Is love a useless emotion

“Romeo and Juliet” tells the story of a violent exceptional love against social boundaries, taboos and norms - a radical love until death. But what about great, romantic love from a sociological point of view? We talked to the sociologist Laura Wiesböck from the University of Vienna about traditional ideals, freedom in love and dating apps.

In view of online dating platforms, the end of romantic love is popular right now. Is the ideal of great love lost?

A number of social, humanities and cultural scholars would claim the opposite, namely that the ideal of romantic love is decisive for the breakdown of numerous relationships today. Many people feel disappointed to find that initial romance is followed by everyday coexistence. The elimination of hormonal intoxication and better knowledge of the other person leave little scope for idealization. Often new attempts are made with other partners in order to get back to the feeling of being in love at the beginning.

The romantic concept of love drives people into the relentless search for the “right” partner. If one has not experienced full happiness in the past relationship, this is interpreted as an indication of a wrong choice of partner. Often, however, it is less a question of incompatibility than excessive expectations of happiness and the romantic failure that is preprogrammed in every long-term relationship.

The history of literature is full of stories about true, immortal love - which often ends very quickly in death, as with Romeo and Juliet. To what extent does an ideal handed down through art influence our way of loving?

First of all, one has to say: The story of Romeo and Juliet is a story of undying love because both died in the initial phase of being in love. Whether they would have been able to maintain a lived love in the long term, in which everyday life and compromises are added, remains uncertain. Lived love shows itself less through mania of feeling and passionate emotion than through the willingness to live with the difficult character traits and idiosyncrasies of the other person and to accept them for what they are.

The culture in which we are socialized shapes the ideal of romantic love as the basis for partnerships, among other things through images handed down in art - by the way, not only in the so-called "high culture", but also in popular depictions of Disney about Hollywood up to homeland and romance novels. This shapes expectations and hopes of happiness.

The ideals are also rhetorical and thus cognitively anchored, e.g. "to find love" or "to find love". Here love is seen as something external that has to be found. Lived love, however, is something that you create together, continuously and over and over again. For this reason, the American feminist Bell Hooks advocates using the verb “to love” instead of the noun “love” in order to emphasize the active manufacturing process.

Our modern society unceasingly promises us the freedom to realize ourselves - and ultimately to love as we would like. Are we really as free as we say we are?

Freedom in love is an illusion. Let's take partner choice as an example. The fact that two people enter into a relationship is a socially and culturally determined event. Numerous factors more or less consciously determine the choice of partner: social origin, level of education, financial situation, social status, political inclination, religious affiliation, values, to what extent masculinity or femininity defines one's own identity, closeness and distance behavior, but also physical factors such as appearance, movement and smell.

In general, it can be said that people are attracted to what they are familiar with, such as people with similar social and regional origins, as is often the case. This can then also mean that people from conflict-ridden families predominantly enter into partnerships in which they can live the conflict-ridden life they are familiar with.

Individual people are increasingly required to optimize and market themselves, and the associated success and goal-oriented use of their own resources. A mania for love that defies all moderation, tactics and reason, like the one in which Romeo and Juliet enter, seems like rebellion against a social corset.

The mad love affair today is primarily associated with the fear of losing emotional sovereignty. The Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz assumes that love is threatened because we do not want to accept that love hurts. In secular utilitarian cultures it is primarily about the pursuit of pleasure, there suffering has little place and use - in contrast to Christian cultures, in which there are places for suffering and this can be used meaningfully. Longer phases of love affliction contradict today's imperative of pleasure, reduce one's own productivity and are accordingly attempted to circumvent, e.g. through new love affairs or medication.

In addition, in the modern age, emotional vulnerability is viewed as a weakness, especially in men. That has changed historically. In courtly love, for example, love suffering was a way of demonstrating male bravery. The function of romantic love affliction was to demonstrate strength of personality and to transform the pain into a sublime experience. Today it is perceived as an utterly useless experience that challenges self-worth and destroys one's foundation.

The functional mechanisms of dating apps such as Tinder, in which people voluntarily expose each other to an often fleeting evaluation by their counterpart, emphasize the commodity character of love, desire and affection in a blatant and non-judgmental way. Is our private sphere itself economized?

In the past four decades there has been an increasing economization of social relationships, an encroachment of economic models for shaping the self and one's feelings. Tinder is an example of an online partner search based on economic market mechanisms. The app serves as a meeting context to increase one's own opportunity structure on the erotic partner market. The quantifying aspect is crucial: How many matches do I have? This yardstick is equated with recognition in the form of attractiveness in the partner market, or in other words: with one's own market value. That is why there are also assigned people looking for self-confirmation and their own proof of attractiveness on Tinder.

And yet again and again stable love relationships emerge from Tinder - and people there do not necessarily look for confirmation of their “market value”, but actually simply for someone they can get to know better and, if necessary, also love. Don't apps of this kind also offer an opportunity beyond the rules of the market?

The economic approach may not necessarily be the original intention of users, but it is inherent in the logic of Tinder. Eva Illouz describes that the principle of “swipe left or swipe right” institutionalizes a form of binary and one-sided visual evaluation: the opposite is either hot or not. Decisions are made within seconds based on external features. Attraction and rejection are therefore not something that you develop interpersonal and emotionally, but something that is determined purely visually in the shortest possible time without interaction. This leads to a consumption-oriented search through the partner offer as well as to a consolidation of the approach principle according to the visual logic.

Without a doubt, Tinder offers opportunities, such as a certain certainty of expectation that other users will be motivated to enter into erotic contacts, as well as a high number of potential candidates. In everyday life, one is largely dependent on chance encounters, mostly in socially pre-structured contact networks. It is also often not clear which people are actually available on the partner market. In contrast, online dating for dating is systematic and goal-oriented. At the same time, the visibility of the multitude of options there can also lead to a lack of decision-making, to a lack of willingness to commit.

To what extent does the circumstance of increasingly unstable circumstances and an associated uncertain future shape our way of loving?

This increases the pressure on love as a place of social recognition. Self-esteem is more closely linked to love, because today there are great uncertainties about status and - in contrast to the pre-modern era - one's own social position has to be continuously negotiated. As members of a competitive society, we are exposed to incessant evaluations. The only place where one hopes to escape evaluation is in a love affair. There you are number one, the only one, the winner. Love thus has a function of recognition that it did not have before, which brings with it increased pressure and greater vulnerability. Rejection then attacks self-worth more. Because of this, many people find it difficult to give up their emotional independence.

The interview was conducted by Kai Krösche.