Screw the “romantic mystique” — let’s think about love

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Yes, I bought a million copies of this book.

I’m currently finishing up Carrie Jenkin’s book What Love Is: And What It Could Be and adoring it. I’m not ready to write a full review yet, but one of the things I’m enjoying about the book is that it’s not only enabled but encouraged me to think critically about romantic relationship structures and the related cultural narratives and assumptions.

Carrie’s got this great concept of the “romantic mystique,” which is a twist on Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique. I strongly encourage y’all’s to read Carrie’s discussion of romantic mystique here, but the tl;dr is this: we base some of the biggest decisions of our lives on romantic love, and yet we resist actually examining love for fear of overthinking it and somehow erasing its magic.

As a compulsive thinker, I am profoundly aware of the risks of overthinking shit (UG), but at the same time I also recognize that if there’s ever a time for me to be thinking critically about this stuff, now is that time. (Divorced, single, midlife, bla bla bla!) Also, I’m recognizing that some of what comes up for me when I go down the relationship research rabbit hole is girly-shame. Like, “oh god I’m sooooo predictable right now reading about relationship stuff bla bla bla.”

FUCK THAT. We should all be thinking about this shit, since we all base huge life decisions on it. An unexamined life, etc etc.

That in mind, here’s some of my recent research on love, relationships, dating, and feminism:

The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships with Alain de Botton

GOD I LOVED THIS. Not to get all click-baity about it, but Minute 20 made me cry. (No, for real though!)

Choice quotes:

A certain kind of bravery, a certain heroic acceptance of loneliness seems to be one of the key ingredients to being able to form a good relationship.

I think if you’re lonely with only — I don’t know — 40 percent of your life, that’s really good going. You may not want to be lonely with over 50 percent, but I think there’s certainly a sizable minority share of your life which you’re going to have to endure without echo from those you love.

And another way of looking at love is connection. We’re all the time, we are hardwired to seek connections with others. And that is, in a sense, at a kind of granular level, what love is. Love is connection. And insofar as one is alive and one is in buoyant, relatively buoyant spirit some of the time, it’s because we are connected. And we can take pride in how flexible our minds ultimately are about where that connection is coming.

What I learned about love:
That in or out of partnership, we’re all broken and lonely people — and that it’s ok.

Meet the woke misogynist

Ug, this topic is complex for me. I have no answers or even solid opinions, but I appreciate that the conversation is happening.

Choice quote:

Women recalled chronic patronizing, compulsive manterrupting, and classic sexism excused with self-awareness (“I know this is super-sleazy of me, but…”). The thing about being a woke misogynist who attracts confident feminists is that he’s more likely to get challenged. These men, in turn, are unusually willing to Talk It Out, often leading to maddening head games.

What I learned about love:
That it’s a complex time to be a feminist tryna get laid out there.

How technology has transformed how we connect — and reject — in the digital age

This is by Esther Perel, whose Mating In Captivity I was reading the month before my marriage fell apart and HA HA HA I really need to finish that book one of these years.

Choice quote:

The term “stable ambiguity,” used by my colleague Terry Real, is quite apt for such relationships. By remaining in this state, people avoid both loneliness and commitment.

Terry Real expounding further on the concept:

Peter had parked in a position I call “stable ambiguity.” For those of us who have emerged from painful childhoods or dysfunctional families, intimacy can be a conundrum. Too immature to deal with the pain of being alone and to tolerate the pain inherent in any important relationship, some of us avoid both loneliness and commitment by arranging connections that we’re in, but not of—affairs, star-crossed situations, long-distance romances. The most prevalent form is “I’m with you, but I don’t really belong here.”

What I learned about love:
That we have elaborate games we play with ourselves to feel safe and stable.

Ok, so that’s enough of my research… I’d love to hear what YOU ALL are reading and thinking about love these days. I want to hear it all: dating, explorations of monogamy, relationship anarchy, feminist dating in Trump’s America… all of it!

