Valentine’s Day and the creepy idea of romantic love

It’s intriguing that there is a whole day set aside for the celebration of romantic love. In fact, it’s as weird as the entire Australian nation voluntarily shutting down for half a day in November for a horse race.

Both of those events – Valentine’s Day and the Melbourne Cup – probably have more in common than a first glance might indicate. Both deal with an impossible demand and a certain structure of desire. And with each there can be a sense of making a bet that is not recoverable: we often pin everything we have on a romantic relationship.


Falling in love is usually described as some kind of inner communion with another. In this scenario, love is always extra-political. But it is very often the case that we see the desired other as a kind of mix of images that are more or less directly linked to our vision of our self. Which is a way of saying that you fall in love with yourself. Or an idea of what you’d like to be. Unfortunately, this also means that we tend to fall in love with characteristics or signs, not people. This is partly because of the developmental tasks we all have to overcome, and partly because the fabulous hypercapitalism with which we are all complicit privileges very specific modalities of desire.

Sexually, the developmental task can be stated in various ways, but one way to put it is that choosing a partner is partly a matter of finding someone who is a close enough image of one’s own image of the Oedipally desired parent. But not too close. Another way of framing it, if the Oedipus thing freaks you out too much, would be to say that everyone has an unspoken image of what desire is and what it is for and what it does, an image many years in the making, since we were infants in fact.

That dodgy mission of the fulfilment of desire doesn’t happen in outer space, floating free of political gravity. Capitalism’s desire structure says that your personal longings are of inestimable value. There is in fact nothing greater. To leave them unfulfilled is a spiritual disaster. And capitalism has many things to offer you to alleviate that yearning, of which romance is one.

Given that most of us have been fucked up beyond imagining by fraught childhood states, plugging capitalism’s desire machine into that dynamic is going to produce train-wrecks on a spectacular scale.

Falling for characteristics is much the same as saying that people fall in love primarily as a sexual activity, despite all our declarations to the contrary. The reasons we fall in love are rarely the reasons why we think we fall in love, so much about our own subjectivity being unavailable to us. It’s rare that we can make a full answer to questions about who we are, everything being so fractured with politics and all.

But the perilous search for familiar and comforting characteristics in another, when modified by capitalism’s fabulous propaganda of desire, a propaganda that reaches into a human being’s most intimate interactions, insists that there is something about the other’s body, or job, or gender, or money, or ethnicity, or family, or house, or car, or politics, or enthusiasm for death metal or literature, that will make the complete fulfilment of an intimate desire possible.

It is as if we become infatuated with an image that is slightly to the left or the right of the person who is actually there. Which might explain why lovers can become so infuriated with each other. Each is trying to wall up the other in a narcissistic prison. And they don’t want to go.


The more insanely we fall in love at the beginning, the more likely it is, as Freud pointed out, that we have engaged in an instance of mistaken identity. In other words the harder you fall for someone, the more likely it is that you’ve just initiated a disaster. In this reading, falling in love is more like a sudden delusional episode.

It’s interesting to think of falling in love that way, as a kind of psychotic event. A psychotic episode is not, as one might think, a breakdown happening. It can be read as an attempt to recover from a breakdown, an attempt at self-cure. As meaning begins to fall apart, or become more difficult to construct, the psychosis arises as the master plan to explain everything: Of course! It was the Muslims all along! Now things make sense.

Or: My life makes sense now that I have fallen in love with this person. Now I am complete, with my soulmate, my other half.


It’s true of many people in relationships that they rarely spend much time outside of one. And when they are on their own, they prefer not to be alone for long. The experience of being alone becomes very painful, almost as if it were a disability. One has to endure the consequences of one’s own breakdown.

Although literature has a long history of being obsessed with the experience of falling in love (see Dante, Shakespeare, Proust) it’s in popular music that the expression of romantic love has really gone nuts. Of all the songs you’ve ever heard, most of them are probably love songs. By this measure we seem desperately obsessed with romantic love, as if we are unable to think of anything else. David Byrne once said that if aliens were actually observing us, they may well mistake our soap operas for documentaries, and our TV news programs for soap operas. After all, soap operas record all the vicissitudes of our daily obsession with romantic love in all its impossibly inventive forms. Most TV news is not much more than fantasy.

In the love song people are usually either falling in love or still in love but betrayed and melancholy. Of course there have been some miraculous love songs (like this one and this one) and some amazing interpreters of love songs. There have been love songs bitter and humorous, songs semi-religious, love songs about things as well as people, and occasionally, even a song about romantic love’s cynical and narcissistic false image.

