Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

Can You Have More Than One Soul Mate?

Is polyamory in America's future?

The whole notion behind modern American marriage is the myth of the soul mate. This is a relatively late concept in the history of Western Civilization. Our own colonial model of courtship and marriage was based on the host nations of our Founding Fathers and Mothers. The predominantly Western European immigrant marriage of the colonial period was largely determined by ethnicity, class and creed. As in the Old Country, marriage was often an economic merger of families.

The strange new political experiment of democracy in the New World touched all aspects of life. The Age of Enlightenment demanded that all things must be questioned and reformed, including the way American men and women found a new life together.

Harvard University professor Werner Sollors noted this radical change in the hearts and minds of the upstart colonists. Americans embraced the idea that the nobility and rigid classes that separated one citizen from another were just another oppressive system from Europe like the divine right of kings. Just as all men were created equal, then all men should be equal in courtship and marriage. It followed that consent, not descent, should determine romantic relationships just as consent determined citizenship after the Revolutionary War.Thus romantic love became a requirement for marriage just as love of country became a prerequisite of American citizenship.

This landmark change in courtship and marriage took generations to spread throughout the fledging democracy. Ethnicity, class and religion, as well as the dangerous new concepts of free choice and romantic love formed an amalgam that guided early post Revolutionary War American decisions on love and matrimony. Professor Sollors documented this evolving new freedom in romance by such fascinated impartial observers as nineteenth century French critic Alexis de Tocqueville, who spread this new idea of choice to Europe.

Initially there was fierce resistance to the idea of basing a marriage on the ephemeral notion of "falling in love." But prominent nineteenth century Anglo-American intellectuals such as Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lord Byron popularized the idea of romantic love in poetry and literature. By the mid-1800s, American culture embraced romantic love as "the key to domestic harmony rather than a threat to it."

By the turn of the 20th century, courtship had changed significantly. Books and plays  recounting that era described dates "away from home, unchaperoned and not subject to parental veto." The arranged ethnic, religious and class courtship of first generation Americans arriving at our shores was giving away to the strange new custom of unsupervised free will.

While the choice of a marriage partner had become an exercise of free will, de Tocqueville noted in his 1840 work, "Democracy In America", that the independence of American women "is irrevocably lost in the bonds of matrimony." This was due to the patriarchal structure of American marriages, which emphasized rigid roles that each partner would fulfill regardless of transitory emotional feelings to achieve the common goal of economic success and the perpetuation of the family through the generations by procreation.

While romantic love came to be thought to be essential to the selection of the marriage partner, these euphoric feelings of courtship enjoyed by the woman were eclipsed by the overwhelming burden of almost immediate and extended motherhood. With no birth control and the need for large families to provide the labor the run a farm, homestead or ranch out in the wild frontier, many American women spent their 20's and 30's pregnant, giving birth and bringing up the children.

As the frontier closed in the eary part of the 20th Century, the patriarchal marriage system underwent an American revolution. During this era of suffragette/feminist intellectual thought and the granting of the right to vote in 1920, the new companionate marriage model emerged.

In sharp contrast to the patriarchal model, the companionate marriage model emphasized men and women as co-equals. Romantic love was not only necessary during courtship as in the American patriarchal model, but it was considered mandatory to keep two equal partners together after the wedding. In a radical shift from the patriarchal marriage, a fulfilling sexual relationship was required during the life of the companionate marriage. The focus of the relationship turned from childbearing to personal happiness. With no defined roles to follow, daily communication was now key to delegate duties among equals including employment outside the home and child rearing.

The old stereotypical roles that guided American couples through marriage were now deemed old-fashioned and oppressive. Beginning with the intellectual elites and celebrities in universities and big cities, this marriage reform was slowly but surely embraced even in fly-over country. By the mid to late 20th Century, romance, not economic success and dynastic progression, was considered essential in marriage.

With the advent of reliable birth control, marriage now was about self-fulfillment, not procreation.  For all intents and purposes heterosexual marriage was redefined by the 1960s. American television may have been showing patriarchal families in shows like "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It To Beaver", but Americans were moving away from that lifestyle.  Historian Jeffrey Weeks observed that at this point in time American marriage was "no longer the permanent bond it was intended to be."

The National Marriage Project describes the modern companionate marriage model as the "soul mate model, which sees marriage as primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption which depends for it's survival on the happiness of both spouses." Millions of Americans have abandoned ship on their sinking marriages as both partners have been unable to keep their partner  happy and satisfied. Whereas a patriarchal husband merely had to "bring home the bacon" and his wife attend to her considerable and never ending duties to satisfy the letter of the marriage law, companionate unions require such ethereal notions as "intimacy, companionship, someone to understand us  and be a soulmate." Once the ephemeral emotional high of a relationship fades, there is little in the eye of the beholder to keep the couple together. All that remains of these spent unions is attorney services, court dates and the endless search for the relational Holy Grail.

While upper class Americans still are practicing companionate marriage in 2013, the latest National Marriage Project findings show that lower and middle class Americans are not finding their mythical  soul mate. They are having children out of wedlock because they feel their partner is either not marriage material or the union is too tenuous. They are also moving from relationship to relationship either in or out of marriage. Are we  seeing America slide into a new post-companionate relationship model?

Jo Piazza writes that the problem is the whole idea of the American soul mate marriage: "Michael Buble was wrong: Your soul mate shouldn't be your everything. There is a pervasive idea that when we fall in love and choose someone to be our long-term partner that that person will be a tremendous lover, talk with us about Tolstoy,take long walks on the beach with us, raise our children, manage our finances and have very long and serious discussions about the state of our soul. No pressure."

The idea that people have the right to form their own complex relationships with multiple partners who will meet their many and varied needs and even marry as a cluster is called polyamory. Oscar winning American actress Mo'Nique is among the most public of practitioners of this new form of love. Couples who practice this unconventional type of union even have an advocacy group , "Loving More" and hold annual conventions. The hit reality television show "Wife Swap" recently featured a polyamorous couple.  Is this a Swiftian "Modest Proposal" for the war between men and women? Or is this on the cutting edge, as gay marriage was twenty years ago?

Ross Douthat wrote last week, "If you grow up with fewer models of a successful 2-parent around you, you are more open to the separation of sex, marriage and family as the Way Things Have To Be." Since divorce laws were relaxed in the 1960s, successive generations of Americans have been part of an increasingly common American Family- one that is formed, shattered, reformed and shattered again in the wake of repeated divorces and breakups. Divorce researchers Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. and Andrew J. Cherlin estimated that over 15% of all children in divorced families will see the parent they live with remarry and redivorce before they reach the age of eighteen.  These "blended family" survivors  are more likely to have what Douthat terms "a more flexible view of marriage's connection to procreation and a less normative view of marriage generally."With many other American men fed up with what they consider punative and antiquanted divorce and custody laws, and women finding many men lacking as potential husband material or being Bad Boys, polyamory may be in American's future.

J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.

more...

Subscribe to Repairing Relationships

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.