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‘Against Love: A Polemic’

Author Laura Kipnis with a brave examination of the plight of modern coupledom.
/ Source: TODAY

“Will all the adulterers in the room please stand up?” So begins Laura Kipnis’s profoundly provocative and waggish inquiry into our never-ending quest for lasting love, and its attendant issues of fidelity and betrayal. Here's an excerpt of “Against Love”:


Will all the adulterers in the room please stand up? This means all you cheating wives, philandering husbands, and straying domestic partners, past, present, and future. Those who find themselves fantasizing a lot, please rise also. So may those who have ever played supporting roles in the adultery melodrama: “other man,” “other woman,” suspicious spouse or marital detective (“I called your office at three and they said you’d left!”), or least fun of all, the miserable cuckold or cuckoldess. Which, of course, you may be, without (at least, consciously) knowing that you are. Feel free to take a second to mull this over, or to make a quick call: “Hi hon, just checking in!”

It will soon become clear to infidelity cognoscenti that we’re not talking about your one-night stands here: not about those transient out-of-town encounters, those half-remembered drunken fumblings, those remaining enclaves of suburban swinging—or any of the other casual opportunities for bodies to collide in relatively impersonal ways in postmodern America. We live in sexually interesting times, meaning a culture which manages to be simultaneously hypersexualized and to retain its Puritan underpinnings, in precisely equal proportions. Estimates of the percentage of those coupled who have strayed at least once vary from 20 to 70 percent, meaning that you can basically select any statistic you like to support whatever position you prefer to take on the prevalence of such acts. Whatever the precise number—and really, must we join the social scientists and pen-protector brigades and fetishize numbers?—apparently, taking an occasional walk on the wild side while still wholeheartedly pledged to a monogamous relationship isn’t an earthshaking contradiction. Many of us manage to summon merciful self-explanations as required (“Shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach”) or have learned over the years to deploy the strategic exception (“Out-of-town doesn’t count,” “Oral sex doesn’t count”) with hairsplitting acumen. Perhaps a few foresightful types have even made prior arrangements with the partner to cover such eventualities—the “one time rule,” the “must-confess-all rule” (though such arrangements are said to be more frequent these days among our non-heterosexual denominations). Once again, statistics on such matters are spotty.

But we’re not talking about “arrangements” with either self or spouse, or when it’s “just sex,” or no big thing. We will be talking about what feels like a big thing: the love affair. Affairs of the heart. Exchanges of intimacy, reawakened passion, confessions, idealization, and declarations—along with favorite books, childhood stories, relationship complaints, and deepest selves, often requiring agonized consultation with close friends or professional listeners at outrageous hourly rates because one or both parties are married or committed to someone else, thus all this merging and ardor takes place in nervous hard-won secrecy and is turning your world upside down. In other words, we will be talking about contradictions, large, festering contradictions at the epicenter of love in our time. Infidelity will serve as our entry point to this teeming world of ambivalence and anxiety, and as our lens on the contemporary ethos of love—as much an imaginary space as an actual event. (Commitment’s dark other, after all—its dialectical pal.) Meaning whether or not you signed up for the gala cruise, we’re all in this boat one way or another—if only by virtue of vowing not to be.

So just as a thought experiment—though it will never happen to you and certainly never has—please imagine finding yourself in the contradictory position of having elected to live a life from which you now plot intricate and meticulous escapes: a subdivision getaway artist, a Houdini of the homefront. You didn’t plan it, yet . . . somehow here you are, buffeted by conflicting emotions, and the domesticity you once so earnestly pledged to uphold now a tailor-made straitjacket whose secret combination is the ingenious (and hopefully undetectable) excuses you concoct to explain your mounting absences (or mounting phone bills for you long-distance strayers; thank God for those prepaid phone cards, an adulterer’s telephonic godsend). When defenses are down, or some minor domestic irritant unaccountably becomes an epic dispute—which happens even in the best of times, not only when you’re preoccupied by thoughts of where you’d rather be and with whom—or when the yearning becomes physically painful, or you’re spending an inordinate amount of time sobbing in the bathroom, this turn of events may raise fundamental questions about what sort of emotional world you want to inhabit, or what fulfillments you’re entitled to, or—for a daring few—even the nerve-rattling possibility of actually changing your life. (Alternatively, forego hard questions and just up the Prozac dosage, which will probably take care of that resurgent libido problem too.)

