From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").
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Love is love. In efforts to legitimize same-sex relationships, and in particular to legalize same-sex marriage in the US, activists chanted this phrase on marches and at pride events. They plastered social media platforms with it. It became symbolic of an international movement.
But why? It’s a tautology. Of course love is love. Nobody disagrees with that. So how can it function as a political slogan?
It works by calling attention to the love that same-sex romantic partners have for one another. The first appearance of “love” in the slogan refers to love of this kind. Then the rest serves as an exhortation to treat this kind of love like any other: the second appearance of “love” refers to love in general. Structurally, then, the slogan says this is one of those.
And it is politically effective because we already know how to treat those. That is to say, we already know how to treat loving romantic partnerships. They are to be taken seriously. When we say love is love – this is like those – we are saying this too is worthy of respect: same-sex loving partnerships should be respectable and respected, the way that opposite-sex ones are. In particular, they are not all about sex: despite the stereotypically hypersexualised imagery that is often associated with queer culture (and white gay male culture in particular), many queer relationships are actually about love. And therefore respectable.
That’s what love is love is up to, and why it works. Similar things can be said about love wins and other love-y slogans.
As with respectability politics in general, there is a conservative effect: this move reinforces the idea that certain kinds of “normal” relationships – loving, committed, monogamous, permanent – are respectable while others aren’t. But all this is part of a much bigger picture. The slogans work because romantic love is respectable, and that’s because romantic love is, more broadly speaking, normative. Our culture teaches us that it’s (not only respectable but) normal and good for an adult to be in a romantic relationship. By default, we expect adults to be either in, or looking for, such a relationship.
And we typically assume that this relationship will be not only loving, committed, monogamous, and permanent, but also central to the lives of the people in it. We treat romantic relationships as special: we assume they will be prioritised over other relationships in a person’s life, including those they have with friends and family. When we offer someone a “plus one” to an event, we assume they’ll bring a partner. When we ask if someone is “ready to settle down” in life, we mean with a partner. We find it unusual when someone chooses to live permanently with a friend or sibling, or alone. This constellation of values and expectations amounts to what philosopher Elizabeth Brake has dubbed amatonormativity (from the Latin amare (to love) and norma (rule)). To love is the rule, and there are rules about how to love.
By assuming and expecting that everyone will place (a certain kind of) romantic love at the centre of their lives, we are using that notion of romantic love to define what a good life looks like.
This is a big deal. By assuming and expecting that everyone will place (a certain kind of) romantic love at the centre of their lives, we are using that notion of romantic love to define what a good life looks like. A good life is assumed to be one with a good love at its centre, and a good love is of that romantic kind, with all the trappings we take be definitive of a “traditional” relationship.
This playground rhyme provides a good summary of this normative life story:
So-and-so and so-and-so sitting in a tree,
First comes love and then comes marriage,
Then comes a baby in a baby carriage.
This rhyme, which children learn very early in their lives, functions as a kind of script for how to structure one’s life around a focal romantic relationship. Love’s function in this life narrative is clear: it appears at a pivotal point, between physical affection and marriage, to create the union that leads eventually to parenthood. That (we are conditioned to assume) is love’s function in structuring a life. Correlatively, love has a role in structuring a society: it brings together the two people who will form the nucleus of a nuclear family.
For this to work, romantic love has to be normative: desirable, valuable, and, of course, respectable. This normativity is clear when we talk about that kind of love being the best thing life has to offer. Bertrand Russell says that “serious love between a man and a woman” is “the best thing that life has to give” and “the most fructifying of all human experiences.” Russell, writing in 1929, shows no awareness of queer love, in a way that makes his phrasing feel obsolete now. But his message that a romantic love relationship will fulfil us and make our lives complete in a way that nothing else can is still very much with us.
That message may sound very wholesome, until we remember what the flip side looks like. Russell makes this very clear, saying that anyone who hasn’t experienced a mutual sexual love “cannot attain their full stature, and cannot feel towards the rest of the world that kind of generous warmth without which their social activities are pretty sure to be harmful,” and even that “the resulting disappointment inclines them towards envy, oppression and cruelty.”
The normative status of “traditional” romantic love doesn’t just mean that love is respectable, but also, on the flip side, that anyone who doesn’t want or can’t find such love is not respectable.
The normative status of “traditional” romantic love doesn’t just mean that love is respectable, but also, on the flip side, that anyone who doesn’t want or can’t find such love is not respectable. We are conditioned to think there is something wrong with such a person; something lacking. Stigma attaches to being single, whether by choice or not. Aunties at family events ask when (not if) one is going to “settle down.” Friends say things like, “You’re so nice/attractive/smart/kind … I can’t believe you’re still single!” meaning to be offering a compliment, while tacitly reinforcing the message that being single is only for people who aren’t nice/attractive/smart/kind.
In fact, a 2016 research paper by sociologists Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel suggested to the contrary that single people are more likely to engage with their communities, help their neighbours, and care for relatives than married people are. More recently in The Atlantic, Mandy Len Catron writes eloquently about the social risks of entering into a marriage-like relationship:
[N]o one seem[s] to be talking about the isolation of modern romantic commitment. … In the months after Mark moved into my apartment, I enjoyed the coziness of our shared domestic life. I liked having another person to help walk the dog and shop for groceries. I loved getting into bed with him every night.
