Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Is Your Love a Lie?

Modern love is a radical misrecognition of what is real and what is fake.

Perhaps nothing describes modern love as well as the concept of "misrecognition." We misrecognize ourselves and our lovers in romantic comedies, royal weddings, and Valentine's Day cards. Our culture mirrors the ideal couple back at us even as most of us are single. Our culture holds the nuclear family up as the "normal" family, even though only about 1 in 5 Americans live in one. And in an age of constant connectivity, social media, and the circulation of images at lightening speed with no real life anchoring of them, it is nearly impossible not to mistake one thing for another.

Take Fox News' epic fail this week when they ran a story by Suzanne Venker entitled "To be happy we must admit women and men aren't 'equal.'"  Venker was trying to make the case that 

the problem with equality is that it implies two things are interchangeable – meaning one thing can be substituted for the other with no ramifications... But the truth must be heard. Being equal in worth, or value, is not the same as being identical, interchangeable beings. Men and women may be capable of doing many of the same things, but that doesn’t mean they want to.

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In what can only be described as high irony, this ode to traditional gender roles was illustrated with the image of a lesbian couple, Lela McArthur and Stephanie Figarelle, getting married atop the Empire State Building. In other words, Venker or her editors misrecognized a lesbian couple as illustrative of innate gender differences between men and women. 

But this sort of misrecognition as high hilarity has a much seedier side. Misrecognition can lead to real heartbreak even if the beloved doesn't actually exist in the material world. This dark side of contemporary romance was brought into the light with the exposure of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's "hoax" on Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o. By now most of us have heard how Tuiaosopo sent text messages and even arranged phone calls as "Lennay Kekua" in order to seduce Te'o into believing he had met the love of his life only to cruely kill Kekua off with leukemia and how Te'o apparently believed his fake romance to be real, at least until a few days before he revealed it all to be an elaborate scam. Of course it's possible Te'o was part of it (and that's what most readers of a story over at Huffington Post believe), but even if he was oddly part of his own bizarre text message Romeo and Juliet tragedy, many romantics are really in love with people who never existed.

On Facebook, about 83 million users are "fake." Of course many of those fake accounts belong to our pets, but some of them belong to our fake loves. In online dating, about one in ten profiles is a fake. Often those fake profiles belong to scam artists who let you fall in love with the "perfect" fill in the blank and then slowly convince you to wire some funds for various emergencies.

With Valentine's Day upon us, the media is warning consumers not to fall in love with cyber criminals posing as Mr. or Ms. Right. Every year hundreds of thousands of people lose their heart and some of their hard earned income to believing that they can find true love in a body they have never encountered.

But maybe it's time to ask a bigger question about modern love: is misrecognition the price we must pay for wanting the Mr. or Ms. Right in the first place? Is the gap between the perfection of our ideal romance and the reality of our lived relationships so huge, whether in cyber space or our own bedrooms, that our hearts and our wallets are always ripe for the picking whether we are as naive as Te'o or as cynical as me, are we all trapped in a romantic maze of longing for that which we cannot ever recognize?

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

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