Romantic abolitionism

Should we abolish the concept of romantic love?

This article was tagged with: Love/Romance

There are 1386 words in this article, and it will probably take you less than 7 minutes to read it.

This article was published 2024-02-22 00:00:00 -0500, which makes this post and me old when I published it.

What is Romantic Abolitionism?

Romantic Abolitionism is a term/movement that I have started to refer to (to myself) that is centered around eliminating the concept and role of romantic love in society, drawing inspiration from the gender abolitionism/gender accelerationist movement.

How does the social role of romance negatively impact people today?

  • Romance as it exists right now is the Monogamous Hierarchical Conception of Love where you have One True Love who is above all else. It wasn’t too long ago that interracial and queer relationships were not included in this conception of love. Divorce and polyamory are still stigmatized (divorce less so now).
  • The book The Other Significant Others by Rhaina Cohen asks questions like “What do we lose when we expect one person to meet all our needs?”
  • The Romantic-Industrial Complex “nets billions of dollars from Valentine’s Day and weddings, and it needs you to “buy into” outdated ideas of love and marriage”.
  • The centrality and hegemony of romance leads to the alienation of aromantic people

Could these problems be ameliorated by simply de-centering romance? Or by modifying the concept of romance itself? To that I ask, is it easier to change something from the inside or to tear it down? I don’t think that there is a universal answer to this and I get the sense that it depends on one’s philosophical leanings, but I think that this question is core to the idea of romantic abolitionism. I think an analogue would be to capitalism. Should we try to somehow make capitalism more fair and ethical or tear the economic system down in place of a new one?

Change to romantic love is hard because the concept is resistant to change because of how tightly coupled it is with the social institution of the family. Child rearing and familial organization is heavily tied to romance, which makes it a minefield to change. I recognize that the abolition of romance is a change in and of itself, but a different kind of change than to something that already exists.

Additionally, what good is the concept of romance if all the positives of it can be reaped from other sources? We can change the concept of romantic love or de-center it as much as we want to be more inclusive, but at what point does it really need to be there anymore? I truly believe that there is no good reason to distinguish between so-called platonic and romantic love. Instead, if we focus on the concept of love more generally, I think that it can capture all the positives of romance without having all the prescriptive baggage of romantic love.

What Romantic Abolitionism Isn’t

Romantic abolitionism has one very simple goal, but it can be easy to misconstrue the purpose either intentionally or unintentionally.

Getting rid of all forms of love

I’m not telling people to stop feeling love, to stop doing things out of love, or to stop pair-bonding, but rather to just stop putting it under the bill of “romantic love”. In fact, I think that love should be more central in society, just not romantic love. I personally don’t believe in the types of love, I think that love can differ in extent/strength and in expression, but I do not think that love can be divided into various types like the Ancient Greeks did.

Relationship Anarchy

I think that while certainly related to Relationship Anarchy, Romantic Abolitionism is a separate enterprise. I think that someone could be a relationship anarchist and still believe in a rehabilitated concept of romantic love, one that is non-hierarchical and more inclusive. However, I think that the tenets of Relationship Anarchy are very much in conversation with Romantic Abolitionism and I owe much of my mindset to the core ideas of Relationship Anarchy.

Abolition of marriage

The social and political institution of marriage, while related to romantic love, is not under the scope of romantic abolition. I’d imagine that the Venn Diagram of Marriage Abolitionists and Romantic Abolitionists would have many in the center, but loveless marriages have been a thing forever, so it is distinct from the notion of romantic love. However I do think that if we were to of the concept of romantic love it would beg the question of why we need marriage. I think something like a more flexible, progressive family register would be more useful than romance in legally codifying your ties to members of your support system, found family, etc.

Objections to Romantic Abolitionism

Romantic love is something that we take so uncritically for granted that there are a plethora of knee-jerk reactions to the idea of abolishing it. We will take a few common objections and slowly pull them apart to see why I think that they fail to get to the heart of the matter. These objections are primarily sourced from What Love Is: And What It Could Be by Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins (you can read my notes about this book here).

It isn’t (socially) feasible to abolish romantic love

"What if we did destroy romantic love? Does it matter? [...] While this is an intriguing question, it’s moot as far as planning goes. I don’t think it is feasible to abolish romantic love, at least not until we live in the kind of science fiction future where we can replace or reprogram our meat brains."

I don’t really care to get into the bioethics of medical interventions for the biology of love, so I will leave that part for others to discuss. I think that this objection is primarily motivated by the unstated assumption (or fact really) that social change is very hard, especially with deeply rooted social norms. I think that this is true, but I see no reason why this undermines the idea of Romantic Abolitionism. Even if romantic love won’t be abolished in the future I see no problem in advocating for such a thing.

We need romantic love to help make sense of biological feelings

"It’s true that many recent changes to the social role of love have tended toward making love less restrictive, but the biological machinery of love will continue to serve as an anchor for the kind of social script writing that has any realistic chance of working out. Unless we get a lot better at neuroscience, love is going to retain its recognizable biological symptoms. Racing hearts and the feeling of dopamine reward will be a part of the picture, as long as there are hearts and dopamine. As long as there is oxytocin, there will be cases of the warm fuzzies. Any social script for love that gave us no way to make coherent sense of these experiences would just land us with another case of unsustainably poor casting."

My interpretation of Jenkins here is not that she thinks that we wouldn’t be able to make sense of our biology in the absence of a concept of love, but that it is the best candidate for explaining it. I think a different potential reading of this is that in the absence of a concept of romantic love there would be a conceptual vacuum for the sensemaking of the biology of romantic love that would need to be filled. I am more sympathetic to the latter reading than the former because I think that it is the case that it is helpful to have a concept to understand our biology. This idea lends itself toward a certain kind of outcome where try as we may to rid romantic love, it will grow back in one way or another in some kind of form. However, I am not convinced that this would actually happen, and I think that it relies on the unchallenged assumption that romantic love is the best option that we’ve got. I think the only “proof” of this is that no one has questioned the legitimacy of romance to explain certain biological-behavioral actions.

Other Love/Romance Articles

The Norms of Romance

Outlining the various norms of the stages of romance.

The Problems With Romantic Desire

I believe that romantic desire is a fickle master that is not suitable for organizing long-term relationships.

The Allure of Convenience

I believe that part of the reason why the modern romantic relationship collapses the therapist, roommate, partner, and more into one is because it is an easier social structure. It is not the easiest to maintain however.

Romance as a Bad Organizing Principle

I believe that romance is not a good organizing principle for life or relationships.

Imagining a post-romantic world

What would a world that goes beyond romance look like?

Detangling Romance and Partnership

Romance and partnership go hand in hand conceptually, but do they need to be?