The slaughter of innocents we have all been reading about happened in the tiny town of Isla Vista, adjacent to the University of California, Santa Barbara. That’s where I’ve been a visiting professor for nearly 14 years. (I was supposed to be on a 1-year sabbatical from the University of Virginia, but after about five minutes here in Santa Barbara, I realized I never wanted to leave.)
In discussions of the killer and his rampage, much has been said about issues of mental health, gun violence, misogyny, our media culture, and more, both here at Psychology Today and elsewhere. I want to underscore a different point that has garnered little attention.
The killer (I’m purposefully not using his name) wanted to belong. That need for human connection and belongingness is an intense one, and the frustration of that need can be excruciatingly painful. (Obviously, no amount of pain justifies killing.) The murderer, though, wanted a particular kind of belongingness – he wanted to be part of a couple. His rage against women was fueled primarily by his perception that they were uninterested in him as a romantic or sexual partner.
Interest in coupling is commonplace on college campuses – and in the rest of the culture. In and of itself, is not a bad thing. What is troublesome, though, is (1) the over-the-top celebration and overvaluing of coupling and romantic relationships over all sorts of other relationships and other kinds of values and achievements and goals – part of what I call matrimania; and (2) the undervaluing, and even denigration, of people who are single, single life, and all of the potentially positive and powerful aspects of singlehood – what I call singlism.
If we had much less singlism and matrimania at UCSB and in the culture at large, the killer still may have gone on his horrifying rampage. That fury had been building in many ways for many reasons for many months. But it cannot be a good thing for individuals (especially young people still trying to figure out who they are and acutely sensitive to prevailing norms) or for societies if your status as a couple or a single person is portrayed as more significant than anything else about you.
When I first arrived at UC Santa Barbara, I was in love with more than just the sunshine and the spectacular setting. I remember driving onto campus for the first time and noticing flags honoring the numerous Nobel Prize winners who are on the faculty here. (It was a nice contrast to the roads leading to the psych department at the University of Virginia, which were sometimes painted with slogans such as “Go Wahoos.”) There are many other potential bases for feelings of security and self-esteem than being part of a romantic couple. We should be celebrating them. People who make important discoveries or dedicate themselves to solving real problems or develop their constructive talents or extend mentoring or kindnesses or help to other people are making contributions that are likely to last much longer than those college romances that the murderer so envied.
We should also be celebrating all the different kinds of relationships, other than romantic ones, that are significant in our lives. We already know, for example, that success can depend more on friendship skills than romantic ones. We need to honor and celebrate other relationships and other worthy pursuits not just on our college campuses, but in our movies, TV shows, advertisements, and books; our politics and religion; our workplaces and marketplaces; our teaching and research; and in the conversations and interactions of our everyday lives.