Western culture has endlessly represented the ways in which love miraculously erupts in people’s lives, the mythical moment in which one knows someone is destined to us; the feverish waiting for a phone call or an email, the thrill that runs our spine at the mere thought of him or her. To be in love is to become an adept of Plato, to see through a person an Idea, perfect and complete. Endless novels, poems, or movies teach us the art of becoming Plato’s disciples, loving the perfection manifested by the beloved. Yet, a culture that has so much to say about love is far more silent on the no-less-mysterious moment when we avoid falling in love, where we fall out of love. This silence is all the more puzzling as the number of relationships that dissolve soon after their beginning or at some point down along their emotional line is staggering.
Perhaps our culture does not know how to represent or think about this because we live in and through stories and dramas, and “unloving” is not a plot with a clear structure. Some relationships fade or evaporate before or soon after they properly started, while others end with slow and incomprehensible death. And yet, unloving means a great deal from a sociological perspective as it is about the unmaking of social bonds, which is perhaps the central topic of sociological inquiry.
But in networked modernity, anomie—the breakdown of social relationships and social solidarity—does not primarily take the form of alienation or loneliness. On the contrary, the unmaking of bonds that are close and intimate is deeply connected to the increase of social networks and to a formidable economic machinery of advice-giving or help-giving: psychologists of all persuasions as well as talk-show hosts, pornography and sex toy industries, the self-help industry, shopping and consumer venues—all of these cater to the perpetual process of making and unmaking social bonds. If sociology has traditionally framed anomie as the result of isolation and the lack of proper membership to community or religion, we are now faced with a more elusive property of social bonds in hyperconnective modernity: their volatility despite and through intense social networks, technology, and consumption.
Thus modern relationships have two properties: they are lived as free (freedom to choose a mate, to cultivate one’s sexuality, to choose one’s sex and gender, etc.) and they are framed by powerful institutions of consumer culture and technology. I dub these relationships “negative relationships.”
The period ranging from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries as one that saw the generalization to all social groups of the cultivation of new forms of relationships—the love marriage, the disinterested friendship, the compassionate relationship to the stranger, and national solidarity, to name a few. All of these novel social relations, novel institutions, and novel emotions all in one, and they are all resting on choice, the capacity to act according to one’s desire and preference. Early emotional modernity was thus a modernity in which freedom (to choose) was institutionalized and people experienced their freedom in the refinement of the practice of choice, experienced through emotions. Bonds of friendship, romantic love, marriage, or divorce were self-contained, bounded social forms, containing clear emotions and names for these emotions, studied by sociology as definable and relatively stable empirical and phenomenological relationships.
In contrast, our contemporary hyperconnective modernity seems to be marked by the formation of quasi-proxy or negative bonds characterized by negative choice: the one-night stand, the hookup, the fling, the friends with benefits, casual sex, casual dating, cybersex, are some of the names of relationships defined as short-lived, with no or little involvement of the self, often devoid of emotions, containing a form of autotelic hedonism, with the sexual act as its main and only goal. In such networked modernity, the non-formation of bonds becomes a sociological phenomenon in itself. If early and high modernity were marked by the struggle for certain forms of sociability where love, friendship, sexuality would be free of moral and social strictures, in networked modernity emotional experience seems to evade the names of emotions and relations inherited from eras where relationships were more stable. Contemporary relationships end, break, fade, evaporate, and follow a dynamic of positive and negative choice, which intertwine bonds and non-bonds.
Negative relations are apparent in the conscious decision or non-conscious practices by many men and women not to enter stable bonds or have children and in the fact that single households have considerably increased in the last two decades.
A second way in which negative choice is made apparent is by the development of divorce rates. In the United States, for example, the rate more than doubled between 1960 and 1980. In 2014 it was more than 45 percent for people who married in the 1970s or in the 1980s, making divorce a likely occurrence in a large portion of the population.
Third, more people live in multiple relationships (of the polyamorous or other types), putting into question the centrality of monogamy and attendant values as loyalty and long-term commitment. An increasing number of people enter and leave a larger number of relationships in a fluid way throughout their lives.
A fourth manifestation of non-choice is sologamy, the puzzling phenomenon of (mostly) women who choose to marry themselves, thereby declaring their self-love and affirming the worth of singlehood. Finally, negative choice is somehow implicated in what a commentator has called the loneliness epidemic: An estimated 42.6 million Americans over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness, which significantly raises their risk for premature death, according to a study by the American Association of Retired Persons. One researcher called the loneliness epidemic “a greater health threat than obesity.”
The loneliness epidemic has another form: As Jean Twenge (a psychology professor at San Diego State University) has suggested, members of the iGen generation (the generation after the millenials) have fewer sex partners than members of the two preceding generations, making the lack of sexuality a new social phenomenon. This is explained by the cultural shift to negative choice, to the quick withdrawal from relationships or to the fact that relationships themselves never get formed.
Featured image credit: “divorce” by ArmOrozco. CC0 via Pixabay.