Liquid love

Modern individuals continually yearn for the security of a relationship. At the same time they fear the accompanying obligations and impingements on their freedom. A philosophical look at an all too familiar paradox.

Zygmunt Bauman | December 2003 issue

My central characters are men and women, our contemporaries, despairing at being abandoned to their own wits and feeling easily disposable, yearning for the security of togetherness and for a helping hand to count on in a moment of trouble, and so desperate to ‘relate’; yet wary of the state of ‘being related’ and particularly of being related ‘for good’, not to mention forever – since they fear that such a state may bring burdens and cause strains they neither feel able nor are willing to bear, and so may severely limit the freedom they need – yes, your guess is right – to relate…

In our world of rampant ‘individualisation’ relationships are mixed blessings. They vacillate between sweet dream and a nightmare, and there is no telling when one turns into the other. Most of the time the two avatars cohabit – though at different levels of consciousness. In a liquid modern setting of life, relationships are perhaps the most common, acute, deeply felt and troublesome incarnations of ambivalence. This is, we may argue, why they are firmly placed at the very heart of the attention of liquid modern individuals-by-decree and perched at the top of their life agenda.

‘Relationship’ is these days the hottest talk of the town and ostensibly the sole game in town worth playing, despite its notorious risks. Human attention tends nowadays to be focused on the satisfactions that relationships are hoped to bring because somehow they have not been found fully and truly satisfactory; and if they do satisfy, the price of the satisfaction they bring has often been found to be excessive and unacceptable.

No wonder that ‘relationships’ are one of the main engines of the present-day ‘counselling boom’. The complexity is too dense, too stubborn and too difficult to unpack or unravel for individuals to do the job unassisted. The agitation of Miller and Dollard’s rats all too often collapsed into a paralysis of action. An inability to choose between attraction and repulsion, between hopes and fears, rebounded as an incapacity to act. Unlike the rats, humans who find themselves in such circumstances may turn for help to the expert counsellors offering their services, for a fee. What they hope to hear form the counsellors is how to square the circle: to eat the cake and have it, to cream off the sweet delights of relationship while omitting its bitter and tougher bits; how to force relationship to empower without disempowering, enable without disabling, fulfilling without burdening…

All in all, what they learn is that commitment, and particularly long-term commitment, is the trap that the endeavour ‘to relate’ should avoid more than any other danger. One expert counsellor informs readers that ‘when committing yourself, however half-heartedly, remember that you are likely to be closing the door to other romantic possibilities which may be more satisfying and fulfilling.’ Another expert sounds blunter yet: ‘Promises of commitment are meaningless in the long term… Like other investments, they wax and wane.’ And so, if you wish ‘to relate’, keep your distance; if you want fulfilment from you togetherness, do not make or demand commitments. Keep all doors open at any time.

Perhaps the very idea of ‘relationships’ adds to the confusion. However hard the hapless relation-seekers and their counsellors try, the notion resists being fully and truly cleansed of its disturbing and worrying connotations. It stays pregnant with vague threats and sombre premonitions; it tells of the pleasures of togetherness in one breath with the horrors of enclosure. Perhaps this is why, rather than report their experience and prospects in terms of ‘relating’ and ‘relationships’, people speak ever more often (aided and abetted by the learned advisers) of connections, of ‘connecting’ and ‘being connected’. Instead of talking about partners, they prefer to speak of ‘networks’. What are the merits of the language of ‘connectedness’ that are missed by the language of ‘relationships’?

Unlike ‘relations’, ‘kinships’, ‘partnerships’ and similar notions that make salient the mutual engagement while excluding or passing over in silence its opposite, the disengagement, ‘network’ stands for a matrix for simultaneously connecting and disconnecting; networks are unimaginable without both activities being simultaneously enabled. In a network, connecting and disconnecting are equally legitimate choices, enjoy the same status and carry the same importance. No point in asking which of the two complementary activities constitutes ‘the essence’ of network! ‘Network’ suggests moments of ‘being in touch’ interspersed with periods of free roaming. In a network, connections are entered on demand, and can be broken at will. An ‘undesirable, yet unbreakable’ relationship is the very possibility that makes ‘relating’ as treacherous as it feels. An ‘undesirable connection’, however, is an oxymoron: connections may be, and are, broken well before they start being detested.

