Horrible Truth

Our Bad Romance Obsession Is the Ultimate First World Problem

Why is the chaos of 21st-century love lives such a consuming challenge? As we greet 2014, we won’t be able to shed our fixation until we also rid ourselves of the guilt lurking beneath.

If you spend any time offending people on the Internet, you probably have been urged, perhaps more than once, to check your privilege. Oblivious self-entitlement is now so widespread and suitable for mockery that the ostensible cure has begun to follow in its wake.

Now privilege-checking has begun to be enforced even against those of us unburdening ourselves of the most worshipfully self-referential content the Internet can provide. In search of the tallest flower to cut, critics have zeroed in on our most respected of hot messes: autobiographers of relationship anxiety, who set the tone for unmarried America on TV, in magazines, and online.

That’s to be expected. We can hardly tolerate it when our friends groan over the seeming impossibility of their most juvenile fantasies—much less the wealthy and glamorous strangers winning society’s game while we struggle on.

But privilege-checking is a fool’s errand when we feel we don’t have the luxury of seeing ourselves as privileged. Don’t front: This miserable sensation isn’t restricted to a certain economic class. That’s why it’s so easy for us to mock our bad romance obsession as a quintessential “first world problem.” Rich, poor, or middle class, the chaos of 21st-century “love lives” is swiftly enveloping us all. It should be obvious that mocking and policing privilege sidelines the paramount question of why that obsession really is such a defining, consuming challenge in our lives.

When the stakes are as high as these, checking privilege can foreclose important advances in human psychology. And surely the pursuit of justice is compatible with scientific progress. So let’s consider that Judd Apatow is right to respond to the privilege police as an artist, not an identity politician. Much like Lena Dunham’s and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, he explains, his first-worlders “feel like they have failed.”

That insight alone should make us aware of what lurks beneath all our anxieties, sexual dread included. Guilt! And guilt not over who we are or what we do, but how we are.

Exhibit A: Maureen O’Connor’s recent plunge into her—and our—never-ending relationships with ostensibly “former” love interests. “All my exes live online,” she observes, “and so do their exes, and so do their exes, too. I carry the population of a metaphorical Texas in a cell phone on my person at all times.”

Etiquette can’t keep up with us—not that we would honor it anyway—so ex relationships run on lust and impulse and nosiness and envy alternating with fantasy. It’s a dozen soap operas playing at the same time on a dozen screens, and you are the star of them all. It’s both as thrilling and as sickening as it sounds.

How can we stand it? Easy. One of our greatest personal fears is that we, like poor pathetic Rivers Cuomo, will become Tired of Sex. “I’m spread so thin I don’t know who I am,” the Weezer front man sang, not coincidentally as emo first began to go mainstream. “Oh, why can’t I be making love come true?”

Cuomo’s lament, played out on a record notorious for its blatant Japanese fetish, grimly foreshadowed today’s panic over reports of the death of sexual attraction in Japan. One writer trying to downplay the news falls back on a new Pew study suggesting that, hey, Americans are slouching away from Gomorrah, too:

“Seventy-five percent of those who are not in a romantic relationship said they are currently not looking for one, numbers that are much higher than in Japan. About half of single Americans said they haven’t been on a date in the last three months. […] Nearly 40 percent of American women have never been married, according to one survey, and nearly 20 percent of American women in their 40s have not had children, according to another. Both those numbers are steadily rising.”

But the horrible truth grins out from the numbers all the same: Decreases in lust and decreases in love now seem to go hand in hand. Here, too, we already sense why. We’re just afraid to admit it. O’Connor kicks off her confessional with people who “aren’t ex-boyfriends” but are definitely “ex-something, weighted with enough personal history to make my stomach drop when they message me or pop up in social-media feeds.” You know that zero-gravity sensation. It’s the evil twin of the intoxicating, clobbering feeling when, suddenly, a lust connection is made.

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And today that feeling, too, is just a click—or a swipe—away. Just as the democratization of high-quality porn suddenly awakened generations to the quantity of attractive people in porn, “hookup app” Tinder is now reminding us of just how many people who aren’t in porn we’d very much love to have sex with.

And today, if you know you’re not into someone that way, well, looking to them for “true” or even “deeper” love is a waste, a fraud, and a lie—no less to them than yourself.

Despair: But what if I don’t have that effect on them? In an age when the force of equality is so intense that we’re all reduced to swipeable “partners,” nature’s rebellious inequality drives us to distraction. We’d like to find durable love on the basis of how we choose to be. We fear that durable love is impossible unless both we and our mate love the way we look. Self-satisfaction only goes so far. The kind of person who looks the way you want has to want you the way you look, too. Nature conspires against us.

We’ve thrown so much energy into capitalism, that hyper-powerful engine of equality, in the hopes of overthrowing nature’s seeming tyranny over physical attraction. Great strides have been made in the commodification of lust and love. Yet it’s proving impossible to make commodities out of the people we have to lust for and love. Plenty of people still want a beautiful, loving mate more than they want the cash value of such a person.

In fact, we want that person so badly, we routinely refuse to “commit” to the real human beings we encounter in our romantic quest, littered as it is already with the bodies of all our ex-somethings. And just as we hyper-capitalists long in our weaker moments for the therapeutic torpor of socialism, so do we hyper-sexualists dream, when tired enough, of an end of history, an era of relationships where no one belongs to anyone and all ego is gone.

From John Locke to Karl Marx to Oscar Wilde and beyond, we have thought of anything we put work into as, in some sense, being ours. What goes for property goes for people. But money is so good at making things interchangeable that we’ve psychologically muddled up the feeling of belonging and the feeling of being owned.

That’s one important way in which we feel like we’ve have failed. And until we can feel free in belonging to another—free to choose dreams together that lift us above our nature—bad romance will forever remain our most morbid of first world problems.