what we talk about when we talk about love

(warning: insanely long post)

There’s been a good bit of soc of culture blogging lately.  I have no idea what y’all are talking about when you say that it’s either marginalized/making a triumphant comeback, because doggone it, I’m a maverick outsider when it comes to sociology. Cough. So let me add my inexpert, interdisciplinary two cents.

Because I do law and society-ish stuff to study organizational compliance, I care mostly about organizational cultures that either impede the mobilization of rights or those that confer benefits beyond the legal mandate.  Ultimately, what I care about is discrimination, which I consider to be a bad, inefficient phenomenon that impacts the hiring, advancement and retention of skilled workers such as working parents and minorities. So, when organizations comply with the law, and not merely in an illusory way that can happen in the legal endogeneity loop that new institutionalists decry (see, e.g. Bisom-Rapp, Edelman, Dimaggio and Powell), I’m all for it.  I’m all for organizational cultures that promote, as an organizational value, non-discrimination and more-than-minimum employee benefits.  The idea of culture is useful to me only insofar as it helps explain things, or if by learning more about its mechanisms of deployment one can change organizational cultures to promote certain outcomes.

So why do I care about the sociology of love?

Because I’m a big ol’ softie. And readers of my blog will remember my polemic against the romantic idea of love.  I have even written a post arguing that you can apply the canons of statutory interpretation to a mix-tape.  And here’s my review of Carver’s collection of short stories, from which I poach my blog post title.

So, I care on a very basic “this stuff interests me” level, because you can take the girl out of that undergraduate creative writing workshop with all the hipsters and get her a professional sell-out degree and train her in social science, but you can’t make her less inherently emo.  Not too long ago, I wondered aloud what is the best way to study the human condition.  Is it through the study of literature?  Individual introspection? The outward survey of fellow man? Why do the other disciplines fail to address such important questions, and why must we emo types cling to our Sub Pop records and battered copies of Plath the way other bitter people cling to guns and religion?

This post was written in a fit of desperate, soul-searching emo-ness, as well as woeful ignorance.  And a bit too narrowly focused on the humanties as being the only discipline that could answer questions concerning the human condition. You know, same root word and all. But then Jeremy directed me to Waller’s principle of least-interest. Further googling produced this contemporary study on the same. And this one.  Dude, it is like finally getting that diagnosis whereas previously you didn’t know what the heck was wrong.  True, reality can suck hard.  But at least you know.  And you know that it has a name, that it has symptoms, and can lead to certain outcomes.  That you either have to live with it (if you have to), or you try to fix the problem, or you try to quit the game entirely (the least desirable option).  This was oddly consoling to read at the time. I suppose it is much the same way certain people have read and will unfortunately watch He’s Just Not That Into You, which I can already tell will be an execrable, fatuous exaggeration of negative gendered stereotypes and stupid romantic cliches. Whev. At least I have some statistics and longitudinal data to back this up, thanks to Waller and his intellectual heirs.

But man cannot live on emo alone.  So I tabled these ruminations on love and what the other disciplines have to say about it for a while. But this semester I’m taking a graduate level sociology of culture class, which is so good it makes me want to hug my books to myself and hi-five my professor. But that’d be weird. We recently read Ann Swidler’s Talk of Love, which I found very useful to my own work for its theory that we use different cultural “toolkits” depending on context, situation, and we use them differently in “settled” or “unsettled” times.

Swidler’s “toolkit” model of culture is appealing and quite useful, but today I focus on her two models of love.  Swidler posits two conceptions of love, one stemming from Petrarchan, Catullian, courtly, 19th C Romantic inventions of love:  “Mythic Love,” that is 1) a clear, all or nothing choice; 2) of a unique other, 3) made in defiance of social forces, and 4) permanently resolving the individual’s destiny.  To put it in different terms:  ‘They met, and it was love at first sight.  There would never be another girl (boy) for him (her). No one could come between them.  They overcame obstacles and lived happily ever after’ ” (113-114).  You can see this model of love peddled in the films of Meg Ryan, cards, songs, books, poetry the delusions of many teenagers, etc.

