Work It

IN THE ART OF LOVING (a 1956 book that is, disappointingly, much drearier than it sounds), psychoanalyst Erich Fromm identified a “disintegration of love” in Western society. He went on to denounce relationships that “follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market.” As Fromm—a member of the Frankfurt School movement seeking to unify the precepts of Marxism and psychoanalysis—saw it, coupling was now largely a matter of investment and profit: People had begun to view themselves as products, commodities whose use they should leverage for maximum personal benefit while always “considering the limitations of their own exchange values.” In this context, a romantic partnership was cognate with a business partnership: a unit dedicated to smooth, superficial functioning, offering to both contracting parties the prospect of a fair deal. Husbands should be helpful and complimentary. Wives should be understanding and attentive. Love can be measured by precisely how much you are willing to minimize your disruptive effects on the life of your beloved.

Fromm contended (persuasively) that the strategic happy talk of romantic relationships concealed a core, implacable contradiction. “The principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible,” he wrote. Love is fundamentally generous and unselfish, the antithesis of the prevailing disposition in a profit-driven economy. Of course capitalism will tend to stamp it out. If we wish to live in a world where love is the rule rather than the exception, “radical changes in our social structure are necessary.”

Sixty years later, these ideas are still very much with us. Detractors of online dating, to take just one example, echo Fromm’s fears about the absence of true emotion and the predominance of shallow, self-serving interactions—but they tend to mistake this for a recent development. In his 2009 book, Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), French philosopher Alain Badiou lamented the “safety-first” approach of dating sites that promise to eliminate risk, or at least to minimize buyer’s remorse. “It’s like online job applications,” one blasé interviewee told the New York Times in “The End of Courtship?,” a 2013 report on Internet dating. In 2015, Vanity Fair published a much-discussed article about Tinder and other hook-up apps that supposedly augur a coming “dating apocalypse.” The author, Nancy Jo Sales, pointed to a libidinous consumer mentality as the main culprit in the death of courtship. “The free-market economy [has] come to sex,” she announced, as if it were news.

Into this anxious landscape steps Moira Weigel with Labor of Love, a sharp-eyed history that traces how a century or so of wars, industrial progress, and technological advances have shaped our mating rituals. Weigel—a Ph.D. student in the comparative literature and film and media studies departments at Yale—puts special stress on how critical American dating has been to the development of our economy, and vice versa. Dating, Weigel explains, began in the late nineteenth century, when large numbers of American women (by 1900 it was more than half) moved into jobs outside the home. Suddenly, young people had the opportunity to meet their peers en masse without adult supervision. But it wasn’t only that. Young women, who were making less than half what their male counterparts earned, could barely afford to eat, let alone spring for recreation or leisure. That’s where suitors came in, and as a result, the notion of a date—time spent, usually in public, with someone who has romantic intentions—took hold.

In other words, it’s not so much that the logic of capitalism has invaded dating from the outside and corrupted it; rather, that logic has always determined dating: what it is, how we do it, and what we expect from those we do it with. Clearly, “dating” today connotes much more than a night out—we often use the word to mean trying out different partners, or to describe a committed relationship that isn’t (yet) marriage. But it also shares many affinities with earlier versions of coupling and, like them, takes whatever forms economic conditions dictate. Critics such as Fromm may well be right in perceiving capitalism as an enemy of love, but without it would dating even exist? Weigel makes a convincing case that it wouldn’t. “You could even say dating is the form that courtship takes . . . in a free market,” she writes early on. This central point undercuts sentimental moralizing (together with a fair amount of tech fearmongering) about dating’s devolution into something transactional: A social ritual can’t really “devolve” into what it was from the start.

By stressing the capitalist roots of modern dating, Weigel also steers clear of the alarmist view that decorous romantic ritual is on the verge of extinction. If anything, she’s convinced dating is here to stay. Nor does the intersection of commerce and intimacy necessarily bother her. She’s mainly focused on the way the social contract of dating conscripts its parties—especially women—into performing outrageous amounts of labor in the hope of obtaining an elusive and often unsatisfying reward. It’s fine for dating to resemble a job, she suggests, but can’t we improve the conditions? For starters, we might want to redistribute the work more evenly between men and women—an arrangement she thinks would be likelier to produce happy relationships. “If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters still hope to land,” she writes, “dating itself often feels like the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship.”

