There was a time when couples were not so enmeshed. In my parents’ generation, my mother could spend time with her siblings and friends, and my father with his work buddies, without either thinking that the time they spent in their own social circles constituted any sort of threat to their marriage.
Then, perhaps as an odd byproduct of growing equality between the sexes, couples began looking to each other to fulfill just about all their emotional, interpersonal, and practical needs. In my book Singled Out, I called them Sex and Everything Else Partners, or “seepies"—“the twosomes who look to each other for companionship, intimacy, caring, friendship, advice, the sharing of the tasks and finances of household and family, and just about everything else. They are the repositories for each other’s hopes and dreams. They are each other’s soul mates and sole mates.”
The soul-mate/sole-mate perspective has been romanticized in movies, TV shows, novels, self-help books, and especially in songs with lyrics such as “You are my everything," and, "I just want to be your everything.” In her book, Peer Marriage, Pepper Schwartz unabashedly tells married couples that they should “give priority to their relationship over their work and over all other relationships…Their interdependence becomes so deep...they have to be careful not to make their own children feel excluded.”
Couples got the message. Studies show that, compared to single people, married people are much less connected to other people in their lives such as siblings, parents, neighbors, and friends. Longitudinal research that follows individuals as they go from being single to getting married shows that when they marry (or cohabit), they become more insular. That happens even with couples who do not have kids.
Some research suggests that over time, couples are becoming a bit less entangled. For example, in Alone Together, Paul Amato and colleagues reported that couples in 2000, compared to couples in 1980, were less likely to go out together for fun, have their main meal together, work around the house together, or have as many friends in common.
I think we are at an important moment, when couples could either continue moving toward valuing more of the important people in their lives, or return to their soul-mate/sole-mate cocoon. If the former, more expansive direction is to prevail, I have an idea about who can help it along. It is a group of people who have long led the way in showing Americans how to free their bonds of affection from the nuclear family grip. They were creating “families of choice” decades before the rest of their fellow Americans even knew what that meant. I’m talking, of course, about the LGBTQ community.
As I explained in Single, No Children: Who Is Your Family?:
"Perhaps the most significant development in the evolution of the meaning of family was almost entirely missing from the consciousness of mainstream America – until the anthropologist Kath Weston published Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship in 1991. "Families of choice" may well offer the most prescient view we have of what families of the future might look like, and not just in LGBT communities.
"Among the transformative social movements of the 60s and 70s were the gay rights and gay pride movements. But virulent homophobia, magnified by the AIDS crisis, left many gays and lesbians still fearful of coming out and ostracized by their own biological families when they did. Not about to be condemned to lives of isolation and loneliness, some moved to more hospitable places, such as San Francisco or Greenwich Village. They made new friends and kept some of the old, nurtured romantic relationships while often saving a place in their lives for former lovers. They stayed in touch with their relatives who were supportive. These new social networks sometimes included children, and they extended across households. They were fluid, flexible, and informal social convoys, providing sufficient continuity and consistency over time to offer a strong and secure sense of identity and community – and family.
"Members of these families of choice were there for each other in the day-to-day rituals of everyday life, often getting together for meals and social events, holidays and celebrations. They were bulwarks in times of crises. Some drew from each other's strengths and resources to organize and mobilize. They all shared experiences and conversations over the course of years. They exchanged emotional, practical, and material support – sometimes even the financial help that among heterosexuals so often comes solely from blood relatives. They were sources of mutual caring, in times of both sickness and health."
In June 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States declared same-sex marriage legal in every state. The ruling was lauded for the equality, opportunity, and status it afforded same-sex couples (and mocked for its singlism and matrimania). What no one suggested is that by throwing open the gates to the Married Couples Club to people who think about relationships and family and love in much broader and more all-encompassing ways, that landmark case could also change the way all couples think about and interact with the people in their lives other than each other. That’s the optimistic view: Same-sex couples will bring with them into their newly legal married life the loving, expansive values and traditions of the generations before them. The alternative is that they too will adopt the insularity that straight couples have been practicing. That, I think, would be a shame.
(2) Maybe also of interest: Gaydar: Who has it and what cues are they using? and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.
DePaulo, B. (2006). Singled out: How singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Weston, Kath. (1997). Families we choose: Lesbians, gays, kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.
DePaulo, Bella (2015). How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. New York: Beyond Words.