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On Learning to Separate Romantic Love from Happiness

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When I set out to write a book about love in 2017, I was not happy. I was pretty sad. But I was still in love, or at least so I thought. All the messages from the culture around me were telling me what they had always told me: that being in love was about being happy. Being happy ever after. Happy with someone. Happy together.

I had questions. What if I’m not happy? What if I’m sad—or worse, depressed? Does that mean I’m no longer in love? Am I now unloving? Unlovable? I desperately hoped the answer to the last two was “no.” And I strongly suspected that was the answer. Even though I wasn’t happy, and didn’t know when, how, or even whether I would become happy in the future, I didn’t seriously doubt that I was in love with my partners. So instead, like any good logician, I questioned the other assumption: the one about how being in love means being happy.

Being a philosopher by tendency, as well as by academic training, I wanted to think this assumption through, so that I could talk back to it (in my own head, first of all) with some confidence and conviction. Why had I been associating romantic love with happiness?

Of course we all know that “happy ever after” comes from fairy tales, and we know fairy tales for what they are: fictions and fantasies. Real love isn’t always happy. I knew that. But a fantasy is powerful, even when we know what it is. Our fantasies—our ideals—have a crucial part to play in shaping our lives. An ideal is something to strive for, something we can measure ourselves against and find ourselves wanting. Maybe I was still in love, but I was inclined to feel like my sadness was a kind of failure condition for my relationships. Good love—ideal love—should be happy ever after, shouldn’t it? To say that the romantic “happy ever after” is unrealistic does nothing to diminish its status as an ideal, and hence its power to convince us we are falling short.

To appreciate what love is under circumstances like these, I needed a very different understanding of love from the one I had been taught.

The way I think things through is by writing, so in 2017 I started writing a second book on love, called Sad Love. But as I wrote, the world turned, and it is now a very different place compared to when I started. That book has gone to press in 2022, in the echo of authoritarian challenges to democracy in the world’s most powerful nation, after years of watching the COVID pandemic hammer away at everything from the global economy to our intimate relationships. It took me a lot longer to write this book than I had originally planned. And it exploded into something bigger than what it was originally supposed to be.

“Sad Love” turned out to be more than a theory of romance. It’s become a recipe for living in the world as it is now. To be sad, even heartbroken, does not mean one cannot love—one’s partner, one’s country, or even humanity. But to appreciate what love is under circumstances like these, I needed a very different understanding of love from the one I had been taught. One that diverges radically from the stories and the stereotypes. Love that comes with no promise, and perhaps even no hope, of a “happy ever after,” but is not lessened or degraded by that. Love whose aim, and whose nature, is something other than happiness.

That changes everything.

What did I have to be so sad about in 2017? That was when my first book on the philosophy of love, What Love Is and What It Could Be, was published. I was doing a lot of media interviews. I remember one profile piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Moira Weigel, a journalist and author I admire. She came to meet me in Vancouver while researching the piece and we chatted on my front porch, went for sushi, then chatted some more. She wrote a strong profile, a little snapshot of me at a moment in time. When I read it, I saw my own reflection in her mind, an image both familiar and strange. A woman who smoked on her front patio and wouldn’t talk about one particular topic. Whose dog still smelled of tomato juice after a close encounter with a skunk.

When it was decided that it would be the cover story for the Chronicle Review, they sent a photographer to my house to shoot me together with both of my then-partners. Now, I am not a natural in front of a camera. Being looked at makes me awkward and self-conscious. The house I lived in at the time was also not easy for a photographer to work with. It was small and dark. Eventually the photographer settled on the best (or least worst) option—upstairs in the room I used for writing, where there’s a bit of natural light there from the window. The photographer posed me by the window, in my writing chair, with my partners standing behind me. Then he crouched back inside of a cupboard full of my clothes, to get the best angle.

I was intensely aware of my partners’ bodies, peripherally visible to me as I sat in my chair. Both of my partners, in their different ways, seemed so comfortable with being photographed. With being seen. One of Jonathan’s many talents is stage performance—he is an amateur operatic singer with a gorgeous, rich, warm baritone voice that I love hearing around our house. Ray has years of experience in front of a camera, and anyway their entire being constantly radiates a fierce, model-like grace, even when they’re just walking round Save On Foods. In the photo, we look like a rag-tag team of superheroes. I love it. Ray and I are no longer partners, and so this image has come to bear even more weight, capturing as it does a phase in my experience of love that I once hoped would be permanent, but feels strange and distant to me just a few years on.

