Book Review: Romantic Relationships in a Time of ‘Cold Intimacies’

Review by Nitzan Levenberg

Romantic Relationships in a Time of ‘Cold Intimacies’ is edited by Julia Carter and Lorena Arocha, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020.

Julia Carter is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. Her research interests include marriage and relationships, families and personal life, gender and sexuality and weddings. Previous publications have focused on marriage; living apart together relationships and social policy; and weddings, gender and race. Her book Reinventing Couples: Tradition, Agency and Bricolage (co-authored with Simon Duncan) was published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan. She tweets @juliajcarter. 

Lorena Arocha is Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery (Criminology), University of Hull, UK. She tweets @Arochalorena.

Intimacy, as a sociological concept, is central to anyone in the field who wishes to understand how societies organise human relationships. Intimacy stretches out not only to romantic relationships, but also to sexual, parental and friendship dynamics. Questions about how individuals make their romantic choices, and the ways discourses, traditions and regulative social norms inform and facilitate meanings of human interaction, have been at the centre of academic discussion of the field in recent years. The centrality of the concept is therefore situated in the basic interest in how we, as humans, relate to each other and form bonds and interactions.

 A line of scholars have interpreted shifts in ‘practices of intimacies’ (Jamieson, 2011) in late-modernity as a product of extreme individualisation. As the title suggests, the edited volume Romantic Relationships in a Time of ‘Cold Intimacies’, deliberately and directly converses with the theory of one of the most renowned researchers of the field – Eva Illouz. It aims to re-examine Illouz’s approach, according to which decisions, particularly romantic ones, have been dis-embedded from the individual’s community and are based more and more on rational choice and cognitive calculations, thus making emotions ‘cooler’.

Connecting this to a wider theoretical dialogue, the volume attempts to contest the individualisation thesis by offering an abundance of accounts and perspectives on intimate relationships. The contributors re-examine the alleged ‘transformation of intimacy’, arguing that while there is no doubt that intimate relationships do undergo transformation, research has yet to offer a robust understanding of the phenomenon. The editors, Carter and Arocha, assemble a diverse team of writers, who discuss different dimensions of intimate relationships in contemporary modern life. They make sure to anchor their arguments in empirical research, thus well-grounding their claims. The latter is particularly important given that one of the main premises of the volume is to counterbalance Illlouz’s propensity to not disclose her methodology and research design which undermines her attempts to offer a rigorous account of intimate decision making – as Rachel Thwaites (p.24) points out, and rightly so.

The volume is organised in four themes that follow the headings in Illouz’s Why Love Hurts (2012). The first section, The Great Transformation of Intimacy, aims to deal with some of the underlying assumptions of Illouz’s theory. In particular, it addresses her ongoing discussion of choice, commitment and rationality. Throughout the section, the writers explore the limits of Illouz’s emphasis on ‘rational choice’ pointing out traditional notions and constraints which remain consistent in informing and shaping the actions of the individual. Particularly gratifying is Thwaites’s discussion (chapter 2) of the sociological debate regarding intimate choice, which weaves together common discourses of the concept and the scrutiny toward them. Thwaites continuously challenges dogmatic ways of thinking about intimate relationships and choice, and points out the shortcomings of the grand narrative of individualisation in recent sociological thought. Moving on from Thwaites’s wider discussion of choice, the following chapters deal with this concept in particular sites. For instance, Carter and Smith’s research on choice, emotional rationality and wedding gifts in contemporary Britain brings forward an overlooked dimension in current discussions of the sociology of the couple. They draw a clear and coherent line between weddings as a social ritual and the meanings of gift-giving as a ritualised process, situated in normative frameworks.

The second theme, Sexual Abundance and Emotional Inequalities, opens with a critical examination of the gendered nature of romantic relationships, which Illouz sets out in cold intimacies’ (2007). Featuring established academics such as Jenny Van Hooff alongside early-career researchers like Lauren Palmer, it encourages dialogue and provides much needed space for early-career researchers within the academic discussion. The diversity of writers thus offers a nuanced and fresh discussion of the gendered aspects of romantic relationships and how they inform narratives of romantic love. Both of the aforementioned researchers provide a profound examination of dating apps (Chapters 6 and 7), which are often blamed for undermining commitment due to the abundance of choice. While Palmer’s findings are less explicit than Van Hooff’s, in terms of supporting or rejecting Illouz’s theory of the commercialisation of intimate life, the two chapters allow for a discussion about technology’s impact on intimate relationships. 

The third section, Women’s Exclusivist Strategies, expands on the theme of gender inequality and intimate relationships. Particularly insightful is Kailing Xie’s research, which looks at the ways urban university-educated middle-class Chinese men and women negotiate traditions and state-sanctioned notions of heterosexual love and their individual ambitions. This discussion is not only timely, it also offers a chance to dismantle the Western-governed narrative of intimate relationships and their alleged transformation. By looking at societies that undergo social transformation, this chapter allows for a profound examination of the individualisation thesis from a novel perspective. However, I am left wondering why all the research conducted outside the ‘Western’ context is confined to one section. I feel like this decision, unintentionally, perpetuates the Western/non-Western binary, and undermines the attempt to criticise the field of intimate relationships for its ethno-centric approach.

The fourth and last theme, From Romantic Fantasy to Disappointment, engages with Illouz’s notion of suffering in love. This section seeks to position romantic disappointment and the ways intimate relationships are ‘done’ in a greater, institutionalised scheme, arguing that disappointment and disillusion do not necessarily emerge from the abundance of options in late-modernity, but rather from the normative expectations which govern individual choice.  Morris’s work on heterosexual single moms is particularly illuminating. Based on 24 narrative interviews conducted in the UK, Morris finds that Western, Hollywood-esque ideals of romance to continue acting as cultural narratives that still very much inform the longing for committed relationships – and the disappointment from their breakdown. This paper serves as a powerful testimony to the importance of social scripts in everyday life experiences, and particularly coupledom.  

This volume does not fall short of its main imperative to be in conversation with one of the most influential researchers of the field. It is well balanced in its critique of Illouz’s theory, which allows for the reader to critically engage and take her own stance on it. In this regard, the editors and contributors have done a brilliant job. I purposely emphasise this point because of this volume’s capacity to serve as a platform for a productive debate, advance academic discussion, and promote transparency.

Overall, this volume brings forward discussions about power-relations, gender and the power of social norms over intimate relationships. Presenting more research conducted outside a Western context could have helped enrich the debate even further. It could also have benefitted from incorporating researchers who use different research methods or even come from sister disciplines, such as anthropology. Although the volume is primarily relevant for researchers who study intimacy, love and gender, the analytical framework can be of interest to any researcher who engages with questions about material realities, lived experiences and the grand narrative of individualisation.

Nitzan Levenberg is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research examines British and Israeli millennials’ pursuit of romantic love. Linking micro and macro, she is interested in the social structures which inform and shape individual choice and aspirations. Her research interests include gender, culture, intimate relationships and romantic love.

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