Specificities, Elisions, and Romantic Love Narratives

I’m no lover (if you will) of romantic love narratives. I hear the word “love” thrown around without much critical analysis about what it means and used to obscure and mystify real-world power dynamics and the specificities of desire and affection.

The word scares me. Not because of the depth of feeling it is supposed to represent, but because of its vagueness. I imagine erotic and romantic relationships like a prism with eroticism, passion, power, affection, caring, desire, intensity, intimacy, and attachment (to name just a few) as facets. One word couldn’t begin to describe the shape, weight, and lustre of the prism, and I for one wouldn’t want it to. I am far more interested in perceiving the specifics of a relationship than in matching it to an archetype.

And that’s what the romantic love narrative is to me: an archetype. A generalization, and often an idealized, sanitized imagining of what relationships look like. I see the idea of love gloss over and obscure the realities of intimacy and power, and its erasures often feel dangerous.

The other night, I read an erotic story. In the 9-5 world, the two parties were employer and employee. When they met in a club by accident, they found their roles somewhat reversed. As I read, I was acutely conscious of the ways power and consent were playing out between the parties. I waited for the author to address the vulnerability of the employee’s position, or the sinister audacity of the employer’s advances. Instead, the author resolved the tension with a reveal that was both deeply familiar and utterly unsatisfying: each party had been in love with the other the whole time; the employee’s initial refusals had come only from the fear that the employer did not feel the same way.

What strikes me about this resolution is first how typical it is to the genre—so often the resolution to a romantic comedy is that unacknowledged love is the source of everybody’s confusing behavior and that acknowledging that love leads simply and easily to a happily ever after. The reveal also undercut the story’s erotic tension. What was compelling about the story came from the specificities of the two parties’ shifting power dynamic; the “love reveal” replaced those specificities with a common and boring trope. Notably, the two parties’ being in love did not actually resolve most of the numerous questions about power and consent that arose from the setup. And yet its being offered as a resolution suggests that their being in love was supposed to have been both justification and roadmap enough.

The romantic love narrative also glosses over the particulars of sex. Partly because romantic sex gets assumed to be gentle and power-neutral, while D/s and s/m are assumed incompatible with or incapable of expressing the kind of deep feeling and caring that gentle, power-neutral sex is supposed to. But also because the converse of the idea that you should only have sex with someone you love is that a kind of deep emotional attachment is all one needs to make sex okay.

My eroticism is rooted in specifics; my trauma is rooted in elisions. [Trigger warning for the next 2 paragraphs, which describe sexual coercion and unwanted sex.]

As a teenager, I believed in the romantic love narrative. I entered a relationship and believed, because the signs were there (kissing, interdependency, a swelling in my chest when I thought of her), that our relationship measured up to the archetype, and so I used the idea of love to guide my decisions. She was in love with me, so of course she asked (and asked and asked) for sex. I was in love with her, so of course it would be beautiful and transcendent. I said yes because she pressured me, but I also said yes because the romantic love narrative told me I was supposed to.

No one told me what would happen to my cunt. No one told me what do to with my hands while I lay there, naked, willing my body not to betray me with sounds and motions I did not wish to share. I’d searched myself for weeks before agreeing to have sex, wanting to be sure it was love I felt. It had never occurred to me to consider my body, to imagine the realities of hair and fingers and sweat and smells. We were in love. We were supposed to transcend all that.

[End trigger warning.]

On a day devoted to celebrating romantic love, and to hawking the most genericized tokens of affection in every drugstore, flower stand, and pink-bannered storefront, I feel profoundly uneasy. I know there are many in my life who have reclaimed the idea of love or found ways of suiting it to their own complex purposes. Myself, I still find the word both dangerous and unnecessary. Rather than use that one fraught word as a shorthand for my feelings, I choose to celebrate those who are important to me in words and gestures that reflect the specificities of who we are to each other and why that matters. And rather than imagine that romantic relationships are always to be celebrated, I choose to recognize intimacy and vulnerability as potential sites of danger. A swell of feeling between us is not enough; tell me how we navigate power, consent, desire, and our bodies, and I’ll tell you—in detail—what you mean to me.

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9 thoughts on “Specificities, Elisions, and Romantic Love Narratives

  1. Thank you for this, for your enthusiastic embrace of difficulty against the world’s encouragement of complacency. It’s so affirming.

    • Thank you for saying it’s affirming. I put a lot of work into rejecting complacency, but I also do it in this way that feels very automatic and visceral and *of course*. It’s nice to be reminded that, automatic or no, it matters.

  2. In so many ways I am with you — I also believe in naming the specificities of emotion, desire, consent and power in relationships, and I am committed to describing and negotiating that territory in all its idiosyncratic detail. But I am unwilling to give up on the word “love” entirely, because that feels like ceding territory that is so deeply hard-won to capitalism, to violence, to heteronormativity.

