Psyched Out

Finding feminism


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Margaret Fuller looked around her Cambridge social circle and found her suitors lacking. The gentlemen of Cambridge looked at Margaret Fuller and found her lacking as well. This was, of course, late in the 19th century. She was not what you would call traditional marriage material. She was willful, brilliant. She loved conversation about philosophy, art, literature, the social issues of her time. She lit up a room, and did not know her place. She was close friends with some of the greatest Transcendentalists, the best minds of her time, particularly Emerson. She was a writer herself and an obvious bluestocking, what with her own book being called Woman in the 19th Century. So of course she was poison in the realm of courtship.


  • The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography by John Matteson. 528 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $32.95.
  • Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz. 300 pages. Polity. $25.

Most of her male peers did all right. Some of them married dullards, but there have always been men who liked that. Who just wanted someone to do the sweeping up, maybe look at him with her eyes all aglow, gushing about the genius of his latest theory. Not that she would know; she might only think it genius because she couldn’t understand it. These men, these great men, liked Margaret Fuller and they wanted to talk to her and write impassioned letters to her. But they certainly did not want to marry her.

As I was reading John Matteson’s biography The Lives of Margaret Fuller, I did think how out of time she seemed, and how she may have fared better in our age. Her wit, her fiery temperament, her intensive education, and her wicked tongue would have been an asset rather than a detriment. She would have not been such a singularity, and she embodied many of the characteristics modern men say they seek in a spouse. Things would have been easier for her, surely.

And then I came to.

As Eva Illouz makes clear in her new book Why Love Hurts, had Fuller been participating in today’s courtship rituals, it would have been clear that she was single not because of her brash lifestyle or the way she was out of step with her repressed society. The reason she was single would have been that she was simply damaged in some way. No one would be able to love her until she learned to love herself.

Maybe it was her daddy issues. She had plenty. Her father did not so much bestow his love upon her as train her from a young age to be a brilliant writer. Matteson outlines her course of study:

[W]hen Margaret was 4 and a half, he proudly proclaimed that she could read and understand “in a very great degree” the stories in Maria Edgeworth’s Parent’s Assistant… When she was six, he introduced her simultaneously to English and Latin grammar. The rudiments of Greek followed in due course. By nine, she was reading a compendious list of histories and biographies in English, as well as many of the major works in the Latin canon.

Fuller began, around that age, to have recurring nightmares recreating scenes from the Aeneid, and she also started sleepwalking around the house, moaning — classic signs of a deep emotional disturbance. She reported in her memoirs that her father’s love was very much tied to her performance as a young scholar, and today’s psychiatrists would have a field day with theories about her “false self” shielding the fragile, feminine true self behind it. She even predicted such a diagnosis in her memoirs, reporting her “world sank deep within, away from the surface of my life… my true life was only the dearer that it was secluded and veiled over by a thick curtain of… intellect.”

Or perhaps we can say she had a fear of abandonment, brought on by her younger sister’s death? Margaret took the death hard, it would seem. She shrieked at the gravesite and begged the men not to bury her sister. She was not even 5 when her sister died. Surely that would have unsettled her on a very deep level, making her afraid of forming lasting attachments so that she could avoid such a tremendous trauma again. It could only have been reinforced by her mother’s doting on her young brothers and her displacement from being the favorite and the cherished daughter after her sister’s death.

Eva Illouz believes we have stopped thinking about relationships between men and women in these sociological terms. Fuller was clearly on the margins of her society, and that made her vulnerable in the realm of marriage and love. We’ve instead turned to psychology to explain why some people marry with ease and others struggle to find love. Those pressures from society regarding the expectations for each gender and the incredibly forceful ideals about what makes a “good match” that left Fuller without a suitable suitor, they still exist. They may have changed shape somewhat, and the kinds of pressures may have changed, but it’s still society that is ruling our love lives. It is still society shaping the way we get married. Or don’t.

I have been reading the archives of the New York Times Modern Love columns. I blame Illouz: She uses them to illustrate several points about the contemporary relationship set-up, and she’s right to. These columns are a squirmy display of the worst stereotypes of how men and women conduct their relationships. And yet they are completely addictive. I say “squirmy” because occasionally, despite my insistence that I am so much more sophisticated than anyone who has ever written one of those columns, I see flashes of my own behavior. In the latest entry I read, the writer accompanied a newly single friend to see a psychic, who would tell her if all hope is lost or not. I may have once gone to see a psychic after a breakup. The psychic in the Modern Love column told the friend that all was not lost, that she’d meet someone tall and “whitish” and they would fall in love and have children. My own psychic told me I would probably never get married, or I’d be one of those crazy people who marry, divorce, and then remarry the same person a few times.

“Also, it doesn’t help that you’ve had a series of sociopaths as boyfriends,” she told me, worriedly.

“I know. It’s a problem.”

