Are we addicted to love?
Theories of intimate relationships in the modern world view passionate love as a problem to be managed.
How did people meet each other before the world got online? A survey by the dating service Parship.co.uk at the beginning of 2006 claimed that two-thirds of the single people using a dating service in 2005 turned to the internet. According to the Times (London), that’s 3.6million Brits, making use of more than 100 independent online dating agencies chasing a market that is valued at about £12million and expected to rise to £47million by 2008 (1).
So internet dating is big business, and growing in credibility year on year. Parship claims that 50 per cent of single people believe they will meet a suitable partner this way, up from 35 per cent six months ago. A spokesman for the relationship counsellors Relate confirmed to the Times that ‘the stigma from dating agencies seems to have gone’, and that people are attracted by the advantages of internet dating: having the privacy to ‘look around from the comfort of their own home’, which means ‘you don’t have to meet a middleman or go to an actual dating agency office, which takes a lot of courage’.
Of course, there are many areas of life in which the internet seems to be taking over from classified ads and ‘real world’ agencies – selling cars, finding houses, planning holidays. But the boom in online dating is not simply a more efficient and flexible way of doing things that we would otherwise have done. It reflects a fundamental shift in how people are encouraged to think about their personal relationships and organise their personal lives, with intimacy acted out in public and subject to the contractual norms one might associate with buying a car, a house, a holiday.
The fashion for finding ‘love online’ represents a redefinition of what we mean by ‘love’. No longer is love a spontaneous emotion, a transcendent state of being, a necessary evil on the path to self-fulfilment. Rather, it is recast as a therapeutic virtue – something to be planned and managed in the way one might plan and manage one’s career, in the awareness that it might not last forever and moving on is no bad thing.
People seeking love online might not be looking to develop an emotional CV, but that is what the process sells them. And as with many developments online, internet dating indicates some wider social trends. Whether people start out as childhood sweethearts or just good friends, the discussion surrounding love today presents all intimate relationships as somehow virtual, a problematic consideration in the broader pursuit of ‘being me’.
In this sense, it is worth trying to separate what has changed about people’s experiences and expectations of love today from the sociological and political debate about love, and what it all means. Yes, people date, form relationships, marry (or not) and embark upon family life in some different ways to previous generations. But underpinning the discussions about love today is a powerful streak of bad faith, which assumes people to be less capable of loving, more at risk of harming themselves and other individuals, and more susceptible to dark and dangerous passions and excesses. Why has love come to be seen as a problem, and what does it say about our society that intimate relationships have come to be seen as addictive, and somehow bad for our health?
When asked why they embarked upon internet dating, people cite any number of reasons. They don’t have much time to meet people; they lack the confidence just to ‘get out there’; they know broadly what they are looking for in a potential partner and internet dating services provide the facility to match their requirements. Certainly for anybody who feels they just don’t know enough people, the internet speaks of a world of possibilities – millions of singles whom you don’t already know, logging on because they are in the same situation as you.
But it’s not mere convenience that propels people online, or simply the desire to escape their own small worlds. In an era of mass higher education, short-term contracts and portfolio careers, expanded geographical mobility and ‘vertical drinking’ in strings of heaving high-street bars, there are arguably more opportunities to meet people than ever before. The ‘convenience’ of navigating dating websites in one’s own bedroom after a day working on the computer before corresponding with prospective dates seems like rather hard work compared to the singleton strategies of previous times, whether those be a night out on the town or settling for the boy next door.
As Josie Appleton has argued on spiked, what really sells online dating in our cautious times is the way it appears like the safer, more controlled option: ‘[F]or many, online dating has become a perpetual search for that perfect other half, while avoiding the risk and unpredictability of face-to-face encounters’. Safe in the comfort of your own home, you can weed out the undesirables – smokers, short men, women with children – and concentrate your intellectual energies on a target group of individuals, some of whom you may one day choose to meet in a brightly-lit environment having become fully aware of their personal history.
Online dating agencies admit that they cannot weed out the liars, which might add a frisson of danger – but most people, who genuinely set out to meet somebody like them by typing pedantically into their PC, are probably more reliable than the guy in the pub who, on the spur of the moment, pretends he is single so he can get into your knickers.