One thing Weigel doesn’t question in all this is whether, or how much, dating continues to matter. And there’s a related, more fundamental question she doesn’t answer: What exactly is dating now? Weigel admits that nobody seems to know and neglects to provide a clear definition herself, perhaps because she hopes the entire book constitutes one. The closest thing to a working formula she offers is this: “the activity you are told is your one way to fulfillment.” She seems to mean that whatever the particulars—picking up, going steady, or swiping right—we see these rituals of normalized courtship as the sole path to the Maslow cake-topper that is romantic love.

As the child of a divorced second-wave feminist, I’ve never seen it that way. For the first thirty-plus years of my life, romance and partnership didn’t enter into my plans or dreams for the future at all. Even as a child, I was struck by how antiquated and superfluous marriage seemed, a holdover from an era that was rightfully fading. I did want love, sexual and otherwise, and I wanted to “go out with” boys, since having a boyfriend was a confirmation of desirability. (However much we may critique them in the abstract, there’s no escaping every one of these messages.) But that’s very different from looking to romantic love to define me or shape my largest life decisions.

I’m also not an anomaly. A Gallup poll in 2013 found that the importance Americans placed on marriage had declined since 2006, and that even among the unmarried people across all age demographics who said they wanted to get married, many didn’t think it was “important” that they do so. Time magazine predicted, based on a 2014 report from Pew Research, that 25 percent of millennials would never marry, and the number of American adults who have never been married has already reached a historic high. And as a further reflection of how gun-shy we’re growing about the idea of long-term romantic commitment, the average age of first marriage continues to be pushed later into life. Not long ago, an acquaintance ten years my junior casually mentioned that she and her partner were saving marriage for something that “really mattered”—like helping a foreign friend obtain US citizenship. Our behavior is changing, and so are the stories we tell ourselves about it. In “The End of the Novel of Love,” Vivian Gornick described how, in the wake of destigmatized divorce and the many other benefits of the sexual revolution, the notion of love as life’s climax had already deteriorated. A generation weaned on love as the path to self-realization had tested that idea and revealed it to be bogus. Love, Gornick wrote, “cannot do for us what we must do for ourselves. Certainly, it can no longer act as an organizing principle.”

As Weigel canvases the shifting complexion of American dating over time, she acknowledges the different experiences of marginalized people. She devotes a chapter to LGBT activism in dating spaces like the Black Cat Café and Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. And she notes more than once that black Americans’ experiences have often fallen outside mainstream-media portrayals of courtship. Yet she apparently doesn’t realize how many people, for all sorts of reasons, reject or diverge from her central premise. So many of us, from children of divorce to gay and genderqueer women to those whose primary concern is mere subsistence, cannot or simply will not build our lives around the public, concerted pursuit of romance. And for the vast majority of men, love and courtship were never expected to play that role. If dating’s salient feature is its singular importance for those who participate, then the rumors are true: Most of us aren’t doing it.

I don’t mean to dismiss the love propaganda we soak up just by virtue of living in Western culture, nor the especially powerful dose that’s foisted on women. We are under such pressure to be loved, to earn affirmation through sexual desirability and social agreeability, that it’s amazing we haven’t found more occasion to go on strike. Nonetheless, over the past thirty years, the cult of work has begun to replace that of love and domestic bliss. It’s now much more common for American women to be raised to define themselves and their achievements through work, not love. The clue is in Weigel’s title, and yet it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that if dating is an ordeal for many women, it may be less because love is so crucial to their self-worth than because work is. Dating, for those who take part in it, represents yet another expansion of the rat race, and work is precisely the thing none of us can afford not to care about.