Comments on Screw the “romantic mystique” — let’s think about love

  1. Vagina by Naomi Wolf was an incredible book about sex and by extension relationships.

    Funnily enough, I was also reading ‘Mating in Captivity’, when my marriage fell apart, and never finished it. He didn’t want to read it. Perhaps that should have been a sign…

  2. I need to be a contrarian and say that I read “Mating in Captivity” six years ago and my marriage has not yet fallen apart! In fact, it led to enlightening conversations with my husband about how the best way to address the sadness we were feeling about never being able to fuck new people was to, well, go fuck other people. After many months of brutally honest talking and setting of boundaries, of course.

    I recently read Botton’s “The Course of Love” and I found parts of it profoundly relatable–the way Rabih and Kirsten’s respective emotional scars informed their interactions, how they could be simultaneously intimate and estranged from one another, and how the daily grind of adult responsibilities can de-emphasize love and other profound and beautiful things that make life worth living.

    But ultimately, the book seemed kind of depressing and unimaginative. To me it read like he was saying that resigning oneself to a mature, measured adult marriage and repressing one’s passions and creative fire in order to fulfill society’s expectations of a stable partner and parent is the best anyone can expect out of a long-term relationship. Bleak.

    • I in no way meant to imply the book was a factor, I actually really enjoyed the parts of the book I did read, and it lead to some painful if important ‘ah ha’ moments that helped me decide that this marriage wasn’t for me. It’s just that once the marriage was done, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, both because I was no longer ‘in captivity’, and because it was a painful reminder of what hadn’t worked.

      • No, no, I didn’t think you were! I was being a little bit tongue in cheek and didn’t want anyone to be put off reading Perel’s book, because I liked it so much. Just the way she talks about relationships was so refreshing to me.

        • Yeah, I just want to emphasize that the Esther Perel book was wonderful! My timing was bad with reading it, but it wasn’t the book’s fault by any means.

  3. I love this quote about loneliness. It’s encouraging to know other people struggle with this too, makes it seem more like “something that will pass” and less like “I’m a fuckup”.
    I read the “woke misogynist” and had to smile. I work in a conservative industry and I’m a little older than ya’ll so I have much more basic feminist issues to contend with from my peers. From my perspective, she’s explaining which fork to use at dinner and I’m trying to get them not to shit in the corner. So, this is progress, right? Yeah yeah I know, I know… But people being manipulative to get sex is as old as… well, sex. And sometimes lip service to change is the start of change.

  4. Also interesting to me: My favorite men in my life don’t talk as good a game about feminism as a “woke misogynist” might. They’re not as well versed in the lingo and may not be as immersed in the politics as I am. They might make politically incorrect jokes and raise an eyebrow initially at some of my more extreme opinions. But they treat women like fellow humans, treat me with profound respect, listen to me closely when I speak, and are open to change. They’ll revisit a conversation we had about the Bechdel test and tell me they look at movies differently now. That’s so much more valuable to me than a dude wearing a pussy hat–which, ironically, is someone I would be wary of.

    • Agreed. A lot of my favorite men treat all humans the same, which some times means they’re assholes to women, just as they’re sometimes assholes to men, but they’re equal opportunity assholes 😛

  5. I recently read Attached, and found it surprisingly helpful: The authors do a good job of acknowledging the limits of their framework, and, for me, finding that I have “avoidant” tendencies helped me not freak out during a “maybe this is a terrible idea and I shouldn’t be in this relationship!!” phase. Which is good, because I love the person I’m in a relationship with.

    Does anyone have any recommendations for books/resources that are focused on navigating long-distance and/or queer relationships? I have one that’s both, and I’m not finding it reflected on bookshelves.

    • Understanding attachment theory completely changed my understanding about how I function in relationships. So incredibly helpful! I was introduced to it through Stan Tatkin’s work ( — ha ha, that post was published the day before my husband left me) but it’s all the same concepts… HELLO TO MY FELLOW ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT TYPES!

      As for your recommendation request… I got nuthin’, but I’d love to hear what others have to say.

    • LUCY OMG!! I got “Attatched” in the mail yesterday and cracked it open to a random page and it happened to be about anxious attachment (ME!) and tears sprang to my eyes because it was like reading a page from my journal. Great, great book recommendation — thank you!

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