Symposium: The Contemporary Family

Love’s reverberations

Deborah Pike, University of Sydney

Mary Evans Love: An Unromantic Discussion Cambridge, Polity Press, 2003 (172 pp). ISBN 0-7456-2073-6 (paperback) RRP $50.55.

White. Immense spaces. White, a rush of breath. Be swift, marry this breath. Remain in it. Make haste. Let it not abandon me. Let me not turn from it. Be swept up: my song.

Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions.

Romantic love is an illusion. Most of us learn this truth, painfully, at the end of a love affair, or when the flames of love, which carry us into marriage, peter out.

The word ‘illusion’ comes from the Latin in ludere—meaning ‘in play’. ‘Illusion’ has meant mockery, deception—perhaps even hallucination (Moore 1994, p. 143). Meditating on the etymology of this word, we can better understand what is at work behind romantic love.

‘Play’ is part of our social world. Each of us plays games, enacts roles, dons a mask in some form or other. There is a large body of work on the performative aspects of gender, on the masquerades of femininity and masculinity. In amorous relations too, lover and beloved play their roles. Mary Evans writes: ‘Part of our contemporary performance of gender is the performance of the lover or the loved, in appropriately gendered ways’ (p. 15).

Ideas of romantic love are continually reproduced in art, literature, and media, forming part of our larger cultural imagination. In romantic love we enter the world of fantasy, and in a sense, take flight from reality. Entering into this fantasy, this play of romantic love, has all kinds of personal and social consequences. One might ask: is romantic love a desirable deception? Sociologist Mary Evans thinks not. In Love: An Unromantic Discussion, she urges us—women in particular—to abandon romantic love. It is individualistic. Its expectations are too high. It is demanding. It’s commodified love. It is a myth. It’s bound to fail. For women, it is a trap.

Evans is not the first to criticise romantic love. Researchers, feminists, novelists, psychologists, and columnists have also warned us against its dangers. Epistolary theorist Linda Kauffmann writes: ‘As I look back on twenty years of research on love-letters, I now realise that what I really wanted to do was expose the pernicious effects of the ideology of romantic love’ (2000, p. 200). Literary critic Vivian Gornick (1999) argues that as a literary metaphor, as an emblem for the search for self-understanding, romantic love is no longer apt. Instead, it has become an act of nostalgia. In Solitude psychiatrist Anthony Storr (1997) argues that human relationships are not necessarily the key to happiness. He argues that solo pursuits—such as creative, artistic, and intellectual achievements—are for many the path to fulfilment.

Mary Evans begins by asking ‘What is this thing called love?’ She is not interested in defining love herself, nor is she concerned with making philosophical distinctions among different kinds of love—eros, agape, storge, and philia. Rather, she examines how romantic, heterosexual love has been constructed within Western culture. Evans looks back two hundred years: How have understandings of love changed? Why is romantic love such a powerful myth? She argues that attitudes, beliefs, and practices about love are culturally and historically produced and, importantly, they have broader social, economic and political implications. Her slim, pithy book makes for a compelling read.

Social theorists have long acknowledged love as a changing code.

Evans explains why she wrote the book:

Love matters, not just to us as individuals, but to society and the social world in general because it is the language, the understanding and the behavior through which we organise our sexuality and our personal lives. It is because of this that love has recently acquired a place amongst the concerns of sociologists and social historians: ‘love’ it would seem, is becoming more problematic and is giving rise to confusions and contradictions which have a destabilizing effect on the social world (p. 2).

Evans chronicles the ‘destablizing’ effects of love by delving into a smorgasbord of cultural images, ideas, and histories, citing everyone from popular figures such as Princess Diana to philosophical heavyweights like Hannah Arendt. She asks: Why is it that we are socialised to aspire to romantic love, but are equally suspicious of its achievement?

Social theorists have long acknowledged love as a changing code. Evans criticises male sociologists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, whose relatively recent theories of ‘democratic intimacy’ neglect to address the inequalities of gender (or class) that persist within relationships, and within the domestic contract. She is adamant that love matters in social, just as much as individual terms.

