The Thrill Is Gone: Why Do We Fall Out of Love?

Our culture, which has so much to say about love, stays bizarrely silent on the far more mysterious moment when we fall out of love.

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

Even more stunning than the fact that we fall in love, is the fact that we stop loving. The people who kept us awake at night, from desire; those for whom we counted the hours, those we wanted to protect from the indignities of the world, are the same people we now look at with indifference or hostility. Their voice annoys us, their complaints leave us indifferent, their presence in the room feels superfluous, their mistakes are yet another opportunity to prove their insufficiencies: They are those we have stopped loving.

Our culture has endlessly represented the ways in which a new love miraculously erupts, the mythical moment when we know someone is destined to be ours; the feverish waiting for a phone call or an email, the thrill that runs up our spine at the mere thought of him. To be in love is to become an adherent of Plato: In the beloved, we see the reflection of some perfect Idea that exists only through him or her. Endless novels, poems and films teach us the art of becoming Plato’s disciples, loving the perfection manifested by the beloved. Yet, a culture that has so much to say about love falls bizarrely silent on the far more mysterious moment when we fall out of love, when the one who kept us awake at night now leaves us cold. Such silence is all the more puzzling when the number of divorces, bad marriages, or more generally, broken relationships is staggering. Shouldn’t we collectively be more preoccupied than we have been with what it means to “unlove?”

Perhaps our culture does not know how to represent it because we live in and through stories, and unloving is not a plot with a clear structure, it does not start with a defining moment. In fact, “unloving” − unlike loving − is not a moment; it is the tired repetition of all those moments in which someone failed to notice our needs or requests. Unloving happens when we stop repeating that same reproach, that same scene which contains the same complaint: “Why don’t you love me the way I want to be loved?”

Unloving, then, takes many forms and metaphors. It is like the fabric of our clothes that slowly tears itself apart, by small patches, until it leaves us naked and we suddenly notice we are shivering in the cold. Or it can be like the slow and invisible deposit of emotional stalagmites, which turns us into a stony block of hostility that invades the grotto of our inner self. Or unloving may operate like an inverse magnetic force, pulling us away from someone, sometimes even against our own will. But unloving can also be something altogether different: not the result of the repeated assault on the self, but an event that creates a sudden breach in our perception of the other. Love is much like a religious belief: to love someone is to believe in something they represent. We love as long as we believe this person represents something that matters to us, his goodness or integrity, or his very love for us. Yet sometimes, almost by chance, we get a glimpse at the beloved’s soul, and see in it an ugliness we had not suspected, we hear a cacophonous voice we had not paid attention to before. To “fall out of love” is to stop believing in who the beloved claimed he was.

In that sense, falling out of love can also be an event. With the Italian writer Alberto Moravia, we may wonder what kind of event unloving can be. Moravia’s novel “Contempt” is the story of a screenwriter − Riccardo Molteni − who writes plays for the theater. The entire novel is an inner dialogue that revolves around his attempt to understand why his life went wrong: how he came to write for commercial movies when he wanted to be an artist; and why his wife, Emilia, stopped loving him. We never hear Emilia’s voice directly; we see her and understand her only through Molteni’s account and consciousness. We are never able to ascertain the truth of the events he recounts, since we never have direct access to his wife’s point of view. But this is only an indication that what matters here is not the events themselves, but how he gives himself an account of his life.

The genre of the novel has offered many definitions of what constitutes a person, and one of its distinctive claims in that respect is that a person − a character − is defined by what s/he tells to herself. Moravia’s novel − like many other modern novels − suggests even more forcefully that who we are is revealed in the silent dialogue in which we speak to ourselves about the world − but a dialogue to which the world hardly ever has access. This inner dialogue is called our consciousness. In Molteni’s case, the dialogue takes the form of a story in which he recounts the events that led to the disintegration of his marriage. Molteni’s account is that of a man who has been abandoned, who suffers and is at a loss to understand why the woman who loved him so much has left him.

At first blush then, the reader should have compassion for a man who has been betrayed and left forlorn. But what makes the book so compelling is that its drama − becoming unloved − corresponds to the very form of the novel, a pure consciousness in action through internal dialogue. It is the very nature and structure of this inner dialogue that explain the failed life of this man. The opening pages establish clearly that the first two years of his marriage were perfect: “[T]he profound harmony of the senses was accompanied by a kind of numbness − or should I say silence? − of the mind which ‏(...‏) causes an entire suspension of judgment...”. Emilia seemed without defects to him, as he himself seemed to her. More exactly, even if these defects were seen, they seemed entirely forgivable. “[W]e did not judge: we loved each other.” But as he now understands, the demise of their marriage started when she began to judge him: “[W]hile I continued to love her and not to judge her, Emilia on the other hand discovered, or thought she discovered, certain defects in me, and judged and in consequence ceased to love me.”

