Eva Illouz on why modern courtship hinges on social validation.
Courtesy of Tracey St Peter
In 1897, two books of advice on courtship were published, both written by Mrs. Humphry: Manners for Men and Manners for Women. The advice consisted of guidance about class and gender codes in middle-class courtships: men were counseled about their deportment and manners, how to walk in the street beside a woman, whether to introduce a woman before introducing a man, whether to offer an umbrella to an unknown lady, whether to refrain from smoking in the presence of ladies, which hand (right or left) to offer a lady stepping into a carriage, and how to extricate oneself from the problem of not having enough money to pay at a restaurant. The advice to women consisted of exhortations about remaining self-possessed, and sprinkling one’s conversation with laughter (albeit not too loud), about how to ride a bicycle elegantly, which food and wine to serve when entertaining, which flowers to put on the table, and when to curtsey.
Many—if not most–of the advice books of the period were concerned with codifying gender and class within the realm of romance because they were aimed primarily at successful courtship, which generally depended on the ability to adopt the codes of the well-bred middle class. These books offered rituals of recognition, but a recognition which could be bestowed only if a person was able to show and display a list of behavioral do’s and don’ts, which principally confirmed one’s own and others’ class membership and gender identity. Conversely, to honor another person’s self was to produce signs which acknowledged and confirmed one’s own and the other’s social class and gender. To offend the other would amount to what sociologist Luc Boltanski called offending their grandeur, their relative importance and ranking on the social scale.
Contemporary self-help books on dating are vastly different in content. The first chapter in Dating for Dummies is titled “Who am I?” and has subheadings such as “Being Self-Confident” and “Finding Out What Makes You Tick”; Mars and Venus on a Date includes sections entitled “The Dynamics of Male and Female Desire,” “Acknowledge Men and Adore Women,” and “Uncertainty”; while Date… or Soul Mate? includes the chapters “Know Yourself” and “The Powerful Impact of Emotional Health.” In these contemporary advice manuals, the center of gravity in the advice on courtship has shifted: it no longer refers to (middle class) propriety, nor even to strongly coded sex and gender conduct, but focuses on the self, disconnected from rank and defined by interiority and emotions. More precisely, what is at stake, for both men and women, in these modern discussions of courtship is a view of one’s worth as bestowed by others through proper rituals of recognition.
The notions of “validation” and “insecurity” do not appear in the vocabulary of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century accounts of romantic love and constitute a new terminology and a decisively new way to conceive of the love experience.
In a characteristic example, we read in Mars and Venus on a Date:
The man’s confidence, which allows him to risk possible rejection to ask a woman for her number, generates in a woman the reassuring feeling that she is desirable. When she considers his request and gives him her number, his confidence is increased. Just as his active interest made her feel special, her receptive interest generated increased confidence in him. (emphasis added)
Here, class and gender boundaries have obviously disappeared. Instead, it is one’s self that must be properly taken care of, and this self is now “essentialized,” it exists beyond one’s social class. The sense of worth now inheres in the self. As the author of the popular Date… or Soul Mate? further puts it: “The fact is, all of us are dying to feel good about ourselves, and when we feel especially good around a certain person, we will be amazed at how important and attractive that person becomes for us and vice versa.” The rituals of recognition must here acknowledge the “essence” of the self, not one’s membership of the right class, and “feeling good about oneself” has become both the cause and purpose of falling in love. A wide variety of psychologists and psychoanalysts echo the view that the self needs to be reconfirmed. Psychoanalyst Ethel Spector Person puts the point succinctly: the experience of love is one in which the other is invested with a very high value and where the value of the self is always in question and demands to be confirmed. Person’s terminology and analysis point to an important transformation in the meaning of love in modernity. She writes:
In mutual love, the lovers validate one another’s uniqueness and worth. They literally confirm the existence and worth of each other’s subjectivity. In love, there is a chance for the lovers to be fully known, accepted without judgment, and loved despite all shortcoming. […] Our insecurities are healed, our importance guaranteed, only when we become the object of love. (emphasis added)
While until the middle or late nineteenth century the romantic bond was organized on the basis of an already and almost objectively established sense of social worth, in late modernity the romantic bond is responsible for generating a large portion of what we may call the sense of self-worth.
The notions of “validation” and “insecurity” do not appear in the vocabulary of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century accounts of romantic love and constitute a new terminology and a decisively new way to conceive of the love experience. In fact, the notion of “insecurity” has become so central to contemporary notions of love (and of much contemporary advice on love and dating) that it compels us to inquire about its meaning.