But for the most part, these Modern Love essays are extravagant displays of what are now our traditional gender roles. The women nag, the men ignore. The women are looking for their soul mates, the one that completes them. The men are content with the status quo, and don’t truly understand the women they are married to. And so the women leave the men they married. On a journey of self-discovery and a deeper, truer passion.

Another element keeps cropping up in these stories. When the relationships don’t work, the women start rooting around in their emotional cellars. What went down with their fathers? Their mothers? Did they have separation anxiety? Was there a trauma in their childhoods that started a pattern of failed attachment? Or maybe the problem is on the man’s side, that he stubbornly ignores, and that is why they have to leave. Because these problems are preventing a pure connection, their souls are unable to intertwine in the way they are looking for. And without that divine connection, their lives are poorer for it. They deserve more.

Hogwash, says Eva Illouz.

We are working under the delusion that we somehow fixed society with feminism or whatever. We’ve removed the traditional barriers to marriage based on anything other than true love. Because women can earn their own living, they no longer have to consider the economic status of their mate. We are a more racially tolerant society, and so we no longer have to restrict our choices by race. Class stratifications have disappeared from the dating scene; the words dowry and salary do not come up in negotiations. We only have to listen to our hearts to know what we want. And then we just have to find it.

If that were true, if we truly had removed all societal pressures from our relationships, then why are so many miserable singles looking for love? So many women harassed by the ticking of their biological clocks, unable to find men to father their children? So many submissions every week to the Modern Love column?

If we erase sociology from the list of causes, then we are left with psychology. And that means there is something wrong with you, and it needs to be fixed, or you are going to die alone. And why wouldn’t that be a popular theory? It is a huge moneymaker. From psychotherapists and marriage counselors to self-help books to daytime talk shows to women’s magazines, a highly profitable industry is designed to zero in on your psychological issues and root out whatever is keeping you from finding your one true love.

Illouz wants us to leave all of that behind for a moment and look at the way society is still affecting our relationships. Our current assumption is that men are a certain way. They are emotionally withdrawn and need to be manipulated and tricked into relationships. Men are naturally more promiscuous, and so it is their inclination to be distant and unattached, until they meet the one perfect woman for them, of course. And yet Illouz points out that in previous generations, it was the men who were the pursuers. They were more effusive in their courtship, and they were the more emotionally expressive. Women were more withdrawn, needing to be coaxed into declarations of love.

Maybe this is due to other factors, such as the men needing to establish a family line, as well as ensure sexual access. And yet Illouz argues that our society is still shaping male and female behavior just as strongly. We live in a time of “challenged patriarchy,” as she puts it. Men are finding their unquestioned dominance challenged in the realms of home, work, and social circles. The one place they can dominate women is in either granting or denying access to marriage and childbearing. Now, this is not happening in each individual male psyche, a lording over the women in their lives to take revenge for emasculating their worlds. But our entire culture shrieks out at men to behave this way, just as it shrieks out to women that there is a scarcity of marriageable men, and a scarcity of fertile years. The desperation that has set in among women’s culture as a result only reinforces men’s pulling away.

But perhaps most damaging of all is our myth of the soul mate. We have certain expectations — nothing short of total emotional support from our spouses. We also require rocking sex, a perfect other half of the parenting team, and our go-to playmate. We expect to share everything in our lives with just this one person, and then we wonder where all the magic went. There’s no magic if there’s no mystery, and there’s no mystery if you are sharing space with your significant other every moment of every day. Add to that the instant buffet line of possible replacements that you can find on any dating website, and it’s no wonder people are finding it difficult to commit.

That is not to say that things were better in the days of arranged marriages and female repression. Illouz writes, “The pangs of love suffering are tropes of world literature as old as the representation of love itself, and the past has its many examples and models of the agony of love. Yet, in the same way that modern self-inflicted pain differs from medieval rituals of self-flagellation, modern romantic pain contains new social and cultural experiences.” It’s just that she is pained to see women elaborately blaming themselves for being alone and lonely, or throwing away solid marriages because of wild expectations. And she’s tired of seeing men unable to relate to women, discarding them when they start to show needs or emotions. It was not better in the old days. It was just a different set of pains.

And as for Margaret Fuller, she did eventually fall in love with someone deserving of her. She had to travel all the way to Italy to do it. Not for the purposes of meeting a European aristocrat like so many of the women of her generation were doing, but she went there to report on, and be involved in, the Italian revolutions. There she met Giovanni Ossoli and, rebuffing contemporary expectations of marriage, she had his child out of wedlock. And she seemed happy, and loved, and respected.

May we all be so lucky as to rebuff our contemporary expectations of how a relationship is supposed to work. May we all recognize the pressures we put both on ourselves and on our lovers and may we reject them for greater happiness. And may we all — the women, anyway — put down the self-help books that haven’t exactly been doing us any good anyway. Love is a greater thing than arranged marriage, and it’s a greater thing than daddy issues and attachment theory. It can transcend it all, as long as you know what the true barriers are. • 22 June 2012