the couple concept

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.

It’s national singles week. Anyone craving chocolate dipped in peanut butter?

Sandra Tsing Loh on marriage

13 thoughts on “the couple concept”

  1. I think I agree, although I don’t want the god’s of romance to hear my heresy. (The irony was implied).
    What is that website you linked to for the atheism article?
    And, like Miracle Max so eloquently put, “true love is the greatest thing in the world-except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich.”

  2. Reub, if I understand you correctly, the *couple concept,* which dictates that one can only find happiness in life if he/she finds a mate and raises a family with that mate, is washed into our brains socially and really provides a disservice to many of us, who otherwise would be completely fulfilled living life independently or with a few buddies to hang out with.

    As you pointed out, it is very difficult to separate out what we *need* in a genetic sense (nature), and what we *need* in a social sense (nurture). It seems to me, however, that the vast majority of human beings (in all cultures around the world except the fundamendalist LDS) seek out the intimacy and privacy provided by the commitment to one mate, even if this commitment is only temporary. The formation of a family unit follows naturally, it seems, since any children born from this commitment will be treasured most (in a Darwinian sense) by their mother and father.

    Where you and I may disagree, is the degree to which people need people. I believe 99.99% of us are so reliant upon emotional/mental/physical/spiritual connections with people, that if we were isolated from human contact for more than a few days, we would become psychotic. Doesn’t it follow naturally, then, that people would seek to couple-off? Otherwise we would have groups of ruthless back-stabing jealous bitches and assholes, living on Melrose Place.


  3. It is true that coupling off seems to be the norm across cultures and time. So is religion. So is genocide.

    I have received several off-blog comments that echo your last paragraph, which suggests that rejecting the couple concept is an antisocial position. I couldn’t disagree more – I find the process of settling down to be the most antisocial move we make in our lives, and to the extent that we find social security in this move, I believe that security is a false security. Perhaps it is true that without the confines of monogamy, we would see a sort of Melrose Place apocalypse, but I can’t imagine that any social outcome could be worse than the present environment that we so readily accept.

  4. Reub, do you agree that socializing with a long-term girlfriend is more substantial and more rewarding than socializing with a first-date? Is this false security?

    Regarding men and woman who desert their friends after pairing off: doesn’t this seem to be the exception rather than the rule? Certainly the friendships I’ve had that were worth something, have withstood the interference of any girlfriend I’ve had.


  5. I think it’s probably true that long-term relationships are more fulfilling than causal ones – romances and friendships alike. What I object to is the idea that participating in a committed romance is a prequisite for a complete and happy life. Even more than that, I think that the widespread adoption of such a policy is the cause of untold misery.

    I think it’s clear that there is a process of social involution that occurs as couples become more serious, then have kids. This contributes to the fallout when the romance fails.

  6. This subject is discussed ad noseum. It takes away its most powerful element and you end up throwing the baby away with the bath water.

    People need people, and no, Reuben, these people cannot be your mates, they HAVE to be a woman.
    The song ‘Oh, what a difference a day makes’ comes to mind –
    one day you write complicated and very well linked theories on your laptop, and the next day you meet someone, and for no reason you’re in love. You’ve been in love, yes?
    The discussion makes it too predicatble, until you end up with the Seinfeld syndrom – “have you seen the way she eats peas? I can’t be with a woman who eats peas like that!”

  7. Anon:

    I do not dismiss the prospect of meeting a woman, man, animal or plant that will inspire me to devote myself to her/him/it forever; in fact, it is exactly this prospect that supports my dating project(s).

    If no such woman, man, animal or plant presents her/him/itself to me, however, I would like to think that I can lead a complete, satisfying life. More importantly, it is this belief – that I can lead a complete life outside of coupling – that I suggest makes my current single and potential future life as a spouse sustainably complete and satisfying. And most importantly, the converse – the belief that complete satifsying lives must involve coupling – I suggest paradoxicallly undermines the achievement of a complete and satisfying life.

    Everyone has their dealbreakers. Smacking is one of mine – if you smack while you eat peas or speak or sleep, it’s a no-go.

    Lastly, regarding being in love, The Terminator comes to mind:

    “I know now why you cry, but it is something I could never do.”

    I bleed high-viscosity oil.

  8. I’ve identified the couple concept as one of two sets of related pressures. Set #1 is find your mate and have kids. Set #2 is achieve professional success and make a lot of money. I feel moved by each one of these four pressures, and I suppose I’m thinking a lot about them as I am now looking for my first real job, which forces me to ask the question, what do I want in a job? This question quickly reduces to the question, what do I want out of life? I don’t have a good answer, but I think the first step is to recognize that finding the right person, having kids, achivieving professional success and making a lot of money may not necessarily make me happy, despite the nearly unified voice of my culture saying it’s so. This is not to say they won’t make me happy, but I think it’s worthwhile to not accept it as a given, to evaluate each of the four pressures on their merits and demerits.

