Reviewing Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis
In her book Against Love: A Polemic, Laura Kipnis attempts to diagnose a fundamental malaise in our society. She argues that high rates of divorce and marital dissatisfaction indicate something is amiss in our cultural notions of love and marriage. The problem is more fundamental than rising divorce rates indicate, Kipnis argues. Citing a 1999 Rutgers University study, she notes that “a mere 38 percent of Americans who are married describe themselves as happy in that state” (Kipnis 149). Those attempting to counteract this marriage “implosion” (Kipnis 29) remind unhappy couples that marriage takes work and sacrifice. Though Kipnis believes this conviction to be accurate – marriage usually does take work – she is not convinced that any of the extant marriage theories come close to honestly addressing the problem. The real issue, she argues, lies right at the core of the social institution of marriage. Anthropological and sociological research indicate that there are many competing models of human coupling behavior; Kipnis dares to ask why we assume that our current ideal model, monogamous marriage, deserves to be privileged over every other possibility.
Actually, Kipnis insists, our contemporary western cultural ideal of marriage is built on a lie: “modern love’s supreme anxiety [. . . .] namely the expectation that romance and sexual attraction will persist throughout a lifetime of coupled togetherness, despite much hard evidence to the contrary” (Kipnis 59). Couples are encouraged to marry under the mistaken impression that marriage will bring them a lifetime of personal pleasure and fulfillment. On the contrary, Kipnis argues that marriage requires the restriction of desire more often than it supplies its fulfillment. Marriage is about commitment, and requires individuals to restrain their wandering eyes and libidos. From a utilitarian perspective, Kipnis applies the “greatest happiness principle” and finds that modern marriage is just not making very many people happy. But if marriage does not make people happy, Kipnis does not see the point. If marriage does not lead to happiness in the majority of cases, then why do so many people continue to get married?
Kipnis maintains that our culture perpetuates marriage to create social stability and to preserve the current social, economic, and political status quo. For many people in our society monogamous marriage is a tactical choice made in the quest for personal happiness. This decision is based upon a mythology of marriage sustained by social pressure and misleading evidence. Frankly, Kipnis believes marriage is a form of social control in our society, an economic institution historically tied to the preservation and consolidation of private property (Kipnis 169; 184). Love is a powerful intoxicant, and desire is socially disruptive. Marriage exists to bring social governmental regulation to our sexual desire, to restrain our creativity and thirst for personal transformation (Kipnis 165). She cites philosopher Wilhelm Reich, who suggests that marriage serves society by producing the kinds of submissive personality types that society requires (Kipnis 37). Unfortunately, in her view, the charade has been carried on too long, and the ideal of monogamous marriage is now creating “surplus repression” – that is, more social rigidity than our civilization (by civilization I presume Kipnis means our standard of living) really needs to survive (Kipnis 38). In the process much “health, creativity, and pride” have been sucked out of the lives of contemporary individuals (Kipnis 192) and they are made miserable by the desires and neuroses that they have internalized through their socialization in this culture. Adulterers, those who refuse to accept the stultification and misery of monogamy, pay a high social price, but they are the true revolutionaries of our addled and mislead general population (Kipnis 45; 165).
Kipnis’ critique of contemporary notions of love and marriage is perceptive, but conceptually off-the-mark. It’s almost as if she was “aiming to miss” in a deliberate fashion. Her book (whether intentionally or unintentionally, I can’t be certain) seems to indicate the real dilemma facing contemporary marriage by drawing an outline around its conceptual edge with her polemical bullet-holes. The logical paradoxes within her polemical arguments adeptly mirror the paradoxes that plague contemporary thinking about marriage. While Kipnis asserts that the expectation of monogamy is unreasonable, her critique of monogamy exposes the contemporary notions of selfhood and romantic love that make fidelity seem burdensome and miserable. In the process she demonstrates the bankruptcy of the contemporary secular and utilitarian approaches to marriage – leaving the way open for a better alternative.
