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Few of us have been spared the agonies of intimate relationships. They come in many shapes: loving a man or a woman who will not commit to us, being heartbroken when we're abandoned by a lover, engaging in Sisyphean internet searches, coming back lonely from bars, parties, or blind dates, feeling bored in a relationship that is so much less than we had envisaged - these are only some of the ways in which the search for love is a difficult and often painful experience.
Despite the widespread and almost collective character of these experiences, our culture insists they are the result of faulty or insufficiently mature psyches. For many, the Freudian idea that the family designs the pattern of an individual's erotic career has been the main explanation for why and how we fail to find or sustain love. Psychoanalysis and popular psychology have succeeded spectacularly in convincing us that individuals bear responsibility for the misery of their romantic and erotic lives. The purpose of this book is to change our way of thinking about what is wrong in modern relationships. The problem is not dysfunctional childhoods or insufficiently self-aware psyches, but rather the institutional forces shaping how we love.
The argument of this book is that the modern romantic experience is shaped by a fundamental transformation in the ecology and architecture of romantic choice. The samples from which men and women choose a partner, the modes of evaluating prospective partners, the very importance of choice and autonomy and what people imagine to be the spectrum of their choices: all these aspects of choice have transformed the very core of the will, how we want a partner, the sense of worth bestowed by relationships, and the organization of desire.
This book does to love what Marx did to commodities: it shows that it is shaped by social relations and institutions and that it circulates in a marketplace of unequal actors.
Beginning with the premise that "Romantic agony has changed its content, color, and texture" over the years, Illouz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, offers a complex look at the transformation of love, sex, and marriage in modernity. Comparing historic courtship and marriage rituals with contemporary dating culture, Illouz demonstrates the ways in which our increased freedom has complicated the search for a mate or partner. She details the emergence of the "sexual field," social arenas where sexual desire and competition are at the forefront and where people evaluate one another incessantly. She also addresses the stereotype of the commitment-phobic man, rejecting the determinist notion "that men have deficient psyches," or that "evolution demands men spread their sperm." Instead, Illouz urges readers to examine the social and cultural reasons for ostensibly innate behavioral tendencies. The end result, Illouz argues, is that we suffer differently in the modern age, precisely because our sense of self-worth is inexorably tied to love (and desire). An academic through-and-through, Illouz is nevertheless as comfortable referencing Kierkegaard as she is Bridget Jones. But her arguments riveting as they may be still require perseverance to work through. As a result, much of the wisdom here will be lost on the average reader.