Maud Perrier


Why Love Hurts, Eva Illouz. Polity, 2012

I’ve eagerly awaited the release of this book as Illouz has captured my attention since her book ‘Cold Intimacy’ which makes an incisive critique of online dating. The intertwining of the title and the image on the book cover creates a powerful impression, capturing the essence of a provocative and compelling book. The tagline ‘this book does to love what Marx did to commodities’ is seriously ambitious and at times I found the seductive claim that love is shaped by social relations and institutions and circulates in a marketplace of unequal actors hard to resist. As I’ll discuss later I was not completely persuaded by the book’s claim that contemporary romantic suffering is caused solely by socio-historical changes.

The core argument of the book is that contemporary romantic despair is caused by the specific cultural and institutional arrangements of modernity. For Illouz this implies that the modern experience of love can only be adequately explained by sociology. In order to chart how the economic and the emotional are intertwined in the institutional causes of romantic misery she draws on a wide range of sources including in depth interviews, internet sites, newspaper columns on love and relationships, self-help books, and novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, though there is no discussion of how she collected and selected them[1]. The book demonstrates that the modern romantic experience is shaped by a ‘fundamental transformation in the ecology and architecture of romantic choice’: I found this terminology rather cumbersome but this refers to changes such as the increase in the importance of choice and autonomy, the modes of assessment of prospective partners (such as internet dating), and the perceived samples from which people choose a partner.

The causes of suffering are then, according to Illouz, to be found in the social reorganization of love, sexuality, and desire. Chapter 1 gives an historical account of the ways marriage markets emerged in modernity arguing that the intertwinement of desire with economics is such that the libido becomes one of the main channels of social reproduction. ‘Commitment Phobia and the New Architecture of Romantic Choice’ deals with the question of freedom of choice and how this is emotionally unequally distributed between men and women: men’s commitment phobia has become a cultural problem because the strategies of men and women in this competitive arena follow different routes. In Chapter 4, we learn that modern love is characterized by a deep intertwining of self-worth with the object of love so that love failures threaten the foundation of the self. But the ontological insecurity that accompanies romantic suffering is unequally distributed between men and women-because the imperative to pursue autonomy is more highly valued, so that women who seek children and committed relationships are especially disadvantaged. The next chapter, ‘Love, Reason, Irony’ describes how love has lost its cultural pathos and been replaced by rationalization leaving us caught between ‘doubt, irony and a hyper sexualized culture.’ She attributes this to the combined forces of psychological science, feminist emancipation and technologies of choice which have resulted in the disenchantment of romantic love. Whereas previous critiques of rationalization saw it as opposed to emotionality as a cultural logic, Illouz suggests that they are in fact highly compatible and work in tandem. Her discussion of 18th century Julie de Lespinasse’s love letters draws out an interesting historical comparison: whereas anti-utilitarian love and romantic suffering were seen as mark of maturity then, today they are often read as marks of deficient and immature psyches. The final substantive chapter deals with the question of how our imagination and fantasies have become further colonized by rationalization and consumption. With the exercise of romantic imagination having become a form of autotelic desire, Illouz is pessimistic about our capacity to shift from fantasy to daily life. Both her mourning for the cooling of emotionality in love and her diagnosis that the cult of sexual experience prevents people from forming meaningful attachments leads to explicit recommendations: she suggests we need to re-attach ethics into the realm of emotional and sexual relations, conjure models of emotional masculinity not based on sexual capital and reinvent new forms of passion. Whilst I agree with Illouz that the capacity to connect to others in a way that mobilizes the self holistically is an important human and cultural resource, I am less convinced that this is completely disappearing: there is much research that shows that people are forming love and sexual attachments in an increasing variety of ways (for example see Sasha Roseneil’s work) and that these relationships feel both meaningful and ethical. Moreover there is evidence that ethics are being developed alongside changing sexual practices: a study I recently read about young women’s experiences of heterosexual casual sex showed that though women’s expressions of sexual ethics are often constrained by gendered power relations, the cultivation of ethical sexual subjectivities offered them radical potential to subvert dominant heterosexual discourses (Beres and Farvid, 2010).