Such psychological description contains and addresses features of our social world. What in common psychological language is called “insecurity” points to two sociological facts: (a) that our worth and value are not prior to interactions and are not a priori established, but are in need of being ongoingly shaped and affirmed; and (b) that it is our performance in a relationship that will establish this worth. To be insecure means to feel uncertain about one’s worth, to be unable to secure it on one’s own, and to have to depend on others in order to secure it. One of the fundamental changes in modernity has to do with the fact that social worth is performatively established in social relationships. Another way to say this is to suggest that social interactions—the ways in which the self performs in them—are a chief vector to accrue value and worth to the self, thus making the self crucially depend on others and on its interactions with others. While until the middle or late nineteenth century the romantic bond was organized on the basis of an already and almost objectively established sense of social worth, in late modernity the romantic bond is responsible for generating a large portion of what we may call the sense of self-worth. That is, precisely because much of marriage and romance was solidly based on social and economic considerations, romantic love did little to add to one’s sense of social place. It is precisely the disembedding of love from social frameworks that has made romantic love become the site for negotiating one’s self-worth.
To be able to appreciate what is so distinctive about the contemporary situation, we can briefly compare it to nineteenth-century courtship rituals. Although it may be a risky task to evaluate the content of people’s emotional lives in the past, these rituals offer some interesting points of comparison and alternative ways of thinking about how the self was organized and taken care of in courtship. A frequent feature of nineteenth-century courtship was that men engaged in praising the woman they were courting while the woman’s response frequently was to diminish her own value.
On April 9, 1801, Frances Sedgwick wrote to her father concerning her husband-to-be, Ebenezer Watson (whose marriage proposal she had originally rejected): “I wish I thought my own merits proportional in any fit measure to his. […] As for me insignificant as I am, I can hope to cause little happiness anywhere but through countless time you will be remunerated for all your goodness to me.” Women openly expressed their sense of inferiority to their suitors. Far from being an isolated case, Sedgwick’s feelings reverberated throughout the century. For example, in her study of nineteenth-century courtship, Ellen Rothman suggests that, “as the more idealized sex, women were more likely than men to fear that their lovers pictured them too highly. A Long Island teacher pleaded with her fiancé: ‘While you think of me, so far superior to what I am, I would have you know me, just as I am; weak, frail, impetuous & wayward.’” After her engagement to Albert Bledsoe, Harriett Coxe had similar feelings, but she confined them to a “private” letter, in which she wrote: “The depth and fervour of his affection for me, should not excite my vanity for I know that he greatly overrates me in every way.” A New York woman, Persis Sibley, hoped her suitor would not make that mistake, writing to her admirer: “[D]o not look upon me as without faults for no doubt you will find many. I should not wish you to be disappointed by thinking me faultless.” Sibley believed she had failed to convince her fiancé that she was “not faultless.” She imagined the “severe trial” she would face when, after marriage, she would “see the scales falling from his eyes who has been blindly worshiping me as perfection. […] ’Tis injurious to anyone to be overrated.” And Mary Pearson “considered herself unworthy of the affection [her suitor] Ephraim offered her and undeserving of his praise.” “[W]here Ephraim saw ‘all that [his] imagination ever suggested as contributing to constitute a woman who could make [him] happy,’ she saw only an ordinary woman full of self-doubt and insecurity.” And in a later example, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), in his courtship of Olivia Langdon, wrote:
Now please don’t feel hurt when I praise you, Livy, for I know that in doing so I speak only the truth. At last I grant you one fault—& it is self-depreciation. […] And yet, after all, your self-depreciation is a virtue & a merit, for it comes of the absence of egotism, which is one of the gravest faults.
In England—which had so many cultural affinities with the US—we observe similar presentations of the self, in the correspondence between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, for example. To the modern observer, it is striking that a not insignificant part of the Barrett–Browning correspondence is devoted to Robert’s claims about Elizabeth’s uniqueness and exceptional character, and Elizabeth’s rejections of these declarations. In a letter written in September 1845, Elizabeth claims: “That you should care at all for me has been a matter of unaffected wonders to me from the first hour till now—and I cannot help the pain I feel sometimes, in thinking that it would have been better for you if you had never known me” (emphasis added). In February 1846, when their courtship was already very advanced, Elizabeth wrote: “[N]othing has humbled me as much as your love.” And in March 1846: “[I]f you do not keep lifting me up quite off the ground by the strong faculty of love in you, I shall not help falling short of the hope you have placed in me.” Each of such claims in turn elicited strong protests from Robert and an intensification of his declarations of love and commitment. In a different example, Jane Clairmont, Lord Byron’s lover for a short while, strayed from the passive role that should have been hers, yet respected the conventions of love letters when she wrote to him: “I do not expect you to love me, I am not worthy of your love. I feel you are superior, yet much to my surprise, more to my happiness, you betrayed passions I had believed no longer alive in your bosom.”