There don’t seem to have been too many love songs that have risen out of political events, love generally being a politically neutral zone, but in their great anti-love song ‘Love like Anthrax’, the Gang of Four – who are Marxists – have a spoken thread running behind their bitter, but highly perceptive lyrics:

Love crops up quite a lot as something to sing about. ‘Cos most groups make most of their songs about falling in love or how happy they are to be in love, you occasionally wonder why these groups do sing about it all the time …. Apparently everyone has or can love, or so they would have you believe anyway…I don’t think we’re saying there’sanything wrong with love, we just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.

We find so many excuses for love. When love goes wrong, we invest vast amounts of energy trying to repair the relationship, to make it work, rather than thinking that the problem might be love itself. So much violence results from love. It seems to be built into love’s structure, lurking there like a toad in a bog. Is romantic love just an example of violent misogyny? Is it the fantasy map of violence’s dominions, like a GPS that you set to drive you to Disneyland that instead takes you to Gaza during an Israeli shelling?


Women in abusive relationships have many reasons to remain in them, not least of which is the threat of escalating violence. But the very idea of ‘the relationship’ can play its part too. As one woman who had freed herself from an abusive relationship said to me, ‘Having anyone seemed better than having no-one.’ It’s very common for workers in the area of family violence to speak of the ‘cycle of violence’, where a series of abusive acts by a man toward his partner are followed by an explosive reconciliation, with the revival of romance and the starry-eyed fusion in which lovers specialise, a lot of make-up sex, and then a slow disintegration into jealousy, regimes of control and more abuse. And so on, over and over.

Looking at it this way, there seems to be a kind of continuum with violence and abuse at one end and romantic love at the other. Perhaps each can segue into the other because each can hold the seeds of the other. In the documentary Standard Operating Procedure, an investigation into the US military’s regimes of torture at Abu Ghraib and the subsequent scapegoating of a few low-ranked soldiers, Lynddie England tried to explain how she struggled to survive in a toxic, traumatising male-dominated environment: ‘I was blinded by being in love,’ she says bitterly, ‘with a man.’


Just recently I came across the concept of the Girlfriend Experience. I knew that ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ was the name of a film by Steven Soderbergh  a film I hadn’t seen but that I assumed was something to do with maybe getting or having an actual girlfriend. It’s not.

So, this is what a Girlfriend Experience looks like: A man hires a young woman to pretend to be his new madly in-love girlfriend, both in public and in private. Naturally this includes having sex but also a lot of romancing. I found out what a Girlfriend Experience actually is via an article at Salon, that interviewed a US sex therapist who had surveyed 600 men who had paid for the Girlfriend Experience. The survey results were interesting and ran as follows:

  • 85 per cent of the 600 men surveyed were white
  • 66 per cent were married
  • 50 per cent had a university education
  • They were aged between 50 and 70
  • Their average annual income was just over US$140k
  • 40 per cent had fallen in love in with their ‘girlfriends’
  • The 85 per cent who were white exclusively requested white girlfriends
  • Nearly 80 per cent said that the main requirement of the girlfriend was that she be ‘romantic and tender’
  • All requested that their girlfriend be aged between 25 and 35

And if you think of the narrative of a Girlfriend Experience, it sounds very much like a romantic comedy, that category of Hollywood offerings often known as chickflicks. It’s as if men are writing their own scripts for a romantic comedy starring themselves. Nearly half the men surveyed had actually fallen in love with their sex workers. This immediately gives us a narrative of the tired, wealthy, sensitive, mature but misunderstood man, who has given his best years selflessly to his family, and is suddenly smitten with a smart, beautiful younger woman. Alas, good-hearted girl though she is, their love is problematic as she is in fact a prostitute and he is married to a good woman that he no longer loves. Will their transgressive but pure love survive and bloom? And so on.

Rom-coms, of course, are generally targeted at women audiences. The male protagonist in a rom-com is either hapless but sweet, or a bit of an ogre but cruelly misunderstood. But rom-coms are not just films about what men would like women to be, but also about what men believe themselves to be, and what they believe love is, and where it comes from and what it can do. The Fifty Shades of Grey series is perhaps less about a man being in charge of a woman than it is about a man worshipping a woman, and we could probably say this about rom-coms and romantic love more generally. That worship is, of course, actually a demand, a type of extortion.

Romantic relationships are strange events as we can see, and each has its own weird and unsettling quality. If you’re in one and it looks normal perhaps you should be a little bit more worried than you are and start casting around for the weird unsettling violent bits. But the narrative of the Girlfriend Experience, suggests that educated white men are suckers for romance. It’s probably also the demographic that tends to get the kudos for writing fiction, which is a bit worrying. Or perhaps not surprising, depending on what you think of contemporary fiction.