And then there it was on the cover of the Chronicle Review, emblazoned with the headline: “Can Carrie Jenkins make polyamory respectable?”

You know, no pressure.

Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy; non-monogamy because it involves being open to more than one loving partner/relationship, and consensual because it’s intentionally chosen by all parties involved (as opposed to cheating, which is non-consensual non-monogamy). But respectable? That is such a double-edged word. Was I actually trying to make polyamory respectable? Did I even want that? I would love for polyamory and other “weird” relationship forms to be deemed worthy of respect, the way “normal” relationships are. But do I want them to become bourgeois, stuffy, conventional?

There’s an old-established journalistic rule that says: if the headline is a question, the answer is “no.” I think the rule applies here. Nobody does things like that—no individual person.

When What Love Is and What It Could Be came out, well-meaning friends and colleagues would say things like, “It must be nice for you, with your book getting all that attention!” But it wasn’t nice. I’m an introvert, for one thing. For another, much bigger thing, a lot of the attention was pure hate. Shortly after publication, ABC Nightline made a short news segment on my life and work, broadcast on national US television. They also posted it to their Facebook page. The top comments were “Immoral,” “Odd balls,” “Fucked up,” “Sick,” “It’s stupid,” and “Interesting.” (Thank you, whoever that was, for swimming against the tide.)

Some spend more time crafting their responses. “THIS WOMAN IS A DISGUSTING ANIMAL,” someone posted on one of my old YouTube videos. “A far far left-wing freak that desires to completely overthrow Western Christian Civilization. IT’S WAR ON your ethos Carrie! Every God-loving human on this planet needs to realize WE ARE AT WAR with these commies. End of Story. Oh forgot to add: PLEASE CHOKE YOURSELF CARRIE. Thanks and have a nice God-loving, mom, the flag and apple pie. God Bless America. Let Freedom Ring. Stand up and defend your 2nd Amendment rights. Have happy Christ-centered marriages with lost [sic] of Christian children who hug and feed the poor and … ”

Every time an interview or article appeared in a high-visibility venue, a stream of nasty feedback would follow in its wake. I wasn’t ready for any of it, but especially not the racism. My husband Jonathan is half Asian, my then-partner Ray is Asian, and I’m a white woman who has spent most of her life with the privilege of having racism largely hidden from me. “Ray and Jon [sic] look like brothers …” declared one anonymous email. “Are they both Chinese? I bet they cook you nice spring rolls for breakfast but whose spring rolls are better …” One Facebook message—in its entirety—read, “gross! are asians the only men who will f u?”

I know it’s tempting, but the solution to this problem doesn’t begin with the word “Just …” Just don’t read the comments, just don’t talk about polyamory, just remove yourself from Twitter and YouTube and email and the internet and public discourse. These are not solutions. If I stop talking and stop engaging, the game is up. In any case, these reactions to my work are among my source materials and my clues. They help me understand the social mechanics operative behind the scenes. This is work I care about, and I can’t simply look away without giving up on it.

I have stopped asking the old question I was taught to prioritize—how to be “happy ever after.”

It’s easy to imagine how some partners might react to their loved one deciding to pursue a line of work that was evidently making them miserable. Easy to imagine concern, or distress, followed by advice to quit and return to the comfortable old life. It’s easy to imagine, really, a partner simply not wanting to be with me if I insisted on making myself miserable like this. Isn’t love supposed to be all about the happy ever after? Well, love is “supposed” to be monogamous too, and mine isn’t. When I was at my most depressed, not even the love of my partners could make me feel happy, but it did help to make me, and my work, feel possible.

Their recognition and support for who I chose to be, and what I chose to do, was an expression of love. Advising me to quit would not have been. Reflecting on that difference—between love that makes me feel happy and love that makes me feel possible—is what set me on the course towards my theory of sad love. Or more accurately, my theory of eudaimonic(literally: “good-spirited”) love. Eudaimonic love has room for the full gamut of human experiences and emotions, positive and negative, happy, and sad.

I have stopped asking the old question I was taught to prioritize—how to be “happy ever after.” This question doesn’t interest me anymore.

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Adapted from Sad Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning by Carrie Jenkins, available via Polity Books.

Craft and Criticism, Features, Health, Literary Criticism, News and Culture, Carrie Jenkins, Love, philosophy, Polity Books, polyamory, Sad Love

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