A sociologist’s take on love

Love is complex in the sense that it entails no less than the joint constitution of a world that uniquely belongs to two people in love. This is how I understand romantic love. In such a world, the loved one can be the person that s/he is, and feel affirmed on that basis, without any reservation. If this is still what love means today, then it is worth asking whether there is any sense in simplifying the quest for love by recourse to algorithmic matching.

With the rise of social media, we have seen the emergence of dating apps like Tinder, OKCupid, Blendr, and eHarmony, among others. These apps are advertised as the ultimate tools for bringing together closely matched couples who can expect to find themselves in lasting and fulfilling relationships.

What is remarkable here is that while these postmodern matchmaking devices may succeed in finding you a date, they say nothing about the hard work that accompanies the quest for a lifelong partner. If at all, they tend to reduce the requisite effort that love entails to the ability to come up with attractive self-descriptions and effective communication starters aimed at maximizing one’s outcomes. And, as though in anticipation of the disastrous dates that may result from superficial matching, eHarmony offers an app called “Bad Date Rescue” that “allows users to ‘fake’ an incoming call to their iPhone in order to break up a bad date.”

What kind of human relationships are these that today’s online networking sites seem to be offering as the functional equivalents of good old-fashioned romantic love? And what do they tell us about the kind of society that is unfolding before us? From what I could gather, these web-based tools, to which one subscribes for a fee, are operating on the mistaken premise that enduring relationships based on love are things to be found rather than made. Accordingly, it is not unusual for seekers to go to their dates with a checklist of expectations, waiting to score a hit rather than primed to embark on a painstaking world-making experience.

In a report published on JSTOR Daily, titled “Don’t fall in love on OKCupid,” Kevin Lewis, a sociology professor at the University of California San Diego, is quoted as saying: “OKCupid prides itself on its algorithm, but the site basically has no clue whether a higher match percentage actually correlates with relationship success.” And yet, this is what its users are prompted to believe. Thus, when a date turns bad, contrary to what one is made to expect, the blame is heaped on the world and on everyone else rather than on oneself.

Traditional society simplified the choices available in that world by linking these to ethnic, religious, or class affinities. Indeed, arranged marriages were the norm. Romantic love, as we know it today—a quasipathological obsession into which one falls—is a modern invention. Indeed, says the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, its early motifs were drawn from the passion associated with extramarital relationships. Ironically, it then became a prerequisite to modern marriage that spouses learned to nurture and demand of themselves. And so when the passion is gone, modern couples are also prompted to think that perhaps their marriage has lost its reason for being.

Yet, by nature, passionate love is ephemeral. That is why the philosopher Nietzsche thought that nothing could have been more ill-advised than for modern society to make it a condition for marriage. “Modern marriage,” writes Nietzsche, “has patently lost all its rationality…. The rationality of marriage lay in the principle of its indissolubility; this gave it an accent, which, set against the contingencies of feeling, passion, and the moment, could make itself heard…. The increasing indulgence shown towards love-matches has practically eliminated the basis for marriage, the thing which makes it an institution in the first place.” (“Twilight of the Idols”)

But love would be unreal if it did not reflect the social structure from which it springs. Freed from the constraints of race, ethnicity, religion and social class, the modern person finds himself/herself navigating a world of bewildering diversity in the search for a partner. The liberation of intimate relationships from the constraints imposed by politics, religion, and class laid the foundation for the idealization of love as a zone of exclusive interpersonal intimacy within modern society. Luhmann attributes this happenstance to “the sentimentalism of the eighteenth century… a component of the bourgeois critique of aristocratic immorality.”

The relationships facilitated by today’s social media seem a little different from modern romantic love. Even as they promise intimacy, such relationships are not seen as a necessary prelude to marriage or to a long-term commitment. OKCupid’s clients expect to discard relationships with the same ease as replacing a mobile phone or “unfriending” a Facebook friend. I guess it’s a mindset that goes well with the habits of a throwaway culture.

Of course, it has its human toll. Perhaps we can begin to imagine what it is we give up when love no longer figures significantly in our intimate relationships by considering its broader social function. Here’s Luhmann’s prosaic take on the value of love: “While it may be entirely conceivable to lead a life individually without love and yet find self-affirmation in the world (for example through one’s achievements and successes), it is not at all possible for love to be replaced as a mechanism of society as a whole.”

* * *