About the time I discovered the concept of the Girlfriend Experience, I also came across the concept of the Cool Girl, via a review at The Guardian:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’shosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Men actually think this girl exists.

Perhaps the Cool Girl fantasy is for those who can’t afford to buy the Girlfriend Experience.

In the film The Girlfriend Experience the sex worker in question falls for a client. The female protagonist is played by a real life porn star who plays a sex worker who offers her male clients the Girlfriend Experience, which becomes the real experience that she can tragically never have. The prostitute in a Hollywood film often has a heart of gold – and it either saves her life or dooms her.

The decision to become a sex worker, where it is a decision, might just be an economic choice, just as many of our choices are economic. It seems to me as though sex work is a kind of work that reveals the actual economic conditions under which we live. This is not to say that ‘we are all prostitutes’ but that sex work isn’t necessarily in a category of its own when it comes to selling one’s labour. Sex work is often invested with moral and political overtones that writing book reviews for News Corporation, or being a celebrity chef, isn’t.

Desire is always just beyond us, just out of reach. This is co-opted very neatly, or disastrously depending on how you look at it, by the structure of contemporary capitalism where our supposedly unproblematic and innate desires maintain a global industry of slaves. We know this, we can see this, but that doesn’t stop us driving ourselves to fulfil those desires. The transfiguration of fraught human interactions into a semi-religious quest for love is what capitalism specialises in. Instead of a transgressive engagement with the radical experience of reciprocity we are offered boyfriends and girlfriends and iToys and careers, and these we are happy to accept, whatever the trails of destruction they leave behind them.


Like writers who think that fiction is above politics, those of us who fall in love tend to ignore the sinister agendas hidden behind romantic love’s misty facade. In any work of creative prose, it is the thing not spoken that drives the narrative, or infuses the sentences with their distinct taste. In all our relationships with others there is always something unsaid that tries to be heard and that we continually misread. And even in our most intimate interactions, we struggle against the current of each other’s unheard desires, and the dreadful things we can mean when we tell someone we love them.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. I’m a bit foggy on this romantic love thing, but with the biological imperative no longer pressing, maybe it is time to try for a more politicised love. But what might a more politicised love look like, sound like, feel like? How to put the meaning to say in conjunction with speech? Didn’t Godard experiment with such a scenario in a few unsexy, not too successful films, from memory? Maybe though I was gauging sexiness against the Hollywood machine of the time. And isn’t it so, how “unspoken and unsaid” desires dictate “the dreadful things we can mean when we tell someone we love them”, which suggests love within current regimes can only and ever be shown and not spoken, as telling someone you love them is, more often than not, a sure sign and symptom that you don’t, so love remains forever profound. All of which adds spice, seemingly, to the tragic-comic farce surrounding romantic love.

    1. Maybe a politicised love wouldn’t look like love at all. I don’t claim to know. I suppose if we could excavate all the hidden agendas in love it would probably more like sex work.

  2. meant to comment on the great song supports for your argument … I have some … the specials cut me up each time … I’ve got the te kanamwa version of “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” … the battle is better … and love like anthrax is a stone cold classic … I have thenm all now on my old reel-to-reel … the soundtrack to my life … thanks for that … and I’d suggest the medics’ ‘slow burn’ is up there too … “tell someone you’re insane and let it be” … thanks for that … highly appreciated

      1. Imagine a world in which romantic love was banned. Seriously, imagine the songs we would never have heard, and there would be none of the heroic efforts it seems to inspire in the beloved. What a boring old world it would be – no muses, for a start.

        I have seen it move mountains, some that I didn’t particularly want to see moved, but move they did. And I have seen it inspire people to be better. I understand there are pathologies around love, naturally enough, but I don’t think that means there isn’t a form that, if not pure, certainly does more good than harm.

        1. Ah yes. The songs we would never have had. The Beatles’ ‘Michelle’, The Police’s ‘Roxane’ and so many many other gems without which human civilization would be the poorer.
          I’m nit suggesting or arguing for something purer. I just think we can do a lot better. Romance might move mountains sometimes, it also puts people in the morgue, hospital, the therapist’s chair and is very good at stalking.

  3. Yes but getting rid of romance isn’t going to heal the tragedy of people’s lives. You have to heal the wound, don’t you? Romance is unlikely to be the cause of violence. Pathology seems the likelier culprit.

  4. Back to arranged marriages then? The wounds would still be there to be to be recreated and passed down as dysfunctional behaviour. Surely education is the key, particularly in the area of child-development. We need to understand more fully the effects of parental behaviour on children, so that we don’t keep making the same mistakes and recreating the same wounds. As I write I am listening to a radio program about family violence. It is very distressing stuff, and they are talking about exactly that, the effect of violence on children. That’s a good start. I wish you well Stephen. Thankyou for the chat.

