I’m no stranger to the institution of marriage. I’ve attended nine weddings in the past five years alone, with each passing year seeing an exponential uptick in letterpress invitations as I inch closer to my thirties. And yes, I even had one of my own when I married my current partner of almost a decade, a fact that often surprises new acquaintances. I’ve often wondered why that was, but it wasn’t until I hit a full-blown quarter-life crisis that prompted a cross-country move and some major cognitive behavioral therapy that I could even begin to unpack the profound emotional impact of the institution of marriage on my personal identity—both with how others viewed me and how I viewed myself.
Recently, my friend Akpanoluo Etteh introduced me to an article in The Atlantic called “What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse.” Author Mandy Len Catron’s central thesis revolves around questioning the supposed social good created by the institution of marriage. Citing a number of studies showing that marriage actually weakens social ties, Catron argues that marriage, with its vast social and institutional power, enforces the norm of self-sufficiency within couples—and a culture of social alienation alongside it.
Catron builds a strong case against marriage and its detrimental effects on communities, but her thoughts on the personal impact of putting marriage at the center of one’s life are equally striking:
Love is the marrow of life, and yet, so often people attempt to funnel it into the narrow channels prescribed by marriage and the nuclear family. And though this setup is seen as a cultural norm, it is not, in reality, the way most Americans are living their lives. The two-parents-plus-kids family represents only 20 percent of households in the U.S.; couples (both married and unmarried) without children are another 25 percent. But millions of Americans are living alone, with other unmarried adults, or as single parents with children. It’s worth considering what would happen if they lived in a culture that supported all intimate relationships with the same energy currently devoted to celebrating and supporting marriage.
Akpanoluo and I tend to bristle at the idea of defaulting to social norms without thorough questioning or consideration, so Catron’s article naturally sent us into an intellectual tizzy. But, the piece resonated with the both of us on a deeply emotional level as well, which I found intriguing for a number of reasons—including the fact that our personal lives bear little resemblance to each other. After reading the article multiple times and sharing it with everyone we knew, he and I proceeded to have many, many exchanges on the subject, the bulk of which is reproduced below. Read on for our conversation on the social cost of two-person couplings, Foucault’s panopticon and internalized norms, and love in the time of capitalism:
Akpanoluo Etteh: As I walked to work this morning, mulling over the article, I thought how not lonely I am for the first time in a long time. And I think I’ve been building towards that, but it took the article for me to appreciate it. Like many in our generation, I live in a big city and am an avid social media user, two qualities that breed both anxiety from not connecting with people, but also makes it difficult to forge and maintain meaningful, in-person relationships. Both issues generate loneliness, and I think can be thought of as two sides of the same coin.
But thanks to the music community that I created, The Soundshop, I have been able to alleviate both: I don’t feel the pressure to go out for its own sake, while knowing that I can catch a performance from any of the artists in The Soundshop community and not only keep up with those artists, but also the other people I’ve connected to in the community. In the present social climate, this feeling is about as close as one can get to what the Cheers theme song describes as “Sometimes you want to go. Where everybody knows your name.” And indeed, I have recently found myself at concerts where half the people in the room are folks I care for deeply. It took a lot of work, and that wasn’t the explicit goal, so it took a moment to just dwell on it and appreciate it.
I believe that we’re facing a challenge on many fronts. For one, we are more mobile than ever in the history of humanity. That leaves us in far-flung cities away from our families. Second, as we gravitate toward the economic opportunities of cities, we find ourselves capable of myriad shifting friendships and shifting romantic partners. Third, marketers have capitalized on our loneliness to promote the idea of romance as an escape from the loneliness created by the aforementioned two.
Our innate desires for sexual and romantic partnership, while strong, had never in our evolutionary history meant the exclusion of other intimate relationships, but because of their motivational power, they are traits that marketers can exploit because of how lonely we are in other ways. This, in turn, elevates romantic partnership in a manner on par with the way Christianity elevated monogamy, but within the consumerist context of the modern day. As such, we believe that we are evolved creatures having rejected religious dogma even as the forces of capitalism by way of marketers have shackled us even more strongly to a solitary other person at the exclusion of others. It’s just good business.