Evans draws our attention to philosophers and historians (such as Jurgen Habermas and Max Weber), who note the connection between romantic love and modernisation. At the end of the eighteenth century women began to take a greater role in marriage negotiation, also becoming active participants in the discourse of romance. The concept of individualism, along with the ideal of romantic love, reached its apogee in the nineteenth century. In keeping with the ideals of slave-emancipation, freedom, ownership, and personal choice were the tenets of the day.

According to Evans, this is when the trouble with romance began. There had always been heightened love (Heloise and Abelard, Romeo and Juliet), but the expectation developed that romantic love was ‘an essential part in both the construction and continuation of marriage’ (p. 8, my italics). (‘Expectation’ is a word which frequently ruffles Evans). She compares Prince Charles’ expectation that his marriage to Diana Spencer would be a social contract, securing his succession, with Diana’s expectation that she was to marry a prince and experience a relationship of fulfilled personal love. Clearly the two were at a miss. And this is where the danger lies.

In her second chapter Evans takes us on a journey through love over the last two hundred years. She mines the texts of literary visionaries Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia Plath, D. H. Lawrence, and George Orwell, using their work to elucidate the changing tones of love’s history. She explores the tensions between the (often female) world of the private, with the (often male) world of the public, and how they are played out in romantic relations between male and female characters.

One gets the feeling that the romantic myth continues to elude Evans.

Evans refers to one of talk show star Oprah Winfrey’s special guests, Kathryn Flett, of whom Evans is highly sceptical. She quotes Flett on falling in love: ‘For the first time, then I had discovered the most exquisite abandonment, the ability to lose myself in someone else completely, to trust them completely’ (p. 41) The poetry here is lost on Evans: love for her is not transcendent, and such beliefs are ‘problematic’, to use her word. She claims that people like Flett are likely to have had ‘disrupted childhoods’ and later, that they (we):

have acquired—for various reasons—an expectation that as individuals we can achieve states of perfect harmony with particular others: that we can return to the pre-oedipal ideal of the infant’s bliss of absolute identity with another and unequivocal love from that person (p. 102).

Flett’s words echo this obsession with self-completion, so eloquently mythologised by Aristophanes who, in Plato’s Symposium, suggested humans were hermaphrodites split in half.

For all her historicising, theorising, and economising, one gets the feeling that the romantic myth continues to elude Evans. She returns to the classicists Austen and Mozart for remedy. Rational love and understanding are what she advocates. She champions the enlightened model of love Austen presents in her writing, a model based both on reason and emotion, with a heavy emphasis on reason. Love, based not to money, nor on feelings of ‘swept-up-ness’, but on something else, something more sensible. Love, desire, and sexuality are complicated for Evans. She refuses to define these terms, but insists that they are all related.

Evans explores the commercialisation of sexuality; first, through the sale of sexuality itself (prostitution, sex tourism) and second, through the sale of romance and the erotic. Evans makes the point that ‘both these forms of commercial activity build on absences in culture’ (p. 68). Evans suggests that ‘sexploitation’ in developing countries, and the popularity and proliferation of pornographic images, particularly on the internet, are due to a culture lacking an available and articulate erotic tradition.

I have found that some theorists take this issue further. Psychotherapist Thomas Moore (2002) for example, argues that because we have split the eros from our every day lives—and so have failed to integrate the sexual and sensual into our every day relations with others, our homes, offices, and cities—we seek it in ‘graphic images showing crude, unadorned forms of stark sexual union’. He emphasises that sex in a sense is necessarily private, ‘but if we cut it off from the fabric of life’s totality, it may begin to show itself as odd and even monstrous’.

Evans contests the popularly held belief that the nineteenth century Victorianism was an era of sexual repression, but instead was deeply erotic. She follows suit with Freud (1997) when she insists that it is through social restraint and prohibition that desire for another is increased. We live in an ‘anti-erotic age’, to use Moore’s term, where, in a sense, sexuality is readily available, and when human subjects are constructed as marketable commodities.

For Evans sexuality becomes monstrous in its commodified form.

For Evans, too, sexuality becomes monstrous in its commodified form. She argues that Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire is responsible for initiating the commercialisation of sex in the West, and that the associated production of pornographic forms has a direct link to the rise of the sex slave/sex tourism industry. Selling sex is a fraught issue for Evans, because, more often than not, the economically disadvantaged are exploited: ‘The relationship is simple and stark. Those who can afford to buy sex do so. Most problematically, the people from whom sex is bought are young, poor, and unprotected by any kind of medical or social assistance’ (p. 65). The issue is also gendered: the female body, for the most part, is exploited by men.