  5. perhaps the weird, unsettling bits also have some roots in chemistry, not the kind between people, (though it may be the same thing we just externalise it), but within our very brains.

    ‘cupid chemistry’ has been shown to activate the parts of the brain central to addiction, and seretonin levels are the same as in obsessive-complusive ‘disorder’ (though I would say, trauma trying to ‘reorder’ itself).

    I find it very interesting there is a very loud silence in response to this post – perhaps about a subject that is way too close to home?

    is it too much to bear to consider that our beloved romantic love connects us to violence that weaves it’s way between our words, that underflow our actions, and evetually inhabits our very selves?

    it is for me! but thanks for the sobering post.

    1. Yeah, that’s interesting to think of romantic love as an addiction. And I agree experiences like OCD are often traumas trying to reorder themselves.
      As far as the post goes, it has gotten a lot of FB ‘likes’ but not in proportion to the comments. Usually lots of FB ticks translates into lots of comments. Maybe everyone just agreed and went off to burn the V-Day cards they’d written out

  6. Stephen, so humans arrive via sex, procreation and come into the world as loving creatures through parental figures that offer a social bonding and haven. So this kind of implies man-woman-sex-social-bonding at some minimal level at least (yes, this is hetero-centric, but at the level of having more humans this is necessary at some minimal level — obviously a lot more can come before, during and after this, that may or may not involve different sexes, actual sex, social bonds and/or children).

    So ‘romantic love’ is this for you a very particular corruption of social-sexual-bonding or is the whole thing out for you?

    “the radical experience of reciprocity” could involve sexual-energy-exchange, right?

    1. I think romantic love is a manifestation of a particular structure of desire, and I suspect that the way we gender children and the way we construe affection to children have a lot to do with it. Perhaps in falling in love we are trying to re-enact something, but either way I’m pretty clear that it has a political base.
      What might be possible outside of falling in love is a discussion for some other time, but whatever it involves it will have to be wary of narcissism and embracing of love or whatever we decide to call it, as a political act.
      Which means rethinking sexual experience too I’d imagine.

  7. Incredibly, this article does not mention the book In Praise of Love by France’s preeminent Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou.

    He argues that love, rather than being an outgrowth of capitalism, is in fact under threat in today’s culture that favours of hedonistic individualism:

    “Now, when the logic of identity wins the day, love is under threat. The way it is attracted to difference, its social dimension, and its wild, eventually violent side are under threat. They promote a “love” that is safe, in line with all their other security initiatives. So now it is urgent to defend love’s subversive, heterogenous relationship to the law. At the most minimal level, people in love put their trust in difference rather than being suspicious of it. Reactionaries are always suspicious of difference in the name of identity; that’s their general philosophical starting-point.”

    1. I didn’t mention Badiou, who is something of a Lacanian as well as a Marxist, because my argument is not concerned with his.
      I could have quoted Octavio Paz too, who speaks of love being a revolutionary and dangerous activity. I don’t think there’s anything dangerous about romantic love in the subversive sense. And I’d also question a sentence like ‘At the most minimal level, people in love put their trust in difference.’

      1. ok Stephen – can we have some more of why you think your argument is not concerned with Badiou’s; I would have thought it rather related… also what’s to question in the ‘trust in difference’ statement.

        1. Badiou isn’t really speaking about violence in love and though he critiques romance from various points of view, he doesn’t seem to me to be engaging with the practice of love as misogyny. Which I am. And though there might be points of contact in what we are saying, I’m sort of running parallel.
          Badiou is a bit optimistic about difference in love I think. Maybe he needs to go back and think a bit more Lacan and be more pessimistic or something. I can see how Badiou’s book could be attractive to the Left, especially men of the Left, but my own belief and professional experience leads me to believe that romance is a very dodgy thing cloaking a lot of violence. Badiou is right when he quotes Rimbaud (I think) that love needs to be reinvented. But not romantic love. It needs to be buried at a crossroads with a stake thru its heart.

          1. Also Badiou says things like, ‘I don’t think you can mix up love and politics’ or something like that. Which seems bizarre to me, and as you can see in the post, a position I can’t agree with at all.

  8. “romance is a very dodgy thing cloaking a lot of violence”

    I suppose when I think of this I’m still wondering what exactly you are meaning by ‘romance’ here – sorry if that seems obstinant but your whole argument seems to rest on whatever you are including/excluding from this umbrella term. The identification of ‘romantic love’ in your first sentence, for instance, could be read as social-bonds between sex-mates (general eros love) or it could mean a particular ‘romantic’ slant on this mating.

