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The Rise of the Couple and Demise of the Rest: How Did This Happen?

The way contemporary Americans think about coupling is weird

Before I started studying singles and their place in society, all I knew was what I saw and heard all around me. Clearly, couples reigned supreme. The coupled relationship was the most celebrated of them all. All of the other ties that have the potential to make our lives meaningful - bonds with close friends, relatives, mentors, spiritual beings, ancestors, community, and even, to some extent, the connection between a parent and a child - were deemed less important and less worthy.

The reign of the couple is both an inside and an outside phenomenon. The view from outside of the couple is the revering one I just described. Within the couple, many (though not all) practice what I've called "intensive coupling" - the two people look to one another to be their everything, to fill all of their needs, to make all of their dreams come true. They are "seepies" - Sex and Everything Else Partners.

Toward the end of the first chapter of Singled Out, when I summed up what I had learned about how couples have been regarded at other times and in other places, I said this (p. 25):

"the way that coupling is envisioned in contemporary American society is not universal, it is not timeless, and it is not human nature. Instead, the reigning American worldview may well represent one of the narrowest construals of intimacy ever imagined. Where once the tendrils of love and affection reached out to family, friends, and community, reached back to ancestors, and reached up to the heavens, now they surround and squeeze just one other person - sometimes to the point of asphyxiation."

The question I did not answer, and still do not know how to answer, is why. How and why have couples ascended to a place of dominance in contemporary American society, leaving so many other important relationships and life pursuits devalued, dismissed, and neglected?

Usually, when I ask a question in the title of my posts, I intend to answer it. Not this time. I'm asking the question because I don't know the answer and I'd like to. So if you know something, please share. If you know social historians who may be willing to weigh in, please spread the word.

I've been thinking about this recently because I was on a radio show in which the host asked me a relevant question. Actually, I only thought he was asking me about the rise of the couple. After the show was over, I realized he was asking me about the history of marriage. I see that as a different (though related) question. Much has been written about the ways in which marriage has changed over time. In Marriage, a History, for example, Stephanie Coontz has reminded us that love has not always been the basis for marriage -in fact, in historical terms, that's a relatively recent development. Elizabeth Abbott, in A History of Marriage (I discussed it here), enlightens us about the changing place of race, money, children, and sexual orientation in the history of marriage, and even includes a separate chapter on singles. All that is interesting and important, but leaves my key question mostly unanswered.

Sadly, there is a very thoughtful and accomplished author who came close to addressing my question, but got talked out of it. In the acknowledgments section of her book, A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom said, "I am grateful to Basic Books editor Joanne Miller...for suggesting that I focus on the wife, rather than on the couple, as originally intended."

Soon after that radio show aired, I heard from Laurie, a Living Single reader who was pondering some of the same questions about why Americans are so obsessed with coupling. So thanks, Laurie, for encouraging me to keep thinking.

And finally, about that radio show: Host Troy Williams of KRCL, RadioActive, invited me to talk to him and his listeners for an hour about equal rights for single people. You can read excerpts from our discussion here. Guess where RadioActive is based? Salt Lake City! Thanks to Rachel for alerting me to this great story about the forward-looking community in the heart of Utah.

[UPDATE: Relevant references are in Singled Out. Thanks to everyone who added comments for their very thoughtful and substantive contributions. You inspired me to share more from one of my favorite sources in this post: Coupling Wasn’t Always So Intensive: Notes from a Social Historian.]

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