Visual Archive: Cruel Optimism

‘How grateful I was, then, to be part of the mystery,                                                              To love and to be loved,                                                                                                Let’s just hope that is enough’- Bright Eyes (2002)

Relationships are difficult at the best of times and as the timeless saying goes, ‘Love hurts’. I’m a strong believer that everyone deserves the opportunity to experience love and to be loved in return regardless of their disposition. Yet, ‘the good life’ narrative isn’t as wildly accepting. In ‘the good life’ discourses around love are limited to certain constraints, monogamy and heterosexuality in particular. Yet still in the 21st century it’s still considered strange for a woman to ask a man out on a date. I’m lucky enough to be in a relationship where gender stereotypes are much less ridged. Yet we still adhere to societies relational institution of monogamy. In an article by Jackson and Scott they quote Comer:

‘. . . monogamy has come to be the definition of love, the yardstick by which we measure the rest of our emotions . . . Like so much butter, romantic love must be spread thickly on one slice of bread; to spread it over several is too spread it ‘thinly’. (1974: 219)’ (2004:152)

Although many continue to accept monogamy as a traditional form of love, it’s important to note that this simply isn’t the only or the ‘correct’ way to experience love as an emotion. Love is such a subjective and personal thing that it’s ignorant to believe that monogamy is right for everyone:

‘non-monogamy in our version is not a free for all in which everyone does just as they please, but entails negotiation over ground rules and boundaries acceptable to all parties. We continue to feel that it is worth retaining our commitment to non-monogamy and working to make it possible rather than allowing our lives and the lives of others to be circumscribed by our most negative emotions.’ (2004:153)

The concept of non-monogamy can still be viewed very negatively and I cannot think of anyone I know personally who chooses to live their life this way, not publicly anyway. The way in which Jackson and Scott explain that having these boundaries prevents the influx of such emotions of jealousy and insecurity on the surface seems perfectly viable but what happens when that just isn’t enough for one party. Having a personality disorder means that I get jealous and paranoid even when realistically there isn’t such need for emotion:

‘in an established relationship when somebody new comes on the scene is potentially more likely to provoke insecurity. However, the threat is far greater here in an ostensibly monogamous relationship than in a non-monogamous relationship; in the former situation there is a danger of being exchanged for a new model'(2004:153)

Although my emotional reaction is explicitly more correlated to the fear of abandonment than the threat of another, when stress is induced or in the mist of an anxiety attack almost anything or even anyone can feel like a threat, particularly with the capitalisation of the sex industry:

‘The commodification of sex and sexuality – their penetration into the very heart of the capitalist engine – made sexuality into an attribute and experience increasingly detached from reproduction, marriage, long-lasting bonds, and even emotionality.’ Illouz(2012:45)

I want to make it clear hear that this is so much more to do with my lack of self esteem than it is to do with mistrust. Due to my personal subjectivity I personally cannot see how non-monogamy would work, to reiterate the butter analogy used earlier, I’d rather have one juicy piece of toast than many dry pieces.

Berlant explains that “Cruel Optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object.” (20011:24) This is so apparent when looking at ‘the good life’ narrative, we want to be loved, we want a committed, exclusive relationship without the fears and anxieties that comes with it. It’s common knowledge that a breakdown in relationships can be the most difficult time in ones life and with relationships being so much more fluid it’s almost inevitable to experience heartache of one form or another. Yet we still strive for love and still search for ‘the one’ highlighting such cruel optimisms. To finish with Berlant – “the ordinariness of suffering, the violence of normativity.. suspend questions about the cruelty of the now”(2011:28).

Berlant, L. (2011) Cruel Optimism. USA: Duke University Press

Jackson, S and Scott, S. (2004) ‘The Personal Is Still Political: Heterosexuality, Feminism and Monogamy’ Feminism & Psychology 14 (1), 151-157

Illouz, E. (2012) Why Love Hurts Cambridge: Polity Press

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *