How Romantic Love Becomes a Tool of Patriarchy


Recently, a friend was ranting to me about a favorite TV show. They were upset with the direction the writers went with a couple of the characters. A female character had to choose between leaving her family, friends, and career so she could move across country with the man she loved.

As it turned out, one of the male leads at her work—her partner—finally confessed to her about his romantic feelings. She then opted to stay, trading one “love” for another.

Hearts with the word "love" on them. We usually associate this with romantic love.
I mean, even when we say “love,” we think of romantic love.
(Gabby K/Pexels.com)

My friend was upset that these two characters then developed a romantic relationship. She felt the writers didn’t need to take things in that direction. These two were great in a platonic relationship with each other. Why mess with a good thing?

We spent a while debating the line between platonic and romantic love—a really sticky wicket, to be sure. But it also made me think about how romance is supposed to be paramount to everything else in a woman’s life.

And that, my friends, makes it a tool of patriarchal oppression.

Women Should Give Up Everything for True Love

The example my friend gave is case in point. This woman was “torn” between moving across the country for a dude and staying put. In essence, she had to choose between giving up everything she had and “true love.”

She would have left behind her friends, her family, and a great career with an employer she enjoyed working for, with colleagues she liked too.

How often do we see a woman with this supposed dilemma? And how often does she choose to give up “true love” for friendships or family?

It’s very rare. In this case the character decided to stay behind. But that wasn’t a win: it was because another (male) character confessed romantic feelings for her.

Is Platonic or Familial Love Legitimate?

If he hadn’t confessed romantic love for her, there’s a question about whether her decision would be acceptable. Western notions about romantic love position it above all else, especially for women.

Familial relations are not important. Friendships are not important. Career ambitions are almost laughable in a woman’s case.

The warm mother-daughter relationship pictured here might take a backseat to the daughter's romance.
“And that’s why you’re going to the home, Mom.” (Andrea Piacquadio/ Pexels.com)

The implicit message here is that a woman should be ready to sacrifice everything for romantic love.

Well, you might say, that’s because romantic love is important. We should want to sacrifice everything for it.


Unraveling Socially Conditioned Hopes and Dreams

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to tease out. Most of us are trained, from a very early age, to value romantic love over everything else.

Think about that for a moment. You have a bond with your family members, from the time you’re born. Not all familial relations are good, of course. But if you love who raised you, why are you leaving for a guy you’ve known for a few years?

What about friendships? Some of us have friendships that have spanned decades, beginning in early childhood and persisting across time. And we’re asked to leave those behind, to neglect them or ignore them in favor of a relatively new relationship.

In this paradigm, platonic and familial love are not legitimate reasons to abandon romantic love.

And there is a reason why that is the case.

Reproduction Is the Goal

Remember how I discussed the construction of “women” under capitalism as a way to control reproductive bodies? Why do you think romantic loves beats out everything else under capitalism?

It’s not so they can sell overpriced roses on Valentine’s Day or because of the value of the wedding industry.

Nope, the end goal here is to sever us from social networks. That forces the formation of new nuclear familial units. Those units get cut off from the intergenerational bonds, familial ties, and “fictive kinship” that keep us afloat.

The formation of the nuclear family unit forces us to rely on “ourselves.”

Exploitation in the Name of Love

That in turn makes us vulnerable to exploitation under capitalism. Remember, capitalism wants desperate, disposable bodies.

That’s also why romantic love is paramount to all other types of love. Romantic love is the one “legitimately reproductive” type of love. You’re not supposed to reproduce with your family (that’s incest). You’re not supposed to reproduce with your friends (even though some people do).

This is, historically, why homosexual love was also illegitimate. It couldn’t be reproductive. With the advent of new technologies and more acceptance, allowing for adoption, homosexual love has become somewhat more acceptable. It is understood as romantic, reproductive love.

These two gay men may feel pressure to get married and have children, as homosexual love becomes more "reproductive."
Yes, yes, queer rights, hurry up with paying scads of money for surrogacy. (Marcelo Chagas/Pexels.com)

(There’s debate about how same-sex marriage has people adopting capitalism’s model of the reproductive, romantic nuclear family. Some see same-sex marriage and adoption for same-sex couples as forms of assimilation. They thus want to resist it, so they can continue to challenge the capitalist paradigm.)

Romantic Love Isolates Women

Capitalism, as it exists currently, is twinned with patriarchy. Both capitalism and patriarchy want control over women’s bodies for similar reasons.

Capitalism wants control over reproductive capacity in order to continue making desperate, disposable bodies to do poorly paid labor. Patriarchy wants control over women’s bodies in order to further men’s genetics. Thus, men are trained to desire wives and children as “status symbols.”

A beautiful wife and multiple children says much about a man’s ability to provide. It becomes a form of “success.”

Positioning Romantic Love as Woman’s Higher Calling

Women are thus trained to desire romantic love—and marriage and children—as the ultimate fulfillment of their being. Even amid “girl power” and “girl boss” messages, there’s still rhetoric that suggests every AFAB person should want to be a mother. Motherhood is the path to finding fulfillment in life.

Women who do not reproduce are cast as defective. Those who do not reproduce by choice particularly “defective”—they must somehow be devoid of maternal instincts. They’re often constructed as “pathological” or ill.

We can look at Age of Ultron’s treatment of Natasha Romanoff for this. Natasha was forcibly sterilized; she sees herself as a “monster” because she is unable to have (biological) children. The woman who cannot reproduce biologically is thus unnatural, somehow inhuman.

There are other, subtler variants of this. And if a childless woman isn’t defective, then she must “secretly” desire children—deep down, perhaps unbeknownst to even her.

This positioning of romantic love, marriage, and motherhood as the ultimate goal of every woman’s life is intentional. It encourages women to seek out romance above all else. It asks them to sacrifice their relationships with everyone else “in the name of love.”

That works to isolate women by having them devote themselves to one more important relationship. The woman who sacrifices everything to be with the one she loves is somehow nobler, more pure. A woman who stayed behind for her own career or her friendships would undoubtedly be “selfish.” Why? She’s failing to serve the purpose of capitalism and patriarchy.

Isolation Allows for Abuse

I mentioned earlier that this tends to force women to cut off their relationships elsewhere. That removes them from networks of both capitalistic and emotional support. They become financially and emotionally dependent upon their “true loves.”

In the best cases, this is fine. A man and a woman who really love each other embark on a journey to start a new life. They support each other as they establish themselves in a new community and develop new relationships.

Very often, though, this doesn’t play out on equal footing. The woman moves for her true love’s reasons—often furthering his career. She is subservient to his needs; they do not embark on the journey together. Rather, she merely follows him and sacrifices for his benefit.

As I noted, this can be okay, provided both partners try to see each other as equals. Does she have good job opportunities where they’re going? Is she the friendly sort who will get involved in the local community to build relationships? Do either of them have connections in the new location, such as friends, former colleagues or peers, or even family?

If not, then the woman is on the back foot—her true love, at least, has a career.

A man covers a woman's eyes.
Surprise! It’s abusive! (Anete Lusina / Pexels.com)

This leads to isolation, which then allows for abuse. The notion of sacrificing everything for romantic love asks women to put that above all else—including their own feelings, their own safety.

It’s a sinister sort of thing, then. People believe they’re chasing their heart’s desire. They believe this is a “moral good.” Pursuing romantic love becomes the be-all, end-all.

Is It All Bad Romance?

Now, I’m going to point out that reproduction is necessary. Most of us have a reproductive drive. Most organisms do. After all, reproduction is a biological imperative. If you die before you can reproduce, your genetics are out of the gene pool.

Reproducing is a way of achieving immortality. Your children then continue to pass down your genetics—“you.”