The reader here has two options: either resign herself to the fact that she will not know for sure “what happened” ‏(and take refuge in cliches, such as “it takes two to tango” or “the fault is always on both sides”‏) or explore the option offered by the novel, namely that the male hero reveals something about himself that makes him unworthy of being loved. I take the second option ‏(the novel gives strong indications that this is how it should be read.‏) In Moravia’s novel, Molteni’s consciousness crystallizes around an event, which remains minor and mysterious, an event that ultimately creates a chain of other events that will make his wife stop loving him. In his famous movie based on the novel, Jean-Luc Godard also viewed this incident as crucial to the plot ‏(although in my opinion Godard did not understand the novel‏).

This, then, is the event: Molteni and his beautiful wife meet, for the first time, a rich producer, Battista, who suggests that they come and have a drink at his home. Because his luxurious sports car has only two seats, he suggests that Molteni’s wife come with him and that Molteni take a taxi. Emilia is reluctant, and suggests that both she and her husband take a taxi. Molteni urges her to join Battista in his car and takes a long time to join them. After this episode, the producer invites them almost every day, and each time, Emilia is strangely reluctant to accompany him, but each time Molteni insists. Obediently, she yields every time and joins Battista. Slowly, Emilia, who, as he has told us repeatedly, had loved him tremendously, begins to behave in new ways: she does not ask anxiously when he will be back, but on the contrary seems relieved to know he will be out; she wants to sleep apart from him and no longer wants to make love to him.

Emilia made it clear to him that she did not want any physical closeness with Battista. Yet Molteni ignored her requests, stubbornly insisting that she accept Battista’s invitations. Molteni recounts the events, yet these events retain a mysterious opacity for him; he is unable to decipher their meaning. But they do have a simple meaning: Molteni ignored her requests to refuse Battista’s repeated attempts to see them. And more: He in fact encouraged his wife to yield to Battista’s solicitations.

Why? Because he, Molteni, the independent and creative artist, who professes contempt for commercial movies, is eager to please the vulgar Battista. This very simple fact remains unacknowledged by him throughout the entire novel, and is at the heart of its drama. Molteni cannot tell himself what Emilia and the reader easily understand: namely, that he envies someone he is busy dismissing, that he allows him access to his wife, that he is eager to satisfy Battista’s desires even while pretending to despise him. Acknowledging this fact would jeopardize his self-definition as an autonomous and sovereign artist.

Molteni’s inner speech then spins around itself and turns about an event he cannot properly give an account of. His consciousness is organized around a gap that his self-deception has opened and around which his entire account revolves without being properly acknowledged. Molteni shows us that one’s life may be missed because one failed to look at it properly. So busy is he at playing the part of the creative artist that this role fissures his own consciousness.

We may then ask − what makes one unable to give oneself a proper account of who one is? The silent dialogue we conduct with ourselves defines us, and one of its main features has to do with how we treat others in the recesses of our heart, fundamentally − whether we view them as instruments for our well-being, or as others, human beings to be acknowledged and cared for.

Let us then examine what Molteni’s inner dialogue is made up of. His evaluations of others are always sprinkled with derogatory comments. About his wife he says: “Usually, and in simpler, less cultivated people ...”. His colleague and co-writer, Pasetti, is also viewed as too simple and limited. Battista, the producer, is of course the object of his private mocking. Molteni has contempt for all of them because he feels superior in creativity. His artistic identity shapes his sense of superiority in all realms, over his “simple” wife and his limited and
vulgar colleagues.

I find the following thought particularly revealing. Upon meeting Rheingold, who will be the director of the movie, he comments to himself that he had “a broad smile, like a half moon, showing two rows of very regular and altogether too white teeth which I at once imagined, I don’t know why, to be false.” When he sees something beautiful ‏(like the teeth‏), he can conceive of it only as fake. He is the man of resentment, the man who goes around the world secretly putting down and feeling superior to most of its population.

It is no accident that this character belongs to what sociologists call “the creative class,” people working in the arts. Sociologists call them a “class” because modern capitalism has greatly developed the culture sector, which needs creativity and creative people to produce a steady supply of cultural goods ‏(e.g., expensive art pieces or films, both symptomatic of the capitalist economy‏). Like Molteni, the creative class is thus simultaneously deeply imbued with the sense of moral superiority associated with the ideology of creativity, while beingobjectively subservient to the capitalists who control it. This gap is fertile sociological ground for the kind of resentment and false consciousness harbored by Molteni ‏(i.e., feeling superior to the person one depends on‏).

