My sister is turning 25 in a couple weeks. She is dreading the day, and not because she’s nostalgic for the carefree summers of yesteryear or worried about losing her youthful figure. It turns out that 25 is halfway through her twenties, and Rachel is terrified that she will be 30 and single. She relates to me stories of single women in their thirties and how miserable they are, and though she tends toward melodrama, in this case she appears not to be exaggerating. She called me recently almost in tears because she left a message on her latest beau’s voicemail and he hadn’t called her back in two hours. What’s more, none of you are surprised by this. 25 year-old girls are somehow supposed to be consumed by the hunt for a mate. Guys, in addition to numerous other undeserved advantages in the dating game, are granted a decade’s reprieve, but the 40 year-old bachelor evokes the same pitiful response as the 30 year-old spinster.
Greek mythology has it that humans originally had four arms, four legs, and two faces, but then Zeus freaked out and split all of us in half, sprinkling us about the globe, condemned to spend our lives looking for our other half. This idea describes the strong version of soulmate, which is that there is a particular other person out there who will make me complete, and I have to find her. There are people who believe this, but I don’t know any. The weak version of soulmate, however, is a universally prevalent subscription. The weak version of soulmate is that ultimately I need to be in a committed relationship to be happy. Why would anyone, much less nearly everyone, believe this?
High-tech fertility aside, it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. If we are hard-wired to make babies (and we certainly are), it makes some sort of intuitive sense that the man and woman who make the baby should raise the baby, and voilá, the couple concept. Some goofball 10,000 years ago realized this, decided without any reflection that it should be one man one woman, and what Rachel is responding to is the weight of 10,000 years of cultural conditioning. Or not. Perhaps, in the same way we are hard-wired to make babies, we are hard-wired to find a soulmate. I’m not going to solve the nature/nurture problem here, the answer is always somewhere in between. What is clear is that social cues from every direction reinforce the belief, all day every day, from the time we’re old enough to think.
More importantly, it doesn’t matter if the couple concept is in our DNA. In any given six hour period, I have the impulse to eat six chocolate bars dipped in peanut butter. This might be because everyone else loves chocolate and peanut butter, or it might be that I’m brainwashed by the convincing Reece’s Pieces advertising, or it might be that chocolate dipped in peanut butter is just incredibly fucking delicious. Some combination of my genetics and environment generates a constant impulse to eat chocolate dipped in peanut butter, but I resist the impulse, because the impulse is bad for me.
I think the logic most people use to support the couple concept is, I want kids, so I have to find a soulmate to have kids with. To escape this mentality, one must untangle reproduction from exclusive romance. But who wants to be a single parent? Not me–two people raising children is definitely better than one. But who says two is better than three? Or six? My point is not that it takes a village to raise a child, or that a hippie commune/kibbutz is the right model, only that our sociology doesn’t have to follow our physiology. There are lots of alternatives to conventional families, which wouldn’t merit consideration if the conventional family worked, but, most of the time, it doesn’t. The conventional family doesn’t work firstly insofar as most conventional families are totally fucked, and secondly insofar as the notion of the conventional family sustains the couple concept, which is a sham. It occurs to me that the reason most families are totally fucked might be that they are built on a sham.
Essential to the couple concept is the faith that your interest in your soulmate will last into the near and remote future. In this way, belief in the couple concept is a lot like belief in god, except that belief in god is much less likely to hurt you, because even the most devout can not actually rely on god for anything tangible (because there is no god). Faith in the permanence of another’s love underlies the surrender of our emotional-if not our financial-independence. Beautiful as this may be, we all know the statistics that demonstrate that this faith is misguided, that the couple concept is a deception, and when the deception declares itself, the consequences are often horrendous. But like the religious, we ignore the obvious and in its place substitute a comforting untruth, so that along with the deaths of our companions, divorce will be the worst thing that happens to most of us. Perhaps this is why soulmate has two accepted spellings: soulmate and soul mate.
The couple concept, for all the harm it does us, harms us most by taking happiness out of our hands. I can not imagine anything more tragic than believing that you are incapable of bringing about your own fulfillment, but this is exactly what the couple concept implies.
People frequently frame wanting to get coupled not with a desire for companionship per se, but as a way to avoid negative outcomes like growing old alone. This points to the irony that to the extent that the couple concept is not a sham, to the extent that your finding someone is essential to your happiness, it is essential because everyone believes it. If we all think we need to be in a couple to be happy, we all couple off and have families that leave us no time for anyone else, so single people run out of friends as they get older. How much more fun would it be if we grew old with our friends, rather than growing apart from them as we segregate ourselves into nuclear units.