    1. Jusat track thru the post Luke:
      – an all or nothing relationship
      – inner communion
      – extra-political
      – desired other as a reflection of the self
      – reveals the secret structure of one’s personal desire
      – cued to capitalism’s construction of individual identity
      – search for familiar and comforting signs in another
      – like a sudden delusional episode
      – avoids a breakdown or confrontation
      – obsessive
      – starry-eyed fusion
      – a cover story for misogyny
      – enables violence
      – extortion disguised as worship
      – thrives over romantic dinners and in Abu Ghraib

      1. So I guess the question then is, (how) can we have sexual-bond-couple relationships, without or reducing or moving away from any of this shit?

        Incidentally this list makes me think of how children are often treated it seems to me, parental and educational…

        So maybe this is a question of, how to be family-together (family in whatever forms), without this shit?…

          1. “But sexuality under capitalism is a weird thing, heterosexually at least, and can easily become the object on which the intimacy of a relationship hangs, rather than language or understandings or something more radically communicative than sex.”

            Here I think lies the secret moralism of this blog entry which, despite the word “capitalism” being dangled aimlessly in the middle of sentences, is an essentially conservative article. Sex is bad! Language is good! Let’s have respectful intellectual relationships only! None of this silly, messy relationship stuff involving complex, irrational desires!

            Stephen’s implication that there are no romantic relationships that don’t involve violence and exploitation is absolute garbage. One could reasonably assert that “friction” is unavoidable in romance but is this the ultimate horizon of our utopia: a frictionless society?

            Badiou’s defence of romantic love is founded on a definition of love as an experience in which one’s self is put at risk. As a lived experience, the people in a romantic relationship bare the most intimate parts of themselves with what Lacanians might call a Neighbour (someone irreducibly “Other”). The joy and value of a romantic relationship derives from the work and commitment that goes into reconciling this friction (between one’s sense of “identity” and interpersonal engagement). This is why Badiou has “sting” and Stephen does not: Badiou argues for trust in difference and Stephen argues for polite and respectful “reciprocity.” Badiou uses the State’s attitudes towards immigrants as a metaphor here. The reaction against love is analogous to the reaction against immigrants because they are predicated on the idea of “risk reduction.” Our rational desire for a frictionless society—free of violence and risk—contains its own logic of violence.

            As for your idea that feminists probably wouldn’t identify with Badiou, instead of speaking on behalf of all feminists, I’ll defer to one. This is Judith Butler in “Doubting Love”:

            “There are those that might argue that the idea of love is an assault against ideation itself. One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love. Again, in the face of such views, I am full of admiration and I think that the people who believe that love shatters the idea of love are the ones who truly know what love is, who have done it, undergone it, had it done… Love always returns us to what we do and do not know. We have no other choice than to become shaken by doubt, and to persist with what we can know when we can know it.”

        1. Badiou’s stance in PoL is that sexual relationships, while fun in all sorts of ways, have a way of disconnecting lovers from each other. I can’t remember his exact argument. In other words sexual relationships within romance isn’t the main game, or even close to it. My professional experience leads me to think that women get this a lot more than men do, but I don’t know if this is true generally. It wouldn’t surprise me.

          1. “In other words sexual relationships within romance isn’t the main game, or even close to it” not sure what you mean by this.

          2. Romantic relationships are largely about the misinterpretation of signs I guess, and having sex is a large part of a romantic relationship. But sexuality under capitalism is a weird thing, heterosexually at least, and can easily become the object on which the intimacy of a relationship hangs, rather than language or understandings or something more radically communicative than sex.
            Do people experiment with falling in love without sex? Why not?