Molteni, like many artists, despises the commercial enterprise he has now actively engaged in. In order to maintain the image of the superior artist, he tells himself that he left the theater because he was forced to keep up with the bourgeois aspirations of his wife. It is his wife’s acute desire for a bourgeois home that make him lease a more expensive apartment, which, as he now tells himself, changed his self-image: from a lofty artist, presumably “brilliant,” to a cheap contributor to second-rate newspapers. This superiority of his creative identity accompanies him in the minutest aspect of his self-understanding: “I had not married a woman who could understand and share my ideas, tastes and ambitions; instead I had married, for her beauty, an uncultivated, simple typist, full, it seemed to me, of all the prejudices and ambitions of the class from which she came. With the first I could have faced the discomforts of a poverty-stricken, disorganized life, in a studio or a furnished room, in expectation of the theatrical successes that were bound to come; but for the second I had had to provide the home of her dreams. And at the cost, I thought in desperation, of having to renounce, perhaps for ever, my precious literary ambitions.”

The “simple typist” and “born housewife” loved him with utter devotion. She kept their home tidy and clean, served him tea, cleaned his writing desk, in short, acted out the caring and inferior status expected of women. But even in the privacy of their home, Molteni feels artistically superior. This sense of existential superiority has another feature: He never assumes responsibility for anything that happens to him. His literary failure is the result of a commercialized market or a poor critic unable to understand his creative genius. If he writes a movie for a commercial producer, it is because Emilia’s domestic desires forced him to do so. Molteni’s unhappiness is the fault of the coarse and uneducated people to whom he is forced to sell his brilliant talent. This is why Molteni’s tone is self-pitying. He is to himself the only object worthy of his own care and attention, and because he can never properly take responsibility for what he does, he cannot view himself as a full agent in the script of his life. Molteni, then, misses his life − his great love and his own artistic vocation − because he can never take full account of his role and actions in the world ‏(Godard entirely missed Moravia’s irony and took very seriously Molteni’s artistic jeremiads‏).

One might be tempted to explain the flaws of such a banal consciousness as coming from his “unconscious.” But I prefer to understand Molteni with a famous concept coined by Jean-Paul Sartre − bad faith. Bad faith is the lack of moral integrity that derives from the difficulty of aligning two aspects of ourselves: for example, when a man enjoys the domestic services of his wife, yet holds her status in contempt; or when an artist scorns commercial success, yet secretly craves it.

Molteni enrolls in the Communist Party ‏(which professes to care and defend the working classes‏), all the while manifesting class contempt for uneducated people. Bad faith is the inability to inhabit one’s consciousness properly, because one is too busy playing a role ‏(the good husband, the devoted father, the creative artist‏). It is all at once a moral, emotional, and cognitive property of thinking: cognitive, because it derives from the incapacity to align conflicting facts about oneself; emotional, because thinking is subordinate to the need of maintaining a sense of superiority over others; and moral, because this form of thinking prevents one from seeing and understanding how one is the author of one’s own actions.

The man of bad faith cannot bear responsibility for his actions, because often he cannot properly see the webs of his self-deception. Bad faith ‏(or self-deception‏) is thus based on a striking philosophical paradox: We lie to ourselves and cheat ourselves, much like a greedy, stingy man would steal from his own coffers, to discover in dismay one day that his fortune has vanished.

I do not think the proper antidote to bad faith are many hours of therapy, for I am not sure that therapy can teach a certain moral style, a certain habit of thinking with oneself about oneself. Such a habit should not to be confused with introspection. Indeed, one could be, like Molteni, self-scrutinizing ad nauseam, and yet lack that specific quality of thought that makes someone able to be accountable to oneself.

Hannah Arendt viewed the faculty of thought as central to what defines a moral agent. This faculty of thought she defined as “the habit of examining what happens, what is, without having a prejudice about it,” and this activity according to her “is an activity which contains the condition for people avoiding evil. The person who does not know how to engage in this silent relationship to oneself ‏(in which one submits to critical examination what one says or what one does‏) does not fear to contradict himself, which means he never has the possibility or the desire to justify what he does or what he says; nor will he be stopped by the idea of a crime, because he can count on forgetting it the next hour.”

Molteni is unable to entertain precisely this kind of silent relationship with himself, which is why, ultimately, everyone becomes a simple instrument of his own life projects. In a way, then, he does not access the condition for being a full-fledged moral agent. Indeed, as Arendt would predict, he becomes violent toward Emilia, yet fails to register his act as such. ‏(Violence, by the way, need not be physical; negligence or absence or obliviousness to a loved one are violent acts, and a failure to register such acts as violent in one’s consciousness mean that one is not a full-fledged moral agent.‏) Emilia then ultimately sees that Molteni's being is organized around a massive self-deception, which ultimately generates her contempt for him. The opposite of love is not hatred, but contempt.

In a strikingly simple sentence whose meaning remains opaque to Molteni, Emilia tells him: “You are not a man.” Given that the novel and Molteni deal so much with the story and character of Ulysses, who is surely “a man,” this is a clear invitation to reflect on “what a man is.” Ulysses is the male hero par excellence ‏(I confess he is mine‏). Ulysses was not only the hero who was set on saving Greece against Troy, but the man who confronted dangers and fooled monsters through his cunning cleverness, rather than sheer strength. But Ulysses is much more than that. He has a depth that derives from the fact that he never forgets his home, Ithaca, and spends almost 20 years returning to the wife who has been waiting for him there. Contrary to Molteni, Ulysses loves his wife not because she is “beautiful,” but because she is something far more rewarding: She is his equal. ‏(In her book “Moral Clarity,” Susan Neiman makes this point.‏) In fact, Penelope is the only character who is Ulysses’ equal in courage, cleverness, guile, strength, and virtue.

Ulysses does not need an inferior woman to construct his masculinity. In fact, Ulysses could have stayed on an island with the gorgeous nymph Calypso, who promised to grant him a godly immortality; but he prefers his old wife to the sexy young nymph. The fact that Ulysses never wavers from the choice he has made should prod us to ask: How does Ulysses achieve this extraordinary capacity to have a will and a clarity that carry him so far in the world? Ulysses gives up abundant sex and immortality because he is a man of memory, even before he is a man of promises ‏(which he is not‏).

On his long journey, he uses several stratagems to keep alive the memory of his wife and his home. Consider one famous example: Ulysses asks his fellow sailors to bind him to the mast of his boat when they come close to the sirens because he knows he will respond to their bewitching call. Ulysses knows that his memory and self-knowledge will fail him; he knows that he will be tempted to forget his purpose and fool himself. Ulysses, then, has a knowledge of his own consciousness ‏(even if he does not yet have what moderns would call introspection‏).

It is this knowledge of the failings and frailty of his judgment that ultimately bring Ulysses back home. To find a home in the world is to retain the memory of who we are, to be aware of the failings of our judgment, of our gaps and inconsistencies. Ulysses may fool others, but never himself.

“Contempt” is an existentialist novel that offers an existentialist perspective on love because it suggests that loving properly entails the capacity to make choices. Molteni − faced with Battista and his two-seater car − made the wrong choice. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard redefined the essence of ethics through choice. Life could either make us become ourselves or could make us miss this “who we are.” How can we miss our lives, was in fact the question that haunted Kierkegaard ‏(he had himself made a life-determining choice when he broke his engagement to Regine Olsen and remained unmarried all his life‏). Kierkegaard did not view this process of becoming who we are as the result of a logic built into our psychology or in our sociology, but rather as the result of the choices we actively make at certain junctures of our lives. For him, life is a series of microscopic crossroads at which we can turn right or left, and at each of these junctures, we define ourselves as much as these choices define us.

But let us be more precise here: Molteni does not make the wrong choice ‏(for which we would have only compassion‏), but is unwilling to make any choice at all, which is why he turns out to be an uninteresting character, chiefly caught up in a sterile introspectiveness.

Molteni may be creative, but he remains existentially flat, unabsorbing, absent from himself, occupying no space at all. He dooms himself to the worst human condition: to become unlovable, because he lacks clarity of consciousness and a self-propelling will. Falling in love can happen to anyone and is blind indeed, but enduring love demands wide-open eyes that can sustain another’s intense gaze, day in and day out.

To be worthy of being loved demands that kind of silent language with ourselves which gives us access to our own consciousness. Being loved by another is thus like undergoing something like the development of a photo: We slowly reveal to another the true shape, color, and depth of our inner self under and through the prolonged and piercing eyes of someone waiting for an image to appear. Michel Houellebecq offers a striking image of what loving in such conditions of lucidity could be like. In “Extension du Domaine de la Lutte,” he wrote:

“Very early on, some human beings experience a frightening difficulty to live; they can not bear to see their life in front of them, to look at it in its entirety, without shadows, without back-planes. Their existence is, I admit, an exception to the laws of nature, not only because this fundamental inadequacy occurs without any genetic finality, but also because of the excessive lucidity it presupposes, a lucidity that is obviously transcendent to the perceptual schemas of ordinary existence. Sometimes it is enough to place another such human being before them, provided we suppose that human being is as pure and transparent as they are, and this unbearable fracture becomes a luminous longing, all geared toward the absolutely inaccessible. While a mirror sends back, day after day the same distressing image, two parallel mirrors build together a network clear and dense which takes the human eye toward an infinite trajectory, without limits, infinite in its geometric purity, beyond the sufferings of the world.”

We speak of love as blind; but the reverse is true: love sees and knows, to be loved is to be seen and known, and because of this, love is best sustained between two souls whose purity is to be found in their relentless clear-sightedness. When two such souls look at each other, they do not create a narcissistic mirroring, but rather a luminous longing and infinite trajectory.

IllustrationCredit: Yael Bogen



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