Relying on one person to fulfill all of your needs, or even the majority of them, is an impossible expectation.
Pamela Guerra: For me, one of the most heartbreaking circumstances discussed in this article is the wide acceptance of isolation within modern romantic commitment. Catron points out, “Implicit in the self-sufficiency of the American ideology of marriage is the assumption that care—everything from health care to financial support to self-development and career coaching—falls primarily to one person.” And this issue isn’t unique to married couples—though the institution certainly exacerbates the problem—but also befalls couples who live together but aren’t married since “expectations that come with living with a serious partner, married or not, can enforce the norms that create social isolation.”
It’s completely acceptable to fold inwards into a romantic partnership and distance yourself from everyone else once things get serious. I did this for many years, to my own detriment as well as to my romantic relationship with my partner. You’re told that your romantic partner should be your world, your everything, so that’s what I expected. When he came up short, time and time again, I resented him.
This isn’t to say that our relationship didn’t serve my needs at all. In fact, far from it. But my partner and I are very different people and have a wide range of interests and desires that don’t intersect. There’s a difference between being neglectful—either intentionally or otherwise—and being fully cognizant of the constraints of a particular relationship at a particular time. And if you sit down and really think about it, relying on one person to fulfill all of your needs, or even the majority of them, is an impossible expectation. It’s an ideology that sets you up for failure.
I think that because of this flawed ideology, we’re taught to exit perfectly viable situations when you sense that all of your needs aren’t being met. Your time is precious, move on quickly, right? But I’ve realized that you can be in a strong, loving romantic relationship and still feel dissatisfied in some way. Both of these things can be true, and it doesn’t mean that the relationship is a complete failure.
It does, however, circle back around to this notion of social isolation. I think that a lot of this dissatisfaction stems from enforcing the norm of self-sufficiency. And I think if you don’t acknowledge the detrimental role of these idealized expectations on your personal life, you end up taking it out on the person whom you’ve isolated yourself with. It’s a situation that’s unfair to them, and it’s unfair to you.
Friendships aren’t as inducing of insecurity as dating is; consequently, it’s much easier to get us to shovel out cash in pursuit of romance than friendship.
The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, and 75% of people say that they’re unsatisfied with their friendships. Bleak, right? As if that’s not bad enough, only 53% of people in the U.S. have meaningful in-person social interactions, like an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with a family member, on a daily basis.
These findings make clear to me a few things: while the desire for romantic partnership remains high, we have neglected the need for close friendship. Second, those numbers lead me to believe that there’s many in romantic partnerships who are lonely as well. You’ll note that wedding ceremonies will often note the importance of friends and family being present to witness a union, but in practice, we have completely lost sight of other close relationships outside of an explicitly romantic and sexual partnership as being indispensable to making us complete.
I posit that it’s because marketers have capitalized on what makes us most insecure. Friendships aren’t as inducing of insecurity as dating is; consequently, it’s much easier to get us to shovel out cash in pursuit of romance than friendship.
PG: One of the arguments I’ve seen in response to Catron’s piece is that the observed loneliness and withdrawal from society is a personal choice. But is it really? I have trouble believing this when the norm is so deeply woven into the social fabric that it’s easily enforced via a Foucauldian Panopticon scenario.
AE: Yeah, I agree that it’s not really a choice. Sure, most people would say they choose this. But we’re just letting society subtly nudge our judgment in a certain direction. It’s like how I tend to prefer women who are on the taller side, but I’ve almost never dated anyone taller than me even though I’d be perfectly happy with that. Individual proclivities get overridden by societal pressures if they’re at odds—unless you’re set out to fight the current.
PG: There’s also the social piece of this issue. Other people expect your romantic partner to be involved in all aspects of your life. Catron also brings this up in her article: Couples are almost always invited as a pair to social functions—or worse, folks don’t think to invite couples at all because of the assumption that they’re perfectly content in a self-contained romantic ecosystem. Perhaps the structure of modern social gatherings is inherently hostile to those who aren’t in two-person couplings?
