Love as a Practice
Pleasure and worry—that well summarizes the ambivalent feelings that take hold of a person trying to choose an essay on love, among the rows of a bookshop. He knows, within his heart of hearts, that such a book is likely to (re)arouse desire, excitement, the whole procession of feelings involved in love that transport you to other places. But he is also afraid to see his own experience deconstructed, analysed, and exposed, spoiling the magic…with the sometimes very sombre reflections that this can trigger. If he can scale the wall of his own apprehension, however, he will benefit from reading Pratique de l’amour. Le plaisir et l’inquiétude [Practice of Love: Pleasure and worry] by Michel Bozon, researcher at the French Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques [National Institute for Demographic Research] (INED).
In this essay, the author chooses to study love precisely as a history in three stages, forming the same number of chapters: birth, stabilization, and falling out of love. The author, a sociologist well known for his previous work on love and sexuality, does not analyse a specific research study for this book. Of course, he draws on interviews that he cites here and there, but it is rather his accumulated experience on the subject that primarily brings the essay to life. Similarly, the theoretical corpus he draws on (such as Michel Foucault, Marcel Mauss) fades into the background, giving way to many and varied literary references, from courtly love to the most contemporary literature.
Love is not an individual feeling that suddenly arises when you meet the right person. With this bit of common sense, Michel Bozon invites us to break away from this myth. Rather, love is a set of interpersonal practices and continual exchanges. The interpretations of these exchanges form the foundation of love and cause it to exist. Next, he draws on sociological research showing that these practices differ according to gender: women are always more emotionally invested in love than men. Finally, the author elucidates the dynamics of the practice of love in three phases, each of which are associated with a specific rationale and a set of specific practices that bring forth love, sustain it, and put an end to it.
Reciprocity at the Beginning of Love
As we know, the bond of love is built reciprocally. But what Michel Bozon explains, particularly in his first chapter, is that this bond is based on a dual movement of giving of oneself and taking power over the other. Offering one’s time, divulging one’s thoughts, giving one’s body…When we give a part of ourselves to the one we love in this way, we do so in order to incite them to give themselves to us in return. The giving of self thus allows, in the beginnings of love, to acquire a hold over the other. And while new relationships are all different, most are built gradually. Indeed, the partners’ commitment is strengthened as they exchange symbols, gifts, and information—in other words, they are part of a relationship of dependence and power. Feelings therefore do not precede practices. Moreover, “love is not the necessary condition that leads to the giving of oneself in the relationship; it is rather the giving of oneself to the relationship that triggers love. And it is the reciprocity of this giving that makes love come to life.”
The author attaches particular importance to two examples of abandoning oneself to the other that have a very strong symbolic value: the gifts given to lovers and the giving of one’s body in the sexual act. Sexual relations are both a way of abandoning oneself to the other person and discovering the other person at the same time. Until the second half of the twentieth century, the giving of one’s body took place at the last stage of committing to love. Today, rather than restraint, it is having sex that enables the bond of love to be built. And while social codes still encourage women to regulate their sexual activity, partners give of their bodies earlier and earlier.
According to Michel Bozon, the rise of individualism has been accompanied by a “fragmentation” of these acts of giving: we no longer give of ourselves completely, and we try to control what we give. Nevertheless, interpersonal exchanges continue to follow a “rule of equilibrium” and only on this condition can love last over time.
The Couple: a stable relationship, discontinuous love
When it succeeds, budding love turns into a stable couple. And the author here speaks of love within the couple, whereas most sociological studies seek to describe the modes of conjugal cooperation thus omitting its affective aspects. Contrary to the common idea that love cannot survive the daily routines and demands of life and inevitably disappears over the course of time, Bozon shows that love remains well and truly present in conjugal life.
In the stable couple, showing love is based primarily through creating a “shared domain”: spouses share the same universe made up of objects, places, habits, projects, etc. This shared space provides a feeling of familiarity and well-being and thus forms a framework likely to foster stronger emotional investment. Moments of shared understanding between partners, which are based on this shared sphere, are thus interpreted as manifestations of love. To be able to understand each other without having to speak, to see that one’s thoughts coincide with those of the other without any need to explain them, procures a certain pleasure and fans the flames of love, even if only temporarily.
In stable relationships, love also exists through the mise en scene of the love bond: showing that the partner still has a unique status and reviving the memory of the beginnings of love in a ritual and temporary way. Some practices that occurred in the beginnings of love then acquire new meaning. Gifts, for example, are no longer given as part of abandoning oneself to the other, or “putting yourself under the other’s sway,” but rather to show your partner that you really know him, that you know how to please her. To “please the other” is also how sexual relations in a stable couple are sometimes viewed. It is above all women who report having sex without wanting to. Here, we see a gendered difference in the modes of commitment in love. Sexual life, and more broadly the mise en scene of the love bond, are mostly initiated by men, while women value the manifestations of understanding and seek to consolidate the couple’s shared domain.
Love is not only invested in differently by the sexes, but also intermittently: in stable couples, phases of emotional engagement alternate with periods of withdrawal, when love is less present. Manifestations of love are therefore discontinuous. However, this is the ordinary functioning of the couple and it is only when these intermittent practices become rare or lose their meaning that we enter the phase of falling out of love, which is dealt with in the last section of the essay.
Falling out of Love
This phase does not necessarily correspond to separation or divorce, but rather to “a process of deactivation, demotivation or drying up of the relationship, which has as its cause and its effect the desertion and disengagement of the partners.” This stage of love is present already in the beginning in the partners’ minds. Bozon points out the difficulty of observing this process, which, far from being directly identifiable, is due to an often ambiguous interpretation of the signs of detachment. How do we know if the weakening of the bond is not part of the routine cycle of disengagement that is normal in conjugal life? Even with regard to sexuality, which nevertheless seems to be the clearest reflection of the state of romantic relationships, what it means to have sex less often is not at all evident. Sexual activity is often commented on, and sometimes with concern, but partners’ perceptions of sex are fragile and difficult to interpret.
Falling out of love gives rise to a feeling of strangeness, which the author calls “estrangement”: we no longer recognize what was familiar to us; we no longer see in the other what we saw before. We are thus moving away from the shared space that had gradually been built. In practice, this translates into eating one’s meals separately, not being in the same rooms at the same time…Because it reduces the shared domain and makes the other undesirable, this falling out of love has a snowball effect and is ultimately felt by both spouses. Then comes the time of getting yourself back, which makes it possible to redefine the contours of oneself and to rediscover certain aspects of oneself that had been set aside. This phase of falling out of love certainly corresponds to a deactivation of the relationship, but it is also an active process of refocusing on ourselves which, as Bozon concludes on a positive note, can be the starting point for new loves.
To come back to the introductory comment on pleasure and worry, the subtitle of the book, reading the Pratiques de l’amour does not escape the problems of the genre but avoids its pitfalls. By basing this essay on his experience as a researcher, but also as a person, a sociologist, and above all as a reader, Bozon does not offer findings from qualitative or quantitative studies as he has done in the past. Here, he has composed a real essay that each reader can dig into and draw insights about the ordinary experiences of love, without limiting his pleasure.
Crédits image à la Une : CC Pxhere et crédits image d’entrée : CC Wikimedia Commons AnonMoos