KAMPALA – Belgian sexuologist Esther Perel has, in agreement with Yann Dall’Aglio, repeatedly argued that one can find the roots of romantic love in individualised, consumerist culture. Romantic love is actually a recent social invention,- before the 19th-20th century, love had no place in relationships (read: marriage). With romantic love come high expectations: we want to meet our soulmate, our one-and-ever-true-love, Disney-style. We are imprinted by consumerism that this life-long passionate monogamy is not only to be desired, but to be expected. Even those who proclaim to be more realistic (like myself), have high and sometimes unrealistic expectations. As Esther put it:
Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot, and we live twice as long.
So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge. Give me novelty, give me familiarity. Give me predictability, give me surprise. And we think it’s a given, and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that.
We want someone who offers us security and passion, pretty much at the same time. We want to have crazy good sex and a best friend to talk to. As some of you might have realised, and as Esther Perel rightfully points out, passion and security are opposite and often mutually exclusive forces. Being secure is to be (emotionally) close. However, you cannot desire what you already “have”. Passionate desire is coupled with tension and unsecurities, and security often shuts down our (erotic) passion. Esther asked couples all over the world to describe when they found their partner most attractive. There were two elements most answers included: 1) I find my partner most attractive when he/she is in their element, and 2) when I witness this being from a distance. Desire requires distance; security bridges it.
So, with the rise of individualism, Yann argued, social roles (e.g. your village or community, your family, your position in the social hierarchy) have been condensed into this one (undoubtedly very special) person. And for that reason, the expectations we place on this person are often unrealistic and in a way paradoxical. After some time, the friction between reality and these expectations can become noticable.
And when it does, we try to solve it, as Esther said, by buying exciting lingerie, or reading Fifty Shades of Grey, or those horrid tips in the Cosmo on how to have good sex, or how to keep your man happy. Maybe we’ll look up tips on the internet, or buy some erotic stimuli (pills and toys) on some discrete website. We go and we buy some self-help books, or we turn to God and pray, as they do here in Uganda in dire situations like this. Point is, when our romantic partner disappoints or when our relationships are in trouble because of these expectations, we often turn to consumerism (of products and/or ideology) to look for a solution.
Unsurprisingly, this often doesn’t really work on the long term.
Although the fact that modern romantic love has unrealistic and paradoxical expectations is a conclusion I can reach safely, -any subsequent suggestion is where I become uncomfortable. A logical conclusion would be to say that you should ease on your expectations: a person can never be all you want at the same time. Esther Perel argues that these cases actually do exist; she calls them people with passionate marriages. This still implies that you can have all of it, it just takes some psychological understanding to figure out how.
Would I be willing to change my standards, then? Would I be able to say that I am okay with less high expectations? The people who usually do so, I imagine doing so grudgingly when they realise their partner does not live up to them. Rowing with the peddles you have, or something. And often some loathing or contempt, of the self or of other, remains. No, not for me… I am thoroughly convinced that for me, it is possible. I truly am of that opinion. And that’s the problem, because most people tend to think that. And I also like to think that my high standards are intrinsic to myself, my personality, and not because I have been socialised to have expectations that are at the same time paradoxical and unrealistic. The thought that consumerism has infiltrated the most intimate moments I will probably ever have is disconcerting, to say at the least. I am sure I am again not the only one here.
I still like Yann’s idea of tender love, though. I wouldn’t exactly call myself useless, as he does, but the realisation that no one is perfect, and no one person is an entire village may wake us up to the fact that relationships are perhaps one the few aspects of our life we’d like consumerism to stay out of.