Carrie Jenkins

Carrie Jenkins is a philosopher, novelist and poet, working at the intersection of academic philosophy and the creative arts. She is a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and led the Metaphysics of Love Project (2014 to 2019). Her latest book is "Sad Love: Romance and the search for meaning" (Polity).

You have written that "we have a collective responsibility to figure out romantic love”. Why is this important?

We make so many life-changing decisions based on whether we’re in love – decisions like whether to move across the world, get married, or have children – and yet when it comes to what exactly we’re basing those decisions on, we’re often all too comfortable saying it’s a mysterious magical force that nobody can understand. “You’ll know when you know,” people say, and “don’t overthink it.” But this means a huge factor shaping not only our personal lives but the very fabric of society is left unexamined, and whatever harms it may be causing go unchallenged.

Love is such a popular topic, and so central to our lives, that it might seem bizarre that we still have to "figure it out”. But you’ve argued that the cloud of mystery around love might be purposeful?

Yes! I call this the “romantic mystique” – the idea that we cannot understand love and shouldn’t even try. My question is who does that benefit? And my answer is: the people benefiting the most from the status quo continuing as it is. So we have to think about what status quo is created and sustained by our current baseline understanding of love being the way it is. We think of romantic love as (ideally) monogamous, permanent, and leading to the formation of new nuclear family units. So anyone who benefits from a society structured in this way benefits from the romantic mystique.

To cut a long story short, the romantic mystique is a force for social conservatism: it benefits the patriarchal, white supremacist, colonial, capitalist status quo. It does this by channelling love – a powerful and potentially disruptive force that can lead us to form intense co-operative bonds with one another – into a single structure that is easy to control. There’s a reason Margaret Thatcher once said she believed in individuals and families, but not society. Under capitalism, the nuclear family is essentially just a larger consuming unit. Whereas extended community bonds, and any form of love that may direct our focus beyond our picket fences, is risky. That kind of thing can lead to solidarity, collective action and political change.

What were the aims of the Metaphysics of Love project and why was it important to pair philosophers with poets?

I had a frustration with the way philosophical discussions of love were proceeding, at least within the academic discipline of philosophy. It wasn’t that those discussions weren’t fruitful and interesting in their own right, more that they felt limited. I only saw a few topics being addressed, and a relatively uniform perspective on life represented in the conversations. My questions and my perspective weren’t there, and the more I talked about it with others the more convinced I became that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.

I turned to interdisciplinary work partly in an attempt to break out of the mould: poetry struck me a natural source for the kind of insight and creative power that shakes things up. Poets are used to working at the edge of what can be said, or even beyond it. On the flip side, philosophy offers a massively powerful toolkit for digging into the theoretical and speculative aspects of those questions. So (despite what Plato said) I see a natural kinship between philosophy and poetry.

These days, I draw on many different disciplines in my work. I now think of the approach not as interdisciplinary but as undisciplined. I’m not trying to straddle separate disciplines, but to challenge the very idea of separation.

You've written about the “happily ever after” myth, but isn’t its power fading with every generation, as more people decide to remain unmarried and divorce rates rise?

Sadly, no! The myth is becoming more and more obviously unrealistic, but even as that happens its power may actually be increasing. That’s because the way the myth functions is as an ideal, a standard against which we measure ourselves and find ourselves wanting. It’s unrealistic, but in the same way that beauty standards are: we are all meant to fall short to some degree, and then feel bad about it, and then to go out and buy something to feel (temporarily) better. My work isn’t aimed at showing the myth is unrealistic – we know that already. It’s aimed at unmasking the myth as a bad ideal to aim at in the first place.

Can you tell us about your theory of how love functions both as a social construct and a biological phenomenon?

Well, we have this ancient, evolved, biological machinery in our brains and bodies that accounts for many of our experiences of romance – from the nervous adrenaline rushes, to the dopamine hits when our interest is reciprocated, to the surges of oxytocin that accompany a secure bond. But then we also have a socially constructed script for a romantic relationship, where it’s supposed to proceed from an initial crush to a dating stage to sex then monogamous marriage and then kids. That’s the romantic “happy ever after” script.