The promise that internet dating can moderate risk, however imperfectly, is what makes it a potent symbol of the Noughties love relationship. It speaks to the sense of possibility about intimate relationships in an age of sexual equality, consumer choice, global communications and freely-negotiated boundaries, and simultaneously to the real sense of fear that shrouds traditional notions of romantic love. Fear of being alone sends people to their computers, while stranger danger encourages procrastination from real-life encounters, seeking out as much prior information as possible. A desire to go beyond the boundaries of their daily life sends people ‘out there’ onto the web; a fear of what they might encounter encourages them to use the dating agency as a chaperone.
The cult of online dating is a celebration of the new freedom we have to choose whomever we want to love, pitched against the sneaking suspicion that this is not freedom after all but rather a problem of uncertainty and too many choices. As such, it is a popular expression of an influential strand of thought, which has transformed love from an emotion to be experienced into a problem to be managed.
Love v freedom?
In The Normal Chaos of Love, first published in German in 1990, sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim examine the nature of love in the context of changing social structures and moral norms (2). In an age of women’s equality, they argue, the solidity of marriage and the family as a basis for organising intimate relationships has dissolved, ushering in both more freedom and ‘democracy’ in the sphere of private life, and the greater potential for chaos.
As the authors explain, women are no longer dependent upon men, in terms of finance or social status, which means there is no imperative for staying committed to a relationship that makes the individuals unhappy, and also invites more tensions to the fore within that relationship. An autonomous woman demands more from a free relationship than from a relationship in which she is subordinate; a man, stripped of his traditional breadwinner role, is less certain of his identity and more prone to questioning his own role. Intimate relationships thus become fraught and temporary: so far as the family goes, ‘the child becomes the last remaining, irrevocable, unique primary love object. Partners come or go, but the child stays’ (p37).
Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s book contains a great deal of insight in the extent to which it accepts the magnitude of changes that intimate relationships have undergone in the past quarter-century and the impact that this has upon the stability of the nuclear family. Women’s increased independence and autonomy in relation to the family is intimately linked with the shifts in morality away from condemnations of, say, single motherhood, divorce or same-sex relationships – a process that is generally accepted as a good thing, allowing individuals more freedom in the kind of intimate relationships they have and the way that they choose to conduct them.
And, of course, greater freedom and choice bring new tensions into play. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim explain: ‘It is no longer enough to just get along with each other. People want more, they are in search of “happiness and fulfilment”, the American dream, “the pursuit of happiness” in their own little home’ (p93).
But there is an awkward disjuncture between these authors’ description of the changing situation, and the bleak and brooding conclusions drawn along the way. The basis of their analysis is that love relationships have become less inherently stable, more difficult to negotiate, and subject to higher expectations – and that this therefore causes a host of major problems. But why should such changes necessarily be problematic? What is it in these authors’ idea about people seeking the American dream in their intimate relationships that warrants their claim that ‘disappointments are inevitable’, and ‘[f]urthermore, the dream turns into a trap, arousing hopes which cannot be satisfied’?
We might also wonder why, following a thoughtful analysis of the increasingly emotionally-charged character of childrearing and the role of the child in a modern family relationship, we are presented with the following blistering conclusion:
‘Love is one of our great achievements, the foundation of our relationships between men and women, parents and children – but we cannot have it without its darker sides, which sometimes emerge for a second and sometimes linger for years: disappointment, bitterness, rejection and hatred. The road from heaven to hell is much shorter than most people think’ (p139).
This is more than the trite truism that there is a thin line between love and hate. Rather, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim are warning that the new freedoms we have about who and how we love today are, in fact, deeply dangerous. Without the limits imposed upon our emotions by the traditional institutions and morality of the family, which implicitly prevented people from expecting too much or complaining too much, people now have the capacity to give free reign to their passions and emotions, with worrying consequences: ‘The more intense our feelings are, the more likely we are to suffer from them, from the mistakes, misunderstandings and complications they bring about’ (p100).
According to this view, then, the problem with love is not what has changed, but what has stayed the same. For all that the institutional upheavals of marriage and family life are focused upon as a cause of individuals’ greater insecurity and inability to sustain a love relationship, ultimately the problem is presumed to be passion, or ‘intensity of feeling’, itself.
