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Why Love is Not Free: How Social Structures Affect Our Emotions

Hobrechtstraße 66 Berlin, 12047


Walk through any European or American city on a warm spring evening, and you will find yourself amidst a feast of love. You will see couples of all ages, colors, shapes and sexual orientations; they will be kissing each other, holding each other’s hands, buying each other drinks, prodding each other into cabs and, of course, quarreling with each other. Like most of us, these people were raised to believe that love is free - but they are mistaken. Instead, in their words and in their deeds they enact a subtle but invisible power which dictates how to conceptualize and practice emotions; the power we can call Romantic Regime.

This lecture will be about ways Romantic Regimes affect our lives. It will argue that the Romantic Regime dominating in the modern West can be rendered as the Regime of Choice, driven by the imperative to optimize relationships through relentless self-examination and assessment of one’s psychological needs. The pursuit of self-interest is supposed to make us happier and self-love is regarded as the most legitimate form of love: pop-psychology industry conditions us to believe that to be lovable one should, in the first place, stop needing other people’s affection and attention. We are pathologized for 'loving too much’, we are told that break-up pain is a sign of worrying dependence on others and, altogether, we are prompted to think of attachment as something childish, at best, and, unnecessary, at worst. None of this is making us happier, as soaring epidemics of depression in the developed West suggests.

While taken for granted in the bounds of Western modernity, in post-Soviet Russia the Regime of Choice is contested by an alternative way of conceptualizing and expressing love: the Regime of Fate characterized by evaluation of attachment above sovereignty - a value system that results in a stronger focus on maintaining a bond rather than on boosting the independence of each partner. Sounds smothering? Not so. The liberating power of the Regime of Fate lies in its refusal of self-optimizing circuit and its acknowledgment of pain as an intrinsic part of life. However, it also comes with side effects such as domestic violence and extreme gender inequality.

Comparing the two Regimes, this lecture will argue that without supplanting the Western cult of self-sufficiency with the Russian cult of self-sacrifice, we may acknowledge vulnerability and dependence on the others as essential human experiences - and by embracing the unpredictable and whimsical nature of love, perhaps, dare to take more romantic risks than we could imagine.

About the lecturer:
Polina Aronson is a sociologist and the debate editor of open Democracy Russia. Born in St. Petersburg, she holds a Ph.D. from Warwick University and now lives in Berlin. She is currently is working on a book about perceptions of love in Russia and in the West.

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