I remember the first time I was “asked out.” Sitting by my computer, seventh-grade me received an IM from the new kid who had just moved from Israel (who also happens to be married now).
“Will you be my girlfriend?” the message read with the accompanying “bing.” I barely knew him, but the thought of being someone’s “girlfriend”—especially a foreign someone—enticed me. I eventually ended the relationship months later on IM by explaining to him that “our chromosomes just won’t work together.” I was looking for a complicated English word beyond his comprehension and “chromosome” was the best I could do.
His proposal might have been juvenile, but to this day I look back on it fondly. It remains profound in its saccharinity, simplicity, and most of all its clarity—significant qualities lost in our nonchalant era of “chill.”
Long gone are days of such lucidity. Ask a student today about her relationship status and you’ll find myriad answers. “It’s complicated,” or we’re “a thing,” “friends with benefits,” “fuck buddies,” “going out,” “in an open relationship,” “uh…” to the occasional “dating.” The nebulous language now used to describe relationships seems to reflect romance’s nebulous position in the millennial generation, where a myriad of new options—such as hookups and casual sex—have replaced dating.
Recently I asked a guy how he felt about us. “I don’t like labels,” he replied. I clarified that I hadn’t asked for a label but for his feelings, his thoughts. “We’ll see,” he quipped, shocking me with his poignant terseness. The problem was not his lack of commitment, but that he couldn’t be honest with me. He was keeping his options open while simultaneously reaping the benefits gained from his association with me—allowing him to have his psychosexual cake and eat it too.
A few weeks later, he explained that as an “individualistic liberal,” he sees no value in monogamous relationships and reasons that love is just lust. His friends were in monogamous relationships because “that’s how they were brought up in religious or traditional families.” Mr. Modern seemed to imply that as a rational, enlightened freethinker, he had reasoned his way beyond convention.
Is this what the Modern Lover looks like?
My own experiences like this one, those of my peers, those I read about and watch, and sheer statistics illustrating the dwindling popularity of relationships raise the question—are long-term couples going extinct? Are two people, willfully focused and committed to each other—not in the heat of wild passion but in an emotionally intimate life together—a thing of the past? Has love died along with God?
The modern relationship is one big paradox. Sociologist Eva Illouz argues that our capitalistic focus on wealth attainment has made it such that people, and men especially, no longer depend on marriage for social status. Thus, sexuality is the chief center of the new ideal of happiness in relationships. Further, she argues that the logic of our consumer culture has come to influence the modern image of a couple. Put simply, love is now bound up with our ceaseless desire for novel objects.
Hence, the mentality of the hump and dump was born: when bored with one partner—just find a new one. But this point of view is reductive. It leads us to think of and sympathize with others only in relation to our own happiness, and with the aim of maximizing it. We wonder, “How can I satisfy someone’s needs? What should I expect from him sans encroaching on his autonomy? How do we each get what we want?” Our hyper self-reevaluation and resulting self-interest has led us to see relationships as a utilitarian endeavor of two people seeking maximum pleasure.
Yet over-rationalizing another person dehumanizes her. She becomes her purpose, which is the benefit she serves you. Quantifying the benefit of another person—how much pleasure she gives you—is only possible through objectifying her.
We drown love in rationalization of its economic, physiological, and mental benefits. Mr. Modern’s “we’ll see” accompanies the turning of wheels in his inner calculations of love as a functional pursuit. But love is not a business deal. You can’t plug it into an equation—it should be something unquantifiable, which eludes even the most rigorous cost-benefit analysis. The whole point of love is to be an end in itself.
But maybe you don’t buy this whole transcendentalism of love thing. Perhaps it stinks of outdated traditionalism to you, and couple-hood remains a superfluous construct creating confusion, conflict of interest, and pain. Statistically, we see more and more people choose to live solo. Accordingly, Mr. Modern must be right—love is dead. Mr. Modern can maximize his pleasure only in the wake of committed relationships.
To him, I say this: You’re right. Almost nothing in life is intrinsically valuable, and love is no exception. But can’t things acquire value? Can’t a relationship be as valuable as we make it? Indeed, “make” is the operative word: We can view love in terms of Marx’s labor theory of value, which states that a commodity’s value is proportional to the labor embodied in it. As with everything else in life, the more you invest in a romantic relationship, the more value it accrues. In contrast to a hookup culture that requires an endless supply of goods, the pleasure derived from a committed relationship seems to be a more sustainable alternative. With monogamy, Mr. Modern can even receive greater utility with fewer commodities.
Sustainability has been all the rage in recent years. Why not give it a shot in the bedroom?
Eliora Katz is a first year in the College.