Contrasted to this mythic model of love is what Swidler calls the “Prosaic-Realist” model of love:  “[w]hen the middle-class adults I interviewed talked about love, they debunked precisely this mythic visoin. ‘Movie’ love is intense, overwhelming, and sure, they said, but real love is often ambiguous, gradual, and uncertain…1) REal love is not suden or certain. It grows slowly and is oftne ambivalent and confused. Love does not require a dramatic choice but may result from circumstance, accident, or inertia.  2) There is no ‘one true love.’ One can love many people in a variety of different ways.  3) THe kind of love that leads to marriage should not depend on irrational feeling in defiance of social convention, but on compatibility and on practical traits that make persons good life partners.  The fewer obstacles people have to overcome, the happier they are likely to be.  3) Love does not necessarily last forever. Love and marriage do not settle either personal identity or social destiny. Rather than guaranteeing that no one will live ‘happily ever after,’ love requires continuing hard work, compromise, and change” (114).

Auto-ethnography time!  I find myself, despite having been an English literature major, very strongly identifying with the “prosaic realist” model of love.  I told Jeremy once that my fantasies surrounding love weren’t the fluffy stuff of movies (not that I don’t love The Notebook), but apocalyptic fantasies, borne from a tough childhood and the stoicism of my people, of what I could handle and still stay committed.  Sickness? Sure, been there, done that. Poverty? Yep, and I don’t even mean the genteel poverty of graduate student life.  Granted, these are rather grim fantasies to have, but I’m the type of girl who prefers short dresses and City Hall to Bridezilla pouffery.  In reading this, I was/am tempted to pass this along to my own partner and asking him what he thinks. I am not a subtle woman, no.  I have also been known to pass along a copy of The Remains of the Day,  a gesture that has been characterized by a certain sociologist as being  “pretty hard core.  Why not just stand next to him with another copy and repeatedly hit him over the head with it, all the while shouting “Dont! Miss! Your! Best! Chance! At! Happiness!” Smack smack smack smack smack!”

Swidler’s models of love are interesting, if unsurprising.  The value of the book is of course how the models articulate her “toolkit/repertoires” model of culture, as demonstrated by the very revealing, insightful interviews with her respondents.  In those interviews, the respondents shifted from one framework to another, beginning either mythic/realist and shifting to the other when prompted with a hypothetical scenario. For instance, when one respondent described independence as being the key to the happiness of his relationship, immediately responded “yes, absolutely” when asked if he would take care of his wife in the event of her sickness, because his wife was “everything” to him.  Other respondents seemed to articulate the mythic conception of love, only to retract a bit when asked whether they believe their own relationship would last or when asked about previous failed relationships. I suppose the “I thought s/he was the one, till I found the real one” can only be used so many times. When one conception doesn’t work, re-frame it or go to the other.

Thus, each person, depending on contextual and situational factors, will draw from and deploy different cultural models to justify their choices, actions, and decisions, particularly regarding  the person they have chosen as a partner.  For scholars of culture and motivation (including those rational choice theorists and utility maximizers!), this is really interesting, because it incorporates both an ex ante conceptual framework as well as ex post justification of actions:  we want certain things, we seek them, we make choices, our choices sometimes do not match our wants, and then we have to adjust our preferences or engage in post-hoc rationalization to reframe our choices to some preferences. But where do our wants come from, and how does our capacity to want frame our desires? That is to say, if you believe yourself capable of wanting romantic love, you will probably want it, and then seek it, though you may not always get it.  And without ducking behind a term, there are constraints on action, such that our preferences may or may not be enacted, depending on our resources and market participation ability.  Many of us have the luxury to marry for love rather than money or social mobility, and even if we don’t we have the luxury of living in a time that justifies that choice above the more instrumentalist view. And while there’s a lid to every pot, some people by virtue of the  combination of charm and genetics have more lid offers to choose from before they too, engage in the post-hoc refitting and welding to make that lid keep fitting.  With the love stuff, it is a bit easier to identify where our cultural narratives come from (media, experience, inherited values, etc.), but it’s harder to figure out how they affect our actions, given other situational factors. This to me is a great way to muddle my already muddled thinking on structure vs. agency.  Coming from my discipline (or lack thereof), I am always trying to reconcile how individual preferences, (legal) constraints, institutions, and markets operate to affect individual and organizational behavior.  Let’s just say, I still don’t know.

