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PhD research focused on the meaning of modern love

Dr Bridget Dougherty said romantic love is fundamental to contemporary culture, but it has set us up to fail.

What do we think about when we think about love?

It is a question that is at the heart of our society and has propelled Dr Bridget Dougherty through more than a decade of study.

Today (Wednesday 31 October), Dr Dougherty graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy for her research into what love means in contemporary culture.

A former journalist, Dr Dougherty has spent 12 years investigating the subject and said love underpins our society, but the version of love we are being sold is not the version to which we should aspire.

The idea for her doctorate was sparked after she completed a Masters of Applied Ethics at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in 2006. She said she began to realise that love, as we know it in fairytales and romantic movies, is a social construct and has been hijacked by consumerism.

“In my Masters, I focused on Ethics in Advertising, because I was intrigued by how advertisers are trying to sell us the story of consumerism,” Dr Dougherty said. “Love, romantic love, is very much a product a consumerism.

“I was studying the philosophers and realised that they were focused on morals, not love. Emotions were marginalised. And I questioned, ‘why aren’t we talking about love?’”

Dr Dougherty began to delve into the question of what love looks like in current society. She started a website, called Love Dialogue, and printed 10,000 postcards, distributed through universities, libraries, and bookshops throughout Sydney and Wollongong, asking couples to complete a survey detailing the ins and outs of their relationships.

“Romantic love is a social construct. People love a good love story. But we have been sold a story about romantic love. It is an industry worth billions of dollars,” Dr Dougherty said.

While romantic love is something that we are all taught to aspire to, Dr Dougherty said it can be incredibly toxic; it is tied to strict gender representations and definitions of what love should look like. Boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy asks girl to marry him, and they live happily ever after.

“Over the course of my research I learned that the sort of love many people yearn for, what we call ‘romantic’ love, is still regarded by many as a prelude to marriage, but in reality, this sort of love only goes so far. It ceases when the relationship becomes consummated. Romantic love is essentially heterosexual love, and it involves men and women following strict norms about whose ‘who’ in the relationship,” Dr Dougherty said.

“People nowadays are exposed to different beliefs and traditions, including different beliefs about gender, sexuality and love. We also live in a multicultural society, which means people are exposed to different ways of doing relationships, including marriage. In a very real sense, love depends on how well people negotiate these differences.”

Rather than aspire to romantic love, Dr Dougherty said we should be aspiring to “confluent love”. Think of a relationship after that blissful, honeymoon period, when two people are trying to figure out how their lives fit together.

“Confluent love is a different way of being in love and it allows space for people to create authentic relationships,” Dr Dougherty said. “Unlike romantic love, confluent love is not an ideal to be reached but a process to be enjoyed, together. What love means to you might be very different from what it means to me, but if we are to go on together, we need to make room for these differences without one of us being wrong, and the other right.”

Throughout the course of her PhD, Dr Dougherty’s personal story became deeply entwined with her research. In 2006, she cared for her former husband, and the father of her two children, as he fell ill with terminal cancer. It was, she said, an example of love in action. She then raised her children as a single mum, and juggled her research with her work as a counsellor to mothers with serious mental health issues and their babies in Liverpool.

Life has certainly had its up and downs for Dr Dougherty, but she remains firm that, through it all, love is the most important and powerful emotion there is. But it is about our actions, not necessarily our words, and it is something we must learn how to do throughout the course of our lives. For many, it does not come naturally.

“Love is what we do, it’s not what we say,” she said. “Confluent love is a verb, rather than a noun. It’s constantly changing and progressing.”