A Few Thoughts About Love

by Adria Gulizia

My name is Adria Gulizia, and I’m addicted to love. Well, not to love, exactly, but to thinking about love and reading about love and talking about love compulsively. It’s an actual struggle, as I get sidetracked from necessary tasks by Internet rabbit holes and algorithmically perfected YouTube playlists. 

But while I pray for greater discipline, recognizing that the Tempter comes in what we are addicted to, I believe my fixation is at least somewhat justified. As Joann and I have labored around a vision for God’s Promise Fulfilled, it has become increasingly clear to me that love – how we see it, how we show it, how we deform it into the image of our own pathologies – is a key battleground in the struggle between the Promise into which God invites each one of us and the Empire system, which tempts us to manipulate and exploit others, even as it chokes us with anxiety and smothers us with despair. (You can learn more about the Empire system here.)

Take, for example, the app-dominated dating scene. While online dating creates plenty of happily-ever-afters, it seems that, for many people, having a pocket-sized marketplace for romance is an invitation to treat others as disposable commodities rather than as potential companions and beloved children of God. (I’m aware that my frame of reference is to the heterosexual dating market; other environments have their own horror stories.) While details and anecdotes are both plentiful and horrifying, I’ll share with you some of the highlights – or, more accurately, lowlights – of what I have learned in my discovery of how contemporary dating, particularly online dating, reflects the dynamics of Empire.

  • The system privileges the few while excluding the many. The economy of Empire relies on the misery of the masses, and the term “dating market” is not just a cute metaphor. Dating by app allows users to “shop” for their ideal partner – but unfortunately, the first point of decision is usually based on the “packaging” (physical appearance) rather than on the “contents” (character). In this system, where women are by far the harsher judges of attractiveness, a man with an average appearance will be utterly ignored by the vast majority of women – 114 out of 115, on average. While he technically has a chance, disappointment is far more likely than success. 
  • Even the winners are losers. Since women on apps tend to express interest only in the most attractive men, there is a gender mismatch: with roughly four women competing for every “top-tier” man, men get to set the terms of engagement. This often leads to the women lucky enough to “match” with that man feeling pressured to agree to unwanted intimacy or a semi-clandestine “situationship”; if she doesn’t, the man may well just move on to the next woman in the queue. 
  • Exploitation breeds exploitation. When women fear that the few men they are attracted to (remember, 80% of men are mostly ignored on the apps) are likely to try to exploit them sexually, they may feel less compunction in exploiting men right back. For example, in a practice known as the “foodie call,” a woman might fake interest in a man to convince him to take her out on a date, using the false hope of romance to scam him out of a free meal. (One woman bragged that she didn’t pay for groceries for two years thanks to her aggressive dating schedule.)
  • What starts as freedom often ends as loneliness. Online dating started with a promise: that we could be liberated from the constraints of geography, social networks and the need for right-place-right-time serendipity in favor of a more predictable and scientific approach. But when everyone is on apps, fewer people are mingling at dance classes or church socials or meeting up with friends of friends. And while many people do find love, many others find frustration, having wasted years fruitlessly searching for the perfect partner. 

Empire assumes relationships will be structured along lines of power. Every relationship is subject to the logic of the marketplace: loyalty, commitment and care – if they are offered at all – are reserved for individuals who are sufficiently attractive and high-status to reflect well on me by association. Empire tells romantic partners to love each other the way some people love cheesecake: with intensity, abandon, and an animating spirit of consumption rather than communion. Love in Empire is always provisional, always contingent on how well the beloved meets my needs and accommodates my preferences. So when the partner no longer feels enriching or exciting or actualizing, abandoning the relationship may be seen as not only acceptable, but as authentic and brave.

How we understand love matters, because love is at the heart of God’s promise: the love God has for us, the love we show to God and the love God invites us to share with each other. We can say until we are blue in the face that we are called to love each other, but if our vision of love is patterned after Empire’s, even our purest impulses, like equality and fairness in relationships, are incomplete at best. For example, if our vision of relational agency is the absolute power and unilateral authority of the paterfamilias, we can never realize the loving tenderness of God: democratizing tyranny – permitting men and women to abuse, exploit and abandon in equal measure – is not a path to the Promise. 

What might that path look like? I’m still figuring it out – hence my obsession with the topic! – but I know that, in addition to seeking partners in whom we delight and who reciprocate that delight, we must also be willing to give, to serve, to faithfully support and respect, to see value beyond the passing and uncertain “virtues” of good looks, good health and good finances – and to seek out partners who do the same. Only then can our most intimate relationships be redeemed from the exploitation of Empire into the tender solidarity of Beloved Community.

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