Anyway, this is all still interesting to me, because not too long ago there was a blogospheric discussion about the question of one’s own “unloveability,” particularly when considering the question of why that person chose their partner, who is Not You.  NB:  I like and respect all of the blog authors, who are each delightful, lovely, extremely interesting, incredibly smart and accomplished women:

1.  Megan on “unloveability”:

How come she just can’t realize she’s great, and that the bad decision of some jerk-off doesn’t mean she’s unloveable?

The reason you start to believe you are unloveable is because of the evidence.  There’s, like, so much evidence.  There’s the part about how you’re single.  It is hard to deny that part, on account of how there is no one else in bed with you at night.  There’s the part about how you really liked that guy, and you also liked that other guy, and both times things were promising, but then they didn’t choose you.  And your longterm boyfriends didn’t choose you either, or else you’d be married now, wouldn’t you?  Those parts set the stage, but the real soul-destroying part comes when you make comparisons.

That’s when you look at the couples you meet, and you discretely check out the woman and you wonder, why her?  What is it about her?  How come she is a person that a man will propose to and I am not?  Sometimes it is easy to understand.  Because she is freaking kick-ass, and I would totally propose to her too.  Because they are absolutely perfect together and look at each other with lovey-eyes and of course they should be together.  Those cases are easy and cause no grief.

The hard case is when you meet a totally charming guy, someone you would would date were he single and his unimpressive wife.  Then it is all I can do not to stare.  Why?  She is not so special.

So you watch, and you see that other women are clearly loveable, and after a while, you rule out all the qualities that make them different.  They aren’t all more physically attractive; not all of them are wittier or prettier; some are sweeter, but some surely aren’t.  Finally, all the potential explanations are gone and you are left groping in the dark and you settle on what may be the worst explanation of all.  There is something ineffable but noticeable to men, a mysterious invisible broken something inside you.  Your girlfriends can’t see it, and your married male friends tell you you are being ridiculous, but it has to be there.  Else why are you single, and for so painfully long?

All of it is too weird to sort, and neither looks nor temperament win love.  I’m increasingly convinced that they’re on a non-intersecting plane entirely.

2.  A White Bear follows up:

Like Megan, I know there is a lot of observer error here. I know plenty of fun, smart, generous, thoughtful, sexy women who are in healthy relationships with wonderful men who love them. And I’ve always said that I love the idea that someone I’ve dated is now hopelessly in love with someone way smarter, prettier, and nicer than me. There’s no sting in watching someone you care about made happy by someone who’s everything you wish you were. It’s gratifying to know that it could work that way. When I’m sitting around feeling absolutely certain that no one would ever love me, I think all these thoughts about how I could be nicer, prettier, smarter, etc. and deserve to be loved. And, in my personal opinion, I do get better all the time as I learn how to navigate the world a little more smoothly. I just also seem to be getting less and less likely to be the object of anyone’s romantic affection.

But falling into that trap of comparison with temperament is just as fruitless as the temptation to compare looks. There is no “level” of kindness or thoughtfulness that makes someone lovable, just as there is no “level” of beauty that is ever enough. And making any kind of comparison leads, unfortunately, to a conclusion that’s just as misanthropic as that made by any Nice Guy wondering why women date “jerks.”

Bave and I were talking last night about how the real problem seems to be that it’s very hard for anyone to date someone new without seeing them, first, as an embodiment of Not-Ex. And Not-Ex-ness clouds over the new person so she can hardly be seen. Even her Not-Ex-ness reminds him of Ex. And even if Not-Ex-ness is blisteringly attractive for a short time, it wears off and leaves nothing but memories of Ex. That initial intensity that seemed so real and specific and beautiful was just a bizarre effect of perspective, like being exposed to too much light all at once, or stepping out of a plane into a fascinating country you quickly realize you could never live in.

I agree with Megan, though, that it’s hard business wondering why it seems so easy for other people. It makes one wonder if they somehow smell how unloved you’ve been. In our cases, it doesn’t at all seem to be a lack of self-love or friend-love; we both seem to be quite wealthy in those. The only answer, I suppose, is to see oneself seeing patterns that are harmful, and rigorously proving their falsehood to ourselves.

