Beyond Romanticism: A Valentine’s Ode to Modern Relationships

Henry Fuseli/Wikimedia Commons

I previously wrote about the contributions of Dr. Ester Perel, Belgian psychotherapist, to the field of relationships. Listening to her TED podcast episode again, I have a few more thoughts which I offer here as a Valentine’s Day ode to modern relationships.

Romanticism is the ideological extension of liberating technologies

The past 200 years ushered in technological developments that also mark the biggest shifts in relationship history. Prior to this, in the pre-modern age, Dr. Perel noted that marriage was primarily an economic endeavor that also preserved bloodlines and family/tribal claims to land and property. She called this a “non-exit enterprise.” Basically, the marital relationship served several concrete and well-delineated purposes: procreation, proliferation of bloodlines, expansion of kinship networks, and consolidation of property/land/wealth. The personal aspect, or one’s psychological experience, was considered derivative and of marginal importance at best.

All historical periods are post-hoc creations by historians with narrative agendas. However, we can note that during the period that roughly corresponded to the 18th and 19th centuries, several groundbreaking technologies were developed including the windmill, steam engine, electricity, and internal combustion engine. Great advancements were also made in medicines, textiles and metallurgy. All of these developments, which corresponded to what is called The Industrial Revolution, also originated during a time of great social and political transformation known as the Romantic Era. Were these movements merely coincidental or were they deeply synchronous with each other? Dr. Perel argues for the latter. One method for beginning to analyze the latent structures that may unify these movements is to ask “What was the effect of these new technologies on everyday life?”

On a very broad and general level, we can say the following. Technologies which allowed food, clothing and shelter to be cheaply and efficiently produced have essentially lead to increased conspicuous consumption and lifestyles which were less dependent on subsistence activities. This also created a massive demand and market for leisure and recreational pursuits. Increased access to transportation and education along with the centralization of industries in urban centers created a similarly massive demand for urban migration. Urban migration was a potent force in restructuring the family unit (i.e., towards smaller, ‘nuclear’ dwellings) thus lessening the need for marriages to function as a bridge for connecting and expanding land and family networks. As Dr. Perel points out, post-war 20th century also ushered in new innovations including effective and convenient contraceptives, which decoupled sex from pro-creation thus creating an opportunity for sex to become a solely pleasurable activity. Labor laws, women’s work laws, and divorce laws all allowed for partners to both spend more time at home and to be much more selective about their home environments. This expansion of time and availability of choice also shifted the relationship ecology away from the selective pressures of ‘choosing’ one’s mate based on necessity and production towards a more ‘romantic’ selection based on recreational opportunity, pleasure and personal expression. This is what Dr. Perel calls the transition from a production economy to an identity economy. It is important to stress that these shifts did not start in the 20th century but certainly came into public prominence here.

So what else had changed in relationships with the development of 20th century technology and social structures (e.g., democracy, liberalization, free trade)? Dr. Perel argues that as relationships became of paramount importance to an individual’s sense of wellbeing, this generated a whole industry of relationship experts and these experts have, by and large, reinforced romantic expectations in relationships—not only at home, but also increasingly at work as well. We are now, for example, encouraged to move and work where we will find the most pleasure and sense of personal expression. Needless to say, this puts immense pressure on workplaces—and far more so on individuals in relationships. Indeed, the modern writer and philosophy Alain de Botton eloquently laments on the slings and arrows suffered by modern relationships because of this romantic shift. As Dr. Perel and Mr. de Botton both note, the expectation that one be a ‘soul-mate’ to an other means not only being their best friend, but also their confidante, crush, advisor, supporter, caretaker, financer, counsellor, entertainer etc. This fusion of expectations for the practical, transcendent and personal in the other—coupled with the availability of choice and increasing social and economic mobility—has been disastrous for the long-term stability of relationships.

A New Hope or a New Normal?

Both Dr. Perel and Mr. de Botton sound an underlying note of hope when describing the state of our modern relationships. For each of them, the crises that so often accompany the commodification of pleasure and the urge for individual expression in relationships also affords partners new opportunities to reach depths of emotional rawness, honesty and vulnerability that were previously unseen in pre-modern relationships. We live in an interesting time; many relationships still straddle the long-term stability of the marital pact with the short-term pleasures inherent in the commodification of services and relationships (driven by our capitalistic, identity economy). Interestingly, as the economy swings downwards again due to COVID-19, climate change, free trade, automation, inflation etc., a pull towards more conservative relationships and values takes hold.

Of course, relationships don’t have to go this way at all. In fact, many people are increasingly choosing childless relationships with separate habitations. These relationships are much more dissolvible than traditional relationships and perhaps this is for the best. If partners want to be free to pursue the romantic/capitalistic ideal a partner that is simultaneously vibrant, seductive, supportive, and understanding then they may also want the freedom to leave when their expectations will inevitably fail to be satisfied. For perhaps the first time in history, common folk have the ability and means to explore, seek and discover novelty at home and in work. Indeed, it is not only possible but is often celebrated and socially encouraged; some may freely embrace this as an ongoing and pervasive directive. For other couples, committed relationships remain appealing not only for their social and economic benefits but for psychological reasons. While commitments are generally a source of constraint they can also simultaneously be an opportunity to grow (i.e., by confronting one’s own narcissistic fantasies and working towards prosocial compromises). Couples who are thus still tethered together in the frame of a marriage or long-term common-law relationship can work through the frustrations that arise when their romantic expectations are thwarted and they approach their underlying fears of meaninglessness, loss of opportunity, and ultimately death. de Botton offers some rather practical insights for couples interested in this anti-romantic, “classical” approach to relationships: 1) validation that love does not equal sex and that couples can have one without the other 2) discussing money and financial expectations is setting the foundations for an open relationship and should not be taken as a sign of shallowness or indecency 3) acknowledging and discussing each other’s flaws can lead to increased tolerance rather than disillusionment and bitterness 4) seeking other people to fulfill one’s needs is not necessarily an infidelity; if this is clearly communicated and accepted by one’s partner, outsourcing of one’s relational needs can free the partner relationship to grow its strengths rather than to flounder on its inadequacies and deficits 5) communication is not a given attribute but a skill independent of love; it must be continuously honed less it become decrepit 6) practical wisdom—choosing one’s battles—must be cultivated to expand attitudes of patience, compassion and dignity. All of these are essential attributes for couples who hope to achieve something of a balance between stability and novelty/discovery in their long-term relationships.

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