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What we get wrong about being in love

Carrie Jenkins on what philosophy can teach us about love and heartbreak.

Collage of a couple with their arms around each other gesturing toward a large seated statue of a Greek philosopher. Christina Animashaun/Vox; Getty Images

Do we need a new vision of romantic love?

When you think of romantic love in popular culture, you probably think of one of two things: limitless joy or unspeakable sorrow.

Pick your favorite stereotype: obsessed teenagers who can’t leave each other’s side until some youthful misdeed leads to a cry-fest. Or maybe it’s the romance novel depictions of infatuated adults tangled up in passionate love triangles.

The point is, even if we know real relationships are much more complicated than this, we’re still drawn to misleading models of romantic love.

A new book by the philosopher Carrie Jenkins, called Sad Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning, wants to scrap these simplistic stories and replace them with something richer and more complicated. For Jenkins, the problem isn’t that we imagine love as either blissful or tragic; it can certainly be both.

The problem is that we expect love to mean happiness. And if we’re not happy, we think we’ve failed. But Jenkins says we should recognize that the pain and difficulties of love are not just unavoidable — they’re actually part of what makes love worthwhile. So the way we talk about love should reflect this.

There’s so much to chew on in this book, and ultimately what it offers is more than a theory of love. It’s a philosophy of life. That’s why I invited Jenkins to join me for an episode of Vox Conversations.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

You say that we tend to imagine love as a “failure condition.” What does that mean?

Carrie Jenkins

I say that if we are sad when we’re in love, it’s seen as a failure because love’s supposed to be about being happy ever after. If your relationship’s going well, we say we’re happy with the person, or we’re happy together. Happiness has just come to stand in for your love life going well.

If we’re sad or if we’re angry, where does that leave us? Does that mean our relationships aren’t working? Does it mean we are not in love? Or even worse, does it mean we’re unlovable? What if we’re depressed?

When I started writing this book, I was really depressed, and I was genuinely worried about how that left me for being capable of love and capable of being loved, because I didn’t think I was gonna be happy ever after. At some points, I had no hope of that even.

I still thought I could love someone. I still thought someone could love me. So I wanted to know why we think of happiness as the success state for love and anything else as a failure condition.

Sean Illing

It’s either a Greek tragedy or just unspeakable bliss. And that seems a little too neat.

Carrie Jenkins

Well, it’s all extremes, right? We are either ecstatic, waking up every morning, singing. Or they don’t love you back or they’ve left you or something, and it’s a complete tragedy, drama.

Nothing in the middle, nothing normal, nothing boring.

Sean Illing

And what you call “sad love” — how is that different from the myth of romantic love?

Carrie Jenkins

What I try to do is talk about a kind of love that has space for the full range of human emotions. That includes happiness, of course, but also sadness and anger. And also just the day-to-day, grayscale grind of getting up and going to work and not feeling particularly any kind of way about that, just doing it.

Those are most people’s lives day to day. Most people are not particularly happy all the time. Most people are not particularly sad all the time, although some of us have experienced that.

But what I want to say is all of these emotions are valid. All of these feelings are part of being human and being alive. And I think that means they should be part of love. I want to move away from defining love in terms of happiness, the way that that romantic myth tends to do, the “happy ever after” love.

Now, sometimes, you could be sad for reasons that do indicate there’s a problem. And we can talk about that as well, but just being sad by itself doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your love life or with your life in general — sometimes being sad is the right response to the world.

Sometimes the world is a sad place, you know?

Sean Illing

You point out that we seem so much more willing to accept sad parental love than we are sad romantic love. Sad parental love, as you say, is not seen as a failure. That’s just what it is, it’s just baked into the cake.

Whereas romantic love, if you’re experiencing sadness, something must have gone wrong. And that’s therefore an indictment maybe of the whole relationship.

Carrie Jenkins

And this temptation to externalize it and say, “The other person is not making me happy.” That can be really toxic, too. Like it’s anyone else’s job to make you happy. That’s not necessarily what love is for or what love is about.

One way I sometimes think about it is, I don’t think that the most valuable thing in my life is me being happy. Don’t get me wrong. I like being happy. I’ll take it if that’s available, but there are things that mean much more to me.

And I think when people have children, we tend to understand this. You’re gonna have a rough time, but there’s something about that that means much more to you. And there’s something about that goal of raising your kids that is valuable and meaningful in a way that’s not really about happiness or your happiness.

That is a useful way to think about this stuff sometimes.

Sean Illing

It’s a very existentialist book because it’s trying to map out a vision of love that’s truly compatible with freedom. I think that’s also what makes it very hard for people to practice in real life.

We all want to love someone. We all want someone to love us. But the truth is that we often want someone to love us on our terms. And that’s problematic, if I’m reading you right.

You write: “The other human being involved in such a relationship is presumably an autonomous agent with their own free will, not a prize you get for being a good person.”

Carrie Jenkins

I’d go so far as to question whether that can even count as love. Because it’s almost like you’re not really loving that person. You are just loving something that happens inside of you when you are around that person.

If you are not working in a collaborative spirit with them on things that are meaningful to them and to both of you, then yeah, I’m not really sure that I would wanna say that’s love at all.

There’s also another risk that’s close to that one, which is where we tend to see a partner as a kind of social status symbol. Like, “Look at me, I’ve been able to attract this person.”

