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Why Coupling Is No Longer Compulsory

Meet the singles who reject compulsory coupling and other cultural mandates.

simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock
Source: simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock

Emotional and psychological freedom, in one of the most profound senses, means that you get to live your best life – the life you find most authentic, most meaningful, and most fulfilling. That’s hard to do if the life that feels most authentic to you is at odds with the life your culture tells you that you should live. You may think you know who you really are, but the prevailing cultural wisdom insists that people like you do not even exist. Or, if some grudging allowance is made for your existence, then it will be deemed a lesser existence – not as good or happy or worthy or valuable as the existence of people who follow the recognized and celebrated life paths.

Some of the most powerful cultural imperatives have been challenged in recent years. They include assumptions about the universality and superiority of heterosexuality, sexuality, and romantic interest. Another dominant narrative about our lives that I have spent decades challenging is the universality and superiority of coupling. I have been studying people who are single at heart, who are not interested in putting a romantic partner at the center of their lives. They live their most authentic, most fulfilling, and most meaningful life by being single.

Based on the life stories that people who are single at heart have shared with me, together with responses to my brief online quiz from more than 8,000 people from more than 100 nations, I now have some idea of how the single at heart differ from others in their heterosexuality, sexuality, and romanticism.

Compulsory Heterosexuality

If you are not heterosexual, you are up against a powerful set of assumptions that deny and devalue your very existence. In 1980, Adrienne Rich described those assumptions as “compulsory heterosexuality.” And Angela Chen's 2020 book, ACE: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, examines compulsory heterosexuality alongside the more recently recognized compulsory sexuality.

Heterosexuality isn’t really compulsory, of course, but the widespread assumptions and practices make it feel that way. The assumptions, Chen explains, include the idea that “only heterosexual love is innate” and that heterosexuality is “the default option and the only option.” Compulsory heterosexuality “makes people believe that heterosexuality is so widespread only because it is ‘natural’.” You know what that makes you if you are not heterosexual – some sort of unnatural person. Activism, consciousness-raising, and enlightened scholarship have effectively pushed back against such destructive beliefs.

People who are single at heart are less likely to identify as heterosexual. In the online quiz, 72 percent of those who saw themselves as definitely single at heart said that they were heterosexual. In contrast, 90 percent of those who said they were definitely not single at heart said they were heterosexual.

Compulsory Sexuality

Angela Chen defines an asexual (ace) as “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” In her book, she explains in great detail what that means, and how sexual attraction differs from a sex drive. Asexuals need to contend with compulsory sexuality, which Chen defines as:

“A set of assumptions and behaviors that support the idea that every normal person is sexual, that not wanting (socially approved) sex is unnatural and wrong, and that people who don’t care about sexuality are missing out on an utterly necessary experience.”

Kristina Gupta, in a 2015 article, makes the case that the norms and practices of compulsory sexuality “both marginalize various forms of nonsexuality and compel people to experience themselves as desiring subjects, take up sexual identities, and engage in sexual activity.” Compulsory sexuality, if left unchallenged, pressures people to think what they don’t really believe and do things they don’t really want to do. It pushes people to live inauthentic lives and to miss out on the life they would find truly joyful, meaningful, and fulfilling.

People who are single at heart are more likely to identify as asexual. In the online quiz, 12 percent of the single at heart identified as asexual, compared to just 3 percent of those who said they most certainly were not single at heart.

Compulsory Romanticism

Aromanticism is “a romantic orientation, which most commonly describes people who experience little to no romantic attraction to others,” according to AUREA, the Aromantic-spectrum Union for Recognition, Education, and Advocacy. Although people who are aromantic (aro) are sometimes also asexual (ace), the two are distinct. Some people are aromantic and not asexual, and others are asexual and not aromantic.

Research and writings on aromanticism are not as numerous as those on asexuality. I haven’t seen “compulsive romanticism” spelled out the way compulsory heterosexuality or compulsory sexuality have been. But the same kinds of assumptions seem to abound. Chen, for example, observes that novels, TV shows, and movies too often “present romantic love as necessary and central to flourishing.” She also notes that “the desire for romantic relationships is often necessary to prove one’s morality, and so aros are judged, their humanity denied.”

I didn’t ask about aromanticism in the online quiz. From the life stories people have told me, people who are single at heart seem more likely to be aromantic than those who are not. There are, however, some people who are single at heart who experience romantic attraction, sometimes even deeply. They still don’t want to organize their lives around a romantic partner.

Compulsory Coupling

In our 2005 article, “Singles in society and in science,” Wendy Morris and I described “the ideology of marriage and family.” I think another term for what we were explaining is compulsory coupling. The assumptions we saw as comprising the ideology were:

  • “Just about everyone wants to marry, and just about everyone does.”
  • “A sexual partnership is the one truly important peer relationship.”
  • “Those who have a sexual partnership are better people – more valuable, worthy, and important. Compared to people who do not have the peer relationship that counts, they are probably happier, less lonely, and more mature, and their lives are probably more meaningful and more complete.”

I’ve spent most of my professional life challenging those assumptions. In 2012, the philosophy professor Elizabeth Brake, in her book Minimizing Marriage, introduced a related concept of amatonormativity, defined by:

“The assumptions that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”

Like compulsive heterosexuality, compulsive sexuality, compulsive romanticism, and compulsive coupling, amatonormativity is costly. It “prompts the sacrifice of other relationships to romantic love and marriage and relegates friendship and solitudinousness to cultural invisibility.”

We can push back against amatonormativity, Brake assures us. We do so, for example, by “dining alone by choice, putting friendship above romance, bringing a friend to a formal event or attending alone, cohabiting with friends, or not searching for romance.”

People who are single at heart are less likely to live according to the prevailing cultural mandates. They are less likely to be heterosexual, more likely to be asexual, and more likely to be aromantic than people who are not single at heart. They defy the ideology of marriage and coupling and the mandate of compulsory coupling. The single at heart are the ultimate amatonormativity busters. That doesn’t make life easy, but for them, it makes it authentic.

Facebook image: simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock

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