An Age of Broken Glances: On “Why Love Hurts”

By David WolpeDecember 17, 2012

An Age of Broken Glances: On “Why Love Hurts”

Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz

EACH TIME I OFFICIATE at a marriage, I perpetrate a small fraud. I read the ketubah, the marriage contract, in its original Aramaic and then I read the “translation.” The translation is actually a confection of sweet-spun phrases about creating a home of warmth, openness, and commitment based on mutual emotional support. The original Aramaic, on the other hand, mostly explains financial obligations the husband owes the wife in case of divorce, and the property the wife brings to the marriage. In other words, the Aramaic is legal and the English is therapeutic. When the rabbis drafted the ketubah in the first centuries of the Common Era they neglected to include quotations from Maya Angelou.

Yet the more comforting translation, with its echo of pop music promises, is what the couple — and the daters they were before — thought they were getting, not transactions but transcendence, less the assurance of financial stability than the wild endorphin circus of new love. The couple heard the fusty, older/wiser warnings but clung tightly, and appropriately, to the exceptional character of their love. When prenups or family quarrels intruded on the bubble, it felt less like reality than an unwonted violation.

For most couples, the little fraud is emblematic of a bigger one. Romantic love is a foreshortened story: the princess is carried from the tower or awakened with a kiss. The prince shines, full of dash, bravery, and brio. The story stops before that same princess spends her days working and childrearing, and they both realize she actually prefers sleeping late to a princely, wakening peck on the cheek as the kids run off to school. In the tower there were no soccer shuttles or bills to pay. Fairy tales end at the beginning because the ending is not so enchanting. Even in the age of perilous sea voyages and daring rescue on horseback, romance too quickly ebbed. So how long can we expect it to endure in the rapidly accelerated age of texting, sexting, and tweets?

The path to love is strewn with paradox. According to most studies marriage benefits men more than women, yet men are less inclined to marry. The same qualities — beauty, power, wealth, wit, charisma — which make a partner attractive may render them unsuitable as a mate. Romantic failure, which used to be blamed on the other person’s inadequacy, is now an arrow to the heart of self-esteem. As for healing from the wound? There are almost as many books about romantic healing as there are diet books, and for the same reason. When no single cure works, you can count on endless suggested treatments. Often the pain endures whether one is the breaker or the breakee — as Iris Murdoch said, “jealousy lasts forever — bad news for the young.”


I read Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts with both personal and professional interest. As a divorced rabbi who meets with hundreds of singles and couples, I hear the same promises and plaintive cries: “Why can I not meet the man I seek?” “Why are men incapable of commitment?” “What is wrong with me/her/him?”

Why Love Hurts looks at the social conditions that affect our romantic lives. Illouz’s book is full of arresting ideas about love in our time, even as it staggers under some academic prose and doctrinaire commitments. Hers is the book of a sociologist. What we might see as personal traits, she enlarges to social trends. You think your boyfriend is a jerk; Illouz may agree, but sees him as succumbing not to selfishness alone, but also to a widespread pathogen.

Illouz draws the contrast between an age in which choice was limited to one’s social class or village, to the modern era, when no one is, in theory, off limits:

Pickiness, which seems to plague the entire field of romantic choice, is not a psychological trait, but rather an effect of the ecology and architecture of choice: that is, it is fundamentally motivated by the desire to maximize choice in conditions where the range of choice has become almost unmanageable.

Modern romance is like dinner in Beverly Hills, always looking over one’s partner’s shoulder because someone important or alluring might enter the room. Who can commit in an age of broken glances?

Add to that uncertainty the promise of self-realization, the idea that all of us should be changing, progressing, improving — and throughout our lives. This is the Heraclitus theory of personality — you never meet the same person twice. Solidity is staying in place and in Oprahville we must all grow. The ideal self is not a stable self but rather one that can perpetually create itself anew, be reinvented tomorrow. As Illouz writes, “The cultural ideal of self-realization demands that one’s options should be kept forever open.” By definition romance involves commitment and limitation. The ever-expanding self requires boundarylessness. No surprise then that the marketplace has become a mess.

Of course if you fashion who you are, you also bear the consequences. Individuality and autonomy place the burden of one’s fate on oneself. Fault lies not in one’s social conditions (although parents still come in for a proper beating) or what Henry James called one’s “envelope of circumstances.” In a world of individuals, when romance is less about social station than interiority and emotion, if you don’t accept me, it is all about me. Illouz points out that when Jane Welsh first rejected Carlyle in the mid 19th century, he assumed it was his financial woes and not his personality. (To be fair, Carlyle thought quite well of himself.) In the marketplace of choice, with outsized emphasis on the individual, we assume an acceptance or rejection says something essential about our very self. We are more likely to feel the way Bridget did in the bestselling Bridget Jones’ Diary:

When someone leaves you, apart from missing them, apart from the fact that the whole little world you’ve created together collapses, and that everything you do or see reminds you of them, the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts which adds up to you got stamped “REJECT” by the one you love.

Rejection is not new. Shakespeare knew of the “pangs of despised love.” But the deeply personal wound, Illouz believes, is largely a product of modern social arrangements.

Marriage keeps slipping down the statistical slope. Without the societal assumption that everything leads to marriage, there is a paradoxical pas de deux: each person acts as though commitment is not part of the opening negotiation, the man because he does not wish it and the woman because she does. The calculation of how to pressure, when to pressure, to coax, to cajole, or to strategically retreat can lead romance columnists to sound a little like von Clausewitz. And that those same writers view the whole enterprise, with men skittish and evasive, and women strategic, has led to a flourishing of aquatic imagery, with reeling, hooking, baiting and (at times) gutting — clear signals that all is not well in the land where there are “always more fish in the sea.” Dating seems less The Little Mermaid than Jaws.


