Russian sociologist Paulina Aronson recently wrote a fascinating article comparing Russian and Western norms around falling in love. Her key observation is that Russians regard falling in love as fate, while we in the West focus on choice via rational decision-making. This blog is an example of the Western use of analytical tools to craft strategies that make love in your life more likely. In contrast, Aronson finds the roots of Russian courtship in the great novels:
“When engaging in love affairs, the countesses and officers were not exactly eloquent; they acted before they spoke, and afterwards, if they weren’t dead as a result of their hasty undertakings, they gazed around speechless and scratched their heads in search of explanations.”
Russian love is very impulsive, and therefore romantic. But it’s messy, and often produces misery:
“A middle-class American who falls in love with a married woman is advised to break up with the lady and to schedule 50 hours of therapy. A Russian in a similar situation, however, storms the woman’s house and pulls her out by the hand, straight from the hob with stewing borsch, past crying children and a husband frozen with game controller in hand. Sometimes, it goes well…but in most cases, [it] produces mess.
In terms of bulk numbers, Russians have a greater number of marriages, divorces and abortions per capita than any other developed country. These statistics document an impetus to do whatever it takes to act upon emotions, and often at the cost of one’s own comfort. Russian romance is closely accompanied by substance abuse, domestic violence and abandoned children: the by-products of lives that were never really thought through very clearly. “
At the same time, Aronson argues that we in the West have drained the lifeblood out of romance by over-emphasizing the value of personal choice:
“The divine, unknowable and unreachable Other is no longer the subject of our love stories. Instead, we are interested in the Self, with all its childhood traumas, erotic dreams and idiosyncrasies. Examining and protecting this fragile Self by teaching it to pick its affections properly is the main project of the [West].
The most important requirement for choice is not the availability of multiple options. It is the existence of a savvy, sovereign chooser who is well aware of his needs and who acts on the basis of self-interest. Unlike all previous lovers who ran amok and acted like lost children, the new romantic hero approaches his emotions in a methodical, rational way.
With Choice, the no-man’s land of love – that minefield of unreturned calls, ambiguous emails, erased dating profiles and awkward silences – must be minimized. No more pondering ‘what if’ and ‘why’. No more tears. No more sweaty palms. No more suicides.
…The psychological man or woman needs only one thing: steady progress towards a healthy relationship between two autonomous individuals who satisfy each other’s emotional needs – until a new choice sets them apart.”
But we also give up a lot when we forfeit romance:
“No more poetry, novels, sonatas, symphonies, paintings, letters, myths, sculptures. “
In the US, love is no longer a noble undertaking but a carefully planned journey with scheduled pit stops and few detours. In order to avoid failure and its inevitable accompanying pain, we minimize risk and sacrifice passion.
Driving down the interstate and eating at a Visitor Center is hardly as rewarding as going off the beaten path and finding the best local barbecue. We get to our destination, but what have we missed along the way?
When we rely on rational decision-making we delay commitment (and even expressions of interest) so as not to appear “too eager.” I’ve always been amazed by the tradition of “love at first sight” in many works of literature. Men risked their very lives to pursue a passion based on a single glimpse of the beloved. Today a man is more likely to feign disinterest in the very woman he wants most under the “rational” assumption that rejection will increase her interest.
Aronson points out that’s because today an impulsive display of attraction is interpreted as a sign of an “infantile psyche,” an abandonment of the rule of self-interest we encourage and prize. The Rules and its many successors warn us not to love too much, but to “celebrate ourselves” instead. It’s narcissism, pure and simple. Aronson calls it “self-absorption without self-sacrifice.” It’s a winner takes all, gives nothing mentality.
She urges us to abandon our overly sensible strategies:
“Make loud love proposals. Move in with someone before feeling completely ready for it. Grumble at a partner for no reason and have that person grumble back, just like that, because we are human. Have a child when the timing seems bad. And finally, we need to reclaim our right to pain. Let us dare to agonize about love.”
I’m not so sure. We operate within a strictly defined culture of individualism. Doing any of the above strikes me as bad strategy, surely evidence that Aronson would consider me part of the problem.
Instead of leaping headlong into self-destructive mode, we might think about ways to bring back passion and romance in modest degrees. After all, passion isn’t so great if it makes you want to throw yourself under a train – or freaks out the person you’re trying to attract.
- Risking extended eye contact?
- Telling someone you’re attracted to them?
- Initiating a social plan?
- Saying “I like you?”
- Expressing appreciation and gratitude for time spent together?
What do you think? Have we lost all sense of romance in the West? How can we bring it back without making ourselves miserable in the process? Have you experienced love at first sight? Did you act on it? I had just one relationship that impulsive, and while it only lasted six months, I never regretted it. It was extremely memorable.
There is something wonderful about getting struck by lightning the first time you lay eyes on someone. An impulsive, whirlwind romance is an unforgettable experience. As long as you exercise some judgment in choosing your beloved, you can still find passion by making yourself vulnerable and taking risks.