Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Time for a Love Revolution

Maybe love needs a revolution?

"It is time, it is time, for a love revolution, a love revolution, It is time, it is time, for a new constitution."

Lenny Kravitz, "Love Revolution"

Walking in the woods with a friend recently, we discussed a few of the nastier divorces and political scandals swirling around us. "I think," said my friend, "that as humans we have come to a time when we have to radically change how we do relationships Just like we have to radically rethink how we live on the earth. It's clearly not working the way we've set things up."  

The current state of romantic affairs seems as fragile and in need of a pardigm shift as does the current state of the environment. It's as if we all know a complete romantic collapse is as real a possibility as environmental collapse and although we make a few small gestures, like thinking it's okay to live together without getting married or recycling that bottle, we refuse to do the more difficult work of changing the way we live and love and consume in order to avoid a more desperate future.

The first step in a romantic revolution is to acknowledge that romantic revolutions have happened before and that there is nothing unchanging about the way we love. In fact, if there is one thing the historical and anthropological records tell us, it is that the conditions of our material existence as well as our symbolic imaginary shape how we experience love and desire. Whether we look to the polygamous arrangements of Biblical times or the far more groovy dating scene of post-birth-control America, we can see that love is not the same everywhere.

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But what exactly is going on in our culture that might indicate a Romantic Revolution is upon us? First, the conditions of our existence have changed drastically in the past thirty years. At a material level, most Americans are not as well off now as they were in 1980. We Americans work more hours than any other industrialized nation and have a much less secure social safety net, with both healthcare and higher education being far too expensive for a large number of Americans. Globalization has left us with insecure jobs, insecure food systems, and an increasingly insecure environment. 

More than these material changes, though, are the changes in our imagination of love and romance. We need only look to our gods to divine that love just ain't what it used to be. Consider the political scene, post Bill Clinton and Gary Hart's monkey business. Now politicians are forced to claim their allegience to monogamy even as we constantly look for signs that they are not. Faced with evidence of their romantic sins, politicians must confess publicly in a torturous ritual that would make the Grand Inquisitor smile. But why would we torture them so if we were not so tortured ourselves about marriage and monogamy?

As if it is not enough to destroy our political gods, we also try to dismantle the loves of our Hollywood deities as well. Brad Pitt is a bad husband as is Tom Cruise. The Bachelor was betrayed. But so was the Bachelorette. Tiger is a sex addict. What else could explain the fact that he had so many affairs? Not the state of marriage. It must be a disease, like Weiner's, like Schwarzenegger's, like Clinton's, like yours or mine.

Even as we love to see the loves of the rich and mighty shatter into a million pieces, we are fighiting harder than ever to protect our own romantic security. We spend more and more money on our lavish weddings, we watch reality TV shows about the dress, the ceremony, the engagement, even the cake. We fight over who should and should not gain access to the 1000 plus politcal rights and privileges given to married people even as we refuse to be married in greater and greater numbers.

What could possibly be the solution to so many contradictions other than a revolution. But what would a romantic revolution look like? What would it call for? What would it rail against? It is interesting how few alternatives are bubbling up in response to the current crisis in emotion. There are critiques, but few answers. Perhaps that is because it's so difficult to imagine a way out of what we are told is natural and univeral: falling in love and getting married and having children and living happily everafter.

So perhaps step one in the Revolution is to tell ourselves different stories with different endings. Love comes in many forms and sometimes it lasts a lifetime and sometimes it lasts a month. But given that we must be as mobile as possible in order to survive in this economically and environmentally precarious world, a month can be a better than a lifetime. One of these relationships does not deserve the labels "healthy" and "deserving of privileges" more than the other. They are both love and both potentially uplifting or soul crushing. We must judge relationships not on how long they last, but on the mutual pleasures they produce. 

Which is another story we must tell. Sometimes happily everafter means living as a single person or a person in a polygamous or polyamorous relationship. Sometimes happiness demands that we not be coupled with one other person. That does not make the life of a single person or a polygamous person less valuable and less infused with love than a married person. 

And finally, we must end our stories not with happily everafter, but "for now," because what works for you at 25 might not be the same at 45 or 65. Because life is unpredictable, increasingly so. Economically, environmentally, and romantically. 

So rather than continue to see Weinergate and Tiger Woods' sexual practices as signs that true love needs us to rally around to defend it, maybe we can use the current crisis in romance as an opportunity to reimagine it. To revolutionize it. To make love about kindness and everyday magic, rather than lifelong monogamy and dyadic coupling. Maybe instead of political scandals involving personal lives, we'll have political scandals involving politics- like the politics of ignoring environmental and economic collapse in order to focus on the sexual lives of others. And perhaps, as Kravitz so soulfully suggests, have a love revolution that will change the constitution.

 

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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