3.  Sherry gives her own post-found-love view:

It turns out, for me at least, that you don’t solve that doubt and then find love.  You find love and then, from the daily experience of having someone love you, easily and clearly and without wavering, you stop wondering whether you are lovable.  You just know.  And having that anxious voice quieted, the part that wonders if you’re too strong or you come off wrong somehow, is such a fantastic relief.  I don’t think I knew how constantly that voice was whispering or showing up in my head until it shut up, and in the silence I had so much more room to think about other things.

I think the edict that you first have to know your own amazingness, and then love will follow, is silly.  Being loved is partly about your intrinsic goodness, but it’s partly about having someone else who feels really happy to be around that goodness.  You can believe in the goodness all you want, but if you are a rational person and you have had a string of disappointments when the “someone else” part looked promising and then fell through, it’s hard not to wonder whether something is wrong.  Yeah, you should just realize that you’re great, and the bad decision of some jerk-off doesn’t mean you’re unlovable.  It’s easy when it’s other people.  For me, looking at myself, it got to be really hard.

And then all of a sudden it wasn’t hard, because here came along NBT and his persuasive, easygoing, unwavering love.  But I didn’t bring that on myself, didn’t earn it by fixing all my brokenness or healing my incomplete parts, nor did I trick him into a relationship by pretending I was more whole than I am.  Falling in love was more like getting hit by a truck — I didn’t cause it, and I wouldn’t be able how to explain it or replicate it.  I wasn’t more “ready” for it than my terrific friends who are currently dissecting their own personalities, wondering just what it is about them that might explain their failures in love thus far.   I’m so, so glad it happened for me, but I have no idea why it did.

Sorry to quote at length, but did you not also find the above quotes interesting? Without commenting directly on the substance of unloveability theses or the correctness of trying to operationalize that through the use of comparators, what I’m most struck by is how the above narratives track Swidler’s own findings.  Most people can’t explain their relationships.  They can’t explain how they happened into their relationship, why it’s working, why they chose the person, or why previous ones failed. I certainly can’t.  Swidler’s respondents, when asked what they loved about their partners, listed off qualities that were fairly easy to understand (compassion, compatibility, etc.), but when asked how they knew this was the person with whom to make a lifelong commitment, would often shrug. “We just decided to get married” is offered as a reason without much explanation. Similarly, when asked why their partner was more special than other people out there, or why they were better than previous partners, more shrugs are offered.

People make choices, and in keeping with both the mythic model of “the one” or the prosaic realist model of “love takes work,” the choice of a partner is reaffirmed despite contrary evidence, which appears to you every day, that this person is not that special.  You had a preference, you made a choice, and every day you keep on choosing it. If you’re lucky, most days you feel like you made the right choice, which is why I am charmed by the idea of some great guy, after years of marriage, still affectionately touching his wife who may look less cute now than she did when she met him. But because of particularized affection for that person and the wealth of shared experiences with them, they are special to you.

One of my friends says that “Sometimes I think it’s a shame that we seem so willfully blind as a society to acknowledge that, by definition, there is one person that you will love most in your life, and that this one person is not necessarily who you end up with. “

I posed that question to another friend, who made me feel better by saying:

“What does “love most in your life” mean?  It could mean the person with whom you’re most compatible in the abstract–the person you would be happiest with in an ideal world.  If that’s the case, then it’s almost certain you won’t end up with that person, but so what?  You probably won’t even meet that person, since you meet such a tiny fraction of the appropriate population.  It might also mean person with whom you actually share the greatest degree of emotional intimacy and joy etc. (or something like that, whatever  you mean by love).  In that case, something’s very wrong if that isn’t the person you end up with, because the years that you spend with that person will cumulatively overwhelm any other relationship.  And I think that love is cumulative in an important way.  So the idea that, in essence, I got to level 9 love with A, and I‘ll never do that again so I‘m going to stuck at level 8 with my spouse B for the rest of my life–I think that’s mistaken.

For a while I did feel that as a loss–I actually thought that having had my heart broken, kind of, in college was like some injury that prevented me from loving in the way I should.  I no longer think that; I‘m pretty certain that even if that hadn’t happened, even if I‘d stayed with that girlfriend, I wouldn’t love her now the way I loved her in college.  Or if I had broken up with her, I would have still found my experience of love changing.  Which is to say, the way we experience love changes as we get older, and it’s not because of some trauma–it’s because we grow up and gain emotional maturity.  The reason that relationship B doesn’t seem quite as exciting and head-over-heels as relationship A did might have nothing to do with persons A and B and everything to do with the fact that A came before B.”