Older adults, like the ones pictured here, often want their adult children to reproduce, and not just because grandkids are cute.
Why everyone wants to be grandparents, really. (Pixabay / Pexels.com)

(Think about how we can trace back male lineage to chromosomal Adam and all of us to mitochondrial Eve—one father, one mother we are all descended from. They’re immortal, because they continue to live in us.)

There Are Legitimate Reasons to Want Romantic Love

It’s wrong to suggest that AFAB people only seek out romance because capitalism tells them to. It would be wrong to say men only want children because patriarchy tells them that’s the ultimate status symbol.

And it would be wrong to suggest some of us don’t put emphasis on romantic love because we want “a mate.”

Raising human children takes a very long time—years on end. So you want to hook up with someone who will help you get those kids to adulthood. (After all, you can’t become immortal if those kids never reach reproductive age; if they die, so too do your genetics.)

So there is still good reason to put some stock in romantic love. There’s definitely a biological imperative to find a good mate. Capitalism and patriarchy tend to take advantage of that natural inclination and drive it to extremes.

And there’s certainly something in the idea that we’re searching for a deeper connection. But there’s no real dividing line between platonic love and romantic love. Friends can shack up and have children. They can still decide they’re not romantically in love, even if the relationship has all the outward markers of it. (Some people will argue that platonic relationships are friendships, and that those shouldn’t cross into the realm of sex. That’s certainly up for debate.) Others will have only emotional or sexual needs satisfied by what they term as a “romantic” relationship, which blurs the lines further.

Still, it’s not all bad romances. But it is something we need to watch out for. What are we being told about romance and why it’s the be-all, end-all, and what does that mean? Who does it benefit and who does it oppress?

A Quick Note on Paths to Motherhood

Above, I noted that women who don’t want children are sometimes portrayed as “secretly” wanting them. That narrative can make women who initially say they don’t want children feel that they can’t change their minds. This creates a sort of “unchangeable” path for them. People may feel guilty about changing their minds over time, as though they’re playing into a particular cultural narrative that they want to resist.

I think revisiting the question and coming up with a different answer is quite common, especially as women age. People like to laugh and say that’s the “biological clock ticking.”

We’re Just More Equal Now

I think it’s quite similar to what men experience. We want to be established before we become mothers. This means having both financial means and emotional maturity. And this period of uncertainty is extending, especially as more women attended postsecondary schools and establish careers.

In fact, it’s notable that many women who do not pursue postsecondary school or who work “dead-end” jobs desire children at younger ages. They tend to see children as the ultimate fulfillment of who they are. They do not have the means or opportunities to be anything else. Thus this is also typically a class-based divide. Women who expect no economic stability or forward motion may decide they do want children at younger ages.

Thus, as AFAB people have more opportunities and choice, they tend to delay having children until they are older. That correlates with men typically wanting children only once they feel they can earn a living and support a family. Both men and women express a desire for more emotionally maturity as well.

Changing Your Mind Is Fine

So, there’s a number of influences going on here. Women may not wish to be burdened by children—caregiving is demanding and continues for decades. Instead, they explore school, careers, and other experiences. Some may feel they lack the emotional maturity or financial stability to provide intensive care. As people age, they typically become more financially secure; have more resources; and have had enough of “other experiences,” as well as more emotional maturity. That can then play into a revised view on having children.

So, women who do not want children may come to a very different conclusion later in life. In turn, they may feel they’re assimilating into this very powerful, coercive, and ultimately harmful narrative. This is not necessarily true. A feminist perspective would suggest every woman is free to pursue her own individual path—wherever that may lead her.

If that’s pursuing romantic love, marriage, and motherhood—even later in life, after professing a desire not to get married or not to have children—then that’s perfectly fine as well.

Standing Guard

The real point is that we need to be aware of the underlying reasons we’re told romantic love is paramount. While we may think of giving everything up for true love is noble or moral, there’s a more sinister undercurrent. We always need to be attuned to capitalism severing us from important relationships and isolating us to make us more exploitable. And we should reject that—even if we continue to hold the ideal of romantic love close to our hearts.

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