Noting the “hold that post-Romantic ideals of unconstrained individuality exert over our fundamental ideologies of the self” (Kipnis 75), Kipnis argues that monogamous marriage simply cannot fulfill the constantly proliferating needs of contemporary individuals. The fact that Kipnis blurs the distinction between “needs” and “desires” in her argument serves to demonstrate just how powerfully our culture is shaped by the ideology of personal entitlement: “The modern self is constituted as a bundle of needs waiting to be met” she writes (Kipnis 72). According to this dominant ideology, every person is entitled to define his or her own needs. In other words, individuals are defined by their desires. Unfortunately, all too often individuals find their desires spiralling out of control, leaving them frustrated and bewildered when desires they have mistaken for needs turn out to be insatiable and mutually exclusive. Kipnis recites the familiar sets of contradictory desires that individuals encounter in monogamous relationships: “On the one hand, the yearning for intimacy, on the other, the desire for autonomy; on the one hand, the comfort and security of routine, on the other, its soul-deadening predicatability; on the one side, the pleasure of being deeply known (and deeply knowing another person), on the other, the straight-jacketed roles that such familiarity predicates” (Kipnis 35).
So, Kipnis points out, there is simply no way a monogamous romantic relationship can fufill all of these insatiable and mutually exclusive desires. And yet we are encouraged to believe that if we can only find the right person, we will be happy and completed as individuals (Kipnis 75). In the middle of a fresh love affair, it is sometimes easy to believe we have found exactly what we need to bring permanent fulfillment to our lives. In that early flush of excitement and mutual desire we feel refreshed and immensely significant. Kipnis suggests that with every new love affair a person discovers “a very different new love-object: yourself. The new beloved mirrors this fascinating new self back to you, and admit it, you’re madly in love with both of them” (Kipnis 132). Fresh romance feeds the self-absorption of a person’s unconstrained individuality. These are positive feelings, and we want them to last – but they cannot, because they are based on novelty. When these feelings fade, we feel disappointed and cheated out of the fulfillment we feel entitled to experience. And so we are dissatisfied and frustrated by marriage, but social pressures says that we should stay in love and happily married to the same person for our entire lives, and our personal anxieties and insecurities make separation and divorce seem catastrophic. No wonder Kipnis insists there has got to be something fundamentally wrong with “love and marriage” in our society.
As Blaine J. Fowers says in Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness, the essential problem here lies not with marriage but with our unreasonable expectations for it. He calls “our collective expectations for a happy marriage a myth because this aspiration is larger than life and has come to be the only widely accepted basis for marriage in our society” (Fowers 5). He goes on to acknowledge, as Kipnis’ book insists, that “The majority of marriages fall far short of that ideal: about half of all couples divorce, and many others remain married in spite of their dissatisfaction” (Fowers 5). So what should we expect? For Kipnis, something is wrong with a system that produces so much dissatisfaction: “it becomes hard to refute the idea that something’s missing, something that adultery in its fumbling way attempts to palliate” (Kipnis 196). From a Christian theological perspective, there is something very important missing from most marriages: a reliable sense of purpose. For Kipnis, the only reason for marriage is personal gratification and happiness. But she herself points out that marriage is not a particularly effective means to that end.
Theologians such as David P. Gushee have a different answer for what we should expect of marriage. Gushee argues that God has a purpose for marriage that is much more profound than personal gratification. In his view, human beings long to be in relationship. We are fundamentally relational beings. From the stories of creation contained in the book of Genesis, we discover that we are created as male and female in the image of God, and God is an intrinsically relational being – three in one (Gushee 91). “We were created for community,” Gushee writes, and “one of communities forms—the first and most fundamental, to be sure—is that bond between male and female for which most of us reach most of our lives” (Gushee 91). God created human beings to know him, and to be known by him – and to know and be known to each other. We are not created merely to experience pleasure and fulfillment, but to bring pleasure and fulfillment to others. But we are not left to figure this out on our own without any guidelines. Gushee points out that marriage is a key concept in the Genesis story. Marriage exists as one of the “structures of creation,” so God must have specific purposes for it that are closely bound up with the meaning of human life. Gushee identifies these needs as “human companionship, sexual expression, the procreation and nurture of children, and the advancement of the social good” (Gushee 100).
The problem, as Kipnis’ rant so able demonstrates, is that these basic human needs are so easily distorted into frustrating and socially destructive desires. We are selfish creatures, and all too often we seek personal satisfaction in our relationships at others’ expense. The problem, in other words, is sin.