Connections are ‘virtual relations’. Unlike old-fashioned relationships (not to mention ‘committed’ relationships, let alone long-term commitments), they seem to be made to the measure of a liquid modern life setting where ‘romantic possibilities’ (and not only ‘romantic’ ones) are supposed and hoped to come and go with ever greater speed and in never thinning crowds, stampeding each other off the stage and out-shouting each other with promises ‘to be more satisfying and fulfilling’. Unlike ‘real relationships’, ‘virtual relationships’ are easy to enter and to exit. They look smart and clean, feel easy to use and user-friendly, when compared with the heavy, slow-moving, inert messy ‘real stuff’. A 28-year-old man from Bath, interviewed in connection with the rapidly growing popularity of computer dating at the expense of singles bars and lonely-heart columns, pointed to one decisive advantage of electronic relation: ‘you can always press “delete”’.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, when skating on thin ice your salvation is in speed. When the quality lets you down, you tend to seek redemption in quantity. If ‘commitments are meaningless’ while relations cease to be trustworthy and unlikely to last, you are inclined to swap partnerships for networks. Once you have done it, however, settling down turns out even more difficult (and so more off-putting) than before – you now miss the skills that would or could make it work. Being on the move, once a privilege and an achievement, becomes a must. Keeping up speed, once an exhilarating adventure, turns into an exhausting chore. Most importantly, that nasty uncertainty and that vexing confusion, supposed to be chased away thanks to speed, refuse to go. The facility of disengagement and termination-on-demand do not reduce the risks; they only distribute them, together with the anxieties they exhale, differently.

Our difficulties with relationships can be seen in our perceptions of love. One can fall in love more than once, and some people pride themselves, or complain, that falling in and out of love comes to them (and some others they came to know in the process) all too easily. Everyone has heard stories of such particularly ‘love-prone’ of ‘love-vulnerable’ persons.

There are solid enough grounds to see love, and particularly the state of ‘being in love’, as – almost by its nature – a recurrent condition, amenable to repetition, even inviting repeated attempts. When pressed, most of us would name a number of times when we felt we had fallen in love and were in love. One can guess (but it will be an informed guess) that in our times the ranks of people who tend to attach the name of love to more than one of their life experiences, who would not vouch that the love they are currently experiencing is the last, and who expect there are more such experiences yet to come, is growing fast. If the guess proves right, one should not be amazed. After all, the romantic definition of love as ‘till death us do part’ is decidedly out of fashion – having passed its use-by date because of the radical overhaul of the kinship structures it used to serve and from which it drew its vigour and self-importance. But the demise of that notion means, inevitably, the easing of the tests and experience must pass to be assigned as ‘love’. Rather than more people rising to the high standards of love on more occasions, the standards have been lowered; as a result the set of experiences referred to by the love word has expanded enormously. One-night stands are talked about under the code name of ‘making love’.

This sudden abundance and apparent availability of ‘love experiences’ may (and does) feed the conviction that love (falling in love, soliciting love) is a skill to be learned, and that the mastery of the skill grows with the number of experiments and assiduity of exercise. One may even (and one all too often does) believe that love-making skills are bound to grow as the experience accumulates; that the next love will be an experience yet more exhilarating than the one currently enjoyed, though not as thrilling or exciting as the one after next. But it is an illusion.

In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima of Mantinea (that is, in English translation, ‘prophetess Fearthelord of Prophetville’) pointed out to Socrates, with the latter’s wholehearted agreement, that ‘love is not for the beautiful, as you think’; ‘It is for begetting and birth in the beautiful.’ To love is to desire ‘to beget and procreate’, and so the lover ‘seeks and goes about to find the beautiful thing in which he can beget’. In other words, it is not in craving after ready-made, complete and finished things that love finds its meaning – but in the urge to participate in the becoming of such things. Love is akin to transcendence; it is but another name of creative drive and as such is fraught with risks, as all creation is never sure where it is going to end.

