts cautions us against attempting to look into the emotional baggage of our traumatic childhoods in order to understand the predicaments we are in today. Furthermore, Illouz claims that all this interiority, self-analysis, and rationalization is sucking the passion out of love.

Why Love Hurts also offers a rebuttal to the Platonic concept of love’s compatibility with rationality. Indeed, for Illouz it is the irrational excesses of love that makes it consuming and passionate. She insists that non-utilitarian acts such as waste and sacrifice are what give meaning to relationships; sacrifice instills a level of sacredness and waste carries with it the connotation of spending, as in “spending time together.” Even reciprocity for Illouz is an impossible task because “it takes one out of the realm of love and brings one to the realm of commerce, which is incompatible with love.” While the impassioned self takes the risk of getting hurt and abandons itself for the sake of the beloved, our dispassionate contemporary world no longer finds irrational acts in the name of love poignant. As a result, Illouz claims that suffering has lost its cultural cachet in modernity. Whereas in times of yore romantic suffering, like self-flagellation, was repurposed as a way to uphold social mores or exemplify your spiritual devotion, modern suffering is viewed as a sign of failure and entails a complete crisis of the self.

To stave off suffering, Illouz believes we have retreated into our imagination and fantasy, into realms that we can control, where we can orchestrate the emotional experience. She points to accelerated rise of technologies of imagination, like the cinema, that have accompanied the development of consumer culture. Jean Baudrillard’s fear of the real being reduced to simulations has been realized and is evident whenever we understand our relationships in terms of cinematic narrative tropes. The inevitable disappointment, when our lived reality fails to live up to imaginary fictions, leaves us increasingly cynical and closed off. We thus retreat further into our imaginations and fantasies because they are controllable, and emotionally safe. It is at this point that Illouz believes we use our imaginations in an autotelic fashion. Our fantasies are no longer ways of organizing our reality but an escape from the potentially painful uncertainties of the real world, fantasy pursued for it’s own sake. With the advent of the Internet and social media networks we can all the more readily replace real interactions with manufactured ones. Just think of all those relationships with Facebook friends, or encounters on online dating sites, that presence absence.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Illouz’s assumptive writing on the modern world exclusively (and generally uncritically) references the Western canon (save the typical throw away excuse in the intro). Furthermore, the author herself proclaims that this book is not relevant for all women (implicitly excluding men?) “certainly not to lesbians, women who are not interested in domesticity, married or unmarried, or with children.” Illouz would claim that while heterosexual Western women have achieved an ostensible amount of emancipation in modernity, they are still subject to emotional domination by men in very new and modern ways. Perhaps the need to hone in on this point can justify her narrow scope. I remain convinced that addressing the power dynamics of non-heternormative relationships would enrich her argument. In any case, despite the proclaimed target demographic, I do think this book has something to say to anyone who is struggling to understand why love hurts in a supposed age of increased gender equality and sexual liberation. Whether understanding the sociological underpinnings of suffering is enough to ease it remains to be seen. At the very least, Why Love Hurts is a terrific whirlwind read from a pop sociological perspective of the major figures in Western literature and social critique.


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