But when I looked at my life, I was surprised by how it seemed to have contracted. I didn’t go out as much. I got fewer invitations for after-work beers. Even my own parents seemed to call less often. When invitations did arrive, they were addressed to us both. We hadn’t even discussed marriage yet, but already it seemed everyone had tacitly agreed that our step toward each other necessitated a step away from friendship and community. I was happy in our home, but that happiness was twinned with a sense of loneliness I hadn’t expected.
When people say that falling in love is the best thing in life, they are thinking of a “fairy tale” romance – which is essentially the same story arc as the playground rhyme, albeit told somewhat more prettily and less directly. They aren’t thinking about the social downsides of marriage, or the stigmatisation of single people. But it behoves us to consider the normative status of romantic love from every angle.
What’s more, the message isn’t just that love is the best thing in life. We’re also often told that “the best things in life are free.” Love, then, should be free. Money can’t buy it, right?
Again, this might sound wholesome. But once we scratch the surface, there’s more to see. If love is “free” then that suggests it should be available to everyone, regardless of wealth, class, or status. But this isn’t so. Typical dating practices cost money: what do you do if you can’t afford dinner and a movie? If dating isn’t “free” then (romantic) love isn’t either, since the one is typically accessed via the other. And that’s the case even without taking into account the impact of people’s preferences to date a wealthier partner. (Let’s not even get started on about what happens if things get as far as the arrival of “a baby in a baby carriage” – best thing in life or not, that definitely isn’t “free.”)
What thinking of love as “free” does do is suggest that there are no real barriers to access, and hence that it is equally attainable by all (or, at least, all those who “deserve” it – the nice, attractive, smart, kind people). This means that the normativity surrounding romantic love gets applied quite generally: everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, is liable to be measured by the yardstick of what kind of romantic relationship they can secure and with whom. How closely are you conforming to the fairy tale? That’s a measure of how well your relationship – and hence your life – is going.
It’s not quite as crass as the capitalist measure of how well your life is going (how wealthy you are). That, for some, is enough to make romantic love feel like the wholesome alternative as a benchmark for a good life, much as Canada likes to think of itself as the wholesome alternative to the US. But, as I’ve already suggested, love and money are not so separate as all that.
This is especially true considering how much pressure poverty can put on our relationships. One recent review of research by psychologist Benjamin Karney suggests that this pressure is multi-faceted, and potentially severe. For example:
[C]ompared to more affluent couples, lower-income couples are more likely to report relationship difficulties arising from … problems with money, substance abuse, infidelity, and conflicts over friends. The additional challenges that couples at lower levels of SES [socio-economic status] face have broad implications for their ability to maintain their relationships …
[L]ower levels of SES do not merely confront couples with greater challenges; a context of disadvantage makes those challenges harder on the relationship. Higher levels of SES do not merely protect couples from external stress; a context of advantage makes the challenges that couples do confront easier to manage …
When their relationships need help that partners cannot provide themselves, more affluent couples are significantly more likely than poorer couples to seek out and receive interventions … mostly because couples at lower levels of SES fear the cost of such services and are uncertain about where to find providers …
An additional obstacle to intervening with lower-income couples is that most empirically validated couples therapies (e.g., cognitive behavioral approaches …) were developed and designed for use with middle-and upper-income couples.
Romantic love is not the best yardstick for a good life. In its place, I propose thinking more about what I call eudaimonic love – literally, “good-spirited” love (see my new book Sad Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning for a more detailed discussion of this). Since Aristotle, philosophers have often used the term eudaimonia to refer to a certain kind of flourishing in life, although my own conception of what that state amounts to is not closely related to Aristotle’s. His had a lot to do with notions of individual virtue and rationality, whereas mine turns attention to role played by all kinds of “spirits,” large and small, from the global political zeitgeist down to one’s inner demons.
To love eudaimonically is to love with good spirits: with supportive community, with help from friends, and so on.
To love eudaimonically is to love with good spirits: with supportive community, with help from friends, and so on. And it is to love in a way that nourishes the individuals involved: in a way that is tailored and responsive to their skills, needs, and values. Eudaimonic love doesn’t need to be romantic; love for a friend or family member can be eudaimonic. And eudaimonic love certainly doesn’t have to be “happy ever after:” it makes room for the full range of human experience and emotions, including the “negative” ones.
When we look both within and beyond the individual to assess how well their relationship or their life is going, it enables us to understand that – just like wealth – love and flourishing do not happen in a vacuum. The families, communities, and polities around us have a huge influence, even on things we might think of as “private,” like a romantic relationships. That is in part to say, as has been pointed out many times before, that the personal is political.
And this is nowhere clearer than when it comes to what kinds of relationships we are and are not willing to consider as involving “real” love. We might do well to ask ourselves what it is about love that is truly valuable and worthy of our respect, and what kinds of relationships best exemplify those qualities.
Carrie Jenkins is an author and philosophy professor who lives and works on the unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) First Nations. Carrie’s first novel, Victoria Sees It, was published in 2021 by Penguin Random House Canada, and shortlisted for the Frye Academy Award XIII and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her non-fiction books include What Love Is and What It Could Be (Basic Books, 2017) and Sad Love: Romance and the Search For Meaning (Polity, 2022). Website: carriejenkins.net
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").
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