In every love, there are at least two beings, each of them the great unknown in the equations of the other. This is what makes love like a caprice of fate – that eerie and mysterious future, impossible to be told in advance, to be pre-empted or staved off, to be speeded up or arrested. To love means opening up to that fate, that most sublime of all human conditions, one in which fear blends with joy into an alloy that no longer allows its ingredients to separate. Opening up to that fate means, in the ultimate account, admission of freedom into being; that freedom which is embodied in the Other, the companion in love. As Erich Fromm put it: ‘Satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained …. without true humility, courage, faith and discipline’: only to add right away, with sadness, that in ‘a culture in which these qualities are rare, the attainment of the capacity to love must remain a rare achievement’.

And so it does – in a consumer culture like ours, which favours products ready for instant use, quick fixes, instantaneous satisfaction, results calling for no protracted effort, foolproof recipes, all-risk insurance and money-back guarantees. The promise to learn the art of loving is a (false, deceitful, yet keenly wished to be true) promise to make ‘love experience’ in the likeness of other commodities, that allure and seduce by brandishing all such features and promise to take the waiting out of wanting, sweat out of effort and effort out of results.

Without humility and courage, no love. Both are required, in huge and constantly replenished supplies, whenever one enters an unexplored and unmapped land, and when love happens between two or more human beings it ushers them into such a territory.


Adapted with permission from Zygmunt Bauman:‘Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds’ (Polity Press, ISBN 0745624898), a fascinating book with various essays analysing modern relationships and the love between men and women.

Zygmunt Bauman is professor emeritus at the University of Leeds. He has written a number of books including ‘Society Under Siege’ and ‘Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World’. Bauman was born in Poland in 1925 and later became a naturalised British citizen.

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Liquid love

Modern individuals continually yearn for the security of a relationship. At the same time they fear the accompanying obligations and impingements on their freedom. A philosophical look at an all too familiar paradox.

Zygmunt Bauman | December 2003 issue

My central characters are men and women, our contemporaries, despairing at being abandoned to their own wits and feeling easily disposable, yearning for the security of togetherness and for a helping hand to count on in a moment of trouble, and so desperate to ‘relate’; yet wary of the state of ‘being related’ and particularly of being related ‘for good’, not to mention forever – since they fear that such a state may bring burdens and cause strains they neither feel able nor are willing to bear, and so may severely limit the freedom they need – yes, your guess is right – to relate…

In our world of rampant ‘individualisation’ relationships are mixed blessings. They vacillate between sweet dream and a nightmare, and there is no telling when one turns into the other. Most of the time the two avatars cohabit – though at different levels of consciousness. In a liquid modern setting of life, relationships are perhaps the most common, acute, deeply felt and troublesome incarnations of ambivalence. This is, we may argue, why they are firmly placed at the very heart of the attention of liquid modern individuals-by-decree and perched at the top of their life agenda.

‘Relationship’ is these days the hottest talk of the town and ostensibly the sole game in town worth playing, despite its notorious risks. Human attention tends nowadays to be focused on the satisfactions that relationships are hoped to bring because somehow they have not been found fully and truly satisfactory; and if they do satisfy, the price of the satisfaction they bring has often been found to be excessive and unacceptable.