In response to the reality of sin, God has established the model of covenant. A covenant is a binding promise to be faithful to a relationship. Covenants are necessary responses to sin, which is unfaithfulness to relationship. According to Scripture, God has established a series of covenants with humankind, thereby demonstrating his commitment to being in relationship with us. In this way God demonstrated his unconditional love for human beings. This does not mean that God has no expectations for human beings; it means that he loves us no matter what we do, but because he loves us he expects us to respond to his love in faithfulness. Scripture often compares God’s relationship to humanity with the relationship between a husband and a wife. Gushee, while cautioning against over-simplified interpretations, nonetheless believes that Scripture offers a covenant model of marriage (Gushee 133-138). A marriage covenant exists to help shield a man and a woman from the destructive power of infidelity as they seek to fulfill God’s creation purposes for marriage (Gushee 129).
Just as God in Christ gave himself on behalf of his covenant people, the church, and in return asks that they lay down their lives to follow him, covenant marriage is to be characterized by mutual self-giving (Ephesians 5:22-30). This is the paradox at the heart of the gospel: self-sacrifice is the key to self-fulfillment. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). Or as the Fourth Gospel puts it, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Human beings are made for relationship, and we need love relationships that require us to sacrifice and commit ourselves to other people. That this is, in some sense, a “creation principle” may be demonstrated by the fact that pscyhologists such as Terry Hargrave have come to similar conclusions through their professional research and experience in counseling: “This is one of life’s paradoxes, that as we give up part of our individuality to create this ‘us’ relationship, we gain nurturance for our own personhood. When we give to ‘us,’ we actually receive” (Hargrave 9). The desperate grasping after fulfillment that Kipnis descibes in her book shows that relationships between self-centered people cannot remain satisfying for very long. We need community to be fulfilled as individuals.
Terry D. Hargrave, following Carl Whitaker, calls the intimate community between a wife and husband “us-ness.” A third entity is formed in every relationship; it is the dynamic between the two individuals in the relationship, and it is a crucial component of identify formation even for adults. We are defined as people by the relationships to which we commit ourselves. Our therapeutic culture, as Kipnis shows, is obsessed with individual happiness and satisfaction. While having a distinct individuality is a crucial component of healthy personhood, participation in community is equally important. Martin Buber believed that in the dynamic interaction between “I” and “Thou,” my true self is revealed, and I become aware of who I am in the mirror of our relationship (Hargrave 11). Intimacy makes self-awareness possible; moreover, it shapes the self and causes it to grow (Hargrave 11). We are fundamentally incomplete and incoherent until we find our place within a community – which is a network of relationships rooted in a particular place and time. As much as our sinful selves pull against the restrictions and sacrifices of sustained relationships, we will never be who God meant for us to be as individuals apart from sustained commitment to community.
These ideas about relationships do not only apply to marriage; they pertain to any signficant relationship between human beings. Yet they are particularly relevant to marriage, because marriage can be the most intimate of all human relationships when it is protected by a firm covenant. It is within marriage that people have the most dramatic opportunities to build character and the most profound encounters with “Otherness” that human interactions can provide. Kipnis’ book barely hints at the spiritual and metaphysical possibilities folded within the seeming drudgery of married life, perhaps because her own view excludes God, dismissing the divine being as a human conception created to satisfy a twisted human need for emotional subjugation (Kipnis 94). No wonder Kipnis associates love with emptiness (Kipnis 195). She has idealized a form of love that is completely lacking in metaphysical curiosity or moral ambition. She disdains the “work” that marriage requires, but is there any realm of human experience where meaning and purpose are separable from effort and loyalty? No. As Ursula K. LeGuin writes in the science fiction novel The Dispossessed, “If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled [. . . .] It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it” (Le Guin 335).
As Christians, we believe that God has called us to live our lives as testimonies to his holiness and faithfulness as an act of worship (Lee, Lecture). Therefore, as Cameron Lee says, “while marriage has an important place in the created order, in the church, the redemption of marriage is taken up in the larger task of embodying the reality of sanctification in all relationships” (Lee, Lecture 1), Leaders in the church must encourage fellow Christ-followers to see all of their relationships as opportunties for personal growth and proper worship of God.
