Romance and the Logic of Entertainment

Do Relationships Need to be Entertaining?

Posted Apr 07, 2010

Our society's fascination with stimulating experiences of entertainment-3D movie spectaculars, glamorous celebrities, fat-and-sugar enhanced food, etc.-has a few downsides. One of them is that experiences that aren't entertaining no longer seem very compelling. If you are used to highly processed foods with a lot of fat and salt, simple whole grains are likely to taste like cardboard. And when a product or experience is not compelling to people, less of it is produced, which is likely to mean that it costs more. Continuing with the food example, today feeding a family with fresh, non-processed foods is likely to be more expensive (in money and time) than picking up pizza and other fast food.

This is what I call "the logic of entertainment," although I could also borrow a phrase from Charles Darwin: As he spoke of the "survival of the fittest," today we could speak of the "survival of the most entertaining." Whichever phrase one uses, the point is the same: when someone figures out how to make a product or a process entertaining, it's a pretty good bet that over the long run the entertaining form of the product or process will survive and the less entertaining forms will not.

In recent posts I have applied this idea to sports in contemporary society. Increasingly our society is investing its resources in sports as entertainment and withdrawing resources from participatory sports. Why? In part because participatory sports aren't very entertaining. We have evidently decided, for example, that there isn't much point in providing sports opportunities for kids who are never going to be stars.

The same argument can be applied in a number of different areas. Take for example intimate relationships. When people talk about the head over heels experience of "falling in love," they are talking about finding entertainment in an intimate relationship. "Falling in love" means experiencing highly arousing emotions as you interact with and even think about your partner: longing, sexual desire, happiness, etc. etc. In fact, the experience of falling in love is suspiciously similar to the joy of becoming lost in a game or a story: you forget yourself in your fascination with the partner, time seems to be suspended, your interest in the world outside fades.

Historians and anthropologists tend to agree that people from other times and places have not placed the same value on romance-a form of entertainment-that we do today. As a matter of fact, in both Europe and America the idea that marriage should be based on "falling in love" is quite new, having found wide acceptance only in the 19th century. It's probably not a coincidence that this was also the period in which romantic novels started to be widely read.

Thus today we can see how the logic of entertainment has come to dominate our thinking about intimate relationships, so much so that other ways of thinking about these relationships just don't make sense to us. We expect our partner to provoke strong emotional responses like those described in novels. Other ways of evaluating intimate relationships-compatibility, friendship, financial considerations, etc. seem almost offensive. And of course, many relationships end because one "falls in love" with someone new, and that makes the relationship one shares with one's spouse seem dull and boring by comparison. Entertainment in relationships can be a lot of fun, but the idea that it's the most important aspect of a partnership is also the source of a lot of suffering.

To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Mark Sebastian.