In these declarations, women stage their inferiority, but an inferiority not vis-à-vis the men who love them specifically, but rather vis-à-vis moral ideals of character (with the exception perhaps of the last example). This is bolstered by the observation that men also express self-doubts, albeit less frequently and less characteristically. Harry Sedgwick, a member of the Boston elite, was engaged to Jane Minot. During a period of separation of seventeen months they exchanged numerous letters: “One constant theme throughout this exchange was Harry’s (un)worthiness—intellectually, spiritually, and professionally—as Jane’s partner. […] Toward the end of winter Harry experienced a brief crisis of confidence: ‘I wish I could look into destiny,’ he wrote, ‘merely to know one thing–whether I shall ever become unworthy of you and forfeit your esteem.’” We can infer certain things from these forms of self-depreciation. First, they presuppose that actors have “objective” ways of evaluating themselves. What is staged here is one’s capacity to look at oneself through outside eyes and to hold oneself accountable to objective criteria of worth: that is, criteria that are common to and shared by both men and women. Moreover, it is quite possible that what is staged here is simultaneously one’s capacity to criticize oneself (and therefore to display one’s character) and one’s capacity to build intimacy by revealing to another one’s flaws and faults. In displaying their capacity to uphold an ideal of character, and to criticize their own self in the name of that ideal, these women and men stage a self that is not in need of what contemporaries would call “emotional support” or “validation.” This is a self that can perform its own self-evaluation, and which derives a sense of worth not from “being validated” by another but from being held accountable to moral standards and from being improved in order to reach these moral standards. Undoubtedly such rituals of self-depreciation invite ritual protests from the other side; but rather than requests for “validation,” they functioned as “tests” of the man’s resilience and commitment. Here again, it is not the woman’s “self” or need for validation that is at stake, but rather the man’s capacity to display and prove his steadfastness.
‘Yes. [Silence] You know loving is all about the how, not the what. Even though I know he loves me. But that something that makes you feel special and unique has always been missing.’
These rituals of self-depreciation differ importantly from the danger that looms over contemporary romantic relationships, namely that they fail to generate validation. Let me explain with examples gleaned from popular culture and my interviews. Susan Shapiro wrote a memoir about “five men who broke [her] heart.” She makes us privy to a conversation with her husband, Aaron, in which she refers to an ex-boyfriend of hers, Brad:
Brad’s email said “I still love your brain.” Why don’t you ever say that? It was the first compliment in years that made me feel good.
“He still loves to fuck with your brain.” Aaron stood up, taking his bag into the Bat Cave [i.e., his den].
I followed, moving the scripts on his faded gray couch so there was room to sit down. I knew he was out of it, but we’d barely spoken in the week. He expected to find me waiting in the exact same place, as if he’d left a bookmark.
“You never call me smart,” I said.
“I compliment you all the time.” He was annoyed. “I just called you beautiful.”
He didn’t get it, I always had to explain. “I grew up the only girl with three brothers everyone called brilliant. I was cute or pretty or adorable. That doesn’t do it for me. Don’t you know me at all?” I pleaded. “Why do I need ten thousand books and clips everywhere? To overcompensate. To convince everyone I’m smart ’cause nobody ever said it…to convince myself,” I said. “I become what’s missing.”
“Now that’s smart,” Aaron said, patting my forehead. “You ugly pig.”
This woman’s complaint and request are motivated by her need to see her self validated, in both a personal and a social way. She demands from her husband confirmation of her social worth. To take another example, a 56-year-old woman talking about her marital difficulties says:
You know I have a very sweet husband; he is loyal and devoted. But he just does
not know to do those small things that make you feel good.
Interviewer: Like what?
Christine: You know buying little presents, surprising me, telling me how wonderful I am.
Even though I know he loves me, he does not know how to make me feel
wonderful and special.
Interviewer: Even though he loves you?
Christine: Yes. [Silence] You know loving is all about the how, not the what. Even though I know he loves me. But that something that makes you feel special and unique has always been missing.
If, as Sartre suggests, the lover demands to be loved, it is because in this demand lies first and foremost a social demand for recognition.
In the nineteenth century, loyalty and commitment would have been considered crucial testimonies of love. But here they are deemed insufficient precisely because love must imply an ongoing, interminable process of “validation”: that is, a reconfirmation of one’s own individuality and value.
If, as Sartre suggests, the lover demands to be loved, it is because in this demand lies first and foremost a social demand for recognition. The compliments the two women quoted above want from their husbands point not to a defective “narcissistic” personality or to a “lack of self-esteem,” but rather to a general demand that romantic relationships provide social recognition. Social worth is no longer a straightforward outcome of one’s economic or social status, but has to be derived from one’s self, defined as a unique, private, personal, and non-institutional entity. The erotic/romantic bond must constitute a sense of worth, and modern social worth is chiefly performative: that is, it is to be achieved in the course of and through one’s interactions with others. If “the lover, preparing to meet the beloved, worries about his smell, his clothes, his hair, his plans for the evening, and ultimately his worthiness” (emphasis added), it is because, in modernity, love has become central to the constitution of worth.
Excerpted from “Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation” by Eva Illouz, to be published by Polity, June 2012. © 2012 Eva Illouz.
Eva Illouz is Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was Visiting Professor at Princeton University and Northwestern University. Her previous books include Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism and Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Her book Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery won the Best Book Award of the American Sociological Association, Culture section, in 2005.