Romance v realism
The preoccupation with the dangerous side of love, the ‘short road’ from heaven to hell, has become an increasingly prominent cultural theme. From pre-nuptial agreements amongst the rich and famous to the ubiquity of therapy amongst the middle classes, the imperative of protecting oneself against the consequences of love gone wrong, of passions spun out of control, has been widely taken on board. The much-vaunted ‘Civil Partnerships’ schemes for gay couples are justified largely on the basis of protecting one party in the relationship from the consequences of relationship breakdown or death; the ongoing discussions about the need for a broader ‘cohabitation law’ seeks to give non-married heterosexual couples similar protections in the event of something going wrong. There is a growing sentiment that couples in ‘non-traditional’ relationships need contractual protection from the various risks of loving and living with a partner, without engaging in the romantic leap of faith associated with marriage.
How much does the preoccupation with the risks of love spread outside of policy circles? From online dating to the historically declining marriage rate, from the volume of popular culture probing the problems of individuals’ relationships and giving advice on how couples can live together without falling out to the widespread view that the notion of ‘happily ever after’ is viewed as quaintly ludicrous, if at all, there is clearly a broader cultural sentiment that sees love not just as a goal to be sought, but also as a risk to be wary of. This does not mean, however, that love has become any less of an aspiration for individuals; that people have simply decided to turn their backs on the desire for intimate relationships and life partners. Rather, love, and its consequences, is seen as a valuable goal, but one to be pursued with caution and handled with care.
A conversation between the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and the writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik on Radio Four’s ‘Analysis’ programme back in 2003 (3) encapsulates the ambivalence surrounding intimate relationships today. ‘It is a question of a certain deregulation of the environment in which we operate,’ argued Bauman, author of Liquid Love. ‘There are no hard and fast rules, there are no lasting principles of action, and tussling in this awful net of contradictory precepts. On the one hand the need of relationship because I must have some support, I can’t be alone, I have to safeguard myself, I need a lifejacket in this turbulent sea. On the other hand, the fear that once I get it, that I am finished. My freedom is over and I won’t be able to properly react to the new opportunities, new chances, and so on.’
‘And there’s the rub,’ replied Malik. ‘The same social changes that are leading to the singleton society are creating a yearning for durable relationships – but also make us worry that such relationships will undermine the very freedoms we hope single living will bring.’
People hoping to fall in love don’t go around working out the finer details of their pre-nuptial agreements. But they are nagged by a more low-level concern, about what falling in love might do to their personal freedom and self-identity. In this sense, pursuing love becomes less about passionate abandon than the more cautious, calculated strategy of managing what’s known as a ‘healthy’ relationship, in which neither party has to give too much of themselves away. An emotional attachment is sought, but carefully controlled.
The theme of how individuals manage their intimate relationships in an increasingly fragmented and insecure society forms the basis of sociologist Anthony Giddens’ conceptualisation of ‘plastic sexuality’ and the ‘pure relationship’, in his influential theory of the ‘Transformation of Intimacy’ (4). ‘Plastic sexuality,’ Giddens argues, ‘ is decentred sexuality, freed from the needs of reproduction … Plastic sexuality can be moulded as a trait of personality and thus is intrinsically bound up with the self’ (p2). The ‘pure relationship’, meanwhile, ‘refers to a situation where a social relation is entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfaction for each individual to stay within it.’ (p58)
At a descriptive level, both these concepts appear as useful summaries of how intimate relationships have changed as a consequence of reproductive freedom and social progress. The separation of sex from reproduction, made possible by the widespread availability and acceptability of contraception and abortion, has indeed transformed the basis upon which intimate relationships develop or wane. Heterosexual relationships can be taken ‘all the way’ and retreated from without the once-dominant concern about an accidental pregnancy and attendant responsibility towards a child; homosexual relationships, once viewed by mainstream society as pathological and subversive, are now accepted as just another lifestyle choice, and legitimised through quasi-marriages in the form of civil partnerships.