No wonder that ‘relationships’ are one of the main engines of the present-day ‘counselling boom’. The complexity is too dense, too stubborn and too difficult to unpack or unravel for individuals to do the job unassisted. The agitation of Miller and Dollard’s rats all too often collapsed into a paralysis of action. An inability to choose between attraction and repulsion, between hopes and fears, rebounded as an incapacity to act. Unlike the rats, humans who find themselves in such circumstances may turn for help to the expert counsellors offering their services, for a fee. What they hope to hear form the counsellors is how to square the circle: to eat the cake and have it, to cream off the sweet delights of relationship while omitting its bitter and tougher bits; how to force relationship to empower without disempowering, enable without disabling, fulfilling without burdening…

All in all, what they learn is that commitment, and particularly long-term commitment, is the trap that the endeavour ‘to relate’ should avoid more than any other danger. One expert counsellor informs readers that ‘when committing yourself, however half-heartedly, remember that you are likely to be closing the door to other romantic possibilities which may be more satisfying and fulfilling.’ Another expert sounds blunter yet: ‘Promises of commitment are meaningless in the long term… Like other investments, they wax and wane.’ And so, if you wish ‘to relate’, keep your distance; if you want fulfilment from you togetherness, do not make or demand commitments. Keep all doors open at any time.

Perhaps the very idea of ‘relationships’ adds to the confusion. However hard the hapless relation-seekers and their counsellors try, the notion resists being fully and truly cleansed of its disturbing and worrying connotations. It stays pregnant with vague threats and sombre premonitions; it tells of the pleasures of togetherness in one breath with the horrors of enclosure. Perhaps this is why, rather than report their experience and prospects in terms of ‘relating’ and ‘relationships’, people speak ever more often (aided and abetted by the learned advisers) of connections, of ‘connecting’ and ‘being connected’. Instead of talking about partners, they prefer to speak of ‘networks’. What are the merits of the language of ‘connectedness’ that are missed by the language of ‘relationships’?

Unlike ‘relations’, ‘kinships’, ‘partnerships’ and similar notions that make salient the mutual engagement while excluding or passing over in silence its opposite, the disengagement, ‘network’ stands for a matrix for simultaneously connecting and disconnecting; networks are unimaginable without both activities being simultaneously enabled. In a network, connecting and disconnecting are equally legitimate choices, enjoy the same status and carry the same importance. No point in asking which of the two complementary activities constitutes ‘the essence’ of network! ‘Network’ suggests moments of ‘being in touch’ interspersed with periods of free roaming. In a network, connections are entered on demand, and can be broken at will. An ‘undesirable, yet unbreakable’ relationship is the very possibility that makes ‘relating’ as treacherous as it feels. An ‘undesirable connection’, however, is an oxymoron: connections may be, and are, broken well before they start being detested.

Connections are ‘virtual relations’. Unlike old-fashioned relationships (not to mention ‘committed’ relationships, let alone long-term commitments), they seem to be made to the measure of a liquid modern life setting where ‘romantic possibilities’ (and not only ‘romantic’ ones) are supposed and hoped to come and go with ever greater speed and in never thinning crowds, stampeding each other off the stage and out-shouting each other with promises ‘to be more satisfying and fulfilling’. Unlike ‘real relationships’, ‘virtual relationships’ are easy to enter and to exit. They look smart and clean, feel easy to use and user-friendly, when compared with the heavy, slow-moving, inert messy ‘real stuff’. A 28-year-old man from Bath, interviewed in connection with the rapidly growing popularity of computer dating at the expense of singles bars and lonely-heart columns, pointed to one decisive advantage of electronic relation: ‘you can always press “delete”’.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, when skating on thin ice your salvation is in speed. When the quality lets you down, you tend to seek redemption in quantity. If ‘commitments are meaningless’ while relations cease to be trustworthy and unlikely to last, you are inclined to swap partnerships for networks. Once you have done it, however, settling down turns out even more difficult (and so more off-putting) than before – you now miss the skills that would or could make it work. Being on the move, once a privilege and an achievement, becomes a must. Keeping up speed, once an exhilarating adventure, turns into an exhausting chore. Most importantly, that nasty uncertainty and that vexing confusion, supposed to be chased away thanks to speed, refuse to go. The facility of disengagement and termination-on-demand do not reduce the risks; they only distribute them, together with the anxieties they exhale, differently.