How can we do this? The first step is to teach a truly Christian view of relationships and marriage in our Christian communities. Too many Christ-followes are confused by the “unconstrained individualism” and misguided notions about romantic love and “soul-mates” that Laura Kipnis’ book considers. We need a deeper and richer understanding of God’s purpose for human relationships and marriage in particular. But we should not stop with good theological teaching. Leaders must take seriously the reality of human sin, and recognize the valuable resources available that guide people in the practice of virtue in their relationships. Just because someone is a Christian does not mean they know how to be a faithful husband or wife, or even that they understand why it is important. As Teresa Adams, a PAIRS therapist, writes: “PAIRS exposes the perfectionistic myth that we should naturally know how to have good relationships” (DeMaria and Hannah 175). Although, as Blaine J. Fowers notes, learning more effective techniques for relating to one another is not the the cure-all to relationship problems (Fowers 104), the deep-rooted reality of human sin makes marriage-preparation, maintenance, and enrichment programs necessary. We become faithful as we live in faithfulness. In the same way, we become lovers as we practice love. As the PAIRS program teaches, “couples must practice the skills of a loving relationship in order to have one” (DeMaria and Hannah 95). While only God can transform the human heart, God works through human relationships and communities. Our churches serve as communities in which smaller communities – couples and individuals – can learn how to find stability, security, and sincerity in their intimate relationships (Hargrave) while growing as individuals and as committed community members.
It is entirely appropriate for the church to sponsor marriage seminars, retreats, workshops, and mentoring programs. Using the Christian PAIRS program to help singles and individuals learn to relate better is one example of a program designed for this sort of use (DeMaria and Hannah 215). Churches should also be actively involved in their communities establishing ecumenical policies of cooperation that require pre-marital assessments (such as PREPARE/ENRICH) and “counseling” sessions for couples seeking church-weddings (Lee, Lecture 6). In this way new couples can explore potential sources of conflicts in their personalities, values, and expectations shaped by their families of origin. Churches should also actively encourage mentoring relationships between new or conflicted couples and experienced/stable couples. Anything that can be done to encourage understanding and better communication in order to strengthen relationships will also serve to enhance the life of the community and the individual’s life of discipleship – because each of these matters is inextricably interconnected with the others.
Kipnis is right to point out that much health and creativity has been sucked out of our culture by our misguided notions about marriage and relationships. But she is wrong to suggest that infidelity is the path towards health. And Kipnis is on to something when, citing philosopher Denis de Rougemont, she wonders “whether there’s just something fatal to marriage at the heart of human longing” (Kipnis 191). That “something” that threatens the life of marriage is sin. But we can’t chalk the whole problem up to individual sinfulness. Kipnis’ polemic reveals the important truth that the “implosion” of marriage in our society reveals something is deeply wrong, not just with individuals, but systemically — with our culture as a whole. We cannot place the blame for the collapse of marriages upon faulty individuals alone. As a society we set people up to fail in marriages by lying to them. We are driven to lie because we need people to practice virtue in their relationships even if they don’t believe in God. Social stability is built on virtue, particularly virtuous marriages. We need people to be responsible, so we try to convince them that being responsible people of good character will give them what they really want – and then we do everything that we can to stoke their desire to irrational and unmanageable heights so that they will be insatiable consumers.
As a complicit members in this society, we want social stability and continuous economic expansion – and we can only have both by convincing people that both are possible, and coaxing them into following incoherent patterns of behavior which lead to the destruction of their lives and their families. As aliens and strangers in this culture, we Christians must be careful that in our defense of marriage we do not become instruments of social coercion and enforcers of the status quo. As the people of God, we are called to witness to the Kingdom of God – the impending restoration of right relationships with God and between human beings. Our concern for marriage cannot be divorced from our radical commitment to a different way of being in the world – the way of the cross that leads to life.
— joel short
DeMaria, Rita and Hannah, Mo Therese, eds. Building Intimate Relationships: Bridging Treatment, Education, and Enrichment Through the PAIRS Program. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003.
Fowers, Blaine J. Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness: How Embracing the Virtues of Loyalty, Generosity, Justice, and Courage Can Strengthen Your Relationship. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Gushee, David P. Getting Marriage Right: Realistic Counsel for Saving and Strengthening Relationships. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004.
Hargrave, Terry D. The Essential Humilty of Marriage. Phoenix: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, Inc., 2000.
Kipnis, Laura. Against Love: A Polemic. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed.