Day 6·Q&A

The case for 'sad love': Canadian philosopher crafts new model of romance

In real life romance, as in fairy tales, there tends to be a lot of focus on the "happily ever after." But philosopher Carrie Jenkins wants us to make a little more room for melancholy with her new book Sad Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning.

Carrie Jenkins says sadness should be embraced no matter what it’s attached to

Carrie Jenkins, philosopher and author, says there's a downside to always striving for happiness in love. (CCO/Pexels)

In real life romance, as in fairy tales, there tends to be a lot of focus on the "happily ever after." But philosopher Carrie Jenkins wants us to make a little more room for melancholy. 

The University of British Columbia (UBC) professor's new book Sad Love challenges the toxic positivity at the root of our romantic clichés. 

Jenkins believes sadness is something that should be embraced, even when it comes to love.

"I think that we've gotten the idea that romance equals happiness in our heads because we have an idealized, romantic fairy story that we've all bought into, to some greater or lesser extent," she said. "I feel it pulling me in all the time in my own life and in everyone else's life."

Jenkins sat down with CBC Radio's Day 6 to talk about the book and discuss the downside of striving for happiness in love — and what she's choosing to focus on instead. Here is part of her conversation with host Saroja Coelho.

Do you really dislike love songs? Is that actually possible?

No, I love them, but I love them in a sad way. Some of them are really disturbing to me — once you sit down and listen to the lyrics and actually pay attention to the messages behind it.

What are we hearing in pop songs that encapsulates love in a way that you think might actually be bad for us? 

It tends to be extreme. This person loves me and I love them. It's the best thing that's ever happened to anyone, ever. Or this person doesn't love me. Everything's gone wrong. Nothing in my life is worth living. It's just a nightmare. 

Carrie Jenkins is a philosophy professor at UBC, and author of Sad Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning, published in May 2022 (Submitted by Carrie Jenkins)

Of course, there are the songs where we're almost reveling in the suffering. Or there are songs where we're utterly ecstatic and bouncing off the ceiling because of our joy in the pursuit of love. 

Exactly. When it works, it's just the best thing ever. And when it doesn't work, it's the worst thing ever. 

A lot of us live most of our days somewhere in the middle of extremely euphoric and extremely miserable.- Carrie Jenkins, philosopher and author

But you're saying this isn't really the path to happiness? 

Well, no. Even when that's going well, it tends to be extremely fragile. If you're thinking of love, it's always on one of the extremes. And a lot of us don't live there most of the time. A lot of us live most of our days somewhere in the middle of extremely euphoric and extremely miserable. 

We associate being in love as strongly as we do with being happy, and when you say that love makes you happy or that love and happiness are really bound together, it sounds great. But then when you think about where that leaves everybody else, me included, I'm not happy a lot of the time. It raises all these questions to my mind and those worry me. 

In the book you connected this to the American interpretation of happiness. That in some countries in the world, people have far more sober and even cruel, dark fairy tales for their children. It became this really clean, excited, super happy idea of what would be the American dream.

It doesn't matter who they are, [or if they] start from nothing, work themselves out, or pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and become successful. 

What we've sort of put in place, to a large extent, is an emotional dream that no matter who you are or what your situation in life is, you can make yourself an emotional success, make yourself happy. 

Someone can love you even if you're not waking up thinking that the hills are alive with the sound of music every day. ​- Carrie Jenkins, philosopher and author

Your book is called Sad Love. Are you saying that we should stay in unhappy relationships? I mean, where do you draw that line? 

The really important distinction here is between an abusive relationship or one where a person is being harmed by their partner or by the relationship itself. 

What I'm talking about is situations where people are in love and connecting and relating to one another, but they are making space within that for their own emotional range, which includes sadness and includes anger, and happiness, too. 

You can be sad, you can be depressed even, and you can be in love with someone. Someone can love you even if you're not waking up thinking that the hills are alive with the sound of music every day. 

Jenkins says people tend to listen to happy stories about monogamous relationships, while ignoring happy stories about non-monogamous ones. (Isai Hernandez/Shutterstock)

You're openly polyamorous. But when people hear that you are in a polyamorous relationship, the response that you get is often folks telling you that you couldn't possibly be happy, that there might be something wrong with this — that this couldn't really be love. Why do they draw those conclusions? 

It's really interesting. They say both of those things as if they were almost saying the same thing. You can't be happy. You can't be in love. 

Part of it, I think, is that when people hear "in love" they are imagining a romantic fairy-tale story. They skip straight to that. It's really hard for people to believe that that might be love because they've just got one image applied to queer couples. 

What tends to happen, though, is that we listen to the happy stories about monogamous relationships, and it's almost like we just have blinkers on when it comes to the happy stories about non-monogamous relationships. 

What it really sounds like you're trying to do is take some pressure off of people to live up to a standard of love, whether that's to live inside of a pre-produced expectation, but actually make it possible to widen those definitions.

I'm trying to liberate as many people as I can from these expectations that make a lot of us feel like we're failing all the time. Those expectations can be about what a relationship looks like or even that you should have a romantic relationship in your life at all. 

Not everybody wants that, or is looking for that, or is going to be made happy by that.

Sadness is a part of life and a part of the human condition. I think sadness is something to be embraced and understood, not pushed away and tucked into dark corners where we don't listen to it or examine it. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Becken

Journalist

Bob Becken is a producer for CBC Radio’s Digital team. Previously, he was an executive producer with CBC Windsor, and held broadcast and digital news director duties with Bell Media and Blackburn Media. Bob and the teams he has worked with have won several Radio Television Digital News Association awards, including five with CBC Windsor from 2019 to 2020. He also taught digital journalism at the University of Windsor. You can reach him at bob.becken@cbc.ca.

Interview with Carrie Jenkins produced by Annie Bender. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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