A note on terminology: while adultery traditionally requires the prior condition of a state-issued marriage license for at least one of the parties, for the purposes of the ensuing discussion any coupled relationship based on the assumption of sexual fidelity will count as “married.” And with gay populations now demanding official entry to state-sanctioned nuptials too, no longer is this the heterosexual plight alone: welcome aboard all commitment-seeking queer, bi, and transgendered compatriots. But gay or straight, licensed or not, anywhere the commitment to monogamy reigns, adultery provides its structural transgression—sexual exclusivity being the cornerstone of modern coupledom, or such is the premise—and for the record, you can also commit it with any sex or gender your psyche can manage to organize its desires around; this may not always be the same one that shapes your public commitments.

An additional terminological point. As our focus will be on “social norms” and “mainstream conventions” of love rather than exceptions and anomalies (and on the interesting penchant for inventing conventions that simultaneously induce the desire for flight), for the purposes of discussion terms like “love” and “coupledom,” or “coupled” and “married,” will often be used interchangably. Though coupledom is not always the sole outcome of romantic love, nor does love necessarily persist throughout coupledom’s duration; though not all couples have joined into legal marriage contracts with the state; though a few iconoclasts do manage to love to the beat of a different drummer, let’s agree at the outset that the sequence “love-couple-marriage” does structure prevailing social expectations, regardless of variations in individual practices. Feel free to make whatever semantic adjustments are required should some idiosyncrasy (or prolonged adolescent rebellion or bad luck streak or terminal ambivalence) on your part necessitate a different terminology. “Domestic partners,” “significant others,” even you “commitment-phobes”: keep reading. There are a million stories in love’s majestic empire, and yours is in here too.

And while we’re clarifying terms, a note on gender. These days either partner can play either gender role, masculine or feminine, regardless of sex or sexual orientation. Thus, gender will not be a significant aspect of our discussion. Whoever waits at home, whoever “has their suspicions,” is the wife. Whoever “wants more freedom” is the guy. And if the married-male/single-female configuration is still the most prevalent adultery form, all indications are that female straying is on the rise: clearly all that was required were more opportunities for women to get out of the house. (And more academic degrees: sociologists report that the higher a woman’s education level, the more likely she is to have affairs; when the female partner has more education than the male, she’s the one more likely to stray.) While feminism typically gets the credit (or blame) for propelling women out of the domicile and into the job market, let’s give credit where credit is due: thanks must go too to economic downturns and stagnating real wages—although if it now takes two incomes to support a household, maybe this was not exactly what the term “women’s liberation” was designed to mean.

And, finally, a note on genre. This is a polemic. If there is scant attention paid to the delights of coupled fidelity and the rewards of long-term intimacies or the marvelousness of love itself, please remember that the polemicist’s job is not to retell the usual story, and that one is well rehearsed enough that it should not need rehearsing once more here. Should its absence cause anxiety, if frequent bouts of sputtering are occluding your reading experience, just append where necessary.

Adulterers: you may now be seated. Will all those in Good Relationships please stand? Thank you, feel free to leave if this is not your story — you for whom long-term coupledom is a source of optimism and renewal, not emotional anesthesia. Though before anyone rushes for the exits, a point of clarification: a “good relationship” would probably include having — and wanting to have —sex with your spouse or spouse-equivalent on something more than a quarterly basis. (Maybe with some variation in choreography?) It would mean inhabiting an emotional realm in which monogamy isn’t giving something up (your “freedom,” in the vernacular) because such cost-benefit calculations just don’t compute. It would mean a domestic sphere in which faithfulness wasn’t preemptively secured through routine interrogations (“Who was that on the phone, dear?”), surveillance (“Do you think I didn’t notice how much time you spent talking to X at the reception?”), or impromptu search and seizure. A “happy” state of monogamy would be defined as a state you don’t have to work at maintaining. After all, doesn’t the demand for fidelity beyond the duration of desire feel like work — or work as currently configured for so many of us handmaidens to the global economy: alienated, routinized, deadening, and not something you would choose to do if you actually had a choice in the matter?