When we’re thinking about it in that way, that again can be incredibly toxic. Not only because we’re not seeing the other person — we are just thinking about how being with them is a benefit to us.

Sean Illing

I’m married; I’ve been with my wife for 11 years now. We’re in a pretty challenging stage of life. We have a 3-year-old in the house, and that’s its own kind of tornado.

But like everyone, we’re — both of us — changing and evolving. Hopefully productively, as we get older, often in unexpected ways. Anyone who’s a parent knows that it changes you.

And the question we’re always asking is, how do we allow each other to grow and change without imposing our own expectations, or our own desires, on each other? And it’s really hard. There are inevitable clashes.

And my biggest worry is that we might allow ourselves to believe the lie that love consists in the loss of our own agency, our own freedom. And that’s not really true. It only appears true if you’re attached to an unhealthy vision of love.

But at the same time, if you’re going to love someone in a way that respects their autonomy, that means you’re not in control of them, and they don’t exist just for you, to make you feel secure or whatever. And that means you have to let go.

And that’s hard and scary.

Carrie Jenkins

Yeah. It’s scary. And I get it. I do.

The thing about that is, if we don’t face that fact about needing to respect a partner’s own autonomy, it doesn’t make it not a fact. They still might grow and change in ways that pull them, maybe, away from us.

We actually can’t stop that from happening whatever we try to do. But if we don’t look it in the face, we can kind of kid ourselves that it’s not true. So then, what’s gonna happen if we do that? I mean, maybe we’ll get lucky and nothing bad will happen.

Another possibility, though, is we’re gonna be blindsided when that day comes because we’ve been ignoring the fact that our partner is their own person. We might even have brought it on by doing that, if we’ve been treating the person as though they’re just there for us.

Sean Illing

So if romantic love is this rich, dynamic thing that involves the entire spectrum of emotion, and it’s full of all these contradictory needs and desires, how do we know when it’s just not working? How do we know when it’s time to move on?

Carrie Jenkins

There’s a lot to be said about thinking, not necessarily just in terms of when to move on, but to think about how things can change. So an individual person grows and changes over time, and relationships, if they are healthy, will grow and change over time as well.

Part of what worries me about the romantic myth is that we’re supposed to be just the same way we are now forever. That never happens. Everybody changes. And if your relationship doesn’t change, then it’s going to die. Anything alive is gonna grow and is gonna change.

So what I’m sometimes tempted to think about is how a relationship to another person needs to change, rather than what needs to end or be removed. And I’m not talking here about if you’re in an abusive relationship, or if things have gotten bad enough that you’re being harmed. That situation needs to end. Don’t get me wrong.

But if you’re just realizing you’ve grown apart from someone in certain kinds of ways, and you’re no longer really engaged in the same lives anymore — once we’ve stepped away from thinking there’s only one story for how a loving relationship can look, we’re at liberty to say, “Okay, well, how could our loving relationship look if we only overlap in this much of our lives instead of that much like we used to? And what does that look like?”

And then you can have a conversation about, does it look like being friends? Does it look like being lovers who only see one another somewhat occasionally? Does it look like becoming non-monogamous?

There’s lots of ways that relationships can change that we’re just kind of trained out of considering as options. I just wish we were more aware of those possibilities for ways that love can change and grow over time. Because actually I think the “happy ever after” mythology and its associated conception that romantic love never changes is the exact thing that leads to all kinds of heartbreak and unnecessary separations and devastating breakups.

Sean Illing

One of the things I most appreciate about the argument you make in the book is that you emphasize love as a verb, not a noun. We have this idea of love as a passive thing, that it’s about feeling something rather than doing something.

But that’s wrong. Love is not something you have — it’s something you do.

Carrie Jenkins

It’s not something you just fall in, like a hole in the ground, right? You don’t just find yourself in a loving relationship one day. You can have some feelings, then, what do you do with that?

Sean Illing

You reference Victor Frankl quite a bit in the book, the famous Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps. And we both agree that he’s right when he says that the goal that makes life meaningful has to be something that points beyond ourselves.

But for that exact reason, it means we can’t do this alone. So whatever form of love we aim at, it can’t just be about individual happiness. And part of figuring out how to love and, really, how to live, is knowing ourselves: what we value, what we want, what really matters.

But if you accept this very existentialist insight — and I do; I think you do as well — if you accept that our identities aren’t fixed, that we’re making it up as we go, then you also have to accept that there’s no one-size-fits-all model of love. And what you need from people and what they need from you will constantly change. If the person you love or the people you love don’t recognize that, then you have to really ask yourself if that’s the kind of love you want, or if it’s even love at all.

Carrie Jenkins

Right. If they’re loving something that they had in mind that you might be, but it’s not you, then they’re loving something that really is inside of them all along, and not the self, the being that you are, which is a living thing that grows and changes.

Sean Illing

Or if they love a version of yourself that you’ve grown past.

Carrie Jenkins

Exactly. Right. They love a past time-slice of you.

Sean Illing

I think that happens a lot.

Carrie Jenkins

You’re right that Victor Frankl’s a huge influence here. He’s actually the reason for the subtitle of this book. So it’s Sad, Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning, and Frankl’s book was called Man’s Search For Meaning.

But that’s why I chose that phrase for my subtitle: to respect what Frankl is saying about how you have to place meaningfulness and what you actually value at the center, and not happiness, in order to survive difficult situations.

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