My friend also said that he loved his wife more than he loved anyone else before her, because he had shared so much with her that it made his relationship much deeper.  I like this idea of love. it comports with the prosaic realist model of love, and it effectively deals with the problem of improper comparators.  No, you can’t explain why that guy chose that girl over you.  But you are not them. You didn’t have their experiences. And now that I’m in a relationship, I can do no better in justifying my particular choice, why it feels right, or why we work. I certainly don’t want other people to wonder why he chose me.  Our experiences together, past, present and going forward, certainly makes me keep wanting to choose this choice, and because I am foolish enough to engage in auto-ethnography, I draw upon both mythic and prosaic-realist frameworks to keep on justifying my commitment.

It doesn’t shock me when I see people I consider to be great with people I consider to be less great. I don’t know their partner. Perhaps that person is great, despite whatever I perceive to be their dullness or homeliness.  I certainly haven’t spent the last few years with this person, nor do I know what kind of relationship that couple has.  When I was single, it didn’t make me feel less loveable by comparison, because I remembered that feeling of singularity the times I was in a relationship, and I knew that the next relationship would produce the same effect.

That’s the trouble with trying to compare non-comparable things:  the units of analysis are not the same, because the we do not know the qualities of each unit or what they mean to the dependent variable.  Perhaps if I saw some guy choose from a roomful of strangers one person over another, without myself knowing them, I would realize that it is all very random. If, however, I knew the person well, knew the participants well, and saw that person choose a partner that appeared an illogical match, I would feel some affront to my sense of cosmic justice and rightness.  But I’m not doing the choosing.  And I don’t have to justify the decision.  So I find it not entirely productive to look at other people’s partners and wonder what makes them more loveable than me.  It’d be like trying to control for a lot of variables that are actually pertinent to the decision-maker. I also find it unproductive to try to figure out your own motivations and justificatory reasons for choices–sometimes, you can’t figure it out, and trying to measure the unmeasurable is a methodological error that in this case has too many ways to wack you out.

Megan, AWB, and Sherry have considered the problem of love in such interesting and thoughtful ways–and despite coming from different disciplines (law, literature, policy)–they all seem to be focusing inward in order to explain the patterns in their life.  Doesn’t this remind of you Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self? Even as we seek to explain phenomena that are not solely generated within and by ourselves, we look inward a process that dates back to Augustine.  And, as Bellah et al. say in Habits of the Heart, “love then, creates a dilemma for Americans. In some ways, love is the quintessential expression of individuality and freedom. AT the same time, it offers intimacy, mutuality, and sharing. In the ideal love relationship, these two aspecfts of love are perfectly joined–love is both absolutely free and completely shared.  Such moments of perfect harmony among free individuals are rare, however” (93). And indeed, Swidler’s discussion of the prosaic-realist model of love also describes one iteration in the form of “therapeutic love,” which allows the individuals discover their true selves (Swidler, 143).

Look inward, then, but don’t forget that we’re social beings and that everything is situational, and every relationship is dyadic. If only our individual selves were the only variable. We’d all be like a neurotic Woody Allen movie, but at least we could control the outcomes. In theory (constraints again!).  I very much like what Swidler has to say about this:  that whatever your cultural framework, it enables you with a framework, skills, and tools that develops your capacity for action.  While taht sort of sounds like a rather ad hoc, instrumentalist way to go about life, is there any other?  I am no better now, having read all of this, at explaining my cultural schemas, motivations, choices, etc.  I can’t explain to you how I have arrived at certain decisions or why they are working or not working.  But at least I sort of know how to look at the phenomena of my own life. Auto-ethnographying is an exhausting business, but it sure beats listening to emo music and wondering out loud if there’s any meaning or reason to this.  Again, it’s like finally getting a diagnosis–even if that diagnosis is a “who knows?  there’s lots of reasons and there’s no real way of explaining how any individual moves from preference to outcome, because we have to take into account culture, constraints, agency, institutions…”.  See, doesn’t that make you feel a little better too?  For a while I was thinking that there’d be an answer to the question “what is this thing called love?“.  Now that I know there isn’t, I can move on and listen to happy music.

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