What is love? (Brussels don’t hurt me)

What if heartache is to Brussels as Romance is to Paris? Could the increasing number of breakups and divorces in Brussels make the capital eligible for the title of the ‘City of Heartaches’?

What is love? (Brussels don’t hurt me)
Despite a vibrant dating scene, around half of domestic households in the Brussels-Capital Region still consist of single-person households. This is almost twice the national average, and among the top three highest in Europe — a tendency also particularly observed among EU institution staff. Credit: Canva

Whether through a dating app or accidentally falling in someone's lap in a cafe, the Brusseleer seems to find a way to accept someone into its heart. But for some reason, at some point in their stay in Brussels, Brusseleers more than often experience the bitterness of heartbreaks.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to living in such a cosmopolitan city. One is exposed to exotic options, a city full of University students, and the status of the youngest capital in Europe filled with ambitious and career driven individuals.

But then there are also setbacks — a city full of ‘exiteers’ already planning their way out from the moment they arrive in Brussels, as well as those whose work ambitions creep into their personal lives, jeopardizing their personal relationships in the process. Of course, this is not unique to just Brussels. But other cities are not called the de facto capital of Europe.

Love in all its shape and households

In the ending scene of one of my favorite movies, Mrs. Doubtfire, the main character — played by the late Robin Williams — explains movingly, following a question on divorce, that there are many ways to love, with families shaped in different forms.

The character is right in highlighting that love is not always of a romantic nature — it can encompass love from friends, family, and even non-humans such as pets. The definitions of love can be so varying and vast that even a whole branch of social philosophy is dedicated to this. Ancient Greek philosophers have at least six different definitions, with one just for self-love — Philautia.

Similarly, external factors such as politics have also influenced the definition of love throughout history. In Europe and Belgium in the past quarter century alone, governments have tried to spearhead a broader definition.

But for governmental and economic purposes, a general consensus is to define love and families through the prism of households. Such ways of looking at love can result in interesting findings — a finding in the United States, found that a large majority of American households can be represented with just fifty household types.

Belgium has managed to figure out its own classification. And in the case of Brussels, the typology of households is grouped into seven main categories — single person, unmarried cohabitants with or without child(ren), married with or without children, single-parent families — with the seventh category being a catch-all ‘other types’. All different ways to describe love and relationships. Fitting then, that Mrs. Doubtfire would end by saying, “If there is love, dear; Those are the ties that bind”.

Single, not needing to mingle

Yet, of the many household types, one stands out when assessing the love landscape of Brussels — the single-person type. The numbers behind this type paint quite a startling picture — nearly one in two (47%) of domestic households in the Brussels-Capital Region consist of single-person households, of which 40% of those include expats.

This is almost twice the national average, and among the top three highest in Europe — a tendency also observed among EU institution employees. And even though the institution of marriage is generally decreasing in popularity, of those that do decide to marry, a relatively high number eventually end up divorcing, pushing the statistic of single persons even higher.

Single people in Brussels are left out of the credit market, have a higher burden of paying expenses, and have to shoulder discriminatory legislation. If it is so expensive to be single, then what drives people to stay single? One Belgian study, the Singleton Project, led by Dimitry Mortelmans, is trying to find the answers to these questions. But until we find the answers, the laws will stay discriminatory, and push more single people in Brussels to move in as couples out of practicality, rather than out of love, which ironically may contribute to higher breakup and divorce rates.

That is why Brussels Parliament Liberal MPs such as Carla Dejonghe (Open VLD) and Aurélie Czekalskie (MR) have voiced their concerns and are pushing for more single friendly politics in the parliament, and even calling for more single person household MPs to be elected into parliament.

City of Heartaches

Nevertheless, some choose to be single and others not. Legislative reform is an option to accommodate those who are single by choice in Brussels. However, solutions must also be provided to those not single by choice.

More research like that of the Singleton Project will help answer why there are so many single people in the first place, identify factors that lead them to staying single, and provide solutions to pre-empt not only relationship breaks, but also support people in finding and maintaining the love that is compatible with them.

Similarly, as we start to better understand the nature of love and heartbreaks, Brusseleers may slowly accept that Brussels may come with a caveat of pain, therefore slowly embracing the title of the "City of Heartaches." Not because we have less love in Brussels — au contraire. But because, to borrow from the famous proverb, in a city full of heartaches, the Brusseleer lover is King.

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