The exploitation of the female psyche, largely by women, is exemplified in the mass production and consumption soap-operas and Mills and Boon pulp. According to Evans, in these narratives, sex does not need love, but marriage does. And in these scenarios, marriage is highly romanticised. Evans explores the danger in romanticising marriage this way. She asserts first of all that ‘What is socially disruptive is the view that the disappearance of love means the end of marriage’ (p. 101).

Indeed, the inability for individuals to sustain feelings of romantic love toward their partners has been well documented. She cites Friedrich Engels and Simone de Beauvoir on this point. Both highlight the difficulties of combining romantic love and marriage: Engels acknowledging the inevitable disappearance of (romantic) love within marriage, and de Beauvoir claiming that with men ‘familiarity diminishes desire’. Both offer a remedy: dissolution of the institution of marriage and active involvement of women in the social world, and in the world of work.

Although the ideology of romantic love has given women greater autonomy and choice in the arrangements of marriage, it has also brought with it, into even our own times, unrealistic expectations. Marriage has over the centuries increasingly become a more complex agenda. Individual expectations and aspirations are arguably higher, but the contract itself is more vulnerable. Must love remain in a marriage? Evans finds it disconcerting that the end of love in a relationship is considered reason enough for divorce. This idea, she argues, is fairly recent and socially disruptive.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century neither men nor women have to associate love with marriage, or marriage with sex, or sex with love, or desire with either love or marriage. All the once close associations of these ideas have been subverted by social and moral change (p. 107).

According to Evans, what is lacking in the Western world—which appears to offer us everything else—is moral and cultural substance. Just what this substance might be, she neglects to explain. Earlier, she says ‘establishing a morality for the “new” sexuality remains a contentious issue’. Although we are to some extent liberated from forced marriages and, unwanted pregnancies, we experience more complex and contradictory associations among sex, love, and relationships. As marriage is no longer dominated by religious authority, Evans suggests that it is now run by the demands of the market, and is modelled on standards of convenience, rules, bargains, and efficiency. According to Evans, we live in a world where advertisers offer sexual images to satisfy what are essentially emotional needs. This is commercialised love. Modern partnerships are based on shared tastes, and allegiances to material objects. Evans laments this phenomenon: ‘Living in such a climate is often painful and confusing … since individuals can construct relationships through the exchange of commercially constructed signs and then discover a paucity of mutual affection’ (p. 78).

Evans asks us to abandon love in its romanticised and commercialised forms.

Evans employs the ideas of philosophers such as Arendt when arguing that love has been too personalised and sexualised, and that this has had a negative affect on larger communities and public institutions. The obsession with coupledom has led to a general turning away from social action and responsibility. Public life and public structures are in decline. I have found that Marxist critic Catharine Belsey extends this idea to include the unit of the nuclear family, arguing that the ‘perfect opportunity for domestic violence and child abuse, [can be] concealed within the privacy of the nuclear family (p. 74).

Evans makes the important point that because we become ‘alienated’ (in Marx’s sense of the word) in our capitalist world, rationality reigns and the erotic is repressed. As a result we are turning to love and partnership for fulfilment, the kind of fulfilment and satisfaction we are unable to find in other spheres. Thus in private life, many of us are unable to meet the expectations placed upon us. We demand more of love, yet are unable to meet these demands ourselves. When we have these demands met, our desire for even more love is perpetuated.

In her concluding meditation on ‘The Future of Love’, Evans writes: ‘The couple (particularly the heterosexual couple of late capitalism) is a couple who can live, dress, consume and travel in ways which accord with the fantasy of consumption’ (p. 136). She is quick to demonstrate, however that what has accompanied the social liberalisation of the West is an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and increasing evidence of social inequality and exclusion. We have now a model of love and relationship that is unattainable by most, simply because they can’t afford it. (Who was it who said ‘Can’t buy me love’?)

Evans asks us to abandon love in its romanticised and commercialised forms. Instead, she urges us to embrace models the Enlightenment offers us.