AE: I take such great pleasure in two married friends of mine, whom I’ve come to have a very deep relationship in spite of their marriage. And while they definitely are less social than before they met, they regularly make new friends, have frequent group outings, and I feel like very good friends to each of them. I went with just them to a lake house last weekend, and I felt like an equal participant in the activities.
PG: That’s amazing! However, that takes a lot of conscious effort on behalf of said friends. They’ve made it their prerogative to be inclusive. It’s so much easier to default to acceptable couple behavior of being in your own little world, because it’s often unacceptable to call couples out on it.
Let’s be real, nobody likes that couple at the dinner party that feels the need to tangle themselves up with inside jokes and each other’s limbs in a corner of the room all night long. It’s like you’re putting up a big old “Do Not Disturb” sign, shutting yourself off completely from everyone else. It doesn’t make any of your friends feel good—single people feel like shit about themselves, people whose partners aren’t present feel self-conscious about being alone, even couples who want to socialize end up folding inwards and retreating to their own corner. But it’s totally socially acceptable behavior. And we’ve all done it. We continue to do it, because we’ve accepted that this is just a “normal” part of adult life, even though we know it makes us feel awful when we’re the ones being shut out.
AE: I agree that there’s a self-reinforcing and societally-reinforcing effect taking place here. I studied evolutionary biology and think about it and read about it a lot even though I’m almost ten years out. We are fundamentally highly social beings. It is patently absurd to me that we can have group relationships with ~120 others (Dunbar’s number) only to retreat into a singular primary relationship. In our evolutionary past, our romantic partnership would not have isolated us but rather have been an additional support to the other relationships we already had or cultivated by virtue of entering a relationship.
I believe that the exhalation of one relationship is a recent and largely Western and marketing-led creation. Hollywood, the marriage industrial complex, all make tons of money from selling a glamorous, prestigious ideal of matrimony at the expense of community.
PG: It wasn’t until I read and processed this article that I fully grasped the sadness I felt over many of my close relationships dying year after year because of the supposedly inevitable coupling off that happens when you “grow up.” And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that the nature of an intimate relationship with someone isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal. You care for them and they mean a lot to you in a very specific way because they fill a unique role in your life—and thus would leave a painful, gaping hole if they chose to exit the relationship. I’ve had a lot of anxiety lately over losing even more people in this manner.
AE: I think that, ironically, we’d have much smoother time finding romance if we appreciated that it wasn’t one-size-fits-all. We can’t get everything we want from a single person, and it’s useful to see ourselves as part of a network, with romantic partnerships, should we choose to have them in any number of different forms, as one of several important nodes. We would be able to better take account of ourselves and how we fit within our valuable relationships, and seek people who fit within what we’ve built rather than seeking a replacement. Both require a lot of thought and effort, but I believe that the first is most true to who we are and creates an environment for longevity.
PG: Loneliness is an issue, but there’s also the loss of identity as an individual. Once I started to actively try to break free from the cycle of codependency with my partner and do more things by myself, I realized just how often people asked where he was. More often than not, this is the first thing people ask me whenever we begin a conversation, and he’s not there. It’s like, “Come on, never mind him, I—as an individual person—wanted to talk to you! Am I not enough?”
Sure, it’s easy to argue that they’re just making small talk, but if you scratch beneath the surface, there’s an inherent assumption that couples must do everything together, and when they don’t, something must be wrong. Which brings us back to the expectation that marriage and romantic partnerships need to be the central relationship in one’s life.
AE: We need a new paradigm for how we approach relationships on the whole. We need to be cognizant of the friendships that are most important to us and cultivate them. This in turn will make us better at cultivating relationships with our romantic partners.
If we create networks of close relationships of people who reflect us and our values, it will actually become easier for us to select romantic partners who fit in as well, and who lead us to keeping open and strengthening other close relationships rather than discarding them. In short, we need to find ways to create a 21st-century vision of what family means.