Our difficulties with relationships can be seen in our perceptions of love. One can fall in love more than once, and some people pride themselves, or complain, that falling in and out of love comes to them (and some others they came to know in the process) all too easily. Everyone has heard stories of such particularly ‘love-prone’ of ‘love-vulnerable’ persons.

There are solid enough grounds to see love, and particularly the state of ‘being in love’, as – almost by its nature – a recurrent condition, amenable to repetition, even inviting repeated attempts. When pressed, most of us would name a number of times when we felt we had fallen in love and were in love. One can guess (but it will be an informed guess) that in our times the ranks of people who tend to attach the name of love to more than one of their life experiences, who would not vouch that the love they are currently experiencing is the last, and who expect there are more such experiences yet to come, is growing fast. If the guess proves right, one should not be amazed. After all, the romantic definition of love as ‘till death us do part’ is decidedly out of fashion – having passed its use-by date because of the radical overhaul of the kinship structures it used to serve and from which it drew its vigour and self-importance. But the demise of that notion means, inevitably, the easing of the tests and experience must pass to be assigned as ‘love’. Rather than more people rising to the high standards of love on more occasions, the standards have been lowered; as a result the set of experiences referred to by the love word has expanded enormously. One-night stands are talked about under the code name of ‘making love’.

This sudden abundance and apparent availability of ‘love experiences’ may (and does) feed the conviction that love (falling in love, soliciting love) is a skill to be learned, and that the mastery of the skill grows with the number of experiments and assiduity of exercise. One may even (and one all too often does) believe that love-making skills are bound to grow as the experience accumulates; that the next love will be an experience yet more exhilarating than the one currently enjoyed, though not as thrilling or exciting as the one after next. But it is an illusion.

In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima of Mantinea (that is, in English translation, ‘prophetess Fearthelord of Prophetville’) pointed out to Socrates, with the latter’s wholehearted agreement, that ‘love is not for the beautiful, as you think’; ‘It is for begetting and birth in the beautiful.’ To love is to desire ‘to beget and procreate’, and so the lover ‘seeks and goes about to find the beautiful thing in which he can beget’. In other words, it is not in craving after ready-made, complete and finished things that love finds its meaning – but in the urge to participate in the becoming of such things. Love is akin to transcendence; it is but another name of creative drive and as such is fraught with risks, as all creation is never sure where it is going to end.

In every love, there are at least two beings, each of them the great unknown in the equations of the other. This is what makes love like a caprice of fate – that eerie and mysterious future, impossible to be told in advance, to be pre-empted or staved off, to be speeded up or arrested. To love means opening up to that fate, that most sublime of all human conditions, one in which fear blends with joy into an alloy that no longer allows its ingredients to separate. Opening up to that fate means, in the ultimate account, admission of freedom into being; that freedom which is embodied in the Other, the companion in love. As Erich Fromm put it: ‘Satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained …. without true humility, courage, faith and discipline’: only to add right away, with sadness, that in ‘a culture in which these qualities are rare, the attainment of the capacity to love must remain a rare achievement’.

And so it does – in a consumer culture like ours, which favours products ready for instant use, quick fixes, instantaneous satisfaction, results calling for no protracted effort, foolproof recipes, all-risk insurance and money-back guarantees. The promise to learn the art of loving is a (false, deceitful, yet keenly wished to be true) promise to make ‘love experience’ in the likeness of other commodities, that allure and seduce by brandishing all such features and promise to take the waiting out of wanting, sweat out of effort and effort out of results.

Without humility and courage, no love. Both are required, in huge and constantly replenished supplies, whenever one enters an unexplored and unmapped land, and when love happens between two or more human beings it ushers them into such a territory.


Adapted with permission from Zygmunt Bauman:‘Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds’ (Polity Press, ISBN 0745624898), a fascinating book with various essays analysing modern relationships and the love between men and women.

Zygmunt Bauman is professor emeritus at the University of Leeds. He has written a number of books including ‘Society Under Siege’ and ‘Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World’. Bauman was born in Poland in 1925 and later became a naturalised British citizen.

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