Perhaps it is true that Western culture privileges private life and personal experience over every other kind of satisfaction. As Catherine Belsey suggests (and Evans too), we should question the privilege we accord the personal, its autonomy, its isolation from the state, or we’ll find ourselves in trouble.

I am swept along by Evans’ persuasive arguments. Part of me wants every woman to read this book, another part of me—my imagination—resists it. I am not convinced that ideas of romantic love are responsible for so much of the social malaise, confusion, and inequality we experience in the West. Late capitalism might be to blame. The battle for power perhaps. Lack of imagination is a possibility.

Hasn’t the love of eros always been romantic (adventurous, imaginative)?

Love is not rational. Cupid is blind. And romantic love is intimately connected with the stories we create from our imagination. The word ‘romance’ comes from the Old French romans. A roman was a narrative in verse, detailing the adventures of some hero in chivalry. The idea that ‘romantic’ could mean adventurous or imaginative became part of the vernacular in about 1800. That a love affair might be something ‘romantic’ was a notion which flourished in the twentieth century (Barnhart 1995, p. 670). Unlike Evans, I am inclined to think that a romantic kind of love has been around for a lot longer, perhaps since the Age of Chivalry—and men as well as women pursue its myth.

And hasn’t the love of eros always been romantic (adventurous, imaginative)? Hasn’t this love always had a kind of sporting aspect, been a kind of ‘play’? Should we always avoid illusions of this sort? Why do we thirst for such pleasures and crave experiences which do not lead us into sensible or productive lives? Is entering into an illusion necessary? Must we always be cautious, sensible, mindful of consequences? What is the importance of myth? Evans is not interested these questions.

Not all love between modern couples is ‘individualised’ and/or ‘commercialised’. There are countless narratives and personal testimonies of love and desire, (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, interracial) which have currency today, whose plots are not the tropes of traditional romantic tales. Luce Irigaray’s Elemental Passions, for example, is a breathtaking and powerful exploration of identity and desire in a man/woman relationship. In a rapturous meditation of the senses, Irigaray transports us from lyric to philosophical mode. Her work is an attempt to offer a new model of sexual identity—one ‘where woman is situated and valued to be she in relation to herself’ (p. 3) and is not subordinated in the amorous economy of male/female relations. Such a work is deeply romantic, in the broad sense of the word, yet utterly unclichéd. Irigaray opens the possibility for new kinds of expressions of love and desire. Such expressions acknowledge and poeticise longing and yearning for love, in ways that are experimental and culturally new.

Evans’ claims are at times presumptuous. Even though she acknowledges differences in experiences of intimacy and marriage, she likes to tell us, in general, ‘how things are’ for us in the West. But people’s experience is not fixed by nature, nor by culture. It is always a potential site of struggle.

Is the illusion of romantic love always an undesirable deception? The poet, the storyteller, the dreamer in me perhaps—thinks not.


Barnhart, R. K. (ed.) 1995, The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, HarperCollins. New York.

Belsey, C. 1994, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture, Blackwell, Oxford.

Freud, S. 1977, ‘On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love’, in On Sexuality, ed. Angela Richards, The Penguin Freud Library, Penguin, London, pp. 243–60.

Gornick, V. 1999. The End of the Novel of Love, Virago, London.

Irigary, L. 1999, Elemental Passions, trans Joanne Collie & Judith Still, Routledge, New York.

Kauffmann, L. S. 2000. ‘Not a love story: Retrospective and prospective’, in Epistolary Histories : Letters, Fiction, Culture, Amanda Gilroy & W.M. Verhoeven (eds), University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, pp. 198–224.

Moore. T. 1994, Soul Mates, HarperCollins, New York.

Moore, T. 2002, ‘The temple of the body: Sex in an anti-erotic age’ [Online], Available:

Plato, 1999. The Symposium, trans Christopher Gill, Penguin, London.

Storr, A. 1997, Solitude, HarperCollins, London.

Deborah Pike is currently completing her doctorate in the Department of English Language and Literature at The University of Sydney. She has taught Literature, Drama, and Media Studies at The University of Sydney, and Critical and Cultural Theory at The University of Technology, Sydney. She is also Editorial Assistant for The Drawing Board.

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