PG: I think the following quotation from Catron’s article hit me the hardest: “Love is the marrow of life, and yet, so often people attempt to funnel it into the narrow channels prescribed by marriage and the nuclear family.” On an intellectual level, the widespread acceptance and internalization of this norm frustrates me to no end, as it implies that this norm should be the goal, and folks who are unable to find fulfillment along these narrow channels cannot be truly happy.
And so, we downplay the importance of non-romantic relationships, especially those that aren’t blood ties. Those who are polyamorous are relegated to the fringes, and their experiences are often dismissed in both mainstream conversations, and, in my experience, private ones as well. And for some reason, we continue to promise single friends that one day, they’ll find “the one,” even if we know that a) there’s a distinct possibility that this might never happen and b) maybe they never needed “the one” in the first place.
It’s a cruel thing to impose on people, and yet we’re all guilty of continuing to perpetuate this fucked-up ideal. And, on a personal level, it continues to be a stumbling block for me in my own life. When I find that my needs are met by external forces that have nothing to do with my partner, there’s a lingering sense of guilt that all of my needs aren’t met by our relationship alone. It would be so easy to collapse inward into this romantic partnership, to simply conform to society’s expectations. But, I keep finding that the contracted community created by this norm is deeply unsatisfying for me, and I’m sure many others feel the same way.
Even when you’re cognizant of the ways in which these norms have informed your decisions, it’s still incredibly difficult to parse out how you actually feel and what your needs are.
AE: I guess my question is: If you could fundamentally change what your current relationships are like now that you’ve been married for quite some time, what would you change? What would you do presently, in spite of societal pressures otherwise?
PG: I’m still doing a lot of work to uncouple myself—pardon the pun—from the societal norms I’ve internalized surrounding marriage and romantic relationships. Even when you’re cognizant of the ways in which these norms have informed your decisions, it’s still incredibly difficult to parse out how you actually feel and what your needs are. I’m trying to ask myself more why I’ll want certain things in certain situations, or why I choose to act in a particular manner in different contexts. I’m also trying to take ownership of the times in which I feel insecure, because that’s usually when I’m the most susceptible to caving into normative expectations that ultimately prove to be detrimental to my emotional well-being and my relationships with others.
I’m trying to be more proactive about tending to all of the close relationships I have in my life and giving them equal amounts of attention and care. I’ve noticed that the people I’ve grown closest to over the years have been folks who are willing to keep open channels of communication, and each of these relationships comes with its own set of boundaries and expectations. Yes, things can get messy and confusing and incredibly frustrating at times, but it’s never anything that can’t be resolved with clear and honest communication, and I’ve come to cherish all of the unique ways these relationships have changed my life for the better.
I’m also trying to talk about my experiences more. It’s always been hard for me to share details about my personal life, particularly when it comes to my close relationships, but I’ve realized that people tend to fill in the gaps of information I’ve chosen not to share with assumptions based on the societal norms we’ve discussed—and these assumptions often prove to be wildly inaccurate. Sometimes, hilariously so. To reconcile the ways in which I’ve personally enforced and perpetuated said norms, I realized that I needed to acknowledge the ways I’ve internalized them and actively confront them in a public fashion, including dissecting these matters by writing about them.
I’d like to ask you a similar question. How does all of this inform how you’ve approached close relationships in your life?
AE: As I’ve grown to understand myself better, and what I’m like in relationships better, it becomes a lot easier to project who I am. My love of music, my sociability, intellectuality, and ambition are all things that I really lean into. And having meditated on all of these ideas around marriage, which I do ultimately seek, I realize it’s also essential to convey how important my existing relationships are to me, and how any new relationship, romantic or otherwise, will only augment those relationships and not replace them. I think I have always subconsciously expressed this; it gives me great joy to give someone I’ve started dating or befriended the whirlwind tour of those I care about, but in explicitly expressing this ideal, I will more effectively cultivate relationships with people who feel the same way about their own relationships.