Handle with care: the fragility of modern love

Handle with care: the fragility of modern love

“The range of possibilities is so huge that it’s difficult to make a choice. You know you will always find something better. The opportunity cost is very high. When you choose a partner, you’re renouncing being with many others.”

(Roberto Martín)
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The day Masao Matsumoto and his wife Miyako entered the Guinness Book of Records someone asked them to share their secret.

Masao, aged 108, and Miyako, 100, had just become the world’s oldest living married couple. Their romance began before the Second World War and they have been together ever since. Eighty-one years.

In August 2018, on the day they were presented with the Guinness certificate and a journalist asked them their secret, Miyako responded: “It’s thanks to my patience.”

There is little likelihood of anyone beating the couple’s record. Patience is not a virtue of our time, nor is much store set by the old idea of lifelong love. The statistics are there to take away any illusions we may have: almost one in every two marriages in the EU ends in divorce.

“Society is changing. The romantic model of the couple – we are one and no one can destroy that – now contrasts with a new more individualistic model in which the partners are the sum of parts, you and me,” explains Luis Ayuso, a sociologist specialising in the study of the family.

“Now, we each have our own space, our own identity, our own time, our own money. And if the sum doesn’t add up, there’s no reason to stay together.”

And, in principle, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Our relationships are freer, more independent, but also – as the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman warned – more fragile. He coined the phrase “liquid love” to refer to those increasingly brief and superficial encounters characterising modern love.

“In lasting commitment, liquid modern reason spies out oppression,” wrote Bauman. That is why we are replacing the quality of relationships with quantity.

He said it back in 2003, and he was not wrong. Right now, with applications like Tinder, the ability to try out a potential love match is at our fingertips, and the choice is limitless. Hundreds of profiles are on display, like in a shop window, waiting for a swipe to the right – a yes – or to the left – a no. It’s a simple and instantaneous way, as with any other online consumer app used to choose a film, an electronic device or Chinese food, of choosing a love, which is likely to be as prone to obsolescence as the mobile phone used to find it.

The commodification of feelings

A couple meets in a bar. After chatting for a few minutes, both of them press an IT device and a figure appears: 12 hours. It is the expiry date on their relationship. The scene is from an episode of the science fiction series Black Mirror. But, like any dystopia, there is a lot of truth in it.

Today, 41 per cent of online singles use dating webs or apps. The majority are men (65 per cent) under the age of 30, although the system is also attracting interest among the over 60s. In the case of Tinder, the platform has surpassed 51 million users and is present in 190 countries. It receives 1.6 billion swipes (to accept or reject a candidate) a day. It is a brutal marketplace.

“The range of possibilities is so huge that it’s difficult to make a choice. You know that you’ll always find something better,” says Francesc Núñez, a lecturer in arts and humanities at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). “The opportunity cost is very high. When you choose a partner, you’re renouncing being with many others.”

As sociologist Eva Illouz puts it, we have become ‘hyperrational idiots’, accustomed to calculating everything on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis, including matters of the heart. “It is the condition of the modern individual,” insists Núñez. “Always thinking that there’s a better life out there.”

Technology is not, however, to blame for the frailty of human bonds. As Ayuso points out: “It is society that is changing and it makes use of new technologies to speed up the process.”

In his view, modern love has more to do with individualism and the fact that there is less social control. It also has to do with the changing role of women, for whom romantic love is no panacea. Although Bauman did not talk of it, if the “solidity” of old relationships depended on anything, it was on the sacrifices they made and their total self-abnegation.

Trapped in romantic love

Zygmunt Bauman diagnosed the death of romantic love 16 years ago, but the change has not, in fact, been so radical. “We are socialised into romantic love and it continues to guide our way of thinking and our expectations. It is called into question more now, but we are by no means free of it yet,” explains Jenny Cubells, associate professor of social psychology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), where she gives workshops on gender violence.

Interestingly, when she asks her students, they say they aspire to “a lifelong love” but admit to having short-term relationships with little commitment. It’s a strange paradox.

“They want commitment and trust, but they find it difficult to stay in a relationship because they get bored or, when the infatuation is over, they start looking at other people, which all creates a sense of unease and contradiction.”

We are still in a transitional phase. Even technology itself – accused of contributing to liquidity – is often used for quite the opposite, to reinforce the old myth of possessive love. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 27 per cent of teenagers use social media to keep tabs on their partners.

Not much progress has really been made, even when it comes to sex. “Although there is more access to portals to connect with other people, we have not moved away from the concept of romantic love recounted by our grandparents. There is still a great deal of repression,” says sexologist Natalia Urteaga.

“It’s a matter of self-esteem,” adds psychologist and sexologist Marta Ortega, “What lies behind liquid love may be personal insecurities, the fact that we don’t feel capable of sustaining a bond with another person.”

And in the midst of this transition, alternatives are emerging such as polyamory, that is, having intimate relationships with more than one person, with the consent of all those concerned. It is a model that rests on greater honesty than monogamy – 42 per cent of Tinder users are, in fact, already in a relationship – but nor is it perfect.

“Non-exclusivity is compatible with commitment. You can love several people with intensity and commitment,” explains Giazú Enciso, doctor in critical social psychology and polyamory researcher. “But polyamory currently has its flaws. It can also lead us to consume people,” she acknowledges.

Polyamory also risks reproducing the same stereotypes as romantic love. As Cubells points out, “There are polyamorous women, but what we find most often are men with more than one relationship. This ultimately maintains the inequality between men and women.”

Precarious love, precarious lives

These are hard times for the clergy and civil registrars. Since 1965, the marriage rate in the European Union has halved. Today, there are 4.3 unions per 1,000 inhabitants – 50 years ago there were 7.8. The decline is widespread across all countries, including the most Catholic, where without exception couples marry less and marry late. The average in Spain, for example, is over 37 years old.

This does not mean the end of love, but marriage is simply no longer a sacred institution. “Fewer stable couples are now formed than before, but the few that take the leap are strong,” says Albert Esteve, director of the Centre for Demographic Studies at the UAB.

Countering Bauman’s pessimism, Esteve argues that liquid love could, in the long run, help to build a more lasting love. “The couples formed today in countries where people can choose freely, decide on the time, separate when they want and try out several candidates before choosing, may turn out to be better quality couples than before.”

Another issue is whether all couples have the same ‘freedom’. Anna Garriga, researcher in political and social sciences at Pompeu Fabra University asks: what if the fragility of love and precarity are two sides of the same problem?

All countries are seeing an increase in the number of couples with children that are cohabiting – living together without being married – but there has been an interesting change in trend. “It used to be women with high levels of education that were more likely to be cohabiting mothers. Now it is women with lower education levels,” warns Garriga.

And the same is true of separations. “The lower the education level, the higher the rate of cohabitation and separation. We are gradually starting to see the link between precarity and the increase in family instability. This is how modern – and precarious – life, so liquid it is, ends up foundering. It is hard to conceive how love can last a lifetime when jobs or housing do not.

This article has been translated from Spanish.