My question is: how do these two things —the biology and the social script – fit together? And the analogy I like to use for this is an actor playing a role. A biological organism – such as William Shatner – can be cast in the scripted role of Captain Kirk on Star Trek. In the same way, we can “cast” the biological machinery of love in the role of modern romance. The interesting philosophical work, for me, is about how good that casting decision is. William Shatner does a good job as Captain Kirk. But how well does our biological love machinery fit the contemporary script for a romantic relationship? For some of us, it seems to work well (or at least, well enough). But for many of us – most obviously for all the polyamorous people and the aromantic people [people with little or no romantic attraction to others] – it’s a poor fit.

The problem isn’t the scripted role as such, but the idea that it’s a one-size-fits-all. I argue for more conscious customisation and tailoring in our relationships. The more we do that kind of thing, the weaker the normative model becomes. That model can change, as many of us have seen in our lifetimes with the gradual moves towards the normalisation of same-sex romance. (When I was a teenager, the script stated very firmly that romance was between a man and a woman. In that order.) The normativity of the romantic script – and the policing of every “deviation” from it – thrives in the darkness of the romantic mystique. The remedy is sunlight: more explicit discussion and open challenge.

What is the Romantic Paradox?

This idea is based on an older idea, known as the Paradox of Happiness, which says that the pursuit of happiness is self-defeating. Philosopher J.S. Mill put it this way: “Those only are happy … who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness … Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” I also like Viktor Frankl’s catchy statement that happiness “cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

My Romantic Paradox says that the same goes for the romantic “happy ever after.” We’re all inundated, from early childhood onwards, with the idea that we should pursue this as a (or even the) central component of a good life.

But chasing after the romantic “happy after ever” is actually a way to end up frustrated and miserable. This can be considered a special case of the Paradox of Happiness, but the situation is exacerbated here by two factors. First, the expectations we put on romance: the higher the stakes, the greater the devastation when we “fail.” And second, the script for romance emphasises things like being a perfect fit for one’s soulmate and nothing ever changing, which make it less likely that we’ll be able to successfully navigate challenges and changes in a healthy way.

Your latest book, “Sad Love”, is a powerful case for embracing eudaimonic love, reflecting on its original Aristotelian meaning of “having a good guardian spirit.” How can we apply this to our lives today?

The old meaning of “eudaimonic” – even older than Aristotle – comes from the roots “eu” (good) and “daimon” (spirit). I think of eudaimonia in a contemporary setting as being about good spirits in every sense. You don’t have to think of this as anything supernatural; it’s more like what’s going on when people call their “fairy godmothers” or talk about the “vibe” in a room.

There are all kinds of bad daimons that can ruin our love lives, from the smallest scale – like the little voices in our heads that tell us we aren’t good enough – to the global – like racism or homophobia. Good or bad daimons are operative at every scale in between, too: even in a globally white supremacist world, a supportive family or local community can give an interracial relationship a much better chance of thriving. When we think about romantic love, we are inclined to think of it as a private or personal thing.

But I want to challenge this idea. Lovers are never operating in isolation, even when they build picket fences or close the bedroom door. I aim to call attention to how deeply love is affected by our interconnectedness, and depends for its very existence on supportive daimons at every scale from the tiny to the global.

Eudaimonic love, you write, means abandoning mythology and taking on responsibility for crafting our relationships. Is this why you’ve said that existentialism is due for a come-back?

Yes, that’s a big part of it. Existentialism is all about the ways we create ourselves as individuals through our choices and our actions. So I’m saying that, in taking more responsibility for crafting and customising our relationships, we can move away from what existentialists would call “bad faith” – the attempted abdication of responsibility in favour of a script. We never truly ditch our responsibilities – after all, it’s we who chose to follow the script. But we can pretend to ourselves that we have no choice but to follow society’s script for (say) how a husband or a boyfriend is supposed to behave. That’s bad faith, and I want us all to come to a better sense of how much responsibility we really have for our own love lives, and for the evolution of the social scripts and norms.

Carrie Jenkin's "Sad Love: Romance and the search for meaning" is published by Polity.