But as Giddens insists, the ‘pure relationship’ concept should not be taken at face value, for: ‘A pure relationship has nothing to do with sexual purity, and is a limiting concept rather than only a descriptive one.’ It is not that individuals are freed from the shackles of social convention in order to engage in intimate relationships based on the purity of their emotions for one another – rather, the significance of intimate relationships are transformed, from being about two people’s relationship with one another to being about ‘self-actualisation’ – how an individual feels about him or herself.
For Giddens, the transformation of intimacy means goodbye to romantic love, and hello to the careful management of emotion as part of a calculated strategy of identity creation, mediated not through the principles of passion but through the process of therapy. The purpose of a relationship, the goal, if you like, of love, is not that the individual becomes subsumed into some other bigger, grander unit – the couple, the family – but that the individual learns from the experience of his emotional attachment in the course of his own self-fulfilment. Our compulsive desire for yet more such experiences, surmises Giddens, has turned us into a society of sex addicts, greedily embarking on one intimate adventure after another with little or no regard for the destructive consequences.
In a society obsessed with its myriad self-diagnosed ‘addictions’, Giddens’ hypothesis is seductive – as evidenced by the influence his theories have had on this discussion, within sociology and beyond. But is it really the case that we are ‘addicted to love’ in its shallow, consumerist, click’n’pick Noughties form? Or is the process rather less straightforward than this?
‘Pure relationships’ v real life
From the explosion in online dating to the proliferation of popular novels and TV shows dealing with the plight of the 30-something singleton, there seems little doubt that we do live in a more atomised, lonely society in which forming intimate attachments is experienced as more problematic than for previous generations. The theories of sociologists such as Giddens and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, and policy initiatives designed to protect people from the negative consequences of their dangerous liaisons, do reflect something real in people’s experience – namely a broader insecurity about intimacy, and a certain desire for guidance, support and safeguards.
But the sociological and political perspective on love in the twenty-first century is premised on an anti-human outlook that goes much deeper than individuals’ worries and frustrations about their relationships, or lack of them. The desire to check out the credentials of a potential date from the privacy of one’s bedroom PC; the reluctance to ‘settle down’ with one partner for fear that a better option might come along; the fear that ‘loving too much’ represents a risk too far; the idea that love is good as long as it is ‘good for you’, but bad when its obligations encroach upon your own desires and sense of self – all these trends are played out in the modern relationship, and contribute to its weakening.
This does not mean, however, that people then become entirely self-centred sex-addicted consumers of relationships, as Giddens would have it, or that every relationship is a hair’s breadth away from a hellish nightmare of danger and dark passion, as Beck and Beck-Gernsheim warn. People do not worry that their latest sexual encounter might have been rape unless they signed a consent form in advance, and they do not generally worry about the implications that not getting married might have in the event that they should split up.
Even Zygmunt Bauman’s presentation of the relationship-seeker caught between two fears, of loneliness and the loss of personal freedom, is not experienced like that in everyday life: given the choice, people continue to opt for love, with the risks and limitations upon personal freedom that this implies. There has been a transformation of intimacy – but more at the level of how love is viewed and discussed than the messy reality of how people live their lives.
Where the sociological/political discussion about love has had most impact is arguably not upon the ways in which people conduct their relationships, but they way they are tutored to feel about them. The notion that a conflictual, sometimes violent, emotionally volatile relationship has to be a bad one, whereas an open, mutually supportive partnership in which the couple regularly ‘talks things through’ has to be a good one, has achieved the status of common sense, and the message that sensitivity trumps passion in the making of a ‘realistic’ relationship is continually pushed through reality TV, women’s magazines, problem pages and popular fiction.
Forget Jane Eyre and Rochester, or Heathcliff and Cathy – the emotionally-correct coupling today is Harry Met Sally, only more self-aware. Which is fine when it comes to amicable discussions about work-life balance or avoiding inheritance tax, but quite a few steps removed from the passions that make us human.
(1) Why today’s singles are logging on in the search for love at first byte, The Times (London), 5 January 2005
(2) The Normal Chaos of Love, by Ulrich Beck, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Polity Press 1995
(3) Home alone, Analysis, 15 August 2003
(4) The Transformation of Intimacy: Love, Sexuality and Eroticism in Modern Societies, by Anthony Giddens, Polity Press 1992
A version of this article was first published by spiked, 28 March 2006.