As love has shifted from a social enterprise to the individual, Illouz writes, we have learned to evaluate according to categories that are intangible, like “sexiness” which (unlike beauty) was not a marker in an earlier age. These categories entail a relentless disenchantment of love. In high school, savvy teens already know that attraction is only a rush of chemicals in the brain, or nature’s way of fooling us into reproduction. We study love as if it were botany, abandoning poetry for pathology. When we seek to understand the overwhelming emotion that drove Shelley to write, “Its passions will rock thee / As the storms rock the ravens on high," by shoveling infatuated undergrads into MRI machines, their temporal lobes may be illuminated but little else is. Something has been lost.


The infamous internet dating profile requires a still greater intellectualization of love, with lists of categories and attributes. Modern love: science abetted by a checklist. There are few things more essentially unromantic than a multiple-choice exam.

Mass entertainment, so much more pervasive and potent than the romantic novels that sent Emma Bovary over the edge, teaches us the lesson of perfect, temporary bliss. When at the end of Ghost Patrick Swayze ascends to heaven, his soul at peace, leaving Demi Moore to tearfully wave goodbye, I recall leaving the theater thinking that I pity her next boyfriend. He will have to compete with an angelic Patrick Swayze. And then it hit me — so will the boyfriends of every woman in the theater. Not that people are so literal, but the repeated images of beautiful human beings speaking laboriously polished lines with carefully directed expressions and accents cannot help but make the guy beside you, well, a bit of a shlub. Especially if within you lurks the suspicion that he was on the shlubbish side to begin with. Besides, the qualities that promise dependability are rarely the same as those that dazzle.

Illouz explains that she has written this book primarily for women. Therefore in some deep way it is about men. In an epigraph to one of her chapters, she quotes Julian Barnes from Love, etc.:

I book that marriage therapist, naturally.

We last about 18 minutes. I explain that basically my problem with Stuart is getting him to talk about our problems.

Stuart says, “That’s because we don’t have any problems.” I say, “You see the problem?”

Men. Is the problem of love the problem of men? Illouz struggles with two consistent tensions. First is her commitment to feminism, which teaches that “power,” in her words, “must be tracked down and expelled from intimate relations.” But as everyone who has ever been in love knows, power — the having of it, the losing of it, the renouncing of it, the reclaiming of it — is the delicate heat without which the soufflé flattens. If you cannot be powerless in love you cannot know bliss. Tracking down and expelling power from intimate relations is simultaneously blindly authoritarian and sweetly naïve. The French proverb has it right: “In love there is always one who kisses and one who offers the cheek." Illouz acknowledges the reality of power imbalances and male/female differences, but there is a schoolmarmish, vaguely censorious undertone, suggesting they shouldn’t really be there if all was well with the world. (What to make of this? “Instead of hammering at men their emotional incapacity, we should invoke models of emotional masculinity other than those based on sexual capital.” In other words, I suppose, since men are actually romantically stunted, let’s encourage them to be good fathers and cry at sad movies. Workable on the page, but I doubt this epicene ideal is going to persuade in the bedroom.)

The second tension is her commitment to Marxist analysis, which erases the individual. It pushes the puzzle of sociology to the brink: if this is all about society, then is the individual a helpless agent of larger forces? “The widespread literature of Mars and Venus is nothing more than an attempt to understand in psychological terms what is in fact a sociological process,” she writes.

Illouz tries to qualify the conclusion that individuals don’t matter but she is too subtle and too smart to miss the complexity of the questions. And she is surely correct that something large is going on when romantic disappointments are soothed by “hooking up,” and sex, instead of being the volcanic core of romantic mystery, is reduced to a form of advertising.

We have learned the lesson from DVRs and Netflix that everything can be revisited, nothing is lost, nothing should be missed and it is easy to live alone and have needs provided for. The essential human need, to love and be loved, suffers from each technological boost to the energies of autonomy. Into this jaded and self-sufficient world, what chance love?

Why Love Hurts is not an easy read but it is an important book. Illouz does not pine for an earlier world. Modernity brought untold blessings to us all. But even its greatest goods come with serious costs. She quotes literature, as if uneasily aware that artists have done much of her sociological work before she got there. But she doesn’t address the spiritual condition of human beings, which does not change — that yearning for something greater than ourselves. Having lost classical faith, people often seek its substitute in romance. But as Borges taught us, falling in love is creating a religion with a fallible god. Sooner or later the worshipper will be disappointed and be forced to readjust expectations.


The movie Quartet is based on a Somerset Maugham story that tells of a man whose wife publishes a book of poetry. He soon learns that all of London is talking about the work. In striking images, the poems describe a torrid affair. The husband grudgingly attends a party to celebrate his wife’s success and hears someone remark that such a book could only have come out of real experience.

He confronts his wife. She begs him to forget it, but he will not. Finally she confesses, yes they are based on reality. “Do I know the man?” he thunders. In a meek voice, she admits that he does and begs him not to go any further. But he cannot stop and demands to know who it is.

Finally in a soft voice, his wife answers, “It was you. It was you — as you were — all those years ago — in those happy days when we first met, and you loved me.” Her husband responds incredulously that the poems say that the lover died. He did, replies his wife. “The man that loved me died.”

The deepest magic of love is not first love but continuous love, which we know is not easy. But in our day even first love is not easy, either. Perhaps the title answers itself. Asking why love hurts is a little like asking why rain falls. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t love.


LARB Contributor

Rabbi David Wolpe is a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School and Max Webb Emeritus Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.


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