          3. Bradley, you don’t have to address me in the third person. I’m right here.
            I’m really not sure where to go with this and don’t have a lot more time to give it. I always think that every person who takes time to comment on one of my posts deserves a straight and immediate answer. But I’m really not clear whether you’re just wilfully misrepresenting what I’ve tried to say or just have difficulty getting your head around the idea that romantic love might just suck.
            ‘Language’ as you seem to intrepreting it is not just an intellectual enterprise. Language is all we have. And language is inextricably entwined with desire. As I have written before on other posts, unspoken desire is something that drives all those aspects of identity outside of our subjective awareness.
            Desires are never irrational. They always have a rationality. That’s the whole point of desire and its structure. Desire subverts all our protestations of love and shows us that something else is always at stake. Desires tries to speak whenever we use language to shut it down. And in fact, as babies learn, while language represents desire it is also inadequate to that expression, which is why I say that we can smuggle dreadful things into a relationship when we tell someone we love them.
            All close relationships have a sub-text of coercion that arises at some time. When I think of close friends, both straight and gay, who are in committed, functional close long-term relationships, I’m very certain that if I suggested that intimate relationships could be free of coercion or controlling behaviours they’d fall about laughing.
            One of the goals of intimate relationships is not a non-coercive outcome but one that is always moving toward that idea, just as democracy is defined by the idea that democracy is something that one never ‘has’ but always moves toward.
            Your assertion that “people in a romantic relationship bare the most intimate parts of themselves” seems very naive, because it literally equates getting naked with intimacy, something that in my professional experience is a mistake that men tend to make.
            I am also not argung for ‘polite reciprocity’ but as I clearly stated ‘radical reciprocity’ an idea I didn’t have the space to explore but has nothing to do with being ‘polite’ in the derogatory sense that you are usng the term.
            Badiou’s ‘Praise of Love’ in my opinion skates over the gendered violence that is so prevalent in capitalist economies. He does mention relationship violence but it is almost an afterthought, a ‘yes we know that happens but however…’.
            I’m not clear in your quoting of Butler whether she is actually endorsing Badiou, or whether you think she is. Either way, you are continually confusing romantic love with other notions of care as though romance were the only kind of love available. I have no idea what Butler’s context is that you quote from, but a sentence like “”One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love” seems deeply problematic to me.

  9. “I think romantic love is a manifestation of a particular structure of desire”

    Just to clarify…

    So desire has a number of structures?
    And what is the ‘particular’ structure of romantic love’s desire? A desire born of unfulfilled developmental needs?

    Are you saying desire in it’s many forms is basically a wanting, getting, and satisfying, which does not actually satisfy the deeper need, the need which stems from unfulfilled developmental needs? And so we get rather upset when we realise our needs are not being met, and either try to force someone into meeting them, or move onto the next victim.

    If so, what can satisfy those unmet needs?
    Don’t we all have unmet needs? The picture you paint is one of humans walking around trying to locate potential sources to satisfy unmet needs, possibly through what ever means, including violence, however subtle, all the while being guiding rather heavy-handedly by capitalist solutions to this ‘problem’…yes?

    1. Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good summary. I’d put a qualifier around the use of the term ‘developmental’ , as it can easily imply a human being without a context.
      But I guess one way to look at it would be to say that as far as we can tell babies are born wired to seek engagement. What they encounter is a kind of encoded neoliberalism, and gendered neoliberalism at that. And it keeps going from there.

  10. My disagreement with this article stems from the fact that “romance” is being used as a term to stand for a whole lot of things—obsession, commitment, passion, desire, violence, exploitation—without a convincing argument that these things necessarily follow from “romance.” And then these terms are all somehow conflated with “capitalism” as if obsession, passion, desire, violence & exploitation would disappear outside of capitalism. I say this as someone inside a romantic relationship: Somehow, my partner and I have managed to be in love without exploiting or being violent towards each other!

    Further, I can’t accept the always-sinister character you attribute to obsession, passion and desire. If the Left insists on disavowing obsession, commitment, passion and desire (if this is even possible), then the Left has a wish to fail. You might even call this the Left’s secret desire!

  11. I guess if the post hasn’t convinced you there’s not much more to say. I think the rebuttal of your arguments is in there.
    Obsession etc etc wouldn’t disappear outside capitalism, but capitalism has unique ways of inflating them to world-destroying proportions.
    I don’t think I’ve named passion at all, and neither have I named commitment. I think it’ s clear that I’m not disavowing desire either. I’m asking questions of desire and trying to situate it beyond sexual or romantic desire, but as a politicised structure that capitalism has uniquely manipulated and re-envisioned.
    Good luck in your romantic relationship. I wish you well. However, if you have managed to construct a relationship without any violence or exploitation you may well be the first couple in creation to do so.

  12. No doubt this has been covered by the post and comments times over, however…

    Since reading this post and observing romantic love a little more closely (however it is defined) –

    “Keep it simple, stupid…

    1. Say I love you. Anytime before you leave the house, make sure to say I love you to your partner. This is the simplest and easiest way to be romantic.
    2. Leave a note on the mirror. After you take a hot shower, write a sexy message on the mirror with your finger. It’ll be a little surprise for your partner when they’re done showering.
    3. Find a song just for them. Pick a song that reminds you of your significant other and send it to them during the day. You can send it via email or as a post on their Facebook wall.
    4. Send them a text. A simple text saying “just thinking about you” is a real easy way to be romantic.
    5. Surprise them with a date. Without letting your partner know, show up to their workplace and take them out on a lunch date. This will surely be the highlight of their day.”