This is why Weigel’s conflation of love with dating—she sometimes treats the words as interchangeable—is troubling: It effectively endorses capitalism’s steady colonization of our intimate, emotional lives. Weigel’s assertion that dating is work, and that that work, in the context of heterosexual pairings, disproportionately falls on women, seems uncontroversial. But if dating equals work, and dating also equals love, then that appears to situate love itself as a very specific kind of work (one restricted, incidentally, to a fairly small number of mostly white and upper- or middle-class Americans).

Weigel doesn’t quite pivot from the key point that work, commerce, and dating all closely intersect to the recognition that their enmeshment inevitably makes dating, no matter how you choose to do it—no matter how fairly you divide the labor—an extremely unreliable route to love. Her own assembled evidence, however, supports this conclusion. For those turn-of-the-century “women adrift,” dating was a means of survival or, at the very least, the only option for participating fully in some version of public life. The date was never designed or intended to introduce compatible souls to one another, and even if it had been, there could be no guarantee that love would be the result. There is no system in the world that can be relied on to predict or induce a romantic response in two strangers. Our impulses are far too capricious and inexplicable. But if you were somehow to invent such a system, dating certainly wouldn’t be it.

When those drifting women began to settle in the service sector, deploying their sex appeal to please men remained a large part of the task they faced. Men, after all, still had the money working women needed to live relatively stable lives. Eliciting free dinners and moving product require similar skills. “While Playboy presented its readers with images of women they could enjoy and then dispose of,” Weigel writes, “Cosmo promised to tell women how to make themselves enjoyable and disposable.” Numerous industries are born and sustained thanks to dating: Labor of Love describes a positive orgy of selling and spending. So Fromm, Badiou, and Sales are right that our courtship rituals involve commodification, and that they require strategy and constant labor to present ourselves for sale. What’s romantic about those circumstances, for either party? As many of us intuit, nothing is.

What Labor of Love documents, almost in spite of itself, is that dating has virtually nothing to do with love. It has to do only with money. Dating cannot and will not be an exception to Fromm’s plaint that under capitalism “all activities are subordinated to economic goals.” Neither will marriage: We know that the main conditions that determine who isn’t married and why they don’t wed are financial. The Pew report highlighted that women, especially, tend to hold out for a spouse with a steady job: Old habits are hard to break, perhaps, but particularly so in an economy that still reflects and reinforces centuries-old discriminations. (Black Americans are more likely than whites to be among the unmarried, in large part because of disproportionately high levels of unemployment and economic insecurity.)

“Old-fashioned courtship,” Weigel writes, “encouraged the fiction that love had nothing to do with the economy.” But why must that be a fiction, if you understand that love is not synonymous with dating, nor with marriage? Much of the Western canon depicts love as a deranging force in our personal lives, sowing no end of chaos and social disruption. Economic circumstances will always hamper and circumscribe it, but love is often extremely persistent and resourceful in bursting through such constraints. Weigel assumes that most of us still expect to shape our lives according to a narrative of love that roughly follows the pattern prescribed by bourgeois marriage. But while the addition of love can certainly make dating feel less fraught, and marriage less alienating, love itself doesn’t, in essence, have much to do with either of those things—if anything, it often seems diametrically opposed to them. Marriage and dating (regardless of the latter’s wilder, less predictable early phases) are institutions. Their tendency will always be to keep the economy humming and the balance of power right where it is. I’d argue that love is different—it’s a rogue element.

Toward the end of Labor of Love, Weigel movingly describes falling for the man who became her husband. However, she gives no indication of how they met, what the early stages of their courtship looked like, or whether they followed her advice to distribute all that work more equally than many couples do. I notice that Fromm is similarly coy in his vague references to the rare “non-conformist” who can manage to find love inside the stultifying role-playing of modern capitalism. He provides no details of how such renegades succeed. The more love is mistaken for and reduced to its socially sanctioned forms—dating and marriage—the more enigmatic its real inner workings seem. It may be too much to ask that love should vanquish capitalism, or even soften its ravages. But is it too much to hope that, in whatever corners it can take root, it may just prove resilient enough to keep thriving nonetheless?

Charlotte Shane is the author of the lyric memoirs Prostitute Laundry and N. B. (both TigerBee, 2015). She lives in New York City.