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The Myth of Affection in “Western” Romantic Love

Love and affection are inevitably entangled and are often used as synonyms for describing a particular sentiment that an individual or group of people have towards another individual or group of people or even a thing. The quest to better understand affection cross-culturally leads to research on the outward display or performance of “affection” – emotion. Psychologist Victor Karandashev (2015) noted that “love emotions are experienced by many people, in various historical periods, and in most cultures of the world. Yet, these feelings display diversity – cultures influence how people feel, think and behave being in romantic love. Thus love is universal, but still culturally specific” (15). Regardless of the cultural diversity in displaying love, the contemporary notion of “Western” romantic love has become, for many, the dominant depiction of love. Globalization has propagated “romantic love” as morally “good” and the purpose of an individual’s life, through the media, in the forms of literature, film and social networks. Romantic love is defined “.. by a strong affection and preoccupation with love, unrealistic and idealistic attitude toward a partner, and the feeling that l’amour toujours (French) – love forever never ends and is always there” (as cited in Karandashev 2015, p.4). Despite the Hollywood narrative that “love conquers all” (i.e., going beyond social-economic class, cultural differences, geographical distances), it is more than just affection, intimacy and companionship in the couple form.

Figure 1: A silhouette of an intimate couple

"Western" Romantic Love: More than Affection

Beyond the façade of words of affection and grand gestures, “Western” romantic love is also about the economical exchange, whether directly (i.e., through gift economy) or indirectly (i.e., through emotional investment). The neoliberal subject perceives themselves as a business – a collection of assets (i.e., skills and traits) that are constantly being curated, invested and managed like a corporation using the end-means calculation (Gershon 2011: 539). Therefore the objective of “Western” romantic Love is typically a long-term couple relationship, usually leading to cohabitation and marriage, which can be perceived as a merger of two businesses and a mutual economic and emotional investment made by the two parties. Scholar Eva Illouz (2007) refers to this shift as “cold intimacies,” emphasizing the notion that “economic relationships have become deeply emotional. Our closest intimate relationships have become infected by economic models of bargaining, exchange and equity, manifest, for example, in the technology and languages of internet dating” (as cited in Vaughan 2011, p. 7). For instance, dating apps are not based solely on the principle of “love at first sight,” but rather users make first impressions based on a picture and a profile where they filter for the characterization they desire (i.e., job, hobbies, education, city). Thus, the contradiction or mixed messaging that “love is the end all” and the notion that, in some cases, “love is not enough” creates a perplexing tension causing much distress.

An inescapable confusion lies at the center of the contemporary “Western” romantic love ideal as depicted by the classic romantic comedy genre. Typically, the female protagonist worries about whether she is in love or lusts for her partner and questions their pattern of falling for unsuitable long-term partners (Vaughan 2011, p. 8). However, these protagonists face an inevitable inner turmoil since the romantic love discourse itself is contradictory. Romantic love implies “both individual choice (marrying the one you love, not someone chosen for you), but doing so on the basis of a process beyond your control” (Vaughan 2011, p. 4). Therefore Western notions of “romantic love,” in its long-term couple form, are not effortless or “painless” as depicted when compared to other forms of unions but also produce sentiments of suffering, longing and uncertainty.

Figure 2: A woman longing for love

Romantic Love in Transformation: a Barbados Case Study

Anthropologist Carla Freeman (2020) observed the neoliberal transformation of love among her younger interlocutors throughout her fieldwork in Barbados and across the Caribbean region. In Barbados and the Caribbean, love is characterized by the absence of “romance and intimacy” and the explicitness of sexual banter. For Freeman’s Barbadian interlocutors, love and intimacy are typically considered things from “Hollywood movies and novels” (Freeman 2020, p.6-7). Love and care in the Barbadian context is “support,” providing provisions such as food, shelter, clothing, and desirable goods as signs of affection (Freeman 2020, p.6). Freeman argues that the Barbadian emotional culture is shaped by the same material economic exchange structure that plantation systems imposed on Caribbean societies (ibid, p.6). Therefore due to the historical context of slavery, plantation culture, and colonization, Barbadoians typically view the “Western” display of romantic love and its “economy of value, tenderness, and affection as sources of vulnerability" (ibid, p.4). However, among younger generations, their perspective on “love” is changing, and Freeman observes this “emergent cultural scripts for intimacy and companionate love, unhinged from the traditional lexicon of the economy and material support, as an intriguing paradox of contemporary neoliberalism, an evocative illustration of the importance of ethnography, and an analytical opportunity for feminist anthropology” (2020, p.8).

Thus, neoliberalism leads to emotional self-actualization for Barbadian’s since “capitalism is creating a demand for affective forms of the self previously unknown and unfelt in the postemanicpated plantation society” (Freeman 2020, p.14). Essentially, neoliberalism allows for reframing "vulnerability and intimacy as desirable goals” (ibid, p.14). As one of Freeman’s interlocutors expressed, her culture “promotes sex on one end and then granny and grandad married on fifty years on the other end, but nobody explains how they got there” (ibid,p.12). Neoliberalism perhaps introduces a way to fill that gap through the public and private display of affection often characterized as “lovey-dovey” (i.e., holding hands, endearing nicknames, exchanging “I love yous”). However, this new display of emotions, particularly love, is still embedded in a neoliberalist economic model. Thus this different manifestation of love in Barbados is not entirely devoid of material pragmatism.

Figure 3: A couple aesthetically in love


Although "Western" romantic love is portrayed as an emotion so strong that it can “overcome all” and transcend even the strictest socio-economic norms, it is itself a product shaped by economic models. As Anthropologist John Leavitt (1996) noted, emotions, affection being one of them, “inherently involve both meaning and feeling; they are both individual and social in nature, learned and expressed in social interactions” (as cited in Vaughan 2011, p. 9). The "Western" display of romantic affection is not innate but culturally learnt, like all cultural variations of love. and has varied temporally and geographically. The latest iteration of "Western" romantic love is deeply intertwined with neoliberal subject-making and thus perceived as desirable and good for one's self-actualization.

Bibliographical References

Freeman, C. (2020). Feeling neoliberal. Feminist Anthropology, 1(1), 71-88. Gershon, Illana. (2011). “Neoliberal Agency.” Current Anthropology 52(4): 537-555. Illouz, E. (2007). Cold intimacies: The making of emotional capitalism. Polity.

Karandashev, V. (2015). A Cultural Perspective on Romantic Love. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 5(4). htp:// Lee, J.A. ( 1997). A typology of styles of loving. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 3(2), 173-182. Vaughan, M. (2011). The history of romantic love in sub-Saharan Africa; Between interest and emotion. in Proceedings of the British Academy (Vol. 167, No. 1, pp. 1-24). Wierzbicka, A. (1986). Human emotions: universal or culture-specific?. American anthropologist, 88(3), 584-594.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: [Kiss, inspired by Gustav Klimt, Painting]. (2023). Art Kaleidoscope.

Figure 1: Borba J. (2020, June 12). [Silhouette of a couple on the beach at sunset, Photograpy]. Unsplash.

Figure 2: Douglas, A. (2017, May 19). [Female silhouette looking out of the window, Photograpy]. Unsplash.

Figure 3: Mooka, L. (2023, January 25). [Embracing couple, Photograpy]. Pexels.


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