    – it’s as though the whole (commercial) notion of romantic love has been pumped to exhaustion, people endlessly rearranging ways of saying the same thing (as I am doing here), so much so it’s a wonder romantic love doesn’t explode (which it does – in people’s faces). The weirdness being it is totally alienating at the same time.

    I had thought earlier of dragging Badiou into the argument (as a commenter did later) but thought better of it. As I understand Badiou, love is a numbers thing (neither one nor two), and isn’t love if it is simply a case of the one or the two, as there needs to be a friction to the indecisive numerical arrangement for Badiou. How he accounts for that friction becoming violence I am unsure. I do know though that friction in love is more about unsaid desires than romantic love (as pointed out in the post), and that’s where the whole insane romantic love ideal grows murky and criminal (crimes of passion etc), unfortunately.

    1. Badiou in PoL doesn’t really address the idea of romance and violence. He speaks of crimes of passion and suicides etc in the context of relationships, but doesn’t give any context that I can see.
      As I say, I can see how for some men of the Left PoL could be attractive. I can’t really see how a feminist could take it seriously. I mean Badiou is fine and everything, but sometimes he’s like Lacan with all the sting removed.

    2. classic Dennis.
      those hints/instructions have no momentum. it’s not about a growing, living thing. I actually would enjoy all those things I think, but what is the larger context such rapport-building activities are contained within?… a living, growing embracing-of-other-relationship or a give-and-take trade off?

    1. Further, on why it’s better to be classic than romantic. I had a dip at Classical Studies once after my usual pseudo-intellectual fashion and from what I can recall and have recalled here, many of its writers had a healthy perspective on desire, and often were down on love, particularly heterosexual love:

      Anacreon – Bring water, bring wine, boy, and bring us / Wreathes of flowers. I mean to box with love.
      Ibycus – How I shudder at love’s coming / Like an old champion team-horse forced, / Under the chariot-yoke and back into the race.
      Euripides – For love, when it comes, brings only ruin and every species of calamity to man.
      Catullus – What a woman says to her overheated lover … / Well, you can write it on the wind / And in swiftly-flowing water.
      Catullus – I hate and I love. Why should I do that, perhaps you ask? / I have no idea; but I feel it happen and it tortures me.
      Catullus: Why not take a bold decision, why not simply walk away? / The gods don’t want you wretched: why not stop? / It’s hard to make a break when you’ve been together a long time. / It’s hard; but do it, any way you can.
      Plato: Kissing Agathon, I held my life on my lips. / I wanted to pass over, poor thing, into him.
      Sappho: Yet again I’m hamstrung by love. He’s stirred me up. / That sweet-bitter, impossible creature.
      Paul The Silentiary: Mortals are so hard to please! If you really want to be / A slave to love, you’ll need long nights.
      Propertius: I was free, and had no mind to share my bed; / But peace broke out and I was snared by Love.


      Sex is brief, degrading fun
      And quickly palls when it is done.
      So let’s not, like livestock filled with carnal greed
      Rush blind and headlong at the deed;
      Such love goes stale, the flame is burned.
      But thus, with business ever more adjourned,
      Let’s lie together and just kiss.
      There’s no toil, no cause for shame in this.
      It pleased, it pleases, it long will please;
      It ever starts and knows no cease.

      So called classical love poetry runs into problems too, but nothing of the order of that Valentine-style “Kiss” list, and the trillions of other pieces of romantic love detritus.

      1. Thanks for that compendium. That’s illuminating.
        Desire can be interrogated, and situated in contexts. Romance sits in the categories with sunshine and christmas, unchallengeable. It’s amazing as the poets etc you quote point out that something that makes us so ill, has gained such a hold.

        1. Yes, I did mean sexual desire and stupidly enough, hadn’t thought of contextualising desire (seeing paradigms of desire, if that’s the same thing: perhaps after Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions?) and will now hold that way of thinking in mind. Cheers!

  13. having been involved in an intensely romantic relationship, and I mean intensely, I feel confident to say, romance doesn’t cut it in the real world. It lacks a genuine founding of honesty by its nature, and it is this lack that helps sustain it. romance may get us together but it won’t keep us together, and that’s where the lack of honesty turns from feverish biochemical excitement etc to intential steps to maintain this state, to ‘nurture it’.

    that little list of little things is like a set of care instructions for a plant or pet, except for a person, it is so sickeningly superficial, and a way to ensure/manipulate a supply of attention, to pump up the image we have of ourselves and the other, and keep ‘the romance alive’.