    I will always say I love you, and frequently, to those I feel that way about. And it will mean different things, and I will elaborate both when I am prompted to and not. It *is* shorthand for so much more, and while I agree that is dangerous I don’t believe it is terminally so. I think there is room for this word in my vocabulary to mean more than what capitalism and heteropatriarchy would determine, and it feels important to me to resist and reclaim its usage.

    • I respect this. And yet, when you write you will say the word to those you feel “that way” about, I literally do not know what you mean. And it’s so easy for me to hear the dangerous, violent, coercive shades of meaning rather than the caring ones. This is in part to do with my personal history with the word, but I don’t think I’m alone in my experience of it. All of which to say, I guess, that I support your efforts to reclaim the word, as long as there is also space in that reclaiming project for someone like me to simply refuse it.

      • There is, of course, room in my reclamation project for a complete refusal of the word “love.” For me to enforce a word on you, or anyone else, would go against my own ethics of consent and commitment to honest and careful negotiation. My feelings of affection and caring and friendship for you, Megan, have always been complicated, and I’ll keep in mind for the future that you would prefer (and would, in fact, be triggered by) my usage of the word love to encompass those feelings.

        That said, I do challenge your assertion that you have “literally no idea” what I mean when I say that I feel “that way” (an emotional threshold for me such that I would feel the urge to state I love you) about someone. It sounds to me like you do have some ideas — but they are ideas that scare you and make you uncomfortable. Instead of making positive assumptions of caring, reciprocated desire, mutual aid, compatibility, etc. within the word love — and I agree that those assumptions are too often used to forcibly obscure interpersonal violence and abuse — you worry about coercion, danger, and violence. And I wonder about this.

        Shorthand language, like saying I love you as my partner leaves to go to work in the morning, is functionally about those words standing in for everything else that cannot be said in that moment — either because there isn’t time or the inclination to elaborate or say things differently because they’re going to be late or because the emotion is actually unspeakable and these words clumsily fill the space. Or because we fought the night before and there are things still left unresolved but I want them to know, in an instant, that the ritual bedrock of our lives is still intact — without having to go back into our fight when there isn’t time to. It’s a reference point that we can come back to later, that maybe even we can rest on now to be able to get through the rest of our lives. Certainly, the word love is fuzzy, with as many definitions as there are people saying it, in as many circumstances as it is said — for me, that is actually part of its utility. It’s also part of its pleasure: accepting that I could always be wrong, could be misinterpreting, but in this moment when you say “I love you” I will risk believing I know exactly what you mean, because of our history and intimacy and shared life together. For me, even with the times I’ve been proven wrong and betrayed, those moments of shared understanding around the word love and the sometimes daily ritual of using it are immensely precious to me.

        And I hear you that there are other words with, perhaps, more useful specificity. For negotiation and processing, I couldn’t agree more. (For interesting plots in romantic media? Absolutely!) But for the daily mundane ritual and social glue of my life and my relationships? For me, the word “love” works, and has such an immense and profound history of meaning for me that I would be sad (and honestly, would refuse) to abandon it. As I first stated, and I always return to, it is important to me to respect your consent around this word. And similarly, I want my consent and desire to be respected as well. Doing both together presents real limits on what’s possible between us. I think our different experiences of and levels of investment in the word “love” and it’s usage present a significant incompatibility — which is okay. Thankfully, I think the protocols and boundaries of our friendship can allow space for that difference, heavy though it may be.

        Or at least, I hope so. 🙂 All the best to you, Megan…

  3. YES. The discourse of “love” as retroactive implied consent, as an inevitable cause-and-effect that forecloses all other possibilities, as the utter flattening of specificity–you illustrate it so perfectly. When I clear “love” out of my own vocabulary, it opens up so much space for invention and critical thought in how I name, experience, and seek relationships and feelings. Let’s keep inventing new words and new intimacies, and let’s keep thinking about the specificities that are already all around us.

    • “…inevitable cause-and-effect that forecloses all other possibilities” is exactly what I mean. Thank you. I kept thinking of you as I wrote this – that particular way the love narrative works seems like the sort of thing literary theory must have a thousand ways to analyze…

      • You’d think that it’s the sort of thing that literary theory has a thousand ways to analyze, and indeed, it does have those tools available (which is why I love it), but it’s also really frustrating how much scholarship doesn’t bother to use them! (Of course, plenty does–especially queer/feminist stuff. But plenty still doesn’t.)
        And you may be gratified to know that when you say that the danger of “love” is its all-encompassing vagueness and how this vagueness erases consent… that’s EXACTLY what Clarissa says about the word, and describes exactly why I am so deeply invested in excavating from that novel some alternative affective vocabulary that we can encounter and use productively today. So hey, thanks for motivating tomorrow’s writing work. 🙂

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