On the first page of What Love Is and What It Could Be, author Carrie Jenkins lets readers know that she is a philosopher and that she has both a husband and a boyfriend. Jenkins isn’t cheating or hiding her relationships from either partner. She is practicing ethical nonmonogamy. Does her nonmonogamous love count as real romantic love? Is it possible to be in love with two people?
What Love Is and What It Could Be is a deeply thoughtful, incisive, and engaging exploration of the nature of romantic love. Jenkins identifies the central question of the book as: How can love be both biological and a social construct? To find answers, she stretches far beyond her field of philosophy to explore perspectives from psychology, anthropology, literature, biology, neuroscience, evolutionary science, feminist studies and more.
Jenkins’ overview of the different ways romantic love has been construed at different times and in different places throughout history might seem like a compelling argument for the view of romantic love as a social construct. But Jenkins has little patience for either a purely social view of romantic love or a purely biological view. With regard to the latter, she examines the work of Helen Fisher.
While Jenkins agrees with Fisher on some points, her critiques are even more powerful. She eviscerates what she describes as Fisher’s argument that romantic love is essentially “a basic biological drive that evolved because our helpless female ancestors needed monogamous males to provide for them while they reared their babies.”
To Jenkins, understanding the significance of both the biological and social components of romantic love is not just important intellectually. It also has significant implications for our lives. If we see love as solely biological, she says, we risk treating love as “a natural, objective, and unchanging thing over which we have relatively little influence.” That would undermine our motivation to make change.
But if we lean too heavily on the view of love as a social construct, on the other hand, we risk thinking that we can create changes that just aren’t going to happen. For example, it would not work to try to redefine love as something “one can ‘just snap out of’ when a relationship ends instead of experiencing months of heartbreak.” The biological reality of romantic love constrains the kinds of social changes that are possible.
The title of the book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, seemed to promise a wide-ranging exploration of love in its many forms, including, for example, the love between friends, between parents and children, maybe even the love of ideas. I was disappointed, at first, to learn that the book was focused on romantic love. Jenkins does, though, discuss other kinds of love here and there. She also gives attention to issues relevant to single people who either have little interest in romantic love or who have little experience with it, even if they would like to.
“In the society I inhabit, it’s impossible to avoid the psychological impact of amatonormativity – that idea that if you’re not in romantic love, or at least looking for it, then you’re doing life wrong,” writes Jenkins.
The key social function of romantic love in contemporary society, Jenkins argues, is to take the “powerful forces of adult attraction, affection, and care” and direct them into nuclear family units. For romantic love to get funneled efficiently into just that one family form, two kinds of variations must be stopped in their tracks: having more than one romantic partner, or having no partner at all. The norm of monogamy covers the first, and amatonormativity, the second.
Those who practice nonmonogamy and those living single are punished with stereotyping and stigma, while those who follow the prescribed path are rewarded with cultural affirmation and legal benefits and protections.
Throughout the book, Jenkins challenges one piece of conventional wisdom after another. For example, on the prevailing view that women care about monogamy more than men do, she writes:
“Strong social pressure to have (and express) preferences for monogamy creates conditions under which it is complicated to find out what women ‘naturally’ prefer.”
The same is true, I think, for the question of whether people can truly want to be single. Social pressures that mandate coupling make is difficult to know what people really do prefer.
The chapter, “What Needs to Change,” builds up a list of ways that romantic love needs to be reconstructed in order to become more inclusive. Amatonormativity, for example, or the assumption that a central monogamous relationship should be the norm for humans has to go, as does the assumption that romantic love should lead to marriage and children. Changes, Jenkins believes, will be gradual and will take place “against a backdrop of continuity.”
What Love Is and What It Could Be
Basic Books, January 2017
Hardcover, 215 pages