    Romance is meant to die, that way we have the opportunity to engage in open, honest, real-world conversations with this person we are attracted to, which may flicker with the romantic spark occasionally, but are founded in the desire to grow, learn, and understand deeply the urgency undercurrenting our lives to live fully now.

    Romance has a brief, brilliant moment, but it must die to make way for the opportunity of genuine engagement.

    1. I guess I’d wonder if on the death of romantic love what’s left is not an opportunity for engagement but just a whole lot of debris, just as someone recovering from a psychotic episode may have to face overwhelming shame, the realisation that the thing that gave life overwhelming meaning is now shattered,the need to adjust to what may seem to be a grim new reality of mundane occurrences and so forth.

      1. hmmm, yes, possibly, but maybe it depends how deeply our romantic interactions activate the addictive centres of our brains, or who knows, maybe a bit of debris might spin out another number one hit, but actually….whilst I’m writing this reply, I think you may be right.

        Although the heady, fantasy world of romance can be fun, it’s the sort of fun that will always hurt. it hurts a lot when it discontinues and dies, or we try to ‘keep it alive’, or chase it down, maybe even through violence, as you have pointed out, however subtle & silent; maybe it is actually better not to lose the more subtle happiness that can be found in the day-to-day, and have something meaningful from the start.

        and then with our mind clearer and not lost in the biochemmical haze, maybe capitalism’s heavy-handed ways won’t be able push us around so much…

      2. “Desire is always just beyond us, just out of reach. This is co-opted very neatly, or disastrously depending on how you look at it, by the structure of contemporary capitalism where our supposedly unproblematic and innate desires maintain a global industry of slaves.”

        “And even in our most intimate interactions, we struggle against the current of each other’s unheard desires, and the dreadful things we can mean when we tell someone we love them.”

        ok, now I get it.

        Cupid, you’re so fired!

  14. Stephen you are so down with romance!
    But what if as Anonymous intimates, we plan for romance to die from the get go – maybe that wouldn’t qualify as ‘romance’ according to this blog, so maybe we need yet further distinctions. I have a kind of romance (hot flush of excitement yadda yadda) whenever I being a new idea with others that captivate me, and then yeah this flush will flush away and other things must come… but what if we are all knowing this from the get go, having an honest conversation about the brilliant moment and all knowing it is transient, isn’t that okay? it’s like we can all enjoy the raucous around genuinely funny jokes and situations that occurs as the release of energy around new people involving themselves with each other, but we know that there’s not going to be this rush later and to rey to replicate it would be the quickest way to kill it. More laughter etc can come, but in quite different not-the-first-moments way.

      1. You’re drifting into the realms of fantasy Jones, and still arguing for romantic love. I don’t think we can plan for romance to die, because when romance dies planned or otherwise shit goes down. It’s like saying let’s plan for my next psychotic episode to pass. It doesn’t make any sense.
        If you are trying to describe something mind changing that happens with a new experience of some kind, some new engagement, that’s something else entirely.
        Driving home from work today I was listening to Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ which has the great lyric, ‘It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love.’ Given that the side effects of Bowie’s own cocaine use was a prolonged psychotic episode where he became immersed in the occult, thought he could see corpses falling past his window, would only drink milk and believed someone was stealing his semen, perhaps he was closer to the truth about romantic love than he realised.

        1. I think I am talking about “something mind changing that happens with a new experience of some kind, some new engagement”. I think that’s the tricky thing with a word like romance is that it has a few different traditions of meaning so attaches to a range of connotations. Poly-discursive and all that.

          I suppose that is why I have been asking you what you are want to include, and not, within your use of the term. I think the formula Romantic Love = Psychosis is a nice summary of much of what you have said here (a psychosis fanned by capitalistic modes of living).

  15. The toll of romantic love victims mounts: and then there are those who hooked up “permanently” after a romantic fling and remained together when they shouldn’t have, for “the sake of the children”. Poor children. Does that happen still I wonder, or are there far more torturous and toxic romantic love twists I know nothing about? Romantic love in the Valentine sense is a social problem as it stands – a social problem that mostly goes unrecognised, or if it is recognised, is not taken seriously – and if there are far worse social effects still, romantic love is a serious social problem – almost a cause for activism. Or am I being melodramatic (overly romantic myself)?

    1. V-Day activism – go into a bookshop, steal all the novels that concern themselves with love and throw them into a pond? Whenever someone tells you they’ve fallen in love, look very worried and offer your sympathies? Examine Shakespeare’s sonnets fro signs of psychotic delusions?

  16. V-day activism: stop telling people you love them and show them you respect them instead?

    Or how about a campaign:”Romantic Love – you know you’re in it for yourself; get out for the sake of all”

    and then go and get a real life!

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