  9. Reuben, very astute observations, as usual. I am more inclined to shoulder the fear and longing your sister suffers with the death of the lover in the contemporary era of progress (maybe even with a direct correlation between technological progress and the decline of lovers- more on this later).

    Just as George Grant laments for the death of a nation, I too,
    lament for the death of the lover and of the same romanticism of the
    original dream as Grant. If the concept of the lover were still in practice
    then women would be more likely to meet their requisite needs for intimacy and sex without needing the whole kit and kaboodle of the relationship. But because the lover died somewhere in between Marlon Brando’s Last Tango in Paris and Richard Gere’s American Gigolo, women have no choice but to equate their unfulfilled desires for intimacy and sex with the need to couple. Naturally, I’m speaking relative to the Western world because the rest of the world is insignificant.

    Furthermore, women, in particular, are bred without honor, and therefore almost inevitably turn on their friends come the mid twenties with higher aspirations that, I argue, never manifest. However, by the time such realizations set in, the friendships have long been laid to waste, leaving women needy of not only sex and intimacy, but companionship and comradery as well. The natural bearer of this amalgamation is the unsuspecting single male ages 25-40.

    It is hardly surprising then, that when he catches a glimpse of said needs, his instinct is to run. He can barely stand up straight, let alone take on any given woman’s seemingly sexual and emotional insatiability all the while
    compounded by her “ticking biological clock”. The resulting mix of anxiety
    and jadedness a women derives out of her failed experiences at coupling can be appreciated but tagged on to the already overwhelming list, they become insuperable. So what we are left with is a sea of women that are, at once, emotionally and sexually insatiable because they have gone so long without, urgent in their demands because of biological functions beyond their control, and anxious and jaded as a consequence of their experiences- all frantically posting dating profiles boasting themselves as easygoing, laid back, and lots of fun according to their friends.

  10. I’m taking up Anon’s mantle here. While I heartily agree that everyone can and should be able to live fully satisfying and sustainable lives on our own, without any societal pressure or consequences, I feel like you’re missing one key point which argues in favor of the couple concept, and that’s the simple truth that falling and being in love is one of the most fulfilling things you can ever do or have in your life. I truly believe that there is only so much thinking and self-actualization you can do on your own before you become overwhelmed with the need to share yourself–your experiences and thoughts and perceptions, your joy and happiness and vitality, your soul essence, if you will pardon a very new-agey sounding term–with another human soul. It’s just more fun if you can share the ride. And sure, sharing the ride can be done well enough with your cloesest friends and family, but one of the greatest gifts we possess is the ability to achieve true intimacy with others, and even better, to express it physically (not something you get to do with your best buddies very often, unless you have very different best buddies than I have). To ignore that aspect of your humanity is to ignore one of the best things about being human.

    BUT, it takes practice. Like all skills, the ability to love takes practice, and the more often you fall in love and work on long-term sustained relationships without abandoning them at the first sign of conflict, the better YOU become at loving, and the easier you can fall in love. The joy lies not only in the falling, but in the richness of the shared journey together, and this only comes through lots and lots of practice with the tools of intimacy–honesty, communication, openness, trust. I too decry the outrageously high divorce rate. I don’t see it as an example of the way the “couple concept” fails us, but as an inability on the part of people to dig their heels in and really work on true intimacy–the dirty, gritty tug-of-war which naturally happens when two souls with different desires and aspirations have thrown their lot in together through thick and thin. And I think this comes from that fact that the tools of intimacy are really fucking hard to master, and after getting hurt once or twice, people are really reluctant to pick those tools back up again and open themselves up to love again.

    It’s incredibly hard work to raise a child well–to raise a child who is very comfortable using the tools of intimacy, and who isn’t scared to do so. I agree wholeheartedly that being part of a couple is not at all a prerequisite for raising a child. A child needs love and stability, period. S/He child can get that from a single parent, they can get that from a couple, they can get it from any number of familial arrangements (and in fact, you should investigate the very serious arguments for polyamory and polyfidelity–people who outright reject the “couple concept” but haven’t equated this rejection with a rejection of love and initimacy). Intimacy is the true education we need to be teaching our children. When you talk about your “dating project” it makes me wonder if you should maybe go back and revisit your own mastery of the tools of intimacy. Work hard to bring about your own fulfillment–indeed, that is one of your cardinal tasks in life (before one can say “I love you” they must first be able to say “I”). But don’t forget that part of your own fulfillment might be journeying through life with another soul and working towards helping them to bring about their own fulfillment as well. Get back on that horse. Love is a skill, it takes practice, like anything else.

  11. thanks for your comment, monaghan.

    I don’t think I have rejected love and intimacy, I have rejected the idea that it takes a partner to be happy. But I am open to the prospect of being wrong; as soon as I am inspired to abandon the notion I will.

    “I truly believe that there is only so much thinking and self-actualization you can do on your own before you become overwhelmed with the need to share yourself–your experiences and thoughts and perceptions, your joy and happiness and vitality, your soul essence…”

    that’s what a blog is for, no?

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