Yes, we all know that Good Marriages Take Work: we’ve been well tutored in the catechism of labor-intensive intimacy. Work, work, work: given all the heavy lifting required, what’s the difference between work and “after work” again? Work/home, office/bedroom: are you ever not on the clock? Good relationships may take work, but unfortunately, when it comes to love, trying is always trying too hard: work doesn’t work. Erotically speaking, play is what works. Or as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts it: “In our erotic life... it is no more possible to work at a relationship than it is to will an erection or arrange to have a dream. In fact when you are working at it you know it has gone wrong, that something is already missing.”

Yet here we are, toiling away. Somehow—how exactly did this happen?—the work ethic has managed to brown-nose its way into all spheres of human existence. No more play—or playing around—even when off the clock. Of course, the work ethic long ago penetrated the leisure sphere; leisure, once a respite from labor, now takes quite a lot of work itself. (Think about it the next time you find yourself repetitively lifting heavy pieces of metal after work: in other words, “working out.”) Being wedded to the work ethic is not exactly a new story; this strain runs deep in middle-class culture: think about it the next time you’re lying awake contemplating any of those 4 a.m. raison d’etre questions about your self-worth or social value. (“What have I really accomplished?”) But when did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of love—and does this mean that collective bargaining should now replace marriage counseling when negotiating for improved domestic conditions?

When monogamy becomes labor, when desire is organized contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labor from employees, with marriage a domestic factory policed by means of rigid shop-floor discipline designed to keep the wives and husbands and domestic partners of the world choke-chained to the status quo machinery—is this really what we mean by a “good relationship”?

Back in the old days, social brooders like Freud liked to imagine that there was a certain basic lack of fit between our deepest instincts and society’s requirements of us, which might have left us all a little neurosis-prone, but at least guaranteed some occasional resistance to the more stifling demands of socialization. But in the old days, work itself occasionally provided motives for resistance: the struggle over wages and conditions of course, and even the length of the workday itself. Labor and capital may have eventually struck a temporary truce at the eight-hour day, but look around: it’s an advance crumbling as we speak. Givebacks are the name of the game, and not just on the job either: with the demands of labor-intensive intimacy and “working on your relationship,” now it’s double-shifting for everyone. Or should we just call it vertical integration: the same compulsory overtime and capricious directives, the dress codes and attitude assessments, those dreaded annual performance reviews—and don’t forget “achieving orgasm.”

But recall that back in the old days the promise of technological progress was actually supposed to be less work rather than more. Now that’s an antiquated concept, gone the way of dodo birds and trade unionism. How can you not admire a system so effective at swallowing all alternatives to itself that it can make something as abject as “working for love” sound admirable? Punching in, punching out; trying to wrest love from the bosses when not busily toiling in the mine shafts of domesticity—or is it the other way around? It should come as no surprise, as work sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild reports, that one of the main reasons for the creeping expansion of the official workday is that a large segment of the labor force put in those many extra hours because they’re avoiding going home. (Apparently domestic life has become such a chore that staying at the office is more relaxing.)

So when does domestic overwork qualify as a labor violation and where do you file the forms? For guidance on such questions, shall we go straight to the horse’s mouth? This, of course, would be Marx, industrial society’s poète maudit, so little read yet so vastly reviled, who started so much trouble so long ago by asking a very innocent question: “What is a working day?” For this is the simple query at the heart of Capital (which took three volumes to answer). As we see, Marx’s question remains our own to this day: just how long should we have to work before we get to quit and goof around, and still get a living wage? Or more to our point, if private life in post-industrialism means that relationships now take work too, if love is the latest form of alienated labor, would rereading Capital as a marriage manual be the most appropriate response?

What people seem to forget about Marx (too busy blaming him for all those annoying revolutions) is how evocatively he writes about feelings. Like the feeling of overwork. The motif of workers being bled dry keeps cropping up in his funny, mordant prose, punctuated by flurries of over-the-top Gothic metaphors about menacing deadness. The workday is a veritable graveyard, menaced by gruesome creatures and ghouls from the world of the ambulatory dead; overwork produces “stunted monsters,” the machinery is a big congealed mass of dead labor, bosses are “blood-sucking vampires,” so ravenous to extract more work from the employees to feed their endless werewolf-like hunger for profit, that if no one fought about the length of the workday it would just go on and on, leaving us crippled monstrosities in the process, with more and more alienated labor demanded from our tapped-out bodies until we dropped dead just from exhaustion.

Excerpted from “Against Love: A Polemic,” by Laura Kipnis. Copyright © 2003 by Laura Kipnis. Published by Pantheon Books a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.