My main quandary with the book concerns Illouz’ treatment of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. From the beginning she sets her contribution in opposition to what she perceives as their faulty explanations: ‘What is wrong is not dysfunctional childhoods and not insufficiently aware psyches but the set of social and cultural tensions and contradictions that have come to structure modern selves and identities.’ I want to suggest that her discussion of psychoanalytic theories and practices are over simplified and that an understanding of the psychical forces which also structure romantic love are both necessary and  broadly compatible with her project of re-enchanting love and reactivating meaningful attachments.

For Illouz psychoanalysis and psychology offer unsatisfactory explanations because they over-individualize the causes of romantic suffering, pathologize romantic suffering and thus lead to self blame. To me these are precisely not the effects of the kind of psychoanalysis theories i have read and the psychotherapy that i (and others) have experienced. Moreover, she makes few distinctions between the different theories of psychoanalysis (she refers extensively to Freud and uses terminology like fantasy and identification), which leads to over simplifications of such different perspectives. As I noticed points of connections between her analysis of the modern experience of love and those of psychoanalytically inclined writers, I was left wondering as to why the author is so invested in defending sociology as such a tightly boundaried discipline. If the rise of psycho-social studies in the last fifteen years has taught us anything it is that we can combine an appreciation of how our early attachments shape our affective worlds with a concern for how structures get under our skin; feelings work simultaneously through social structures and relationships to form subjects –this means not having to waste time defending sociological over psychological explanations of love, so that we can focus instead on understanding how they interact. A psychoanalytically informed perspective actually recognizes the inevitability of instability within sexual and love relationships, which Illouz portrays as the source of ontological insecurity.

Illouz’s point that ‘suffering is characteristically accompanied by a breach in our capacity for sense making […] when suffering cannot be explained we suffer doubly’ could be read as ironically in support of psychotherapy since it precisely provides a space for making sense of suffering. In fact psychotherapy maybe most effective as a philosophical quest and search for meaning rather than a cure.  This practice can counter the ability of love failures to threaten the foundation of the self, a tendency which she identifies as specific to contemporary romantic suffering. We should be wary of over emphasizing the curative ambition of modern psychoanalysis, especially since some of its most renowned practitioners are cautious about this potential:

‘the great achievement of psychoanalysis [is] its attempt to account for our inability to love others, and ourselves. The promises of adaptive balance and sexual maturity undoubtedly explain the appeal of psychoanalysis as therapy, but its greatness may lie in its insistence on a human destructiveness resistant to any therapeutic endeavours whatsoever’ (Bersani and Phillips 2008:60 cited in Roseneil, 2010)

Why love hurts is an insightful attempt at tackling the timely and difficult question of the relationship between romantic suffering and (post)modernity but there are unresolved points of tension in its argument. Given Illouz’s project is a critique of rationalization, as it leads to a loss of passion and meaning in contemporary love, it’s unclear to me why and how sociology- is the most effective medium to re-enchant love. The normative recommendations she makes about developing different sexual ethics, new forms of passion and emotional versions of masculinities are important projects but not ones which can be easily implemented by sociologists-in fact given such interventions would need to take place at both the cultural and individual level, we can imagine that one of the resources could be the therapies she dismisses. I do think we need the kind of gendered socio-historical analysis of romantic love and suffering which Illouz is performing here, but I think such a project would be enriched by engaging in more nuanced ways with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. In fact these theories and practices actually already provide part of the cultural and ethical resources Illouz sees as necessary for reconstituting emotional and sexual relations.


Beres, M.A. & Farvid, P. (2010). Sexual ethics and young women’s accounts of heterosexual casual sex. Sexualities.

Roseneil, S. (2010) ‘Intimate Citizenship : A Pragmatic, yet Radical Proposal, for a Politics of Personal Life’ European Journal of Women’s Studies 17:77.


Maud Perrier was born in France and became a feminist scholar in the UK, completing her PhD at the Centre for the study of women and Gender, University of Warwick in 2009. She is now a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol. Her principal area of research is the sociology of families, including motherhood and parenting specifically, but she has wide ranging research interests including including social class and issues of embodiment, morality and emotions in feminist theory. Her doctoral research was a study of how younger and older mothers negotiate dominant discourses of good mothering and specifically the idea that there is a ‘right’ time for motherhood.

[1] For example the justification for not including queer experiences of love and romance was rather flimsy.