7 Ways Romantic Partners Are Losing their Special Place

We need to learn how to express our love for all the people we cherish.

Posted Apr 11, 2018

In an article originally titled, “No, I’m not married. Why do you ask?”, written with Joan DelFattore, I described an experience I had when called to jury duty:

“All prospective jurors were asked if they had a spouse or significant other. When my turn came, I asked the judge why he wanted to know. He said that relationship status could be relevant to potential biases if, for instance, a spouse had been arrested for DUI. I answered that I had many people who were significant to me, such as close friends, family members, and mentors. But since I wasn’t having sex with any of them, I guessed that they didn’t count.”

It got a big laugh. Even the judge was amused.

My point, though, was a serious one. It is the 21st century, a time for opening our arms as wide as we can and embracing all the people who are important to us. Love, we were once told, is a many-splendored thing. We don’t need to limit the relationship partners we recognize and value to just spouses and romantic partners. Our hearts are much bigger than that.

Although matrimania—the over-the-top celebration of marriage and weddings and coupling – is still having its way, it should not be. Marriage is taking up an ever-shrinking slice of our adult lives, as more and more people are marrying later in life, or not at all. Among the younger set, the coupling is taking a hit, too, as teens are shrugging off dating at rates that may well be unprecedented.

The time has come to write love letters to all the people we cherish.

Signs of progress

Little by little, appreciation for the many significant people in our lives is showing up in our popular culture, our scholarship, our policies, and our everyday lives. Here are just a few examples.

1.  Movies

In the much-acclaimed movie, “Lady Bird,” the two relationships that mattered most were Lady Bird’s friendship with Jules and her relationship with her mother. Boyfriend stuff was off to the side.

2. TV shows

“Grace and Frankie” is about a lot of things, but its beating heart is the friendship that develops between the two very different women.

3. Advertisements

Ads for cars used to be sexist portrayals of buxom, scantily-clad women leaning against fire-engine-red sports cars. Now, in a Subaru commercial, grandpa slips away from home, telling grandma he’s going fishing, then meets up with his grandson at the beach. They hug, then go surfing.

4. Scholarship

The National Council on Family Relations is an interdisciplinary professional association with publications that include the leading academic journal on families and a quarterly magazine. The most recent issue of the magazine featured 10 articles on families of choice.

5. Policies

In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide sick leave to employees; the leave could be used to care for “a child, a parent, a spouse, a domestic partner, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.” The key word was “affinity.” Currently, states and cities are taking up the mantle. Arizona, Rhode Island, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and St. Paul have passed laws allowing employees use sick days to care for the people who are like family to them.

6. The Instagram accounts of young adults

Why are millennials so obsessed with their nieces and nephews?” asked Cory Stieg at Refinery29. Adorable photos and declarations of love fill for their niblings (nieces and nephews), Stieg reported, fill the Instagram feeds of young adults.

7. Young adults living with, and loving, their parents

A record number of Americans now live in multi-generational households, and young adults (ages 25-29) are leading the way, with 33% of them living in those households. I know the trendy thing is to mock and disparage millennials for living with their parents, but I refuse. It is not just about economics anymore. (It never was.) The recession is over and yet the percentage of Americans who live with multiple generations under the same roof continues to climb. One of the reasons for that is heartening: More so than the generations before them, young adults and their parents often share warm feelings and enjoy each other’s company.

What we can do in everyday life to recognize and value all the important people in our lives

There are lots of ways we can express our appreciation for all the people who matter to us. Here are a few.

Ask about them

You know how, when you have friends or relatives who are married or have kids, you routinely ask about their spouse or kids? The same should be true of the other important people in all our lives. If you know that the person you are talking to has a close friend or relative or mentor they care about a lot, ask how that person is doing.

Include them

Go beyond kind-hearted inquiries. Show with your actions that you value people beyond romantic partners. For example, if you are hosting a social event, encourage everyone you invite to bring the person of their choice – no sexual relationship necessary. If you have the room and the resources, don’t stop at just a plus-one; let your guests bring more than one person.

Empathize

When your coupled friends experience a romantic break-up, a divorce, or the death of their partner, you know enough to take that seriously. You probably offer sympathy and comfort without even thinking about it. Extend that same empathy and emotional support to people who have lost a close friend or some other important person in their life. Sometimes even the closest of friendships come to an end, and that can be deeply painful. Acknowledge that.

Watch your language

We need to rethink our language. How is it that the term “significant other” is allowed to refer only to a person with whom you are supposedly having sex? We can do better than that.

Write love letters

Okay, I don’t actually do this. But if you do, I love you for it.